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Disrupt Backstage Pass: Ashton Kutcher On Why He Invested In AirBnB

Posted: 30 May 2011 09:11 AM PDT

Hi. I'm Sarah Lacy backstage at TechCrunch Disrupt with Ashton Kutcher.

The guy in the hat.

The guy in the hat. So you were just onstage, and Charlie Rose did not get out of you what I'm about to get out of you.

He just didn't ask.

That one of your angel portfolio companies that no one knows about, very popular company, Air BnB.


When did you invest?

I've been working with them since about February. I'm an investor, but I'm also a strategic eally taking the brand international, which is really important for them right now because there are so many ex-US companies trying to chase what they are doing.

And so that's kind
of our primary focus right now is working on the UK and Germany and starting to build the company there. Now you're a very different Ashton Kutcher than the Ashton Kutcher who came to Tech Crunch 40 or Tech Crunch 50 or whatever we were calling it back then. First of all, you seemed more nervous to be in front of the techies then.

You seem very calm and self assured these days.

I'm still nervous. I probably just know better words now.

But you've also evolved more from Ashton Kutcher, entrepreneur, to Ashton Ashton Kutcher, entrepreneur and Angel investor. You have a portfolio of 12 companies, and really good companies, things like AirBnB, Skype, I don't know how many others I'm allowed to say or not. So how do you see that your role has really evolved in this ecosystem from a couple sort of silly, early companies that do so well to be attached to pretty big names now.

I think when I came here three years ago, I came with a media property. It wasn't really a tech company. It's the space that I knew, I knew how to create media units, right? That's what I was educated in and that's what I knew and that's what I've been doing for the last whatever five or six years.

And then when I came here, I saw this entire ecosystem of people and I just sort of became an apprentice and, like, sat next to some of the smartest people in the system and really just tried to suck information from them, learn from them. I just started reading a ton of stuff because I don't like to fail.

And then what I found from sitting down with them is, I would go through different people's investment portfolios and I would say "I like this one" and "I'm interested in that one" and "This makes sense to me", "I don't get this, but I understand this", "I think I could be helpful this company through an introduction to these people, because there are certain people in the media world that can be really, really influential to a company.

I can kind of get a return phone call from most people that I place a call to, and that can become really, really valuable. Like that level of introduction for people, when they're first starting out a company, can become extremely valuable. So some of my first investments were Skype, obviously, Foursquare, and I'm in investor Path and TinyChat.

And when I saw, I wasn't an angel investor in AirBnB but when I saw the power of that company, I actually saw it as one of the first companies that is so truly cutting edge in what it's doing taking social trust and manifesting that into commerce.

And some people would say online is eroding trust, so they're taking.

So they've actually managed through an integrity of a product and integrity of people to start to create social trust and transfer that into commerce. And if you go, it's like going to a restaurant and looking at tips on Foursquare or something like that. Or like now using Explore on Foursquare where you go and you, I want pizza, and it shows you, like, oh, these are six places that my friends have gone to, and I go, I have trust the fact that these people have the kind of taste that I would endorse, so thereby I'm gonna go to that place.

AirBnB is really doing that with the way that they're creating an ecosystem of trust. And now their new Facebook implementation does it even further, where I can see the places that my friends have stayed.

It's actually, its
actually doing something in technology that is a social interaction that people may not have the trust to do without that level of social.

Right, it's solving the trust problem not just trying to not destroy it.

It's actually solving the trust problem, exactly, as opposed to destroying it. I mean, granted, you would say "I'm going to New York for the weekend. Do you have a friend whose place I could stay in?" Sure, maybe. But maybe they don't. But maybe you have a friend of a friend who's endorsed this place and you say to your friend, hey you know that girl, does she have good taste?

And where she would stay is my kind of place. Yeah, absolutely.

Right. It takes out all like sort of the inefficiencies of it.

It takes out the inefficiencies of it and actually lands you in a new commerce that I think is going to have extraordinary value.

Now I want to ask. You've just signed on to a very high profile, very demanding job, being the replacement on Two and a Half Men. You said on stage with Charlie acting is still your first love. Is Catalyst Media, your venture investments, everything you've done on the tech side, now going to suffer?

No. It's to get a benefit.


I'm not going to end up on a set in Shreveport, Louisiana for three months working sixteen-hour days.


Yeah. So, I've worked this job before when I was on The 70s Show. I know what the schedule is and I know it really, really well and I built Catalyst while I was making that show. I built Catalyst, I made multiple movies, I produced Punk'd and starred in Punk'd as well. I was able to have about three different jobs while I was working on a sitcom.

And the great thing about sitcoms is that, absolutely brilliant, the schedule: you work about thirty hours a week. And you work for two weeks and then you get a week off. So, it's two weeks on, one week off, two weeks on, one week off.

That 's pretty sweet.

And then you have three months off in the summer, and three weeks off at Christmas, and a week off at Thanksgiving. So, the way the schedule works, one, it keeps me in and around my office instead of ending up in France shooting a movie. And secondly, there's an extraordinary amount of time around that.

And thirdly, it's just an absolutely brilliant job. I get to make people laugh for a living. I don't know if it gets better than that.

Wow, suddenly I'm envious. I thought I had a great job at TechCrunch. I think we work like 90 hours a week and I never get a vacation. Thank you so much for joining us Ashton. Always great to have you here.

Thank you. Pleasure.

Ashton Kutcher started dabbling in tech startups a few years ago, but he is no longer a dabbler, as his his Disrupt interview with Charlie Rose last week made clear. Kutcher is an investor in a dozen tech companies, including Skype, Foursquare, Path, and Kevin Rose’s Milk. In this backstage interview with Sarah Lacy, he reveals that he is also an investor in AirBnB (whose CEO Brian Chesky was also at Disrupt) and why he thinks the company is different.

