Answers OnStartups Roundup 1 - March of the parentheticals

November 20, 2009

By now you've probably heard of Answers OnStartups, the new Q&A community for any topic about startups and entrepreneurship. If not, here's Dharmesh's announcement.

I have the good fortuneonstartups questions answers of being asked to co-moderate the site with Dharmesh, probably as a result of the popularity of a few provocative but useful guest-posts here on OnStartups. (Note to those of you hoping to expand your influence in the blogosphere and beyond -- take the advice from Leo and Darren and Mary and, I suppose, me: Guest-posting is a good way to do it!)

What does "moderation" mean, you ask? I took it mean "Get the CSS in order, make sure there are no JavaScript errors, and correct everyone's spelling errors. Oh, and be the #1 highest reputation person on the site." Durn, that last one actually took some effort... (Yes I see you gaining on me Alex!)

But, you know, it's not a competition. Yeah, right. That's why there's voting and reputation, 'cause it's not a competition. Riiight.

As some of you know, there was an unexpected problem with the site at the beginning. See, Answers OnStartups is built on the same technology as StackOverflow, through Joel Spolsky's StackExchange program. (Yup that's our Dharmesh on the front page! Which reminds me, that's a good lesson in marketing. Q: How do you get your name and URL on the front page of a high-traffic, highly regarded, high-SEO website like StackExchange? A: Write a fantastic (but honest) review of the product and give it to the owners. Make it so awesome that nothing they could say about themselves would be as good or believable as your words. Then they'd be foolish not to!)

(And since I'm on the subject, and since I've already interrupted myself with this many parentheticals, you might be interested to learn that, technically, StackExchange is FogCreek but StackOverflow is Jeff Atwood.)

Anyway. Where was I? Oh yeah, problems bootstrapping the site.

See, Answers OnStartups has an automatic permissions system where you have to have a reputation of at least 15 to vote, and 50 to leave a comment. Even more for things like inventing new tags. It's smart because it prevents people from (too easily) gaming the system by creating accounts and tearing up the place anonymously.

That works well at StackOverflow because they get a million hits per day (literally), so if you start contributing properly you get up-voted fast (sometimes in a matter of minutes). Very quickly an earnest contributor is granted these permissions.

But at Answers we had a bootstrapping problem. All these kind and wonderful folks came to use the site... and essentially couldn't do anything. The only people with rights to up-vote were Dharmesh and me (because we are blessed moderators, pronounced "bless-head"), and even then we were limited to 30 per day.

So all the initial members had to run around and up-vote each other for about a week, and newbies would come in an invariably ask questions about why no one is voting, which, ironically and usefully, got them a lot of votes.

The lessons from this little mishap:

  1. When you use pre-packaged software, you get the limitations along with the upsides. Just remember though, had you rolled your own you would have a different class of bug, probably worse.
  2. It didn't matter in the end, because what we're really doing is building a friendly community for startup discussions, and little problems like that aren't going to matter assuming you have intelligent members. And if you don't have intelligent members it's not going to work anyway. In other words, don't sweat the small stuff.
  3. Had we built our own, others would have beat us to the punch, and we would have lost the war.

As proof of that last point, there's now another StackExchange-based startups Q&A site! I'm not going to link to it because I don't want to give them the credit -- which I admit is kind of crappy of me, but in my defense I am writing in the throes of passion and cannot be responsible for my actions. Not buying it? Fine, but I'm linking to our question about it.

Anyway Answers OnStartups is better because we have a totally killer user base. Active users you've probably heard of include:

(I linked to their Answers user profiles too so you can see they're actually active, not just name-dropping.)

(I love the phrase "name-dropping." It sounds like you're taking a dump on the conversation which, often, you are.)

But perhaps even more fun is meeting all sorts of folks who aren't already famous but who are running interesting startups and have terrific, new things to add to the conversation.

Over the next few weeks, watch this space for highlights of these users, as well as highlights from some of the more action-packed discussions that are going on.

To whet your appetite, one of the most popular questions is: How do you pick a platform for a Web 2.0 startup company?

See that link for the full discussions, but here are some highlights:

  • The platform is not as important as other factors. There are hugely successful companies based on any technology you can name: Java, .NET, PHP, Ruby, Python, Perl.
  • A major factor is existing competence. If you know a platform/framework well already, that trumps other considerations because it means you can get started fastest. Speed to beta is part of success.
  • If you have no existing competence, it's most important to find/hire the best possible developers. Because it's always hard to find awesome talent, whatever platform they love is the right choice.
  • It depends on whether you need to get something running ASAP or whether long-term maintainability is necessary right from the start. If the former, Ruby and PHP generally get applications going fastest. If the latter, Java and C#/.NET generally have the best tools for that sort of thing.
  • Both Sun Startup Essentials and Microsoft BizSpark make certain application stacks particularly attractive. If you like the other benefits afforded by those programs, either are a good choice.
  • Pick a framework that will stick around for the long haul. Ruby on Rails isn't going to be ditched. ASP.NET won't be ditched but Microsoft is a moving target. PHP itself is stoic but any particular framework is more questionable. Which community do you think has longevity?
  • If your startup fails, which technology will leave you best positioned for future projects?

As with many questions on the site, there's usually not one right answer. As it should be.

So join the conversation! Come visit and see what all the fuss is about. It's fun.

Written by Jason Cohen


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