We’ve been opening new Stack Exchanges left and right on a variety of topics. In almost every case, the Stack Exchange appears to duplicate the content of an existing community. For example, our WordPress answers site (now in beta) covers the exact same material as WordPress.org’s existing forums.
This is nothing new to us at Stack Overflow, which purported to cover the exact same material as hundreds (if not thousands) of other programming sites. There’s no rule that says that there needs to be exactly one Q&A website per topic.
There is, however, a compelling case for the Stack Exchange technology. WordPress.org’s forums don’t have voting, so you have to read through every answer and decide for yourself which one might solve your problem. They don’t have reputation, so there’s no way to see whether you’re getting an answer from someone who knows what they’re talking about. They don’t have wiki-style editing, so collaboration is impossible. You have to log on to ask or answer a question, so the burden of participation is higher. Stack Overflow is simply better than traditional forums, which is why it largely replaced proprietary forums. I remember hours of discussion with John Resig and the folks at jQuery who couldn’t decide whether to replace the jQuery Google Group with a forum or with a Stack Exchange. Ultimately it didn’t matter that much, because most of the jQuery Q&A activity happens on Stack Overflow anyway.
One day, the features that are standard on Stack Exchange will be copied everywhere. Until then, we’ll keep churning out new sites.
The newest member of the Stack Exchange Network is the first one to go through the community site-creation process called Area 51. There are more great sites in the pipeline, but they have to demonstrate that they can reach critical mass or we won’t create them.
Seems overly complicated, I have no idea what’s going on when I visit Area 51, I guess this is their strategy for turning away uncommitted users.
Also, how are they going to make money?
I’m glad you asked, benofsky! The answer is simple. Volume.
Well, I’m not one to take Internet chat board comments seriously. After all, the Anonymous Nostradamus’s over at Code Project reacted thus when Stack Overflow itself launched:
I think the UI sucks. I can’t imagine this site being around in a year.
We all know how stunningly accurate that prediction was:
Benofsky is onto something, though. Area 51 is not for everyone. If you don’t know what it’s for, or why it’s going to work, or you can’t figure it out, it’s not, actually for you.
“And the best answer we could come up with was, let’s make the damn thing free, and get some VC somewhere to pay for it.”
Since announcing the new plans for Stack Exchange, there’s been a lot of discussion about what kind of new Q&A sites will work best on this platform.
From my answer to the Firearms proposal: “The power of the Stack Exchange platform is detailed, expert answers to extremely rare, ‘long-tail,’ highly technical questions. To get expert answers, you need experts. To attract experts, you need a site where people are asking very interesting and hard questions, not the basic questions, so that it’s clear that this is a PRO site, not a consumer/enthusiast site…. and remember, the pro sites WILL attract the enthusiasts, but not the other way around.”
From my answer to the Law proposal: “There are only 200 easy law questions, and they’ve all been asked 100 times on Mahalo and Yahoo!Answers. But there are 20,000,000 detailed, difficult, long-tail questions that only professionals can answer, and we’d be doing a REAL service to the Internet by creating a place where you can find answers to the 20,000,000 hard questions, not the 200 easy ones.”
Our core mission at Stack Overflow is:
Make the Internet a better place to get expert answers to your questions.
The “expert” part of that mission is important, otherwise we’re just building another place for the same questions that every other Q&A site has. We want the law Stack Exchange to attract lawyers, the movie Stack Exchange to attract filmmakers, and the aviation Stack Exchange to attract pilots. What makes a community great is great people… that is, real experts. And the experts want to hang out with other experts.
Like the small-town mayor who suddenly finds herself running an entire state, our ambitions for Stack Overflow keep growing. Our original idea of making the Internet a better place to get expert answers to your programming questions suddenly seemed too small. Programming questions? We asked. Why just programming questions? Why not every question under the sun? And who says we can’t run for Vice President of the United States of America?
We tried making our software available as a hosted white label product called Stack Exchange. We thought that other people would create awesome sites on every imaginable topic. Some people did (yay!), but it wasn’t the flood of high quality sites we were hoping for.
So we’re making a few changes. Briefly:
- Stack Exchange will now be free.
- We’re changing the way that new Stack Exchange sites are created to move to a more democratic, community process.
- The content of these new, community-created Stack Exchange sites will be publically owned under a Creative Commons license, instead of being owned by individuals or businesses.
If you’ve already created a Stack Exchange site, be sure to read the announcement in more detail to hear about our transition plan. Don’t be alarmed; we’d never do anything to mess with Stack Exchange sites that are already working.
A few people heard me on This Week in Startups (starting at 15:45) asking Jason if we should take money from the first VC who fell into our laps, or spend time doing the Sand Hill Road rounds, meeting more VCs, and doing a road show for the other firms that might be interested in investing.
Jason (and his guest James Segil) both agree that we should take more time picking the right partner. We’re going to be in bed with these guys for years, they say, and we have to approach this like picking a spouse.
Why are we seeking venture capital for StackOverflow?
Almost ten years ago, I wrote about two kinds of companies, the Ben and Jerry’s type of company, which grows carefully and organically, and the Amazon type, which uses huge amounts of investment capital to get big quickly.
