Saturday, March 26, 2011

Dave McClure ruins my Saturday morning

So it's Saturday morning. Now that I've moved on to Startup #2, I'm trying to blog a lot more. Today, I planned on finishing up, or at least moving forward, three blog posts I'm working on (Yobongo as MVP, Knowledge Navigator Birthday, and how to improve Klout), but Dave McClure totally ruined those plans, because he posted this on Twitter:

Now, this would be 500 times easier (yes, that's an subliminal number, for those of you playing along at home) if he said Disqus, since that's a big part of the Klout posting. I could have at least cut and pasted a lot of it, or ignored it all together, assuming I'd address it some other time. But it sat there on my screen, mocking me, this question. Look, it's only been a hour, so I'm not going to make this my tell-tale-heart, but it was stuck in my head. So, here's my brain dump on what hit me this morning. 

I took the question as "how could/would you monetize Quora,and the concepts of Influence". 

Influence is clearly one of the next great issue with the web, which is how do we value the sources from which we get information? How can we come up with a TransUnion/Equifax/Experian creditscore system for the web? I want to make that reference again - to credit scores - because most people talk about their Credit Score (note the lack of plural), although there are three private agencies that make up your final FICO score. This is not a winner-take-all game, but for the big winners, of which, there will be a few, it's gigantic. Web influence is a currency that will be, if it is not already, as powerful as your FICO score. This is the area where I think Quora can build an amazing (consumer and professional) brand, long term value, and be influential in a wide range of transactions. 

Influence is the oft-discussed value of the social graph, based in the idea we will follow people we trust, we know, we like, or we want to know. Ironically, the reasons I just listed are not recorded anywhere. I have no idea why people follow me, nor can I really remember the reason I follow many of the people I do. That's not to say there is one reason. I follow @shervin on twitter for his insights into angel investing and technology as much as I do his international political perspective, but the absolute lack of context makes this a very difficult problem. People continue to chase Twitter as one of the greatest sources of the social graph. I think that's an input, but in many ways, fundamentally broken. Quora has a real opportunity to both define influence and, in the end, monetize it. That is, if Joel Spolsky doesn't get there first. 

First of all, there's a huge difference between opinion and experience, which are the two of the three legs of the stool of Twitter (read that again, I made a poop joke sound really smart).  Taking on my own twitter stream, I post mostly on #startups (experience), #healthcare (experience), #softwaredevelopment (experience), #bostonsports (opinion), and #wine (opinion). Can you draw a line between these things? Maybe - you could argue because my first startup was in healthcare IT, and we did software development, those are loosely coupled. Heck, you can argue that having a startup through the last decade in Silicon Valley causes you to drink heavily. It's a flawed correlation, though. 

Additionally, I may just be a loudmouth. I may have hundreds of followers who think I'm the best at describing all the reasons the Yankees suck, which has nothing to do with any of those more intellecutal  topics. Amplification has already been proven to be a false metric, through the "Beyonce Analysis" meme.(okay, it's not a meme yet, but I want it to be) 

Twitter unintentionally threw a really big monkey wrench in this idea as well, with the Retweet ("RT").  Fundamentally, it seems simple - I trust you, so therefore, I trust the people you trust, so fill my stream up with information from them too, if you think it's worthy. I grant you proxy over my twitter stream. It is a great tool for discovery, and I find endless bits of information from people that are RT'd into my twitter stream. But is it really influence? I've argued both sides of this idea, but I currently think where we really want to put the value is on the RT'er themselves, not the post getting retweeted. I want to reward the RT'er who curated interesting information to me. 

Influence and expertise are not democratic. All votes should not be equal. HackerNews' approach of giving you a quantified number of votes is still flawed, but a worthwhile attempt. Facebook "likes" have the same context problem as a Twitter RT. 

Don't get me wrong. I think Klout (and PeerIndex) is an amazing company and I applaud them going after the big problem. They urgently have to get more people adopting their API, right now, to continue their growth. They are solving a critical problem, and I think they could be the only thing keeping Disqus from getting killed by Facebook's commenting system. That's for another post. 

So how the heck does any of this tie to Quora? Let's suppose Klout becomes one of the credit unions of the web. We need at least two, and Quora is best positioned to be the Equifax of a new generation. 

I mentioned Joel Spolsky before because I think he and the team at Stack Overflow figured out quickly one of the best ways to monetize influence and it's closely related cousin, expertise, was the the Career space. I also think Joel is extremely smart and probably saw the credit union concept long before I did. Dont be surprised if he's already on this idea.

I was in the audience at the Launch conference when Joel announced Careers 2.0. The first thought was, of course, that's genius. It seems so obvious, putting together vertical Q&A, building influence/expertise, and tying it to Careers (actually, my first thought was "LinkedIn better do that IPO soon"). The Stack Overflow platform proves that Joel's team is already thinking outside just the software development box - but there is room there to compete. I can see Quora using a very similar approach - but rather than just repeat Careers 2.0 (which they can and should do), there are several other areas that need help. 

Similar communities are popping up that can also be topical score providers. If I need to find the best designer in the word, I'm going to trust people's opinions that are in the forrst community before I trust my own brother. I love you, man, but your designs suck. Just look at companies like ShopSquad - the world is looking for ways to identify expertise and link it to solutions. The difference is, Quora is not a single topic, but trying to cover nearly all topics, crowd sourcing what topics are interesting to people. 

Here's a quick list of places where I can see Quora building solutions off it's platform that can be monitized immediatley. If ShopSquad can get $1.25M in a angel round for a small slice of this problem (but still great idea), there is money to be made here:
  • Troll-busting comment systems. There is nothing I would like more on Techcrunch then a button that said "hide comments everyone who knows nothing about this topic", which of course means MG would disappear from every page that didn't have to do with Apple.
  • Selecting an expert in healthcare, such as a doctor or dentist. There is nothing more frustrating then getting that horrific book of doctors from your insurance company, where you get to pick on based on how their name sounds. Horrible process. Experts and Influence? Sign me up.
  • Curation of content and search results identifying quality content on the web - if you don't think this is big, you're not paying attention to what Google is doing...and it's only just begun
  • Contract services, such as learning a guitar lesson or a personal trainer. 
  • What about the the College applications process? I don't know of any colleges today using your online presence to influence admissions, but it seems a natural next step. 
  • Customer support and Enterprise services - within large organizations, how we share and disseminate information, both internally and customer facing? 
  • Dating and Personal services. If you are looking for someone with certain interests, is there is any indication this person has shown any real interest in that area? Are they red state to your blue state?
  • Family and Parenting - it's easy to find advice online, but hard to quantify any of it. 
  • Real Estate - similar to Parenting, no one is an expert in the field until then choose to engage in it. Once you decide to buy a house, you're "all in" to an area which is nuanced and full of technical terminology. Who do you trust with the biggest purchase of your life?
Some of these seem like real stretches - don't get me wrong, I'm not saying I would invest or build any or all of them - but once we're able to start to contextualize and value one's contributions to the web, there is an endless array of things we can do. Quora has the ability to be the backbone of this movement. They won't be alone, as no one will trust a single overlord, but they can be hugely influential, and make some money. As it was, Equifax only made $1.8 billion in revenue in 2010. 12 more years like that, and they can save up and  buy Groupon and then make some REAL money.

Note: I broke my own rules, banged this out and posted it without enough review. It's probably disjointed and needs updating. I'll try to review it tomorrow and clean it up - feedback very welcome on how to improve it....