The Power of Quora & Why Benchmark was Right to Pay Up

I was an early user of Quora and like all new technologies they take a bit of playing with them for a while, discussing them with others and reflecting on them to let them sink in.  I’m no wall flower so when something doesn’t resonate I’m usually pretty vocal about it.

With Quora, it was the opposite – something has always felt right but it took me a while to
really understand it.  I now do.

Here’s my experience, my “ah ha” moment and why I think, although still nascent, it’s one of the most powerful websites on the web right now.

1. Pre Quora – AVC & Answers OnStartups
AVC: I’ve always loved Q&A websites and discussion boards.  For me this dates back to pre-Internet days of bulletin boards, CompuServe, Prodigy and the like.  If you find the right community it’s a great way to learn, contribute and get to know other people with similar interests.

Take AVC.com, the blog by Fred Wilson.  He wrote a blog post that always stuck with me about how there are regulars on his blog who hang out there a bit like “Cheers” just having a chat with a metaphorical beer in hand.  It’s true.  I go there frequently and often spend as much time reading the comments as I do the post.  I rarely only read the post.  What I notice is that people further the conversation, talk with each other, network, try to get noticed (linking to their websites, etc.).  Basically, it’s a topic community discussion board and that’s why people go to AVC.com every day.

And to give credit where it’s due (in addition to the content that Fred produces) a lot of the discussion works well because of the Disqus commenting platform.  I wish every blog used Disqus and I wish every website that syndicated content would create an integrated commenting thread the way that Business Insider does.  It’s an awesome implementation.  Fred talks about it here – he beat me to the punch because I always wanted to write about how awesome this is.

Answers OnStartups- Shortly after I started blogging I noticed a website called “Answers on Startups,” which I instantly loved and spent a bunch of time on.  It was this sort of techie / geeky looking UI implementation of questions that anybody could ask about startups.  There were so many good questions that I raced through and answered a bunch.  If I’m totally honest it started as a marketing exercise.  I didn’t have a ton of followers (was only getting about 20,000 visitors a month back then) so I saw it as a way to promote my content.

I picked questions that I had already covered in depth on my blog and answered them in shorter form. I always wrote an authentic response and never cut-and-pasted text.  But at the end I always put a link that said, “if you’re interested in a longer discussion I wrote a blog post on the topic here (link).”  It drove great traffic and when I checked the referral logs they stayed on average of like 8 minutes with many staying 20+ minutes.  This compares with an average user who comes for 2 minutes, reads 1.5 articles and leaves.

Only later did I realize that this was part of Dharmesh Shah’s larger blog and that the software was based on the popular “stack overflow” software.  Frankly, I enjoyed the community so much that I would have continued to come back more often but my blogging pace has been such that evening time commenting on an answer website was time away from writing pieces like this.

2. Quora “Lite”
When Quora went into Beta and became the “hip product to have access to” in Silicon Valley I felt compelled to play around with it.  Like the initial days of Twitter there wasn’t a whole lot of explanation about what you were really supposed to do on Quora and without all of your friends there contributing it wasn’t obvious to me what was so important about it.  I felt that the Stack Overflow software made it much more obvious what I was supposed to do when I arrived.

That said, I noticed really early on that the Silicon Valley “power players” were all on Quora and people like Reid Hoffman are actually in there answering questions.  The design, albeit not intuitive at first, was beautiful and in weird ways very graceful.  But still … with blogging being my priority it was hard to commit the hours to Quora.

3. The Revelation
The big “ah hah” came through a lunchtime discussion with my friend James Hritz, a smart and deep thinker who is VP Strategy & Biz Dev over at FAN.  He said (paraphrasing):

“Mark, you put a lot of time into blogging and so you have a large following now.  Let’s face it, you give out money for a living so if you can write well you’re always bound to have a big following (me: um, thanks, I guess).  I have a lot of topics I’m passionate about and love to talk, think and debate about.  But let’s face it – I don’t want all of the overhead associated with blogging.

You blog both because you enjoy it and because it helps build your online reputation.  I’m the same but without a big following and without wanting to put in the effort to market myself to create a community I can achieve what I need to on Quora.  You wouldn’t believe the discussions I get into over there and the people I debate with!  I pick my topics to answer and they’re ones that I know better than most having worked at Fox through all of our growth years and building out this large advertising network.  I comment and I build awareness & reputation.  It’s the same things you’re doing on your blog.”

