Where Silicon Valley Goes for Answers

By Brad Stone
     Oct. 14 (Bloomberg Businessweek) -- Is Quora just one more
entrant in the already overpopulated category of
question-and-answer sites on the Web? That's a question you will
find on Quora itself, which last spring joined Yahoo! Answers
(YHOO), Formspring, Aardvark, ChaCha, WikiAnswers (ANSW), and
many others in providing a forum where Web users ask and answer
queries online.
     Created by two former Facebook executives and funded by a
third who became a venture capitalist, Quora has developed a
loyal Silicon Valley following and a reputation as a hot,
promising startup. The company has also morphed into something
else: a bulletin board where Silicon Valley's most influential
people routinely pack personal and professional insights into
their answers.
     On Quora, you'll find Dustin Moskovitz, a Facebook
co-founder, discussing his feelings about the film The Social
Network ("It is interesting to see my past rewritten in a way
that emphasizes things that didn't matter"), and Werner Vogels,
Amazon.com's (AMZN) chief technology officer, debunking notions
about why the online retailer got into cloud computing ("The
excess capacity story is a myth"). Netflix (NFLX) CEO Reed
Hastings, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, and Digg founder
Kevin Rose, among other Valley luminaries, are all users. "I'm
actually impressed at the information that users are willing to
volunteer," says Lada Adamic, an associate professor at the
University of Michigan who studies social and information
networks. "There are things on there that I would consider
insider information for some of these companies."
     Co-founder Adam D'Angelo (left, in picture) roomed with Mark
Zuckerberg at Phillips Exeter Academy and was Facebook's chief
technical officer. He and Charlie Cheever, another Facebook
colleague, left in 2008 to start Quora. Their mission: create a
repository of knowledge that picks up where Wikipedia leaves off,
and a site that can field the kind of detailed queries that
Google (GOOG) gags on. "We want to get to the point where
whatever question you have, you type it in, and there's already a
great page of answers for you to look at," says D'Angelo, 26.
     The company has designed its site to reward serious
discussion and cut down on the repetition that characterizes
other Web Q&A services. Duplicate questions on Quora are
combined. Users, whose professions are listed after their names,
can revise other people's questions and vote answers up or down.
They also can create discussion summaries that everyone else is
invited to edit. "We want an answer page to present the best
versions of all the different arguments that are important, with
the most relevant and important answers at the top," says
Cheever, 29.
     Cheever won't say how many users Quora has. According to
researcher Compete.com, the site gets 150,000 visits a month,
though its reputation in the Valley has grown faster than its
traffic. More than 1,500 people RSVPd for a Quora community party
last month, the company says, and invitees overpacked a San
Francisco restaurant. Tech blogs religiously follow Quora's
growth. Matt Cohler, a former Facebook executive and partner at
Benchmark Capital, which led a $11 million investment in Quora in
March, compares the site's appeal in the tech community to the
early days of LinkedIn. "There's an extraordinarily high level of
engagement and passion users have with the site," he says.
     The company itself is lean. Fourteen employees huddle around
a lone, long rectangular table in an office over a downtown Palo
Alto (Calif.) arts supply store. D'Angelo and Cheever, who tend
to work late into the night, appear sleepy and shy in person.
They declined to be photographed (they supplied the photo above),
saying they prefer to keep the focus on the company.
     They'll need more than humility to push Quora beyond the
insular borders of the self-involved tech world. The site is free
and anyone can join. The interface can be daunting, though. With
its voting buttons, nested comments, and links to related
questions, Quora isn't as simple to use as other Q&A sites like
Yahoo Answers and Answers.com (ANSW). Quora's biggest challenge
may be its founders' former employer. Over the summer, Facebook
launched a competing service, Facebook Questions. The Quora guys
won't talk about that. Will Facebook get in the way of Quora's
quest? That's another question on Quora, of course, with two
well-reasoned answers by Valley residents taking different
positions. No one has written that consensus summary yet.
      The bottom line: Q&A website Quora, a hit among techies, is
trying to create a knowledge database that picks up where Google
and Wikipedia leave off.