At Qwiki, trouble over company’s future

Qwiki CEO Doug Imbruce

Updated. We’re hearing that Qwiki, the San Francisco-based search startup co-founded by Altavista founder Louis Monier, is going through a rough patch.

According to sources close to the company, last week saw the abrupt departures of Qwiki’s two top technical executives: VP of engineering/Six Apart veteran Brad Whitaker, and VP of product/YouTube veteran Matthew Liu. In addition, at least one of Qwiki’s early engineers quit the company in the days after Whitaker and Liu left. Though Whitaker and Liu have not yet updated their LinkedIn profiles, my sources tell me they’re definitely out the door.

Sources say the fundamental issue was a disagreement between the technical leadership and Qwiki’s business-focused executives, CEO Doug Imbruce and COO Navin Thukkaram, about the direction in which the company should take its product. In May, Qwiki trumpeted its hiring of Whitaker and Liu in a company blog post that said: “Qwiki’s unique combination of Art & Science relies on the seamless partnership between our strong engineering and product teams.” The recent rift suggests that partnership did not turn out to be as seamless as had been expected.

Finding and hiring engineers is a huge challenge in Silicon Valley right now, so for a small company like Qwiki — sources tell me that before the recent departures, the company had just under 20 employees — to lose three engineers technical staff in a matter of days could turn out to be a major blow.

Qwiki is essentially a multimedia version of Wikipedia; it presents information about practically anything you can search for on the web, accompanied by video and animations. As GigaOM reported last year, “The site presents a montage of images, video, animations and other visual resources culled from search results, and overlays it with real-time narration, using text-to-speech technology.” Since it was founded in October 2009, the company has garnered headlines from publications such as The New York Times and attracted several big-name backers. Qwiki has raised $10.5 million to date, and its investors include Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin and Groupon co-founders Brad Keywell and Eric Lefkofsky.

We’ve reached out to Qwiki for comment on the departures, and will update this post with any feedback we receive.

Update: A Qwiki spokesperson emailed me with the following comment: “Matt remains a friend and advisor to the company and we promoted Owen Bossola to lead engineering based on the exceptional performance of Qwiki’s iPad app.” The spokesperson also said that the early engineer who quit his full-time role is “currently working with Qwiki on a consultant basis.”

Photo courtesy of Flickr user TechCrunch