Adam D’Angelo of Quora: The Chicken and Egg Problem, Scaling Quality and Startup Culture

Met Adam D’Angelo, Founder and CEO of Quora today. Some interesting facts about Quora and some of highlights:

Founded in 2009, Quora currently has about 65 employees, with 34 of them being engineers, and 7 (!) data scientists. The mission is to share and grow the world’s knowledge. While that might sound like Google, their take is that tons of information, knowledge and wisdom still resides in the minds of people, and not on websites that can be crawled by Google.

So how did Quora solve the chicken and egg problem when they started? Four of them built the product, and then basically got in touch with about 500 friends amongst themselves, asking them to use the product, put questions up and answers to existing questions. While only 5-10% actually did it, it did get the ball rolling. Because a lot of their friends were from the Valley, the usage was largely initially from the Valley. As a result, most of the initial Q& A was also focused on startups, how to manage different aspects of startups, etc. Of course, the team also contributed answers as and when they could, but they didn’t do any artificial seeding or paid writing according to him.

So how do you differentiate from a Yahoo answers or any of the million other discussion forums which as essentially Q&A sites? D’Angelo believes its largely around quality, and keeping the quality high even at scale. Many of these discussion forums provide low quality responses because they pay folks to seed the responses. Instead of providing money as the motivating factor for people to contribute answers, their platform made it cool for people to answer questions, get them voted up or down, and also be seen as experts in certain fields. In addition, they do some amount of monitoring/moderation as well, but they are also focused on building more and more machine learning-driven algorithms that can predict and identify high quality answers. The remaining answers (the low quality ones) basically go under a Collapsed set of answers. They are also using tactics such as getting people to use their real names, and authenticating via Twitter or FB to maintain their reputations.

Finally, a couple of interesting points on startup culture: In addition to the standard things that a fast growing company like theirs can do (weekly Q&A sessions, hiring for cultural fit), two things struck me: One, he said that everyone in the leadership team is constantly setting an example of the kind of high-energy culture that they have at Quora. Two, (and more interestingly) he claimed that in consumer internet firms, the culture of the startup reflects the nature of the product. So in their case, as they are a Q&A site, they have folks who are fairly intellectual, curious and well-informed. That permeates their culture as well.

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