Kutcher talks about his approach to investing in startups. At first it was very much a leraning process for him. “I became an apprentice” to other tech investors, he says, because “I don’t like to fail.”

Will investing become more of a hobby now that he is about to start a full-time job replacing Charlie Sheen on the CBS sitcom Two and a Half Men? Not at all, he says. Sitcom hours are much more predictable than movie-set hours. You can expect Kutcher to keep investing.

Big Buy: IAC’s Wants To Acquire European Online Dating Site Meetic

Posted: 30 May 2011 08:29 AM PDT

IAC-owned has set its sights on Europe’s largest dating site, Match has put in a public tender offer to acquire all of the outstanding shares of Meetic for €15.00 per outstanding share in cash (that’s $21.42 in U.S. dollars). That’s a 11.6 percent increase in value from the closing price of Meetic shares on May 27, 2011 (€13.44) and values the company at nearly $500 million. actually already owns approximately 27% of the outstanding shares of Meetic, which it obtained when it combined its European businesses with Meetic in 2009. Back then, IAC sold 100 percent of the stock of Match Europe – the entity that houses's European operations – for an approximate 27 percent stake in Meetic, plus a 5 million euro note.

Marc Simoncini, Meetic’s founder and Chairman, has agreed to offer approximately 3.7 million shares, representing approximately 16% of the total number of shares outstanding. Simoncini will retain the balance of his stake (approximately 1.6 million shares, representing approximately 7 percent of the total number of shares outstanding) and intends to remain on Meetic’s Board. The two companies say that Meetic’s executive committee supports the decision.

This would probably be one of the dating site’s largest acquisitions to date. Match just recently dropped $50 million to acquire online dating site OKCupid. And the company bought People Media for $80 million in 2009.

So why does Match want Meetic? On paper, the site sees to be expand the company’s reach and revenue. The site is available in 16 European countries, in 13 languages. In 2010, Meetic posted total sales of $266 million, and has a market cap of $437 million. Match’s offer values the company at nearly $500 million. In comparison,’s core revenue came in at $93.3 million in first quarter 2011 (up 18 percent), and subscriber are up 22 percent.

Match says that it plans to file offer with the French Securities Regulator within two to three weeks. Match does not intend to de-list Meetic, which is listed in Compartment B of Euronext Paris of the NYSE Euronext, following completion of the tender offer.

Here’s a video of Simoncini speaking at LeWeb in 2008.

The Unconquered Nation, Crippled By Bureaucrats

Posted: 30 May 2011 07:51 AM PDT

Seems like it’s Sub-Saharan Month around here: first Sarah Lacy went to Nigeria, and now here I am in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital and Africa’s fourth-largest city. It feels like a boomtown. There are cranes and construction sites everywhere, throwing up gleaming new glass-and-steel buildings full of shops selling computers and mobile phones. The major thoroughfares throng with people making, trading, repairing, unloading, selling, and generally hustling.

Don’t get me wrong: this is still a poor country. Electrical outages are regular occurrences, the taxis that patrol the city’s broad avenues are rusting Ladas, and the side streets are harrowed dirt strewn with garbage, lined with tin shacks, and patrolled by beggars and feral dogs. But I’ve only seen occasional pockets of the poisonous stagnation I’ve found so often elsewhere south of the Sahara. This feels like a place where things happen. It’s a city and country that could be on the cusp of a genuine transformation, catalyzed by technology—were it not for a single, gigantic roadblock: its own government.

"Oh, they’re great," Jörn Schultz deadpans about Ethio Telecom (ETC), the government monopoly that controls all phone, mobile, and Internet service across the nation, and everyone in the room bursts into laughter. He shakes his head. "No, no. They’re terrible."

It’s not just the censorship, though that’s bad enough: the entire domain is blocked, along with various Facebook pages and newspapers. But it’s not what most angers the people here at iceAddis, the new "innovation/collaboration/entrepeneurship" space modelled after Nairobi’s legendary iHub. (I’ll tell you more about it in a separate post.) What upsets this crowd is ETC’s sheer incompetence.

A very brief acquaintance with Ethiopia’s Internet cafes will confirm everything they say in a hurry. Connection speeds are highly variable, trending towards painfully slow, if and when you can connect at all. Ethiopia still hasn’t linked up with the SEACOM fiber that brings broadband to East Africa, explains Markos Lemma, another iceAddis founder; as a result, the entire nation has only 1.2 gigabits of bandwidth for its 85 million people, more of whom are coming online every day. You do the math.

If you have a connection problem, things get even worse; by all accounts, ETC’s customer care makes Comcast seem like Rolls-Royce. Fitsum Assalif, a security hacker and penetration tester ("white-hat only," he assures me with a grin) grimaces with disbelief, remembering: he also works at a large NGO, and the last time they had a serious connectivity issue, "I had to go to (Ethiopia Telecom’s) data center and fix it myself… They send their workers to China for training, but I don’t know what they get."

But surely a place like iceAddis could end-run around the problem with a VSAT dish? Lemma (who has set up an entertaining "ETC sucks" Facebook page) shakes his head: "There’s no VSAT, it’s impossible." The government forbids them for all except the most powerful of organizations; he estimates that there are fewer than half a dozen in the country, for places like the UN, World Bank, African Union. The red tape doesn’t stop there: you need a permit to import "anything with an IP number," which takes a month—and they usually say no.

This is a proud nation, and with reason: Ethiopia is the only African nation which defeated their would-be European colonizers and remained independent throughout the colonial era. But they need to start looking to the rest of Africa as an example. "They’re so far ahead of us in Kenya," Assanif says forlornly, meaning the fierce competition among mobile and Internet providers there, and the access and innovation that has thrived as a result.