Wow.  Really?  Let me have a look again at Quora.  Really?

4. The Power of Quora & Why it Matters
Really.

On Quora you can subscribe to topics, specific answers or people.  You’re alerted when people follow you, when the create new questions in your topic area and when new people have answered the questions you’re following.

And the system is really quite smart.  First, it has DIGG like voting mechanism where you can vote up or down the quality of an answer.  If your objective is to be near the top of an answer stack (e.g. and thus be read by everybody following the topic) then you need a great quality answer.  You also need to answer the question reasonably early because when a question has been around for a while the important people aren’t likely to be going back and reading it again (thus they will neither see your answer or vote your up).

So in a way it has built in game mechanics.  And they are trying to bake in user adoption into the design of the product.  Obviously it is build on a social network “follow people” model that is asymmetric like Twitter.  When somebody is new to Quora and is following you it encourages you to “give them topics” to follow, which is clever because if they accept the topics they get more alerts, more emails – more bacn – and thus they come back to the site more frequently.

Want to get more followers?  When you vote up and/or comment on people’s answers they get an alert.  You definitely notice the people who are engaged with your content and you can’t help but click on the link of their name to see just who they are.  Engagement. Game mechanics. Get me some followers.

And somehow there is a brilliant self-organizing like mechanism to Quora.  When I made a typo in describing why I love AngelList, Nivi spotted it and “recommended an edit.”  One click, accept and fixed.  When I was looking through some questions to see if I could answer them I noticed that topic suggestions were getting attached in real time like tags.  Was this automated by the system or recommended by users?  At this point I don’t know but I’m guessing both.  But the power is that if a question is asked and it pushed into the appropriate topic areas then it will pass in front of people who want to answer that topic.

It also feels very wiki like.  I saw some questions where the tags looked wrong. I deleted them just to see what would happen.  Poof!  I wrote some answers and then quickly noticed alerts flashing gracefully across the top of the screen.  People were voting up my answers in near real time (within 10 minutes of my posting).  New followers.  People were commenting on my answers.  What were they saying, I better check!

Now somebody has asked me to answer a question.  They want to know whether I think Fourquare is dead now that Facebook has announced “Places.”  My answer to that question is here.  Doh! Ming Yeow Ng has me beat on the leader answer board!  Argh.  My answer to that question and another question about why people contribute to UGC sites could be blog posts.  They ARE blog posts.

The thing is … in a way you can blog on topics you want in a format where people who want to hear about that topic (or from you) have self selected.

Quora was becoming addictive and sucked me in to the “time suck” quadrant. Although on reflection, answering questions, reading other people’s responses, earning social status … probably more “zone of effectiveness” than might immediately be obvious.

And, finally, anybody who works in the space of SEO knows that the hottest thing going right now in user results are Q&A sites (see below).  So James Hritz’s hypothesis proves correct – I blog about AngelList and get third in the SEO rankings.  Ming Yeow Ng writes a killer response to the AngelList questions and gets the pole position (again!) when people read the topic (although there’s still time for you to go there and vote up my answer ;-) ) Obviously kidding.  Sort of.  No, really.

At an $86 million, pre-money valuation Benchmark sure did pay up for this investment.  Still, I’m betting they got this one right.  High value content + early maven adopters + topic orientation + SEO friendly content + bacn + high user engagement = a very montizeable product one day.

  • http://www.twitter.com/aainslie Alexander Ainslie (@AAinslie)

    “And somehow there is a brilliant self-organizing like mechanism to Quora. When I made a typo in describing why I love AngelList, Nivi spotted it and “recommended an edit.” One click, accept and fixed. “

    @Mark: given the above UIX, I wonder if Quora can be used to crowdsource the writing of a book on a vertical topic?

  • http://andresiregar.com/ Andre Siregar

    Mark, excellent post. The only problem i have with James Hritz's suggestion is that the content you create on Quora is on Quora's platform. Granted they are well funded, but nothing is certain. I remember the users' outcry when Facebook acquired Friendfeed. They felt that all the contents they have been accumulating will be gone forever. With blogs, at least you have better control.

  • http://twitter.com/mibi mibi

    Quora is great and it's about time a real community was built into the Q&A space. You can learn an awful lot about someone by the answers they give and it easy to find all the answers by say, Mark Suster. or anyone else you follow. Often I am not so interested in the best answer, but the answer BY a certain person. It's that offshoot value that makes Quora awesome for me.