At the time, I had no doubt that I wanted Fog Creek to be a Ben and Jerry’s type of company, and that model has served us well. By staying profitable and growing carefully, we’ve managed to survive two big downturns and we’ve grown into a stable, 34-person company that’s a great place to work and is likely to remain stable, and a great place to work, for a long time.
StackOverflow, though, is a bit of a different story.
There are a few indicators for the type of company that I believe can benefit from, and should take, VC.
- There’s a land grab going on. The business is in a new field with no competition, but the field has proven itself, and is obviously going to get very crowded very soon, so the faster you can grab territory, the better.
- There is a provable concept that’s repeatable. I always point to the example of the Starbucks IPO, which was brilliant because it was so simple. Every new Starbucks store that opened in Seattle became profitable in a matter of months. They tried a couple of stores in Chicago and Washington just to make sure it wasn’t a Seattle thing, and those worked even better. Thus, the formula of opening as many stores as possible was as close to a sure-thing as possible, so raising money was a no-brainer.
- The business itself could benefit from the publicity of getting an investment from someone who is thought of as being a savvy investor.
- The investor will add substantial value to the business in advice, connections, and introductions.
- The business can potentially have a big exit or become a large, publically traded company.
- The founders are not in it for their own personal aggrandizement and are happy to give up some control to make the business more successful.
There are counter-indicators, of course: signs that you shouldn’t consider VC. Here are just a few off the top of my head:
- If the founders are risk-averse and are willing to trade a much smaller payout for lower risk.
- If the founders are technical without substantial business experience and wish to maintain absolute control forever.
- If the investor is mostly “dumb money,” i.e., someone who doesn’t know about the field. The proverbial dentist, who is happy to give you a half million bucks, but doesn’t know the first thing about CPMs and CPCs and CTOs, so you might as well not bother.
- If you’re going into an established field with a lot of competition, there’s no benefit to speed; you’re better off slowly building a niche business and growing from there, quietly taking one customer at a time away from the competitors.
- If the product is immature and unproven, in which case, expensive marketing efforts will be wasted proving to the world how bad your product is.
- If the founders don’t have enough of the right kinds of industry connections, or the idea is not compelling enough, so that raising VC would take months or years
- If there is any other way to raise the kind of money you need, for example, by selling actual products to customers.
When I put all these things together the conclusion is that StackOverflow is one of those rare companies for which VC can really work. Jeff and I started out with a goal for StackOverflow of changing the way programmers and system administrators get answers to their questions on the Internet, which was deeply broken. In 18 months we’ve accomplish that: we’ve got 6 million unique visitors every month. Now we’re biting off the bigger goal of changing the way everyone gets answers to their questions on the Internet, and that’s something we can’t do alone.
So, off I go, on a StackOverflow road show. I’ll be in Silicon Valley Feb 24-Mar 3; drop me a line if you want to get together.
This is not entirely surprising, of course: the more time someone has invested in Stack Overflow, the more likely they are to (a) know about Stack Overflow Careers, (b) be willing to invest $29, after all the hours they’ve already sunk, and (c) have the confidence that their CV is going to impress the kind of employers that are using the site.
Still, the participation rate in Stack Overflow Careers is pretty impressive, and it somewhat confirms the claim we’re making to employers, which is that when you search for CVs on Stack Overflow, you are looking at some pretty gosh darn good programmers.
While I’m rattling on about statistics, here’s a little bit of data about Stack Overflow traffic itself that you may not have seen.
We use Quantcast to measure our traffic. Currently, they’re showing us as the 740th ranked site in the world (of all sites), with 6 million monthly unique visitors, 1.9 million from the US. And the growth is pretty steady, except for a couple of weeks at the end there which reflect the holiday season:
Comparing our traffic to our big competitor is difficult because they don’t use Quantcast, so we have to rely on Alexa, which has a reputation for particularly terrible data, but here’s what that looks like:
Are there any sites out there for programmers with more traffic than Stack Overflow? I haven’t found any, using the available data… even msdn.microsoft.com has less, according to Quantcast, but I find that hard to believe.
In either case, having decided that Stack Overflow was the biggest programming site in the world, I thought, “hey, it should be easier for us to get ads.” I asked our ad guy, Alex “DailyWTF” Papadimoulis, if Microsoft had bought any ads. They’re about to launch Visual Studio 2010, which is probably going to have the biggest marketing campaign (in dollars) in the history of developer tools, and you’d think they’d want to spend something at the biggest programming site in the world. Here’s what he wrote back:
“Microsoft is doing huge spends, but they’re going through McCann for the VS2010 launch (IIRC). Agencies really don’t like us. Now if we go to video units with fly-over… oh they’ll start loving us!”
What he’s referring to is the fact that we don’t accept any kind of animated ads on Stack Overflow, because, well, they’re evil, so we lose a lot of revenue from advertising agencies who are looking for the most aggressive possible ways to get in people’s faces. Whatever. Don’t care. We hate animated ads and I’m pretty sure our users do, too.