It’s ironic that Ethiopia’s current government are the same people who overthrew the brutal Marxists called the Derg twenty years ago; alas, they seem to have inherited some of their archenemies’ fondness for monopolies, protectionism, and bureaucracy. I believe mobile Internet access is a transformational force that could turn African nations into economic lions to rival Asia’s tigers—but only if it’s fast, cheap, and ubiquitous. And that will never happen here while every bit of Ethiopia’s Internet is controlled by a dinosaur monopoly with no competitive incentive to improve.

My Job As A Pre-Launch Startup CEO Was To Buy Sandwiches

Posted: 30 May 2011 06:57 AM PDT

Seth Sternberg is the CEO and Co-founder of Meebo. He previously worked in M&A at IBM.

I love talking to aspiring entrepreneurs—I do it once a week at minimum.

I often get asked "what's the role of a startup CEO?" Sometimes people are curious about the pre-launch "CEO" and ask if a startup really needs one. If that CEO isn't an engineer, what do they do anyhow? Other times people wonder what I do today as CEO of a 180 person company. In this post I'll cover the pre-launch role, and in a follow-up, I'll get into the role post-launch.

So what does the CEO, who at the beginning is really the general business person, do at a pre-launch startup?

Let's go back to the beginning of Meebo, circa April, 2005.

Co-founders Sandy Jen, Elaine Wherry and I met every Wednesday night and all day every Sunday in an effort to get Meebo off the ground. We'd never meet in my apartment—it was always either at Sandy's or Elaine's. Why? Because they had the better computers and the faster internet connections. Frankly, that's pretty emblematic of one’s role as the "business person" pre-launch. I’ve touched upon this topic before in a Founder Stories interview with Chris Dixon (embedded below), but it is worth elaborating on.

For most consumer internet products, there's not a whole lot the business person can really do pre-launch. All of the company's value will come when the team builds and launches a product, so that should be the primary focus. There aren't any partnerships to be struck yet, as the product has yet to build any credibility in the market. There aren't any folks to interview, as you can't afford to hire a full team, and you're wasting your time looking for pre-launch financing—a controversial statement these days, I know, but that's a topic for another post. So what can you do if the most important thing is simply to minimize all distractions in the pursuit of getting the product launched?

Buy sandwiches.

Well, really, the business person's job, until the last 2-3 weeks before launch, is to be supportive.

When we got together on Sundays, I really couldn't contribute very much real work. I could make the sandwich runs to the Andronico's down the street (I still have the “buy 10, get the 11th free card” in my wallet). I could also take care of the mundane tasks like buying the domain name and paying the server bills. Heck, I could even suggest "that button might look better over there." But that was about it. I was the support.

I began to wonder, "Should I even be here?" Frankly, it didn't feel very good to sit there and watch Elaine and Sandy working away while I did comparatively little. I could just as well have been playing Frisbee.

When I wondered that aloud, the feedback from Elaine and Sandy was pretty clear: if you're going to be part of this team, then we want you here.

We were all equals with our own skills that we each brought to the table. My presence, at some level, was moral support. At another level, it contributed to the team bonding that you need pre-launch. Post-launch, things will tend to get crazy, fast, so pre-built trust is critical. At the end of the day, it's the team that really makes the startup. Strong teams—as Sandy is quick to point out—survive multiple ideas.

Let's fast-forward to the 2-3 weeks pre-launch, however, where the business person begins to get a job.

First, go and line up the right law firm to get incorporated.

The standard deal, at least at the time, was $20K in legal fees deferred until you raise your series A. I don't think much has changed. Make sure you get advice on which firm and partner to work with—the way your company gets incorporated can save you a lot of pain down the road. (Watch a relevant chat between Chris Dixon and Erick Schonfeld here). Do not work with a firm inexperienced in setting up startups. Rather, work with Fenwick, Wilson Sonsini, OMM, Gundersen, Orrick, and the like. And even in those firms, ensure you're working with the folks who have startup creation experience—all partners are not created equal.

Second, figure out your launch strategy.

Do you want to line up a bunch of friends to test your product before launch? Do it. Then corral all of their feedback and help prioritize it for your co-founders. Do you need to find a couple of folks who can introduce you to a blogger or two to write about your launch? Find them and go pre-brief those bloggers. Make sure you also line up your friends to give you some social media mojo—get them to Facebook and Tweet your launch.

Third, find a good mentor or two.

It's important to find someone who is passionate about what you're up to and who genuinely wants to work with you and your team to help you create an awesome product. Someone who is perhaps 2-4 years ahead of the process from where you sit, who has seen good and bad, and who can guide you toward good choices and help you avoid potentially painful early mistakes. Ironic, but when you have the least experience is also when you make a bunch of choices on how you set up your company—choices which will potentially burn you or save you years down the road.

In a future post, I'll get into the business person's role post-launch. But before we end, one more thing: do you even need a business person pre-launch since they do seemingly so little?

The answer is yes, for three basic reasons.

First, post-launch, the business person's job becomes very important. You want them there for their actual work product (beyond their amazing ability to remember your sandwich order) post-launch. You don't want to go through the pain of finding this person post-launch when things get nutty. Rather, you want them lined up and ready to go from the start.

Second, just like it's unbelievably hard to find great engineers, it's also unbelievably hard to find great business people. Just like a bad engineering co-founder can help ruin a company and a good one can help make a company, the same goes for business folks. Once you find a great engineering co-founder, hold onto them as tight as you can. And once you find a great business co-founder, do the same.

Third, team bonding is really important. The more time you have to do this, the better. I've argued that there's nothing more important in getting a company off the ground than finding and putting together the ultimate founding team. This bonding is super critical in the early days because you will likely spend years together. It's hard to explain ust how important it is that you understand and trust each other, implicitly. The sooner you get together as a unit, the better off you all will be.

