Before co-founding Quora, the Q&A site that's become a beehive for the technorati, Charlie Cheever spent a lot of time wondering why it wasn't easier to answer those pesky questions that kept popping into his head. "I did this exercise," Cheever tells Fast Company, "I’d catch myself at every point in the day when I wanted to know something and I tried to imagine what life would be like if that information was available."
His questions ranged from the practical (when is that restaurant open?) to the esoteric (why are parking spaces shaped like that?), yet despite a plethora of ways to share photos, status updates, and personal information on social networks there was a gaping hole where knowledge like that could reside and be shared. "Most of the important things fit into the [Facebook, Twitter, etc.] model. But there is no real place for all the stuff you think about," he says. "So we decided to make one."
The "we" is Cheever and his former Facebook colleague Adam D'Angelo. The two met working for Mark Zuckerberg where D'Angelo (who attended prep school with Zuckerberg) was CTO and VP of engineering and Cheever (also a Harvard alum) led Facebook Connect and Facebook Platform. Much like their former boss and his single-minded focus on making the world a more open place, Cheever and D’Angelo dedicated themselves to creating a social network for knowledge.
A beta version of Quora launched in early January 2010 and the site officially debuted last June. Some of the earliest entries were from people involved in tech start-ups asking questions like, 'What is typical total founder dilution for a company that just raised their series A?'
"A lot of learning happens around the process of setting up a new company and there’s nowhere you can really read about that," says Cheever. (Might we suggest a subscription to our sister publication, Inc.?)
What Cheever doesn’t say, but quickly becomes evident while clicking around Quora, is that serious heavy-hitters are answering questions there. Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz offers his opinion of the movie The Social Network. Google Images product manager Nate Smith explains how color image search works. Foursquare's head of business development talks about what it's like to work for founder Dennis Crowley. Twitter's Pierre Legrain explains the cost-per-follow principle for Promoted AccountsM. And AOL co-founder Steve Case answers how much it cost to mail everyone those CDs back in the 1990s.
There's also a simple set of social networking features lurking just beneath the surface. Along with following questions or topics (and receiving email updates when new answers are added), you can follow other Quora members, and give them topics or exchange private messages. The best answers bubble to the top through the basic vote-up mechanism, which hasn't been abused too badly yet.
The most potentially controversial feature: Any member can edit another person's question. Cheever underscores that users are identifiable real people (for the most part) and can edit their expertise for each question they answer. Cheever says this boosts the quality of the information while the community’s ability to vote on the merit of any responses acts as a crowdsourced check-and-balance system. How long before the revision battles that plagued Wikipedia begin to surface? Quora has no answers to this question, yet.
It’s still very much a work in progress, says Cheever. The Quora team—now 12 people—is constantly striving to improve functionality as the site gains popularity. Investors appear to be convinced that it will: Quora snagged $11 million in Series A financing, largely thanks to former Facebook colleague Matt Cohler, who is now with Benchmark Capital. It helps that Quora's closest competitors are sites full of poorly articulated and often unreliable answers (think Yahoo! Answers, Formspring, Mahalo, Ask or Answers.com). Cheever dismisses the notion that there is a direct competitor for Quora.
Despite the company’s reported $86 million valuation, and over 500,000 registered users as of today [Quora's number of users is being debated in the Q&A on this very topic], Cheever’s not ready to discuss how the business expects to make money. "Anything that is a really valuable service that is used by a lot of people has a way to monetize," says Cheever. "It just takes time." Still, he says that the most obvious way to make money would be through advertising.
For now, you won't find a single ad on Quora. The team is dedicated to making the site the leader in the space. "We are really focused on quality. It’s as important as growing. We just have to see how we can manage the tension so that people always think of us as the place to go when they want to find answers."
Photo (left to right: Adam D'Angelo, Charlie Cheever, Rebekah Cox) courtesy Charlie Cheever