People, meet Beepl. It launched to the general public yesterday in the online expertise-sharing/question-and-answer sphere after a short private test run. Branding itself as a "social Q&A site" that "lets users seek answers and opinion from subject specialists, enthusiasts and their social graph," Beepl also "understands the topics that questions relate to and users' interests and expertise so that questions automatically reach the best people to reach them." That bit of lateral thinking differentiates Beepl in a pretty bustling market, but it's only one of the novel surprises from the company (starting with the lack of a launch press release).
As founder Steve O'Hear noted in a tweet, "Almost all of today's @Beepl press coverage was done without issuing or indeed writing a press release. #startuplife #pr." That the launch happened during a federal holiday in the U.S. also highlights Beepl is a little different—it's headquartered in London and Prague, partly because O'Hear himself is British.
Fast Company spoke with O'Hear to learn more. Beepl's UI is simple and easy to use—almost Twitter-esque in its clean lines, and O'Hear notes, "We tried to create a very simple app, because I think our competitors are getting a bit unwieldy." But he thinks the real power in the mix is "our semantic technology behind the site. What we're effectively doing is looking at every user and we're building an interest graph so that the right questions find the right people, or the best people, to answer them automatically. You don't have to go and join the site and declare an interest in various topics, or follow topics or whatever—the idea is that topics follow you."
That makes Beepl stand out from other systems, of which Quora may be the best known.
"Quora's trying to, as I understand it, create a massive repository of answers to questions," says O'Hear. "In their words they originally said they wanted to be the 'Wikipedia for things that wouldn't get a Wikipedia entry,' so they clamped down on some things. [...] We're not like that—we're much more a social media platform, for the here and now. We don't mind people asking the same question again and again, because it may have a different context or may be particularly timely." Perhaps this explains the Twitter-like feel.
The real-time feel is also echoed in the automated interests graph that powers Beepl's internal recommendation engine, which is "growing the whole time," O'Hear says. "And we're even looking into how we may expire interests. The example we often give is if you get an Amazon Kindle for Christmas, you're totally into Kindle for the first four weeks, and then you're not so interested in the topic—though by that point you may have developed some expertise on it. The engine behind the site means it's a real-time network of experts."
The issue with an algorithmic engine like this, rather than an emergent user-driven one is—as Klout has found, and Google is frequently affected by—is that this algorithm may prompt questions like: How can you trust that it'll connect you to something interesting to you, or perhaps something you have vital insight into for others? Does it mean you may miss out on fringe questions about things you never knew about, but may be fascinated by?
Beepl addresses this, O'Hear says, because the "most aggressive part is for people that are actively using the site. It looks at questions you've clicked on, any you've answered, any you've asked. It even takes a tiny amount from if you do a search on the site."
The system, however, may not be flawless.
"When you first sign up we look at your Facebook likes, your LinkedIn skills, we analyze the last 100 or 200 tweets to give you that initial on-board footprint. We plan to refresh this if you haven't logged in for a while, and take advantage of all the stuff you've already declared an interest in."
This doesn't mean the site has a completely public-leaning publishing bent, and there are "private questions," O'Hear explains, where you can ask a question in private and see the answer just with the person you're engaging with—something that'll be handy for journalists, and which again echoes Twitter a little with its "direct messaging" service.
It's all a nice lateral twist. But perhaps we should expect this, given that Steve O'Hear isn't your traditional coder or entrepreneur. In fact he was a journalist—one who spent a lot of time covering technology and the startup scene, most recently and perhaps most notably for TechCrunch Europe. "To be honest, I've changed carreers every five years," he says—and if that sounds familiar, it should. "You're looking at products every day, and I'm quite outspoken. So I thought I could see what was wrong, but obviously you don't get to put it right" when you're simply covering the news.
Journalism and some consultancy thus bloomed into entrepreneurship, a fact that makes O'Hear different to some of his peers. "People've asked me in recent weeks what have I learned since I started this. It sounds arrogant, but I've not learned that much. All these things about 'what's your burn rate?' and so on, all this advice in the startup world with people writing articles all the time about what you should and shouldn't do. Being one of those people who was inadvertently giving out advice, by writing about products, reviews, startups, and tracking and funding, you go in there with your eyes open."