Photo credit: Flickr/FotoosVanRobin

Breakfast with Butcher in Berlin – Come meet TechCrunch Europe

Posted: 30 May 2011 02:57 AM PDT

Ever since my first TechCrunch meetup in Berlin in 2008 and 2009 I’ve been keeping a watchful eye on this city as I travelled around Europe covering startups and explaining the scene to anyone who would listen. But since then it’s quite clear that a couple of things have happened. The whole European scene has improved massively. There are now startup events, activity and fundraising across Europe in an ongoing manner. Sure, it’s not Silicon Valley (I’m sorry, but who cares?) – in fact we should really be comparing ourselves to our own progress, not to other places. And the news is good. The ‘Valley Virus’ has spread, and Europe is now starting to boast some amazing startups.

The Roundabout Tapes – Frameblast aims to be the Google for TV and video archives (TCTV)

Posted: 30 May 2011 02:17 AM PDT

Continuing our series of interviews with companies in the “Silicon Roundabout” area of London (we’re calling this The Roundabout Tapes), we interviewed Clearer Partners.

Clearer is a specialised tech/media consulting company but is also doing a startup. The soon to launch Frameblast is aimed at SOHO companies who want to handle video in a smarter way along the lines of Media Silo. Companies can upload their archives into the cloud and use it like a Google search engine for their archive, with tags galore.


Posted: 29 May 2011 07:22 PM PDT

I'm a creature of habit, of habits I create to push myself forward. When Twitter appeared, I knew it was a habit that would grab a hold of not just my generation but many others. In fact, it grabbed a hold of the notion of generations and twisted it into something special: a generation of the now.

The other day we were in Las Vegas, in a hotel that like all of Vegas stank of cigarettes and losers, which by definition included us for being there. We sat at a sushi restaurant, or what started with sushi and ended with samba — three kitchens with little crossover from latin to salmon. And so we sailed across the generations, talking music and the history of salesforce, and arriving at the movies. And in particular Citizen Kane.

Orson Welles' defining moment, the intersection of melodrama and politics, of the end of the age of controlled media and the dawn of what we now call social media. The story of Charles Foster Kane, a stand-in for Hearst who started wars when there was a dearth of headlines. We saw him in a fake newsreel standing on a balcony with Hitler, saw the arc of his life at the center of the Golden Age where Washington and Hollywood were two sides of the same coin. And as we were swept along in the daring pop media that the film invented, we became a generation of one.

Go look for Kane on Netflix and it's not available, at least not for streaming. That's because the owners of the film can still wring a handsome sum out of the 1941 release. Black and white, but stunning in its visual quality, the experiments of cinematographer Gregg Toland who flooded the sets with enough light to allow perfect focus with infinite depth of field. In enabling the dramatic perspective shots, Toland had ceilings constructed, anticipating the move to location filming when faster lightweight cameras were developed.

The story-telling was equally elliptical, with flashbacks tracing various stages of the great life, and in the process opening the picture up with the passage of time and intersecting impressions from a wide range of family, friend, and foe. Like the Godfather films a generation later, history and personal drive stood side by side, informing each other. Like the Kennedy assassination and the ascent of the Beatles, two polar opposites that defined the culture in ways that still are being played out.

And then there was the conceit of the enterprise: the idea Welles had that he could create a self-contained world, or universe even, where the natural laws of ambition and power met forces even greater. Kane was a hurricane without peer, a modern king who took his birthright and assembled a Xanadu to house the treasures of emperors and dynasties alongside the stars and leaders of the day. And Welles drove the picture through the force of his will, co-writing, starring, producing, and directing a film that would easily have won the Academy Award it was nominated for if not for the vendetta Hearst held against Welles and his team for the rest of his and their lives.

In the early Eighties, the computer revolution began to take shape, fostered by the space program and the spirit of the Kennedys and the Beatles. Apple synthesized the two threads with its choice of a name, and the Web birthed a generation of Kanes that has yet to subside. Viral wealth creation and the culture of the virtual king-making machine may still be playing out, but as the old saying goes in Hollywood, they don't make stars like they used to. As Zuck and Ev and even Larry and Curly attest, the era of the studio system has come to an end.

But the spirit of Kane is alive and well, and the proof is in the social wave. Just look at the entropy of Windows, the power of realtime building a head of steam as it reworks our language like the Front Page remade our dialogue, like the West Wing suggested we could carry on big decisions while getting plenty of exercise, like Twitter begat Foursquare begat Groupon begat the App Internet. We'll argue about all this across the realtime stream, claiming winners and losers and revenue in between. But we'll do this as one generation, united by the breathless mothers of invention, those who like Welles dared to produce a wave of innovation that will shape our lives far into the future.

Users Say They’re More Likely To Buy If A Business Answers Their Question On Twitter

Posted: 29 May 2011 03:45 PM PDT

Currently I am not in Cancun. The reason I am not in Cancun is out of my control (an over three hour Virgin delay on the tarmac at JFK caused me to miss my connecting USAirways flight at SFO). I spent a good part of those three plus plane-trapped hours bitching on Twitter, asking both the @VirginAmerica and @USAirways Twitter accounts for guidance, because calling their respective 800 numbers either put me on hold or wouldn’t go through.

Guess which Twitter account responded? Guess which one I’ll consider purchasing tickets from again. And according to a recent survey of 2049 Twitter users completed by Twitter Q&A search service inboxQ, I am not alone: 64% of the inboxQ survey respondents were more likely to make a purchase from a business account that answered their questions on Twitter, 24% were just as likely and only 12% were less likely.

