The Quora For X

Suddenly the VC/entrepreneur meme for Q1-2011 is “The Quora for X.” Here are two examples from the past few days:

Lest you think this is a TechCrunch phenomenon, I’ve received a half dozen emails in the last week pitching companies as “Quora for X” or some derivative of this (often “The Quora for X”). Of course, Joshua Schachter very cleverly suggested last night via Twitter that we create the “Quora for XXX“. Given the presence of PornoTube and YouPorn in our universe, I expect some clever porn purveyor will quickly figure this one out.

This meme goes around regularly. Here are a few built off of success cases (which bodes well for Quora if you view meme development as a leading indicator of success. “The Youtube for X”, “The Facebook for X”, “The MySpace for X” (oops), “The Google for X”, “The Twitter for X”, “The LinkedIn for X”, “The Groupon for X”, “The FourSquare for X”, and “The Zynga for X.”

You’ll probably infer that “X” in each case is a specific (often tightly defined) vertical market. Each of the companies listed above are arguably several of the very few companies that have actually established enough critical mass of users to declare themselves a true platform. The “X’s” presume that specialization in a vertical market will result in unique functionality that the general platform can’t create.

Ironically, this thought process runs directly counter to another massively overused entrepreneurial meme – “I’m creating a platform for X.” Think about it for a sec – are you creating a derivative of a platform that is vertically focused or is the vertically focused derivative of a platform that you are creating going to also be a platform?

Now, step back and think about how many huge companies have been created using “The BigSuccessfulStartupNowPlatform for X” approach? While modest companies emerge out of this (and there’s nothing wrong with that), there aren’t very many really significant companies that emerge. The platforms – if they are real platforms – usually either extend into the vertical segments nicely or quickly acquire “The BSSNP for X”.

As an investor, I’m not really interested in any of the verticals that are derivatives of platforms. Other than a few specific cases, where we actually believe a platform company can be created, we stay away from vertical markets. And often, the driver of the decision is the entrepreneur and his obsession with and experience in the particular vertical market in question.

I expect that we’ll see many “Quora’s for X” get created and talked about in the next quarter. If I was an investor in Quora, I’d be encouraging the team to be focused on expanding quickly into every vertical that appears which seems like it would be easy given their existing infrastructure. And if I was an entrepreneur, I’d already be looking past “The Quora for X” meme for what’s going to be next.

  • Brad, thanks for pointing this out, I had the same thought when I saw the headline. IMHO, Quora is successful due to their awesome UI/UX, which has built a fast-growing community of highly valuable contributors. It doesn’t seem like they focused on any vertical and the users choose the vertical, although due to location and high-profile of the founder in the entrepreneur/vc community, that has arguably become their biggest community/’vertical’.

    I could see certain verticals, such as Law, doing well with their own platform, due to the complexity of law and need for true experienced opinion and possibly advanced features, but they will have to match or come close to Quora’s UI/UX.

  • If I was an investor I would be cautious about this meme and people using it.

    When you say “the X for Y”, you are actually telling the receiver that you have been studying X and thought it was a cool idea and you want to copy it and use in a different way. This might be good and bad at the same time.

    Bad because you actually don’t have an original idea (the people at X had), but also good because you’re one of the first people to apply X to Y. It all comes to execution though. If the execution is impeccable then, by all means, do X for Y. If you’re in it, just to be doing X for Y, because X is hot right now, forget it.

  • Fbtime

    Verticals have been, and still are, great entrepreneurial opportunities. Perhaps one reason why they’re are not as popular with VC gadflies these days is because they require deep knowledge and experience with the vertical, and this kind of knowledge, elapsed time and commitment doesn’t jibe with the current ADD-based “do something fast, now” mentality of building a company. It also doesn’t jibe with the incubator approach of throwing a ton of rock star generalist mentors at the entrepreneur and hope that their individual entrepreneurial success will rub off.

    • I think verticals are great entrepreneurial opportunities. I don’t think they are great opportunities for VC’s. 9 out 10 technology companies are not a fit for VC investment.

      That doesn’t mean the 9 suck, It just means they can’t take the rocket fuel that is VC money and make a moon-shot. They can grow a great business that provides a ton of value to a vertical and make a bunch of money doing it.

      • Phil – I completely agree – well said.

