My conversation with ex-Facebook CTO and Quora co-founder Adam D’Angelo

To say that I have had a contentious relationship with former Facebook chief technology officer Adam D’Angelo’s three-year-old startup Quora would be an understatement. I’ve had my reasons for disagreeing with some of its policies relating to the content. Don’t get me wrong — I loved Quora before being turned off but now I use it like the “80 percent” consumers and rarely contribute to the site.

Despite the disagreements, just before the holidays kicked in, D’Angelo met with me in his Palo Alto offices, which house about 50 employees. Those who know him call him shy and quiet. And so I didn’t know what was in store for me. We ended up having a discussion that lasted about 45 minutes. Here are excerpts from that conversation.

Om: Adam, I have to say, the weekly email newsletter you guys send out is pretty damn good and enjoyable and worth reading. Especially compared to the horrible emails I get from other services. How do you guys do it?

Adam: Well, it is algorithmically created. I wanted to make something that people would read. What I didn’t want was something that was an annoying little email. It took awhile, but it has paid off. We had two people who worked on it (in a dedicated fashion) for a month, though we had been working on-and-off on it for nearly a year and a half. The email essentially looks at what people are reading and engaging (with) the most on Quora.

Om: What prompted you to start this particular company?

Adam: I really like knowledge and reading books and just generally immersing myself in information. I felt that if we could organize that, there was a huge potential and it was good for the world. I didn’t think there was something that was very good at organizing knowledge. Also, it is hard to displace companies with massive user base. For example, Facebook trying to displace Twitter. I think after a certain point it becomes really hard. I think if you look, a lot of the knowledge is decentralized and we wanted to build a core place oriented to knowledge.

Om: You recently raised $50 million and were individually a big investor in the round. Since you are putting your own money into the company, what is the plan for Quora and why are you so confident in the company?

Adam: We think at a very high level there is a lot of knowledge that is inside people’s head and is not accessible. Sure, the internet (of today) is pretty vast and big, but it is still not where we can access that knowledge that easily. So you have a blog, but a lot of people don’t have an audience or aren’t as connected and able to find the information as you.

Access to that knowledge is much harder, and our goal is to make it easy. Anything you want to know, you go to Quora and get it. And at the same time, give people a platform that is easy to use for sharing the knowledge. When you think, we are now scaling up, and a bigger set of the world’s knowledge will be on Quora and it will be more valuable. Clearly, quality is a challenge and how to keep the noise level down is going to be focus for us.

Om: You see whole series of services cropping up like Skillshare, Coursera, Udacity that are helping experts become micro-businesses. You think Quora would do this in the future?

Adam D'Angelo_2Adam: The real reward is in the response to your answer and the fact that millions can read it. You already see more people giving and sharing knowledge for free. Lawyers and other professionals are using Quora to build their reputation and build their bonafides.

I am not sure if Quora should be in the middle trying to capitalize on it. For now our focus is on growth and getting as many people sharing and attracting as many people to the platform. We don’t know what our model is going to be — it could be advertising, pay to access and/or consult-an-expert model. We are going to try many things. But it is not the focus now.

Om: Do you see a problem with search and the internet?

Adam: Reputation is going to be a lot more important in the future especially as the internet gets bigger. It is clear that the web pages will have to get their quality up. I think there is too much focus on what is first, what is new. It has to be about what is actually worth reading that is going to become important.

I think as more people use the phones to access the internet, they have a lot less patience for trying to find things on the search engines. That is because you need to figure a lot of things out for search to work. In the past, when the web site was fast and didn’t crash, it was a pretty big deal. Now it is normal. Similarly, we will see the focus shift to quality and right information (and not the latest.) And that is why I think sharing of knowledge is going to be a lot more important in the future.

Om: Today, if broadands speeds are 10 Mbps, five years from now, they will be a gigabit per second. So what does Quora look like then? Is it still textual or is it visual, i.e. video?

Adam: There is a lot of value in text. Why? You can’t sift through a video quickly, but you can skim through text really fast. So from the aspect of knowledge, the increase in bandwidth doesn’t really change much for us.

More people on broadband will actually have more of an impact on the future. So for me, when the developing world is getting on the internet with everyone on the net at 10 Mbps — that is going to have more of an impact on Quora and the web. Ten times the people means 10 times the opportunity to share knowledge.

Om: What is the metric of success for Quora?

Adam: The real use of Quora is determined by users and the content and the topics — those are the metrics we look at.  There are not that many ideas for internet products that will be really good. It is really all about execution. Facebook too wasn’t a new idea but I think we took the idea and we focused on execution, focused on quality and getting to scale. Similarly for Quora, we want to get to be 100 times bigger than we are today.

Om: You were at FB in the early, go-go period to the adult days, and now you’re Quora’s founder and CEO. How’s that different?

Adam: We are a technology company with a focus on engineering and product. So in that sense what I do is pretty much the same. The biggest difference is that I do a lot more things these days  — working with engineers, product, data science, recruitment, and a whole lot of other things.

At Facebook, it was very familiar as I worked with people with a similar type of expertise. At Quora I have to manage different kinds of people. I have had to pick up a lot of different skills and I have had to get better at dealing with different kinds of people. I have had to learn finance, learn fundraising, and at Facebook, while I knew those things, I wasn’t ultimately responsible.

Om: Have you had to change as an individual?

Quora-screenshotAdam: At Quora, I wrote code for the first year, and then I had to stop. So now, it is more like once in awhile. I don’t have time. I feel selfish when I do write code, because people are waiting for me to make decisions on other things that I am delaying. At Facebook, too, I went from coding to management.

You have to get comfortable giving up control,  and you find people who do things better than you do. Quora now does better with the team we have built. My thoughts and time are spent entirely on recruiting and what’s on my mind is the number of good people we can hire. I spend a lot of time in schools recruiting, and it is a highly competitive market place. We do have a higher closing rate. Given that we are growing very quickly, it is still a challenge.

Om: What did you learn at Facebook?

Adam: Focus on the long term, and always do what’s right to grow the company and not make short-term decisions. And outlast everyone one.