Another added benefit of answering user questions on Twitter (ARE YOU LISTENING @USAIRWAYS?) is that users are more likely to follow a business that answers their questions, at 59% versus 29% who are just as likely and 12% who are less likely.

The inboxQ survey results are filled with other lovely “well duh” info nuggets like how users with high follower accounts are more likely to receive answers to their questions, at 41% respondents with more than 100 followers receiving an answer from a business versus 21% with less than 100 followers (Maybe brands don’t think its worth the effort? Or maybe the questions from low volume accounts get lost in whatever social media monitoring service businesses are using?).

In any case, pro tip: If you’re a business serious about user engagement on Twitter, go out of your way to sincerely answer sincere questions from users, no matter how many followers they have. They might just end up buying something. Or not hating you.

Brenden Mulligan
I specifically this (6 hour) @ flight because they advertised it had wifi. But it doesn't. Boarding for my last @ flight!

Flashback: Two Years Ago, Twitter Killed A Feature — The One They Just Added Back

Posted: 29 May 2011 02:38 PM PDT

This past Thursday, Twitter rolled out a new small feature that garnered quite a bit of positive buzz. Essentially, they now allow you to see what other users see when they look at Twitter. In other words, if you click on the “Following” area in my profile, you can see the main tweet stream that I see with all the (public) tweets from people I follow. Very cool. But it’s actually not new at all.

In fact, Twitter had this feature in place two years ago. We mentioned this in passing in the post, but then I was directed to the blog post explaining why they removed it in June of 2009. It’s pretty interesting. From the post on June 4, 2009 on their Twitter Status blog:

Recently we made a change to remove the With Friends tab from user profiles. We did this after finding out that this tab was both a relatively rarely accessed as well as computationally expensive page for us to serve.

Yep. The feature was “relatively rarely accessed” by Twitter’s own standards. And it was eating up precious cycles on their taxed servers at the time.

So why bring it back now?

Well first of all, Twitter is clearly beyond their main scaling issues. Sure, they have downtime every now and then, but it’s nothing like the nightmare that it was two years ago. There would be hours seemingly everyday where the service was down or parts of it were taken offline to keep the main functionality up. This included features like the “With Friends” feature. This ended up being one of the many casualties. Other included tweet-to-IM, auto timeline updates, and yes, track.

Because of those issues back then, the building of a robust social graph was more of a secondary concern at the time. But today it’s one of the primary concerns as Twitter has had no problem adding new users, but they need a way to keep them on the service and engaged. Features like “Who To Follow” help with this, and the resurrected “See What I See” should help as well. It’s more or less a self-tutorial to show new users what Twitter can look like when you get a feed of interesting users to follow.

Considering it’s fairly buried (you have to click on a profile and then click on the “Following” link — or use the drop-down), it will still probably be “relatively rarely accessed”. But I would assume they’re figure out a way to highlight it more on the main homepage for new (or logged out) users. Perhaps that’s why they included a “Shuffle” feature as well.

Plus, again, it’s a feature that will no longer cripple Twitter, so why not include it? And it makes good on a promise made two years ago.

The reason for the aforementioned Twitter post was because a group of users were upset that Twitter killed off this feature without saying anything (specifically, the feed for the feature, which some were using to follow tweets). In response, Twitter wrote:

It's our hope to bring back the access to these feeds at some point. But for stability reasons, we're unable to restore them at this time. We should have done a better job explaining this up front and anticipating this problem. Apologies for this; it's our highest priority to provide a reliable, stable service for everyone.

Two years later, mission accomplished. Well, except the feed part. But who uses feeds anymore anyway? That’s what Twitter is for.

It’s good to see Twitter in a place where they can bring back old features rather than killing ones off to stay alive.

Netflix For Pandas

Posted: 29 May 2011 02:17 PM PDT

This guest post was written by Ethan Kurzweil. Kurzweil is a Vice President with Bessemer Venture Partners in Menlo Park, California. He works with Internet companies of all types, including Playdom, Zoosk, Crowdflower, Twilio,,, Skybox Imaging, and OpenCandy. You can find him on twitter at @ethankurz. The views expressed in this post are his own, and do not represent those of Bessemer.

Hardly a day goes by anymore when I don't hear about a reportedly "radical, new" business concept summarized succinctly as "X" (some well-known existing business) for "Y" (some specific market segment, use case, or other qualifier). These descriptors range from the logical – "Groupons for Moms" (okay, clear enough) – to the absurd – "Pandora for Cloud" (huh?). Often, I don't even understand the analogy, as it's so obscure, or I have never even heard of the company being compared. Sure, these monikers may satisfy our need for efficiency and brevity, but I'm convinced that in the long-run, we need to expand our collective attention spans just long enough to really describe what our businesses do. Otherwise, we run the risk of setting a model for entrepreneurship that's entirely devoid of creativity and true innovation.

I see two primary problems with the current state of affairs. First, we're losing the ability to appreciate a truly novel business concept that doesn't boil down to a knockoff of something that already exists. And when I say we, I'm referring to a large number of us in the startup community – angel investors, VCs, entrepreneurs, executives; we've all adopted the convenient shorthand of translating new business ideas into three words. Having a short elevator pitch that neatly summarizes a new idea is important, but constraining such descriptors to less than a tweet is a step too far in my view. It's understandable of course given the sheer number of new companies being formed every day, that we would need a shortcut for describing new concepts quickly. But this inevitably leads to constrained thinking as to the strategy and business model to be applied to a particular product or service. If Google had thought of itself in the early days as "Yahoo for better search results," they may not have happened upon the juggernaut business model that is AdWords. More alarming is our natural tendency to evaluate a company's prospects as an offshoot of the success of the descriptor. Would anyone have taken Groupon seriously if we had referred to them in the early days as "some Chinese company that no one has heard of for the US"?

