Gems in the Rough: Social advice at FunAdvice

Management finds a way.

When a person performs a search, often they are looking not specifically for a product or a service but an answer. Sometimes it’s just a second opinion before pulling out the wallet, but more and more often it’s an inquiry about relationships, health, or even technology that doesn’t naturally result in the immediate employ of a new device or professional. The person inquiring simply needs advice.

There is no end-all be-all in obtaining educated opinions, and the internet will often offer you content from a special interest publication or personal weblog as a cure to what ails you – consider yourself lucky if you get a good answer without pouring through pages and pages of search results. Meanwhile, in step the advice sites – Yahoo! Answers, WikiAnswers, Answerbag, etc. – internet venues where questions can be asked and everyday folks can throw in their two cents too. Rather than leave your inquiry to search devices, these Q&A sites aggregate common (and some not-so-common) questions and allow other users of the sites to provide the answers – you absorb and contribute as you see fit. Communities of people seeking advice, and dishing it out.

funadviceI stumbled upon one of the lesser known sites in the Q&A arena not too long ago, FunAdvice.com, and was immediately curious as to what they were up to. I’d bumped into many sites before that seemed like so much MySpace/Facebook half-baked knockoffs that I wondered how a “no name” site like FunAdvice could survive unless it was simply a “bandwagoner” parsed together for a quick exit. I’ve since had a chance to chat with one of it’s owners, Jeremy Goodrich, and am now in state of slight shock – without as much as a single mention in the ‘major internet media’ FunAdvice has managed the following (1):

  • More than 100,000 registered users;
  • Over 2,000,000 monthly visits;
  • Almost 200,000 private messages exchanged between members;
  • and…

  • The site has surpassed financial breakeven without the help of third-party capital.

Granted, FunAdvice has had some time to build up their stats (the site was started several years ago), but the company has experienced steady growth over the last 13 months (2):

Worth a visit? Depends on who you are.

At first glance I didn’t find the site particularly appealing, and it wasn’t until I dug in that I figured out why. FunAdvice members tend to seek love and relationship, health, beauty, and parent/family advice, whereas I’m more apt to wonder which bar has two-for-one PBRs on Wednesday and whether or not Orvis has solved their problem with the backlog on articulated flies. Hence, FunAdvice isn’t really for me, but then again neither are MySpace, Facebook or Twitter. Nevertheless, that doesn’t mean FunAdvice is not grabbing the attention of quite a few folks – the site has hosted more than 60,000 (1) questions in the previously mentioned categories alone – tens of thousands more questions are asked and answered on subjects like computers, jobs, music, gaming, and more.

After tooling around the site for a while, I only had three real gripes:

1) The site ties usernames to individual groups, meaning a user can only have one group and the group URL is not going to reflect the group subject (it is the same as the username of the user who created it);

2) The site requires picture captions – those captions are used for searching; I’d rather have a picture speak for itself; and

3) The site’s search needs some work; I couldn’t find myself or my group (although the latter might be a result of #1), and the site only allows drill down by main interests (at which time, you can view Q&As only reverse chronological order).

I addressed these issues with Jeremy Goodrich, and he noted that they were aware of them (particularly as it related to groups) and that they were working on changes. Jeremy also said that roughly 90% of the site improvements that had been made over the years came directly from user feedback, which is garnered from community managers activities on the site. Paying attention to your customer? How novel (particularly post “beta”).

Another genre of sites appear valuable. So what?

What makes Q&A sites so special in a world of Facebook junkies? When combined with search, this armchair analyst thinks plenty. People are always asking questions via search engines, hence natural language’s holy grail quest. But as the average user knows keyword search works pretty well on its own, and finding answers to inquiries inevitably leads a whole lot of people to Q&A oriented pages. Of advice related search traffic, Yahoo! Answers, Wiki Answers, Answerbag, Ask.Metafilter, FunAdvice, and Yedda owned 6.2% of it in July 2007. By March 2008 that share had grown to 12.2% (3). Q&A traffic is growing in lockstep with search, and in some cases and for some search properties, overall Q&A traffic is actually growing faster.

Management is the real gem here

FunAdvice was started by Jeremy Goodrich, Widhadh Waheed, and Ericson Smith. Jeremy is a Yahoo! alumnus and also worked at InfoSearch Media (formerly TrafficLogic) before the Answerbag acquisition. The trio have a history together, having worked on numerous web projects including ConversionLogic, which they sold to TrafficLogic in 2004. These folks can multitask too: in addition to running FunAdvice, CEO Goodrich also consults on web marketing and search engine optimization at Asenyo; Widhadh is Goodrich’s partner at Asenyo; and CTO Smith spends his days at an Alexa Top 50 web company while juggling side projects including Medications.com and RevSense.

What makes these folks interesting, however, is not what they did a few years ago, or what they are doing now – it’s HOW they are doing it today. The partners have collaborated on at least three different businesses in the last eight years, but haven’t gathered face-to-face in the last seven. They utilize a project management tool that Ericson Smith developed some years back to manage tasks, bugs, engineering time, etc. They built a good backoffice – each manager has the ability to view real-time stats, and those stats can be exported for visualization. Employee and volunteer (i.e. experts/moderators) activity can all be tracked, even while that activity is in-progress.

Jeremy Goodrich manages daily operations, staffing, payroll, and some business development. Widhadh Waheed takes care of product design, including user interface and experience development, and training community managers, while Ericson Smith oversees platform and infrastructure decisions. They coordinate all this across state and international lines through a combination of their project management tool, along with email and instant messaging. According to Goodrich, they’ve never had a staff meeting, and no more than two of the three top managers have ever been on the phone together at the same time.

Transactions in the space

There have been several deals in the Q&A space in the last few years. WikiAnswers (aka FAQFarm) was acquired by Answers.com for roughly $2 million in late 2006, while Answerbag was bought by Demand Media for roughly $5 million around the same time. Yedda raised $2.5 million in funding, with a rumored valuation of between $15 million and $20 million, in late 2007. And while I’m not at liberty to disclose detailed financial information on FunAdvice, I can say that based on their run-rate the site is certainly playing in the valuation ball park.

Conclusions

Q&A sites are somewhat few and far between, but while everyone is paying attention to the latest Javascript mashup these sites are quietly growing on the backs of search. FunAdvice has chosen to combine the format with social features (hence the “fun”), and while I don’t see it becoming the next-big-thing social network I do see how regular social network users would feel comfortable using the site. Further, as someone who has built and tried to grow a niche social network (and failed miserably), I can’t help but think FunAdvice is a testament to teamwork vis-a-vis a virtual environment, and running a well-traveled tight ship.

Editor’s note: Are Google, Facebook and Twitter the entire internet? I don’t think so, but I was getting quite bored with the repetitive coverage and decided to seek out that which was new. “Gems in the Rough” might become a new category around here, taking a peek at otherwise overlooked web businesses that are finding their way without the spotlight. This doesn’t mean I’ll find another (hence use of the word “might”), but there have been a lot of complaints coming in about the over-abundance of big trout pictures on these pages so I’ll be ad libbing on the “gems” bit for a while and seeing where it goes.


Reference:
(1) Taking from discussions with management
(2) Taken from internal analytics data
(3) comScore http://www.comscore.com/press/release.asp?press=2119; Understanding User Goals in Search, Daniel E. Rose and Daniel Levinson, Yahoo! Inc.

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