  • http://how2startup.com/ Roy Rodenstein

    Good analysis and I agree Quora has really nailed a number of UX and flow areas which lead to engagement and high value content. That said, I think extrapolating that the same level of insidery-ness that has happened with the venture community will happen very broadly now that Quora is still an open question.

  • http://twitter.com/jkaljundi jkaljundi

    Agree on the time suck, my days often start and end now by checking Quora, answering, reading and voting. Addictive!

  • http://azeemazhar.com/ azeemazhar

    So i am not sure i buy this. It is early days, and you know we only get to see Compete's numbers of quora: http://siteanalytics.compete.com/quora.com/ but it doesn't seem to have hit that hockey stick.

    I think parts of Quora are very slick indeed. And the data in their is getting better and better. But I am not moved to return to Quora (it is one more thing to remember). Perhaps they need an app, the web is dead, after all.

  • arishahdadi

    Mark, the topics getting added are purely by people, often regular users, and often people who are designated to help out on the site (admins and reviewers). Quora has a really robust moderation community in place that works (hopefully silently) in the background to make sure everything is running smoothly.

  • http://gokode.com/mark Mark

    It will be interesting to see if the upsides of Quora you describe will survive scaling. I do agree that Disqus is amazing.

  • http://twitter.com/danielfowler Daniel Fowler

    I have to admit, I'm surprised. Very compelling blog entry – I'm certainly going to check out Quora – and yet you only have one link to the site, which isn't readily noticeable except for the folks interested in learning about Facebook Places' market implications on Foursquare. :)

  • http://www.jeffgothelf.com Jeff Gothelf

    What I love about Quora is the quality of the discussions. The quality is driven by quality participants. The community, currently, is still rather small and the interactions feel personal and relevant. Like you said, if I want to get into a discussion with Reid Hoffman or Craig Newmark, they're on there! That's one of the main draws for me.

    My main concern is, as it scales and becomes more popular, will the larger community dilute the value of the content and conversations? Or will the game mechanics and voting help curate the conversations to remain salient?

    I look forward to seeing where Quora evolves.

    [Jeff]
    @jboogie

  • http://twitter.com/mibi mibi

    Thinking about it further… it seems the problem with general Q&A sites is that those with questions outstrip those with the answers the larger a site gets. Answering questions then become more general, until you get to the Yahoo Answers event horizon of waste. StackOverflow seems to have skirted this by only focusing on one vertical, but it would be interesting to know how Quora plans to deal with any hocky sticks in its future.

  • http://twitter.com/aseidman aseidman

    Quora is like a party where you can jump in and out of conversations of interest. Whereas other Q&A sites (e.g. Aardvark) feels like a party where everybody is separated by a wall.

    Additionally, many Q&A sites are effectively search engines for lazy people — the answer is readily available via a Google search but I am too lazy to search for it. On the other hand, Quora performs well at questions not well suited for a search engine: opinion, multiple constraints scenarios, hypothetical scenarios, etc.

  • http://twitter.com/aseidman aseidman

    Take your better answers and repost them under your own personal blog. You retain your content under your control and provides you an opportunity to expound and refine on your initial idea.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    In addition what I love about Quora over doing a Google search: replies all written by authoritative people on topics (voted up) rather than people great at gaming SEO (about.com) plus the ability to add your own questions that fork off of original questions if you have additional things you want to know. Awesome.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I think part of the magic is that it's the first Q&A website that I've seen that really encourages deep participation and constantly updating answers. It's what Yahoo! Answers should have become if it weren't a “dead” website.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes, it's always interesting to see where things go. People were worried about Twitter this way, too, but so far it still feels personal and relevant to me so I'm hoping for big things with Quora.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Ah, great point. Thank you. I'll fix that!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I believe they will but time will tell. Over time I've come to realize that this is some of the best UX (user experience) design I've seen. Really innovative. IMHO maybe the best on the web today.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Thank you – that's helpful. I guess it's more Wikipedia in that way than an algo but maybe over time that will change? Either way, for now it's working.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    a. I can't say how they're performing today – I AM saying that I think they're going to be very big in the future
    b. that “web is dead” meme from Wired is total bullshit.

  • http://arnoldwaldstein.com awaldstein

    Thnx for this…I'll check them out.

