The concept of searching is etched into mankind's collective psyche. From U2's: ’I still haven't found what I'm looking for’, to The Who's: ‘The seeker’, songwriters have underscored man's constant seeking: for love, for truth, for meaning, for God ...
Searching is something we all do every day: for the car keys, for a spice in the kitchen, for an item in the fridge, for an insurance policy; and for vital documents at work. Searching is inextricably wound up in the fabric of our lives; and over the last decade it has become big business; possibly the pivotal business of today. Some industry figures state that we spend 30% of our corporate lives searching for information, for documents, for missing data.
This has been compounded over the last decade by the sheer amount of information being generated by computers and their connectedness via the Internet. Metcalfe's Law, which states that the power of a network is directly proportional to the number of nodes connected to it, helps explain the power of the Internet, and the reasons it has grown so rapidly. It also helps explain why there is so much information in the world, and why we need specialised techniques to make sense of it.
The development of the Internet has been closely paralleled by the rise of increasingly powerful search engines. Today for many people the primary interface to their computing environment is the browser and search engine, making this the most hotly contested corporate battle of all time. The search engine is in the process of supplanting the operating system as the controlling environment which enables users to make sense of document filing systems, access their data and documents, and perform search on any content, of any sort, anywhere.
Most importantly, the search engine has made it possible to create and store content remotely, rather than on a local hard drive. It has paved the way for a future of 'stateless computing', in effect fulfilling the vision of Sun Microsystems formulated decades ago that 'the network is the computer'. At the apex of this battle for the search high ground is Google, the most highly valued IT company of all time. With just under 14 000 employees, the company generated $10,6 billion revenue in 2006, with $3 billion net income, and its market capitalisation exceeds $170 billion.
Whichever way you look at it, then, search is big business. In the last eight years, Mint has grown from a small, niche Web development company to South Africa's leading provider of Microsoft-centric search skills. Given the prevalence - indeed dominance - of Microsoft technology in the corporate world, it is an enviable position in which to be.
But it was not always that way. The company could not have chosen a worse time to form itself - in 1999, right at the end of the dotcom boom, Grant Hodgkinson, current MD of Mint and three partners created the company on the basis of a desire to build beautiful but functional websites. According to Hodgkinson: "Some people were building attractive websites that were dysfunctional; others had high levels of functionality but were unattractive. We wanted to bridge this disconnect, and we had good creative design and technical skills.
Grant Hodgkinson, MD of Mint
"Then, in March 2000 the dotcom bubble burst, and we entered our most challenging time. There was very little work available, and it was all we could do to keep our doors open."
Then in 2002 came Mint's big break. "We had always aligned ourselves with Microsoft technologies, and we were fortunate enough to be singled out by Microsoft as a technology-savvy company. In June of that year we were invited to attend the airlift of Content Management Server (CMS) 2002, which Microsoft had acquired and was rebranding.
"Everything was against us, and the rand was at one of its weakest points, making the software far too costly for most clients. With hindsight, we were probably daft to go to Seattle, especially as we were the only South African partner to go there."
That exposure turned out to be the turning point for Mint. In March 2003 Microsoft introduced Deloitte to CMS to help the consultancy build a Web content management system for its vast amounts of internal content. Mint was referred as the partner of choice, and it developed the solution for Deloitte.
"We helped them manage their internal knowledge, along with content that needed to be available, such as legislation, opinions, historical interest rates and exchange rates, and much more. This content was made available across the SADC region, with all consultants in the field able to access the application and search for content, even using the slow dialup lines that were the standard then," said Hodgkinson.
The application was an instant success. Within two months Mint had helped consolidate all of Deloitte's intranets into one framework, making it much easier to manage.
"Deloitte wanted to expose document content along with Web content and make this content downloadable. Accordingly we integrated their document management system with our content management systems, which provided a unified view of the company's unstructured content, which was unheard of in those days. That project started us to where we are today."
Mint replicated that success with several other customers, including Microsoft South Africa itself, where Mint integrated its document management application into the soon to be launched SharePoint Portal Server 2003.
SharePoint was another turning point for Mint, being more affordable than its preceding technologies, and a natural fit for Mint. Importantly, it elevated the company into the enterprise space.
The crowning achievement of Mint to date came last year when it won the Microsoft Regional Winning Customer Award in Enterprise Search for the EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) region at the 2006 Microsoft Worldwide Partner Conference in Boston. This was for work done at Sappi, a contract Mint won in 2003.
"This was a huge learning curve for us," recalls Hodgkinson. "It was the largest geographically dispersed implementation of SharePoint Portal in the world, with the largest number of physical sites working as a single cohesive solution. This fact won us the award, along with the way we unlocked corporate information for Sappi.
"At Sappi, we honed our skills on search, developing an understanding of the information lifecycle: how information is created, stored, managed, distributed, retrieved, and archived, and at what cost and at what point in its lifecycle. We also dramatically improved our project delivery processes and methodology. Previously, we had run projects in an ad hoc manner; now we implemented a project office, run by administrators and managers. With each project, we ask ourselves, what can we learn and how can we improve our delivery and our speed, and how can we innovate?"
Mint customers today include Sappi, Standard Bank, Investec, Bank Windhoek, ECOBANK West Africa, the Office of the President in Rwanda, Nedbank, the UN Development Programme, Microsoft South Africa, FNB, Deloitte, Absa and De Beers. Headcount has climbed to 30, embracing business analysts, technical architects and developers specialising in .NET technologies.
The future is rosy, Hodgkinson emphasises. "We see huge growth, especially in Africa. Our customers' needs are growing, and we have met with many customers across the continent. Our ability to execute has soared as our project processes have matured. A major challenge for us now is to productise our IP so as to increase our intangible value.
"Companies have never had a greater need for search, along with the right processes so as to be able to find the right content at the right time. This means profiling the information so it can be found. For example, if a company is processing a credit application, and only half of the documents have been stored correctly, a search is not going to yield the desired results, and the results themselves could be brought into question from a compliance perspective."
This corporate content embraces policies, procedures, manuals, forms, templates, current documents and more - the IP of the business - along with the context, the metadata, and the audit trail.