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Panjiva uses government data to build a global search engine for commerce

Successful startups look to solve a problem first, then look for the datasets they need.

“If you go back to how we got started,” mused Josh Green, “government data really is at the heart of that story.” Green, who co-founded Panjiva with Jim Psota in 2006, was demonstrating the newest version of Panjiva.com to me over the web, thinking back to the startup’s origins in Cambridge, Mass.

At first blush, the search engine for products, suppliers and shipping services didn’t have a clear connection to the open data movement I’d been chronicling over the past several years. His account of the back story of the startup is a case study that aspiring civic entrepreneurs, Congress and the White House should take to heart.

“I think there are a lot of entrepreneurs who start with datasets,” said Green, “but it’s hard to start with datasets and build business. You’re better off starting with a problem that needs to be solved and then going hunting for the data that will solve it. That’s the experience I had.”

The problem that the founders of Panjiva wanted to help address was one that many other entrepreneurs face: how do you connect with companies in far away places? Green came to the realization that a better solution was needed in the same way that many people who come up with an innovative idea do: he had a frustrating experience and wanted to scratch his own itch. When he was working at an electronics company earlier in his career, his boss asked him to find a supplier they could do business with in China.

“I thought I could do that, but I was stunned by the lack of reliable information,” said Green. “At that moment, I realized we were talking about a problem that should be solvable. At a time when people are interested in doing business globally, there should be reliable sources of information. So, let’s build that.”

Today, Panjiva has created a higher tech way to find overseas suppliers. The way they built it, however, deserves more attention.

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