    I'm looking for a platform for a community I'm designing and it needs both a blog and a Q & A backbone.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Ah, but now we have air cover to call it “zone of effectiveness!” because we're increasing social status there ;-)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Open – I agree. But I'm calling it early that I think it will.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Agreed. I've gone to users just to look at what all of their answers are. Both use cases are powerful.

  • http://azeemazhar.com/ azeemazhar

    Yeah–i had my tongue in my cheek when I suggested the Web is dead. I think I should have put an ironic smiley by that comment.

    I love StackExchange as an example of Q&A–and it seems to do better on SEO although I wonder if that is just a function of it being a slightly older site.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Yes, I get that. His point still holds because he is interested in building reputation and if he accomplishes that in in the next few years then he establishes relationships and reputation that can transfer to the next great site. That said, I think Quora is in it for the long haul. Plus, I wrote a long answer yesterday that is going to become my next blog post! ;-)

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Exactly! And that's what I'm doing for my next post!

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    Hmmm. Sounds like a great idea, actually. Brilliant, really. Somebody should build in that self correcting, collaborative feature in to book (and blog!) writing. Great suggestion.

  • http://www.twitter.com/aainslie Alexander Ainslie (@AAinslie)

    Very big commercial opportunity for a platform that reengineers the value chain and the end-to-end I/O process of writing and publishing. There is a pent up appetite for it:

    -Bestseller Seth Godin to No Longer Publish Books Traditionally – mediabistro.com: http://bit.ly/9M3QEq
    -Chris Brogan: How Julien and I Write Together: http://bit.ly/cqatRQ

  • http://twitter.com/aseidman aseidman

    <ability to add your own questions that fork off of original questions if you have additional things you want to know>

    Agreed. They have done a excellent job with the question features (question forks, topics etc.). However, the other side of the coin needs work — specifically finding questions to answer or finding somebody to answer my question. Quora should automatically suggest people who could provide good answers to your question – “We think X could answer this.” This is a hard feature to do well, but would significantly enhance the number of questions that one answers and would help balance the question to answer ratio.

  • http://twitter.com/wfjackson3 Willis F Jackson III

    I have been kind of avoiding the Q&A sites because they look like a huge waste of my time. However, if there is some real and actual credibility built in, then alright.

    The problem I have with Q&A communities is that the comments on a question are only a real conversation for a brief period of time. Once that time passes, the conversation has moved on to somewhere else and it is difficult to re-engage other community members in that same discussion. I think the real missing link to turning that kind of a site into a real community lies in the ability to discuss something other than the current crop of questions.

  • http://www.twitter.com/hershberg Hershberg

    Agree with all your points — I've been very impressed with Quora. It also seems to me that while its onsite Q&A component is incredibly powerful, Quora's long-term value could include using its data for offsite purposes as well. Quora may be best positioned of all companies trying to establish subject-specific authority of individual people, trustworthiness of reviews, etc across all websites.

    - Peter
    @hershberg

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    give it a try – I've been impressed.

  • http://twitter.com/mikeschinkel Mike Schinkel

    I voted your answer up. :)
    That said, I've been contributing to StackExchange's WordPress Answers[1] for the past 12 days and most everything that you say about Quora applies to StackExchange. Can you tell me as a user of Quora what you see are the objective contrasts are between StackExchange and Quora and why you are jazzed about the latter and not the former?

    [1] http://wordpress.stackexchange.com/

  • http://twitter.com/jascha Jascha

    Quora is a great site for discussing certain topics like startups and angels/VCs. Along with anything to do with Google and Facebook since a vast number of users work (or have worked) there. I have done some experiments in terms of testing by asking questions not in the popular topics and most go unanswered. That aside I enjoy using the site and have met some great people. I am very into the idea of sharing information and helping others with advice or answers to topics I am knowledgeable in. The site is also great for doing market research by asking questions that pertain to people's opinions such as Mark's using the Angel List example. I have gathered a lot of free insight to how tech-centric people view sites or products that potentially compete with something I am working on. Which would of very been hard to do any other way.

  • http://twitter.com/LawPivot Law Pivot Inc.

    Have you tried Law Pivot's (http://www.lawpivot.com) confidential legal Q&A service? It's Q&A service is geared toward tech companies to get answers to their legal questions (i.e. IP, corporate, tax, employment and labor, etc.). Unlike Quora or Aardvark, the questions are only answered by actual lawyers who practice in the tech and startup space, and companies are unlikely to disclose their confidential information in an open Q&A forum.