My second concern is even more cause for alarm as this way of thinking is quickly becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy – at least based on the business ideas I hear about. This is not surprising since entrepreneurs take note of and emulate companies that get funding, press mentions, social media glory, and perceived traction – then turn around and get that same publicity with their copycat, reinforcing the same behavior. This sends a clear message that budding entrepreneurs should pick an idea only slightly dissimilar from something that already exists, get it out there quickly (because someone else is probably working on the same copycat), and then sit back and cash their ticket to fame and fortune. Even worse is the message that entrepreneurs should be afraid to champion an idea that's so new, it simply can't be categorized, because investors and others just don't know how to pigeon-hole it yet. We could end up unwittingly deterring the future Google and Facebook founders out there from ever getting started.

To be clear, it's certainly not the case that a knock-off idea can't be a good business – and often these kinds of derivatives pivot from the original idea to something different and, hopefully more innovative. But the odds of a true homerun for this model of company are exceptionally low and we need to stop glamorizing this model of entrepreneurship.

Think of all of the truly revolutionary businesses and business models out there, and you've rarely heard them described in knock-off terminology. Pandora toiled for years in relative obscurity, ignoring popular sentiment that you couldn't build a successful Internet music service with advertising, only to be saved by the groundswell of support from their users lobbying to keep them alive and profitable. Zynga built applications on a platform with no demonstrable track record or model for success. And the Twitter founders conceived of an ingenious and quirky way to let people share their thoughts, one sound bite at a time.

Nowhere along the way did Larry, Sergey, Zuck, Jack Dorsey, or the other founders of great Internet successes study some other business and wonder – what's some nuance of that other successful company that I can replicate? Instead, they focused on previously unsolved problems, and, by addressing these needs, built powerhouses that will forever shape the way we entertain, live, work and communicate. So the next time I hear "Airbnb for Endangered Species," I'm going to tune out and browse "Myspace for People that Use Their Real Name" and "Facebook Status Updates for people that like to express thoughts in 140 characters or less" instead.

Image by kubina on Flickr

(Founder Stories) Quora’s Charlie Cheever On Building A Disruptive Knowledge Platform

Posted: 29 May 2011 08:00 AM PDT

Been doing a show on Tech Crunch TV with us called Founder Stories. I don't know, hopefully most of you have had a chance to watch it and it's really just kind of come bout the challenges of building a company. So please give a round of applause to Charlie and Chris. You can sit down, I'm not gonna leave here.

Is my mike on?


So thanks, this is a special edition of Founder Stories. If you haven't seen the show it is on Tech Crunch TV and I encourage you to watch it. This is Charlie Cheever from Quora. Thanks for being here.

Thanks for having me. It is great to be here.

So, you were at Amazon and Facebook before?


And you had a, you did a great job with Facebook. So you ran the connect platform and the.


So, like what, I guess first of all, how did that help you. How do those experiences help you with Quora and how did you decide to leave? Why did you decide to leave kind of this dream job and start a company?

Yeah, I think one of the biggest thing that's happened over the last 7 or 8 years is we seen a really like humanization of the internet and the web and people who didn't used to use the internet or at least only used it passively and didn't interact and didn't put content on there, have started to do that and Facebook was really like one of the leaders in that.

So you saw people's mothers uploading photos and stuff like that. So one of the goals the we have for Quora is to have all kinds of people sharing all their knowledge on the site and I think having that experience helped a little bit.

Did you have the idea and then say 'I've gotta go start this company' or did you just want to start a company or how?

I had the original idea of doing a Q;A type of thing but what convince me was, actually a really good idea was I did this exercise when I was evaluating it which was to, as I went through my day, just catch myself every time that I wanted to know something or was curious about something and sort of make a mental note of that, and then imagine a world where I knew everything that I wanted to know, as long as someone else in the world knew it.

So, you would come up with things you wanted to know and then you wouldn't find that content on the internet and then you said okay maybe it would be great if there was a repository with that content.

Right, an example is like I think I was in a cab, coming up from the airport into New York, and the driver was kind of driving like a maniac and this thought went through my head, you know; are cab drivers safer or less safe than regular drivers? I went to go put that on Quora and someone had actually already put this up like 2 months ago.

The answer is cab drivers are actually safer than driving yourself, if you're curious. But there's actually so many things that just come up in your daily life and I think we've trained ourselves to dismiss them as like there's no way I can find that out quickly so I won't even worry about it. But when you sort of can have access to it, it's really changing.

So, one of the biggest challenges, you have a user generated content site. One of the biggest challenges is kind of getting over the, what they call a chicken and egg problem, where you have to get both contributors and then people asking questions, answering questions, and then people, I guess, just sort of observing and loading things up.

How did you approach that problem?

Yeah, I think you definitely want to take responsibility for making sure that the content on your site is good because there's a real momentum and inertia with sites where you build the scaffolding and then users produce all the content. So, I think if you set it off in the right direction then that will continue and perpetuate, but if it goes in a bad direction, then it's really hard to pull it back.

And so we spent a lot of time in addition to just trying to build the features of the site. I mentioned doing this exercise and catching myself every time I wanted to know something. Once we had a sort of a prototype of this site, I would put all those questions on the site and everyone else on theteam would do that as well.

And then we'd actually go and answer them all, if you know, when we had a few alpha users and beta users, whenever they would put questions up on the site, we would go through and answer as many of the questions as we could by spending you know, 20 minutes researching it.

One thing I noticed in talking to founders of user generated content sites is that there is this mythology that you can kinda just put up a website and people sort of magically come there, and they start developing their own norms and things like this when in fact I think a lot of these sites, the founders are pretty strict about sort of the initial content and are very involved in sort of setting the initial norms and I think are more heavy handed than maybe people from the outside thinks.

