Quora and the $86 Million Question (and Answer)

TechCrunch recently announced round A financing secured by Quora,  a new site  founded primarily by ex-Facebook employees.    At a rumored $86 Million valuation,  the site has garnered significant attention from the start-up, tech and VC worlds.  I recently received an invitation to join and spent the past few days playing around on it in my spare time.  Here’s a quick breakdown of how it works from my perspective:

Quora is basically a question and answer site.  Users can ask questions, categorize questions into topics, comment on questions or answers and answer questions. Users can also follow things: people (other users), topics, or questions.  Users can also endorse other users on specific topics. Quora notifies users when activities occur on the items that the user is following  (i.e. “Jimmy Smith commented on an answer to Can Brands Sponsor Questions in Quora?”).

Nothing special so far.  And yet,  Quora is an incredibly addicting user experience.   The content that’s been developing in the site is top-quality:  experts and extremely curious users post questions, comments and answers on fascinating topics.  The user  experience is also extremely rewarding.  Asking questions drives activities (interactions) and the community is incredibly fast at interacting with your questions.    So, what’s the point?  Co-founders Adam D’Angelo and  Charlie Cheever had this to say regarding their goals for the site:

The way we think about this is there’s actually a lot of information that’s still in people’s heads that’s not on the internet. And when you think about it you would say that probably 90% of the information that people have is still in their heads, not on the internet.

WHen asked (In Quora) what the long-term business plan for the site was,  Adam answered (first response):

It’s hard to plan ahead too far on the internet because things change so quickly, but there’s a good chance that advertising will end up as some component of our business. There are a lot of other options, too, but our focus as a company is on building Quora as a product, and our costs are low enough now that we can afford to delay worrying about monetization until later

I’m impressed with the environment and I think the site has a lot to offer.  I will be interested to see what the site becomes when it opens up to a larger audience; there will certainly be some pretty heavy diluting of the content (right now the site is populated witha disproportionate amount of computer scientists, entrepreneurs, web developers and designers, etc) and this will be a challenge for the site.  I have a three more invites on to the site.  If anyone is interested, drop a comment with your email address and I’ll send you an invite.

The iPad and Cloud 2

At first I was pretty unexcited about Apple’s announcement of the iPad.  However, after reading some of the recent hype pieces about the product along with the stories of the first lines being sold out,  I’m starting to turn around (On a PR side note: Apple consistently does a great job of telling their story, and steering the conversation to where they want it to go). First concerns, then the hype:

First,  I’m having trouble with touch screens.  I got a blackberry really early on and I can’t seem to ween myself off of their little tactile keyboard.  I also wasn’t concerned with initial criticisms of  the iPad like it not supporting a camera, but I did agree that it seemed a bit underwhelming. At first glance it just seemed like a big iPhone.

I also feel that Apple’s decision to not support Flash in lieu of HTML 5 was a poor strategic move.  This reminds me of Apple’s decision to develop the iWork suite of software because it didn’t want to be held hostage by another company’s technology (Adobe’s Flash).  I think the Internet browsing experience on a device that doesn’t support flash is simply sub-par.

With that said, reading this Tech Crunch article by Marc Benioff makes want to run, screaming-stark-raving-mad type of running, to somewhere……where for some amount of money, I can be the first to buy an iPad (or something like it).   The reason this article makes the iPad so intriguing is that it is looking beyond the product at the development of computing in general.  Marc is right in his assessment that this device is pointing to a new way of computing.  App-centric devices like the iPad will be light and fast.  We won’t save much data on device s in the future; we’ll store it all in the cloud and we’ll use various applications to access that information.

I’m excited for the future when our computers are fast access points to a much larger world.  I’m starting to think that the iPad might bring us one step closer.

The “Death” of Publishing

My friend Rubina Aggarwal sent me this video on social marketing and the future of publishing.  I thought is was a “cute” way to talk about what’s happening right now on social platforms.  I find it compelling that there remains a level of idealism about the power of social media with respect to brand building:

I was also reading Brian Solis and got to thinking about the idea that all brands are now to become publishers of media and content. Here’s a quote from Brian’s article.

As brands, we become media.

Through the democratization of publishing and the equalization of influence, we can create, connect, and attract a wider reach, establishing meaningful connections and building dynamic communities and interactive paths along the way.Everything starts with creation of a mission and purpose and fortified by the content we create, the processes in which we distribute it, and the activity that supports social objects and the reactions they engender.

Perhaps among the most powerful rewards we procure through dedicated publishing is the generation of good will, social capital, and influence. It comes at a price however, and the price is defined by the cost of resources, production, distribution, and support. In the end, you get out of it what you invest in it and the investment represents time, money, creativity, and passion.

