Lessons Learned From Quora

I think Quora is absolutely brilliant, and I have to say I’m totally addicted. This morning, for the first time in years, I didn’t check either Facebook or my emails when I woke – I checked my Quora account.

Quora’s usage has just exploded over the past few weeks, and I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the strategy the startup is using and how they’re going about executing it. Here are three lessons that I believe we can take from Quora and apply to our own startups, whatever they may be.

1. Just because it hasn’t worked before doesn’t mean it won’t work.

Heard of Yahoo! Answers? I’m sure you’ve seen it a few times in Google search results. If you’re like me, you will have clicked on a few Yahoo! Answers links and discovered that the page is confusing and there is very little content. Plus, what content IS there is usually complete rubbish written by someone without a job and hence has the time to be writing answers but has no knowledge at all. Yeah, all around it’s just crap – and there are a lot of other Q&A websites just like Yahoo! Answers.

So: Adam D’Angelo and Charlie Cheever (the founders of Quora) could have said “Q&A websites suck, it’s obviously something that just won’t work”. Instead, they both quit their jobs at Facebook and thought that they could make it work. Now look where they’re at. Smart move.

I don’t know about you, but I think that’s a pretty valuable lesson – I’ve found myself switching off from thinking about a specific idea just because it hasn’t worked in the past. If anything, I’ll now take the fact that something hasn’t worked in the past to mean that it’s an even bigger opportunity.

2. Be patient until the spike – if you’re doing something useful, the spike will come.

Quora first launched in private beta in January 2010, and throughout the rest of 2010 they saw moderate traffic and growth but by no means was their use exploding. I imagine this could be hugely frustrating for founders of a startup – you know you’ve got a useful product, but the masses aren’t jumping aboard.

Some founders could have questioned whether their product was really what people wanted. They could have said “Well people aren’t using it, so we aren’t doing it right”. Instead, D’Angelo and Cheever must’ve known they were doing things right and that it was just a matter of time until the masses caught on.

Sure enough, that’s exactly what happened during the first couple of weeks of 2011. Quora hit the “tipping point”, and a culmination of mainstream media coverage combined with thought leaders using the service caused Quora’s traffic to spike incredibly.

The lesson I take from that is that as long as you have a product you know is useful and is solving a problem, the users will come. It takes time for the masses to catch onto something, even if it is incredibly useful, so you have to be patient enough to survive the quiet times.

Personally, I know that I don’t have a whole lot of patience – and if I want to succeed with any startup, that will have to change. If I don’t fix that trait, I could make the mistake of stopping development of a product just because people don’t catch on in the first few months.

While startups like Facebook experienced huge traffic and user growth from day one, Quora didn’t, and is therefore a good representation of most startups. They’re a good case study for us to learn from, especially regarding crucial aspects of startups like user growth.

3. Simplicity is key – but don’t be afraid to add features as long as they, too, are simple.

Quora have done a great job of keeping their core Q&A product very simple (Twitter-like). However, the more I use Quora, the more features I discover that don’t detract from it’s perceived simplicity.

For example, Quora has a tool that allows you to “send a message to your followers”, in a blog post-type format. Therefore Quora is not only a Q&A product, but also a blogging tool – and yet that whole extra feature doesn’t make their core product any less simple to use.

Quora also has built in functionality similar to Formspring, i.e. “Ask me anything”. People can ask you a question either anonymously or with their name attached, and you’ll see that question in your notifications and can answer it publicly.

All these different features are built into Quora, but don’t detract at all from the simple user experience. I think it’s pretty incredible, and I know that I’m going to try and implement some of this thinking into my own startup.

Editor in Chief at here SMNZ, I have a passion for social and digital media. When not writing and managing SMNZ I am the Head of Innovation at TAG The Agency, a digital ad agency and the Head of Sales and Marketing for End-Game, a software development agency. I'm also involved with a number of startups and I am always keen to support those that are bold enough to give things a go. Start something, better to try than to live wondering what if...


  1. John Lai Reply

    Great points there Michael – I still feel like Quora will just be another site in the coming months, yes it may have a great pick up now due to the high caliber of people who are on there, but once it gets’s more exposure meaning more people will be singing up, the content and quality will take a sharp dive downwards. This is where Quora needs to decide to keep quality or go with quantity, but I think if they keep it exclusive and only let a few come in every month to control it, the site will grow in demand. It’s better to be different than be popular, especially in this age where everyone wants to be a Facebook. You want to go against the status quo. Those are just my thoughts, would love to hear what you think.

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