Do you?

Yeah, I think the right way to think about that is to think about it sort of from working backwards. One example of something that upset people at first on our site, but now a lot who come around to like is. We sort of have a rule that all the questions have to be formatted with the correct spelling and grammar and formatting, and in the short-term, that can annoy some people, who are like, "Well, I like writing all ut now, since that's happened with all these different questions, now it's like, everyone can sort of see that it's this nicely formatted, easy to read, sort of database of knowledge, so I think it's really important to imagine the long term and focus on that and then work backwards from that.

How do you avoid, like Yahoo answers I think started off having pretty high quality content and now seems to sort of have devolved into a kind of a teen chat room, or I don't know, his problem often that these Q;A sites have had in the past as they grow, the quality goes down. How do you think about that?

Yeah, I think that's one of those problems that it is not any one big thing that is the solution, but a lot of little things. Some of them, the more important ones for us are, number one just the sort of momentum and culture and inertia of having good content. Where people see a lot of examples of good stuff that we show them on their homepages and at the top of question pages and whatnot.

And then those are the examples that they model after. Another important point is there's moderation on this site. Like f you break the rules then the users who are blessed as moderators will go in and remove the content or ban users that are not playing by the rules.

You have to deputize users to be moderators. That is the way you scale that because obviously you can't do that yourself.

Yeah .

So like I know I use Quora a lot for start up type stuff like business technology question What are the other, I think you just recently, like, announced that you were allowing legal and medical, stuff like, what are the other areas that you see flourishing?

One area that's been cool to see is, is movies. There's a lot of good content, especially around like, Inception and Black Swan and a few other movies. There's this user named Mark Hughes, was a screen writer got really popular writing Quora and he just got picked up by Forbes as a regular blogger for them.

And his first post was a, sort of an edited version of a question answered on Quora about could you really become Batman. So that was pretty cool, you' ll see and then Like lawyers, for example a lot of them probably, you know, there 's a difference in the cultural mindset in terms of how they use the internet. I think a lot of law firms actually don't allow their, their employees to post. And like the same with doctors, like yeah, that's definitely true. My dad's a lawyer at a big firm, and he's not allowed to post about law on the site, even though he'd like to.

But a lot of independent lawyers and sort of forward-thinking lawyers are at forward-thinking firms use it. I know one lawyer that I ran into at a user meet-up recently told us that in the first quarter of this year, about half of his new business like, came in through Quora because he posted a lot the topics of his expertise and sort of people came to this site and were looking for a lawyer in that area.

How do you measure success ? I guess you mentioned that quality is really important. Like, how do you, besides the obvious metrics, users, number of users, number of questions. Like, how do you measure success and whether things are working?

It's hard to use metrics as much as we'd like because we want to be data-driven and I think that's the right way to deal with a large system in the long term.

It 's really hard when you want to factor in quality because just looking at the pure number of questions or the pure number of answers, it can easily be skewed. You could be getting a lot of junk that's actually spam or not helping make the system better. But one metric that we kind of keep in mind is, a friend of mine I ran into the other day and he said "Oh, you know I don't post a ton on Quora but I've gotten in the habit of whenever I need to know something I'll check there first before I search the rest of the internet and about 30 to 40 percent of the time, I find something that's great on Quora, and the rest of the time, I have to go do another search or something like that." So, I think one of our goals is basically to drive up that thirty, forty percent towards close to 100%, and then if stuff isn't there, give you this confidence that if you put up a question you'll, something good will come of it and you will get good answer pretty quickly.

But most Q;A sites are highly dependent on SCO and so being dependent on, I think as Bill Verily put it, being dependent on a platform one that is sort of moving up the stack, or something, and adding more. So you see sort of the tension between Google and Yelp for example, with Places and Google had their own, kind of Wikipedia-type thing, Knol.

Do you worry about being so dependent on SEO?

Not really. I think we do get a lot of traffic from search engines because there's lot of good content that matches what people are searching for. But we also, crawl also kind of works like a, a little bit similar to a blogging platform, where people sort of promote their own stuff that they write.

A lot of our traffic comes in through Twitter, because people will write an answer and then tweet it out and their followers will read it. We also have a bunch of people who come into the site directly and just read on their homepage about stuff up there. That's also generally a really important part of the health of the system, getting a lot of attention to the content on the site, even when people don't feel the need to search for it, just so that it gives the writers who write the really good content enough reason to write.

So you had, you guys got like, you had a ton of press, I think maybe especially like, Yeah, I think some of the hype has died down. But, just the other day we had a record high for traffic on the site and we've, we keep growing every day, and so we're really happy with our progress there, and then we're also just excited about, like, my own confidence and like if I put up a question and sort of any broad areas gone up a lot that'll get a good answer whereas I know, like, early on, when we started, there was a lot of content around Silicon Valley and technology and start-up software.

What 's your long term vision? I sort of feel like it's a tension at Quora between
people kind of going on, and having kind of a more like a business discussion or something versus I think what you want to do is create like a long term repository of evergreen content. Like how do you think about that tension, and maybe, what's your sort of, in your fantasy world, like, you know, what does Quora look like?

Yeah, I think there is a little bit of a tension between what you are talking about. But I think, maybe one way to think about what we are focused on the long term is we really want to be the best place for people to want to write the great content and keep it evergreen. So part of what we do for that is we build an audience where like on any question, a bunch of people can follow the question and then as someone who's choosing to maybe start a blog and write on that and just put something out into the ether and hope that somebody comes and looks at it.

You have a waiting audience that when you write it, it will get sent to them. You'll see it right away and give you good feedback and there's sort of a community right on that very specific topic and I think over the long term if you have people invested in writing good stuff, then that will, like push the bar up and we'll end up with really good database of knowledge.

