People had questions. And the online community – thousands of people around the world – had answers.
– “What is the oldest piece of complete DNA yet sequenced?” asked a user called ETpro.
– “From animals, sequences at least 70,000 years old have been obtained,” came one reply.
– A user who goes by “mirifique” wanted to know “when to send follow-up text before second date.”
– “Call her. Now,” counseled a respondent.
The forum was Fluther Inc., a free online question-and-answer service. Since 2007, its users have asked and answered more than a million questions. Founders Ben Finkel and Andrew McClain, both 29, describe its service as “knowledge-networking.” Explains Finkel, “We’re not connecting people based on who you know, but on what you know.”
Though Fluther (which rhymes with “other”) draws more than 700,000 unique visitors each month, there’s no name beside the buzzer at its headquarters. The office is part of a communal workspace on Mission Street, a magnet for new media ventures. Bikes line a walkway and salvaged doors serve as office partitions. There’s artwork on the walls and bright orange origami hangs from the ceiling. Finkel and McClain sat down for an interview in the main meeting room, which is outfitted with a big table and a twin-sized bed for power naps. Finkel, Fluther’s CEO, wore a western shirt; McClain, the company’s president, wore a gray and black hoodie.
Finkel and McClain took the name for their company from the word for a school of jellyfish. Their logo is a lone jellyfish who’s smiling and wearing glasses, and the site teems with underwater imagery.
The pair began collaborating in 1999, when they were freshmen at Brown University. “We almost immediately figured out that we worked really, really well together,” McClain said.
They work marathon hours, but McClain said, “We spend half the time just laughing.” Finkel continued, “That’s kind of the dream of getting to work with your best friend on a company. It’s a lot of fun.”
McClain and Finkel funded the start-up themselves, relying first on personal savings and later on Google ad revenue.
Then, in April 2009, Fluther received $600,000 in seed money from Silicon Valley investors Marc Andreessen, Ron Conway, Ben Horowitz, Dave McClure and Naval Ravikant. Twitter’s Biz Stone and Twables’ Leonard Speiser also signed on as advisors. Finkel says their advice, introductions and guidance have been invaluable.
The investment, Finkel said, will let them focus on growth. “We’d rather make more money by being bigger that by extracting every dollar out of our traffic,” he said.
Their traffic has nearly doubled in the past year, and the company itself is also growing. They now have a web developer, a part-time community manager and a part-time designer. According to Finkel, another developer will soon join the team.
Sites like Fluther are changing how people get answers online, and the competition is growing. In February, Google Inc. signed a deal to acquire a San Francisco-based rival called Aardvark for a reported $50 million. TechCrunch, an internet weblog, reported the figure, but neither company confirmed the purchase price. Quora is another new competitor that launched in January, but access is currently by invitation only. The team for the Palo Alto-based company includes Adam D’Angelo, former chief technical officer of Facebook.
“This year is definitely going to be a big year in Q & A, but we see that as an opportunity, not something we should run away from,” said Finkel.
Finkel said Fluther has been approached for acquisition by suitors he declined to identify, but the company is not considering an offer right now.
“Flutherites,” as members are known, identify themselves with screen names. Though in recent years sites like Facebook have encouraged people to use their real names when interacting online, Finkel and McClain say that the relative anonymity their site offers is an asset, especially when users share private concerns like health issues or abuse.
“I don’t think people would be as willing to do that if they used real names,” Finkel said.
Fluther has inspired its users to feats of creativity. One proposed to his girlfriend on the site, declaring that billboards and skywriting had already been done. Twenty-nine responses came in before hers, some suggesting that McClain should officiate the eventual wedding. She said yes, and hundreds of congratulatory responses rolled in.
In another exchange, one man’s complaints about stomach pains led users to prompt him to go to the hospital. The man, who goes by “judochop,” found out that he needed an appendectomy, and he and his wife updated the Fluther community from his iPhone before, during and after the surgery.
Afterwards the recovering patient posted, “I feel like I owe everyone on here a little more than just a great answer. I don’t think I’ll ever see Fluther the same again.”
“We’re trying to carve out a very warm, personal space on the internet,” said McClain. “Everything is informed by that.”