While I agree with the sentiment, I tend to be a bit more realistic about what a major brand should hope to extract form social media. As a professional in the space, I’m obviously an evangelist of brands creating platforms for social relationships. However, I do not believe that all brands need to create deep content and media to be relevant in social media. In fact (sacrilege!) , I’d prefer that some brands do not spend their time creating content and instead, spend their energy creating great products, listening to consumers, and communicating only their value propositions that support their products.

Yes, all brands need to be in social media. However, content development without strategic merit is a waste of time, energy and money. I do not like to see brands wrap themselves in social platforms simply for the sake of “having to be there”, only to wonder what they got out of it when it’s complete.

Think about value. Think about outcomes. Building a social media platform should evolve naturally from there.

Social Gaming & Not-So-Virtual Currency

I was just discussing virtual currency and the recent announcement from Zynga confirming the availability of their Game Cards with a colleague at 360i, and I got to thinking about the exponential growth of virtual currency and online/social gaming that’s finally coming to the United States.

While the worldwide explosion of both virtual currencies and social gaming is undeniable, I can’t help but wonder where all of this is going and if it’s bringing media and online content to a good place.

The Good
Social games have simply exploded. Zynga alone has over 235 million monthly active users (MAUs) playing its games; all of which (I believe) exists in Facebook. That is a lot of time spent playing, engaged and ready to view ads, purchase virtual gifts, or perform any number of monetize-able actions.

The future is bright. This year alone, virtual goods revenue in the United States is projected to hit $1.6 Billion and about half of that is supposed to come from social gaming publishers (Zynga, Digital Chocolate and others). For a business that barely existed a few years ago, this is astonishing growth. What’s more, we’re well behind Asia in virtual goods revenue (they’re at about $4 Bn in annual revenue now), so there is still :money on the table”.

The Questionable
Despite recent success getting pre-paid cards out into the world, monetization has been a slippery slope. The TechCrunch Scamville callout with regards to offer media was a pretty big shake-up (Zynga handled this extremely well).  As a professional who has purchased various performance media, some with virtual currencies involve, I can say that getting a user to sign up for a subscription service in exchange for virtual currency is simply a terrible idea for this reason: at the end of the day consumers aren’t considering the product’s value proposition when making the transaction, so they inherently will not value the product.  Also,  if 66% of players are women between 35-44, why do publishers need to resort to these performance tactics?  It seems that this demographic can be spoken to on a higher level.

Also, and this is about as unscientific as it gets, the experience of social gaming just isn’t that cool. I realize that sounds like a ridiculous criticism, but if an industry plans to offer real long-term value to consumers, it should really start by maintaining some level of user experience integrity. When you scroll through the top social games in the world, there are two game formats: the “Mafia Wars” experience, and the “Farmville” experience. That’s really about it. Every other game is a slight tweak on those basic formats (with the exception of online poker). I’m not much of a gamer, and I’m far from what anyone would consider an avid social gamer, but I believe that, from a marketing standpoint, the industry needs to expand it’s experience if it’s going to see growth beyond a core market.

If you’re interested in the development of the industry, I’m a fan of Inside Social Gaming and Games Beat

My Product Development Experiences

It’s been quite a while since I’ve had time to post here…but I can explain!!

For the past 8 months, aside from my standard fare of corporate finance and macroeconomics classes, I’ve been spending much of my time outside of work a building a web-based product, as well as the business requirements that developing and releasing a new product entail.

What I’ve been building with a partner is an enterprise software suite. I’ll get into greater detail in future posts (breaking Chris Dixon’s recommendation for being un-secretive), but I’m primarily interested in talking about what I learned, rather than the product iteself.

To sum up my recent experience, we had an idea for a tweak on an enterprise software suite. We had a philosophy, and approach, to the user experience that was pretty unique from what everyone else in the space was doing. We were confident that there was a market need and that it was not being addressed. So, in August, 2009 a partner and I started building our solution. Fast forward today– we were beat to market last week by a major player in the space.

I want to share two key items I’ve learned from my experience to any entrepreneurs out there:

Don’t over-think it: Share your ideas and get feedback. You really need to take ideas out of a vacuum as soon as humanly possible; to get in front of people and talk about your idea. I learned so much from people who weren”t anywhere near the industry that our product was being bult to service. Why? If you cant explain what it does quickly and clearly, you have no idea what it does and you should stop what you’re doing. This goes for functionality and value proposition. Even if your product is insanely complicated, the value proposition should be clear and simple.

Get to market at (almost) all costs You can never build anything in your garage that will be better, or even as good, as what an existing competitor can develop. All you get to be is first. The benefits of first-mover advantage are debatable, especially when network effects come into play. Being market ready is not a function of having every feature complete and bug-free, it’s about having it good enough to get people using it, and allowing it to change dynamically. I’ve recently enjoyed reading posts and editorials from the 37 signals team. I think they have a lot of smart things to say about the dev process.

That’s about it. We’re still moving along and the product is still great, but if I could repeat the process, we would have dropped features and gotten it out quickly.

Dont be overly-precious with your ideas. Involve people early and change as you go.

More to come.