There was a thread on Quora yesterday of what questions people want me to ask you and a bunch that were about monetization. I think I know the answer, right? It's like, you don't know yet, and it's probably advertising?

Your hunch is right.

So, I mean, I think, I don't know personally I think like it's very hard to find very large scale consumer internet businesses that haven't figured a business model. It's probably just a question as to whether Yeah If you have things around like purchasing intent or what camera should I buy? You know, those things tend to monetize.

Yeah, for now we are just focused on building a really good product and building a set of questions and answers that keep getting better and helping people find what they are looking for. But we do want build a really sustainable company that can reinvest in building better and better technology to organize all this information and better tools for people to use it.

So, part of the, part of the goal of The founders of the shows to kind of provide the educational and help kind of fledgling entrepreneurs, and maybe pass on some of the things you've learned. So for example, what are some of the things that surprised you the most, lets say doing your own company versus working at Facebook and Amazon?

I think, if I had to give any sort of kind of advice I'd say that keeping a level head is absolutely necessary. Like, I mentioned how we, just like a couple days ago, had our highest traffic day ever. A couple of days before that, Amazon web services, basically all of our servers went down, and the site was down for about 24 hours.

I think we're doing really well, but in the same span of two weeks, you can go from, you know, the worst disaster to a really high high and back up and down again.

How do you, like what do you do you have techniques for keeping level, or do you just try to keep it in the long term perspective?

Yeah, we have a company value I've always Thinking about the long term and staying focused on that. And I think all the early people that we've worked with all have this kind of focus and we don't get too high when things are up and too down when things are low.

What do you look for when you hire? What are the top things you look for in people?

I think, the first thing that we look for is maybe, just upside. Like, we think we have a lot of ability to teach people and help them get better. And if people are willing, or seem like they have a lot of raw talent, either in just being really, really smart or having a really good sense of product or design or something like that.

And that's paired with a combination of willingness to just put in a lot of effort and put in sort of extra hours, not necessarily in the office, but just spending your free cycles thinking about how can I make this better? How can I, like, make this a perfect user experience or make this faster.

or make it work better. At least what I've seen over time is those kind of people tend to get really good at what they're doing pretty quickly. And so, I would say that those are the two most important things just like a real desire to get better, and the talent, so.

What are you favorite Quora like pages or questions?

I think one of my all time favorites is this one like, what was it like to be in the World Trade Center when 9/11 happened? And I think it's just a really good example of connecting people who were just wondering about that to you know the handful of people that were on the site that actually did have that experience.

And five or six different people wrote in with like their perspectives of being there, and this is a really moving sort of page to read all of these experiences aggregated together. And I think it was sort of a cool moment for me where I feel like those people wouldn't have had any reason to, to write up their experience if they hadn't known that someone was wondering about this.

Yeah I feel-I feel like a lot of what Quora does is kind of people that should be, that maybe otherwise would be blogging, it kind of prods them or provokes them into like, someone asking a question. It kinda gives them We think about that a lot like we try to get rid of all these hurdles that might be in your way if your gonna think about being a blogger. Like, you know how do I set up Word Press. Do I need to get my own server? Do I do this other thing or okay, who's gonna read my blog and then like what do I write about and am I doing a good job and should I be writing how about this,or about about this, or like which post do you like better.

And I think its pretty easy to get all of those questions answered on Quora because you know, there are a bunch of questions in front of you that you can just answer and people vote on your content if they like it, and etc, etc.

If you were to sell Quora or-or somehow you know, and things ended, would you start another company? Do you see yourself as a serial entrepreneur?

We have actually explicit non-goal of selling the company. We really want to have long term sustainable, strong, independent company. So I actually don't think about that too much.

There's ah, I think we want to. I think there's a lot of interesting stuff we can do and I'd be sort of disappointed if we didn't see it out.


I don't know what I would do. I mean, I don't really have too much else that I'm thinking about now.

And what your favorite up and coming non-Quora Pad apps or I don't know. Something.

Yeah. I really like . . .

What websites do you use besides Quora?

Yeah. The things I'm really excited about are video chat and like more intense location stuff. I don't use it myself, but I think the concept is really cool, this app called Grinder, which is, it 's a, I guess it's like a hook-up app mostly for gay men, but it basically tells you where, like, who all the people who are using the app, that are really close to you.

It's like location based dating, or something.

Yeah. And, yeah. I think that's really cool.

Well, I think we're out of time, so thanks very much for being here. Good luck.

Thanks, Chris.

Terrific. Thank You. Thanks a lot. Now we have next up, We didn't plan this but another ex-Facebook employee Dave Morin, who is the founder of Path, and our own Jason Kincaid, for 10 minute

Last week at Disrupt, Chris Dixon did a version of Founder Stories onstage with Quora founder Charlie Cheever. We learned that Quora is not looking to sell, but we also learned a lot more.

For instance, what convinced Cheever to quit Facebook with co-founder Adam D’Angelo was that tried to “imagine a world where I knew everything that I wanted to know, as long as someone else in the world knew it.” And that’s what Quora wants to build. It’s a pretty outrageous goal, which is what makes the startup so interesting.

But like all Q&A sites, Quora relies a lot on search traffic. Dixon asks, “Do you worry about being so dependent on SEO?” Cheever has a good answer:

“Not really. I think we do get a lot of traffic from search engines because there’s lot of good content that matches what people are searching for. But we also, Quora also kind of works a little bit similar to a blogging platform, where people sort of promote their own stuff that they write.”

In that sense, it is like a blogging platform for people who only want to blog occasionally, or can’t be bothered to set up their own blog. Quora takes a blog post that might only live for a few days and turns it into evergreen content. And since people are promoting their own answers, they also get a lot of traffic from Twitter. Watch the whole interview above.


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