      • Dbudd

        Depends on whether you think VC money is rocket fuel or toxic waste!

        • They are one in the same. If you don’t get off the launch pad (use the money to hit the ball out of the park) Rocket Fuel is as toxic as toxic waste comes with the added benefit of being able to burn you up.

    • I disagree with your assertion that verticals aren’t popular with VCs.
      They aren’t popular with us at Foundry Group because of our approach
      and strategy. But there are many VCs that prefer vertical market

  • DaveJ

    It seems premature to me to be pitching that meme – isn’t it still fairly unclear whether Quora will go anywhere? It feels like a real mess to me – lots of one-upmanship, not so much useful information.

  • Excellent post!

    This strategy – filling up the verticals – seems to be exactly what Stack Overflow is doing. It also makes me wonder if they and Quora are on a collision course.

    • They are definitely on a collision course.

  • Thanks for this Brad, I have them impression that I’ll have to forward it to a LOT of people.

  • In regard to platforms and verticals: Do you think a company has the potential to grow from a niche vertical to a broader platform? Could Facebook started as Lawbook, a community for lawyers and then grown into Facebook and become the platform? Or do you think companies need to start with the vision of becoming the platform?

    • I think it’s really hard to go from a vertical to broad horizontal. In
      many ways, the challenges are the same as going from a services
      company to a product company.

  • It’s an interesting question. I think success with a vertical strategy requires there to be a deep unmet need in the vertical, not just a chance to throw around an “X for Y” pitch. Even if you are successful meeting that need, turning it into a big business requires being able to develop much better unit economics.

    So let’s use “Facebook for runners” as an example. It sounds kind of silly. But runners love to talk about training minutiae which would bore the crap out of their regular Facebook friends, so maybe there’s an unmet need. You could extend the analogy by saying the running “apps” would be access to high-quality remote coaching, curated running routes, some kind of social interaction around road races, etc. – all of a sudden it starts to sound like a real business. The challenge is that you would only get maybe 0.5% of Facebook’s audience onto a site like that, and even that’s pretty optimistic. But then if those people are willing to pay $20 per month, it could be a pretty good business.

    There’s also an aspect of industry maturity at play. At first, everyone’s happy just to have the horizontal Google, Facebook, or LinkedIn. But over time people get accustomed to the value those solutions provide and start looking for something else to fill in the gaps. I think that level of market maturity is when vertical solutions have a better chance of getting traction.

    Also, isn’t Quora just “Yahoo Answers for entrepreneurs”? ๐Ÿ˜‰

  • I can’t understand people who compare their business to something as unproven as Quora. This company is nothing more than yet another take on the ages old problem (Q&A) by a group of tech geek celebrities.

    It is also very strange to compare a niche product with a broader competitor. Taking your example of a legal Q&A site, Quora already has the capability of being such. It is totally different to call a company “Pandora of cooking/shopping/movies/etc” because Pandora deals only with music.

    • Yeah I agree on both points. Quora is hot because it’s new and gets a lot of coverage, but isn’t proven to the extent of LinkedIn, Zynga, Facebook, and Twitter — which I believe have bigger business potential than Quora. I have nothing against Quora, and I really like some of the answers I’ve been reading on specific topics of interest, but if suddenly it isn’t as hot anymore you might be pinned to a “Quora for X” tagline that is no longer relevant.

    • the fact they are using Quora as a benchmark says a lot

  • This is very similar to being called an “iPhone-Killer” or “XBox-Killer”. The X-Killer meme is the mark of death not for the target, but the device or service being described. Rarely do those purported assassins actually kill their mark. They are already starting too far behind the curve to make an impact.

  • Quora sure has momentum, Brad. One day early in January I dropped by and found I had 300 followers on Quora (now 600), and I have been active on the site since. It is a satellite company to Twitter, I think. It is also trying to map the information graph. VCs have been blogging forever. But on Quora I have seen some tech entrepreneurs write a paragraph or two. That is a good thing.

    Glad to have you follow me on Quora. I thought you followed me on FourSquare as well, but recently found out it is some other Brad Feld from Arkansas.

  • Gary

    Isn’t Quora just a “Formspring for Techies”?

  • Completely agree with your sentiment but if I remember correctly Youtube was pitched as the “Flick for Video” when it was getting started and that ended up OK ๐Ÿ™‚