Computational Power – Wolfram Research – Surviving the Techstorm


Stephen Wolfram is a living legend, a one-of-a-kind genius who dropped out of Eton and enrolled at Oxford University at the age of 17. Very soon, he found the lectures boring and tedious and left after less than a year. He moved to California, completed college and earned himself a PhD from Caltech before the age of 20. Way to go!

After only a couple of years pursuing an academic career, he founded Wolfram Research in 1987, at the age of 28, with the aim of developing a computational research engine. That is exactly what he did, and today his company has a global reach and employs 700 people working with computational software, programming languages and machine learning. Wolfram Research has been profitable for the past 27 years, so profitable that Wolfram himself took 200 of his colleagues on a 10 year “thinking sabbatical” in the 1990s to work in basic physics research, resulting in a 1,100 page self-published book about computer modeling entitled A New Kind of Science.

The main product lines from Wolfram|Alpha today are still Mathematica, the symbolic mathematical computation program, but also the web based Wolfram Alpha computational knowledge engine and Wolfram Language, a general multi-paradigm programming language.

Due to innovations and new applications, business model development can be both an opportunity, and sometimes a necessity, for taking on the competition. Wolfram Research is very interesting because it has a slightly different approach, where in it launches new products and services and then waits for the market to catch up and understand their value. With a sound underlying business, the company can afford to be patient. But, another issue for software companies is that the business models are shifting to freemium and subscription based software as a service offerings as well as app-based models for revenue generation.

Wolfram Research has a 100% focus on technology and application development, give or take. The company is driven by curiosity, and hardly ever consults market research in order to understand what customers want, at least not before a product is launched.

Stephen Wolfram takes pride in NOT following the lean startup model of build – measure – learn, and instead lets his staff explore and innovate without immediate need for market interaction in the development process. When taking on a new project, the timescale is usually at least five years, and sometimes up to 10 years before the result is presented to the market.

The first release of a new product is always very important, not something you throw out to the public, allowing users be judge and jury.

Wolfram Research has been consistently profitable for many years and obviously has a sustainable business model. The company does not consider itself innovative when it comes to business. Instead it can focus its resources on continuous product improvement and creative development of new products.

Regarding technological timing, Wolfram Research is privately held and can afford the luxury to have a very long term approach, both from a technological as well as from a market perspective.