  • http://loo.me pescatello

    great post. I really liked how you described some of the nice UX components. They are doing a great job there. And while i agree with your assessment of the product, do you really think it justifies a 86 million pre-money valuation? That seems so high for a site that hadn't even launched publicly. I remember Facebook's initial 10 million investment from Accel at a 100 million pre and that was after it was dominating the college markets and growing incredibly fast.

    For a service that has a great vision and good product execution, what price is too high?

  • http://www.justinherrick.com Justin Herrick

    Great post mark, I really enjoy the comment about Disqus simply because I entirely agree.

    I have had an invite to quora for 8 months now. After reading this point I feel like I should not have neglected the site as much as I have.

    For someone such as myself, who does not have as much expertise to share, it becomes easy to feel out of place on quora. However, that was only my initial response, I”m going to try it out again and see if I get a different vibe from it.

  • http://replyz.com Replyz

    Mark: thanks for the point for point explanation and insight into Quora's value and trajectory. It's especially convincing, given that you've been participating in Q&A sites long before they had such a label. In fact, your insights inspired an in-depth response from us about vertical Q&A and a new dimension to the emerging landscape, if you have a chance to take a look, would be interested in hearing your thoughts: http://blog.replyz.com/?p=90 Thanks

  • http://bwasearch.blogspot.com Donna Brewington White

    Appreciate this. Spent a few minutes on Quora and can see both the value and the draw. Now for the discipline to not get too sucked in.

    BTW, with the new design at AVC.com some of us are holding a metaphorical glass of wine. And then there are the bourbon drinkers…

  • http://www.twitter.com/aainslie Alexander Ainslie (@AAinslie)

    This just in via The Guardian >> Elevator Pitch:
    An online writing club? What a Quilliant idea!
    http://bit.ly/b7rdVO & http://bit.ly/Quilliant

  • Matt Clark

    CTO from Facebook… seems like a no-brainer investment ;) wish I could have gotten in on it. btw it's a great site for research, getting clients, etc- reminds me of the best blog on everything with tons of really bright people contributing, and best of all, amazing technology!

  • http://bernardmoon.blogspot.com Bernard Moon

    Seems a bit of scratching another VC's back. Do you still believe this after seeing Facebook's Q&A system? Sure they said they wouldn't copy Quora, but it seems like they have. Also once Quora opened up their beta, the quality of answers have been diluted so Facebook and Quora looks like they are on a head-to-head crash course.

  • http://www.HubSpot.com Dharmesh Shah

    Thanks for being an early user of Answers.OnStartups and contributing some great answers.

    Like you, I've found I'm using Quora more than I expected (especially given that I am not only the guy behind answers.onstartups.com, but an investor in StackOverflow, the company that powers it).

    It's going to be interesting to see where all of this Q&A stuff winds up. Quora and StackOverflow have two different approaches. One is a single “master” website with a clear brand and some great early users — the other is more topically-focused, but connected in a “federated” fashion.

  • http://twitter.com/anatoliytelis Anatoliy Telis

    Mark at $86 million, pre-money valuation positive exit has to be at least $200 million? Now how are they going to monetize that site to justify $200 million? Maybe its just me but I just dont see long term biz model to justify such high valuation… Btw I am not even considering long term threat of facebook or twitter getting in to the game with all their behavioral data…

  • http://fgfmendes.blogspot.com Flavio Mendes

    Justin, 4 months later… I would like to have an account at Quora but it is by invitation only… since you do have an account, would you mind inviting me? My email is flaviofigueiredomendes@gmail.com. I work at IBM, with Social Networks. Thanks!

  • http://www.justinherrick.com Justin Herrick

    Your invite has been sent.

  • http://sachendra.wordpress.com Sachendra Yadav

    The big difference I see in Quora as opposed to Yahoo! Answers is the quality of the answers. Yahoo also had the “vote up” functionality but the quality of responses wasnt that good.

    I think that even when trolls and idiots join the fray, if there are quality answers, they will be voted up and the crap can be taken care of by “Not Helpful” button if the community sees enough value in the system

  • http://sachendra.wordpress.com Sachendra Yadav

    The big difference I see in Quora as opposed to Yahoo! Answers is the quality of the answers. Yahoo also had the “vote up” functionality but the quality of responses wasnt that good.

    I think that even when trolls and idiots join the fray, if there are quality answers, they will be voted up and the crap can be taken care of by “Not Helpful” button if the community sees enough value in the system