Is Quora’s quest for growth worth alienating key users?

It’s a scene that often plays out in tech, but still causes a firestorm every time: A tiny, beloved, early-adopter startup gets some traction and funding, and suddenly it has to grow up and add more users to become a real business and please its investors. But when it makes those moves to grow, it pisses off the early adopters, and the startup is stuck in a no-win situation.

The issue came up Wednesday evening when engineer and former professor Scott Hanselman wrote a post titled, “I’d like to use the web my way, thank you very much Quora.” The post pointed out that the company has started redirecting mobile users who end up on Quora webpages to download the company’s mobile app before reading answers.

And indeed, it’s an incredibly annoying tactic. Search for any topic (like, “best Star Wars movie“) and include “Quora” in the query, and try to read the resulting page on your mobile device. You can’t. The page tells you to download the app to read further, and will only let you see the first answer until you do so. On desktop, you’re asked to create an account and log in before reading. Not such a great user experience.

And then Y Combinator founder and startup legend Paul Graham weighed in on Hacker News, writing that Quora co-founder and ex-Facebook CTO Adam D’Angelo is trying too hard to gain new users the way he learned at Facebook, not understanding that Quora users are a different breed. He argued against the company’s policy of making users create accounts to read answers and comment on the site:

It may be a mistake to alienate the sort of people Quora has been alienating by doing this, even if they end up numerically ahead in the short term. I’m one of them. Quora has now spent several years training me to be bummed out every time I click on a link to their site.

Quora hasn’t responded with any comment yet as to how long the “download the app” screen has been in place, or why they require users to make accounts. But it’s not too hard to see why they’re doing this: the company has raised a lot of funding ($50 million just this past summer), and it needs to see growth. While it saw early success from its high quality questions and answers on the site, it can’t become a profitable business with just a handful of readers.

A similar thing happened last summer with Twitter and its developers over API restrictions. It happened in December with Instagram and its terms of service debacle after joining up with Facebook. And now, Quora is in the limelight.

“We want to get to be 100 times bigger than we are today,” D’Angelo told Om in a January interview. So how does the company get there?

Quora has tried a lot of different tactics in its quest for growth in the past year: adding a standalone blogging platform, rewarding users who write the best and most plentiful answers, letting people embed quotes across the web, and adding an Android app.

So getting people to download the company’s app and requiring account? Not too surprising. But at some point, Quora needs to make sure that it strikes the best balance possible between demanding investors and loyal users.

Update at 10:36 PM: Quora has released a blog post explaining the rationale behind asking users to log into the site before viewing answers on desktop, explaining that logging in and participating in the discussion is a key component of the Quora product and helps keep the quality of discussion high.

However, the company wrote that it will be changing how posts can be shared, allowing users to share out Quora content to social network users who will be able to read without logging in. The full post and explanation can be found online here.

Quora business executive Marc Bodnick also provided GigaOM a statement regarding mobile viewership, explaining why Quora readers are prompted to download the company’s native apps to read:

“We’ve worked hard to create the best mobile experience with our Android and iOS apps, and we encourage users to download them for the optimal mobile experience. We are always listening to the feedback of our community, and will continue to iterate the way that we help people discover the best Quora experience on any device.”