Quora is a question and answer site full of intelligent responses from knowledgeable people. It was founded by former Facebook CTO Adam D’Angelo and Charlie Cheever in 2009.
Now, Quora could be the next half-a-billion-dollar company. D’Angelo is rumoured to be investing up to $20 million from his pocket into the startup, and tech sites say the company could soon be worth $400 million.
If you don’t know what Quora is, you should. Its investors think it’s worth well north of $1 billion and it’s quietly building a database of some of the most thoughtful, useful content on the web.
In September 2010, we interviewed D’Angelo about his Facebook days and Quora. Since the company is generating buzz again, we decided to republish that interview, below.
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When Adam D’Angelo left his job as Facebook’s CTO in January, the blogosphere was buzzing.
But months later, the young talent reappeared on the tech scene with a startup of his own, Quora.
At first, Quora’s doesn’t sound like anything special. It’s a Q&A site, not unlike Yahoo Questions or Aardvark.
But Quora stands out with its contributors – the people answering questions on the site.
They are the brightest in tech – including Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO and founder of Facebook, Marc Andreessen, the most powerful VC in Silicon Valley, and Fred Wilson, the most powerful VC in New York. “Normal” users seem to be comprised of an army of execs from hot startups and tech giants.
These biggies aren’t just on the site, either. They are power users. Mark Zuckerberg, who has been friends with D’Angelo since high school, used Quora to ask, “What startups would be good talent acquisitions for Facebook?” Soon after, Facebook acquired Nextstop, one of the companies suggested to him on Quora.
Naturally, we were eager to speak with the 20-something co-founder. After a 30 minute call with D’Angelo we learned:
- How entrepreneurs can benefit from Quora
- Where the idea for Quora came from
- Business lessons learned from Facebook
- How to scale a startup and keep quality
- What it’s like to have VCs throwing money at you
- What’s with Gen-Y and entrepreneurship?
We even asked about his high school prom experience with Zuckerberg.
Here’s the full Q & A:
Tell me about your startup and how small businesses can benefit from Quora.
There’s a lot of information that has been in peoples’ heads and hasn’t gotten onto the Internet. Even as the Web has gotten really big, there’s just been this gap. So we made Quora as a general place for people to share knowledge of all kinds.
In the past, there hasn’t been much reliable information about startups and small businesses available online. It’s information that’s really valuable and it’s information that people want to share. So, it’s been one of the areas on Quora that has taken off the fastest.
Say you’re a small business, like a restaurant. Does Quora have a feature where they can promote themselves? Or are small businesses only able to extract advice?
We’re not really focused on people promoting themselves, yet. For now, we’re just trying to get a lot of high-quality knowledge onto Quora. We’ll definitely think about things like that in the future.
As you scale, how are you going to keep smart, educated people answering questions?
A lot of people really like to answer questions, and they really enjoy sharing their knowledge. Especially people who have valuable knowledge. So the site naturally selects for high quality people.
We started off by inviting our friends to use Quora, and then they invited their friends, and it just grew from there. Now that we have some really valuable content on Quora, the content is attracting people too.
Answering friends’ questions makes Quora seem a lot like Google’s Aardvark.
I think we’re a lot different than something like that. Our goal is to build this up as a knowledge base that anyone can look at. We’re not just interested in people answering their friends’ one-off questions.
We’re more interested in someone writing a really great answer that’s going to be read by thousands or tens of thousands of people over the next few years as it stays on Quora and as it gets distributed on the Internet.
So the value of writing a lengthy, well-thought out answer is….what? How will you this keep from turning into another Yahoo! Answers?
I think the motivation is a lot different. On Quora, you’re not answering questions because you want to get points or because you have nothing else to do.
You’re answering questions because you want to build your reputation or you genuinely, intrinsically enjoy helping people. It’s the same reason someone might want to make a website with information. We just made that a lot easier.
Tell me about quitting your job as CTO of Facebook; you left Mark and a growing business to do something completely different.
I’ve really enjoyed starting Quora from the beginning. It’s really nice to have a new start to things. Facebook got to the point where it was in a really good position. And things were set up so that I felt like the company didn’t really need me.
I felt I could make a bigger impact on the world by starting something new rather than just continuing to optimise Facebook.
Was it hard to break the business relationship tie with Zuckerberg? Was it a smooth transition?
Yeah, it was smooth. I think that they wanted me to stay. But they were eventually able to find someone good to run engineering. So Facebook is doing well now.Did ties from Facebook, like Matt Cohler at Benchmark Capital, help you raise money for Quora?
I’ve known Matt for a long time; I used to manage the engineering team at Facebook and Matt used to manage the product team, so we worked together everyday. Knowing him really well made things easy. But there were a lot of venture capitalists that wanted to invest.
What was it about Quora that had investors throwing money at you?
I wouldn’t say they were throwing money at us. But I think the product was taking off. Our background made it seem like we had a good chance of being successful.
I think a lot of people really liked the idea. I also think there aren’t a lot of companies to invest in these days that have really high potential…so all that stuff together.
How will Quora monetise?
Right now we’re just focused on making Quora really good and getting a lot of knowledge onto Quora. We’re really confident that if we can do that, we can find some way to fund the business in the long run.
One of the nice things about having raised money from Benchmark is that we can just focus on making Quora really good right now and don’t have to focus on meeting our payroll every month.
Are you the one who came up with the idea for Quora?
People think of ideas all the time. I thought of some question-answer stuff when I was in college. But I think people tend to focus a little too much on ideas.
The thing that made us go with Quora was it seemed like a real gap on the Internet to us. No one had really made a good knowledge sharing site like this.
What were the key business lessons you learn at Facebook that you brought to Quora?
One thing that is really important is hiring good people. If you can get the best people, that’s a big part of being successful.
Another thing is that the world changes really fast, so being able to keep up with it is really important. We built Quora knowing that we’ll need to be able to change and improve quickly. We’ve set up all our technology that way, and we’ve optimised it to make engineers as productive as possible. That way they’ll be able to solve hard problems very quickly as they come up, rather than just focusing on the problems at hand.
Will you keep starting new companies?
I’m planning to stay with Quora as far as I can see.
Why do you think our generation has so many entrepreneurs. Were we just raised to think that way?
There’s been a lot of change in the world that makes it easier to start a company now than it used to be.
I’ll compare what it’s been like starting Quora, to what it was like at Facebook in the early days. Facebook had to have a full-time guy managing their data centre. We would drive down to Santa Clara to set up new servers, buy them, and then wait weeks before they would get [to Facebook’s’ headquarters].
Now we use Amazon Web services. It takes a few minutes to write a script and then we can turn on 20 new servers if we need them. And we don’t have to drive anywhere, it’s just an engineer in our office just running some code that he wrote, and it will set up the whole data centre basically. So that’s just one example of how it’s just so much easier now than it used to be.
And you know, you can do so much more the on the Web than you used to be able to. You used to have to get people to download software. Now all you have to do its type in a Web address. And there are things like Y Combinator and more angel investors, so there are easier sources of funding.
Even in 2004, there weren’t that many sources of information about how to start a company, so it was much more difficult.