There was a time not that long ago when I considered you not quite sociopathic in your disdain for Experts Exchange (I use the term sociopathic because you have been ranting about EE for years but haven’t ever actually used it), but after listening to your podcast of September 14, I realize that you’re just a True Believer; as such, I appreciate your measured and considered comments in your discussion about Freemium models. It is obvious that as a programmer, you simply want to build what you consider to be the perfect site; how anyone is going to pay for it isn’t your concern, because it’s a labor of love for you. I can respect that, even if you’re somewhat disingenuous in calling EE’s long-standing (and based on results, successful) way of getting people to answer questions “crazy”.
To clarify for you, Experts Exchange has had, at least since I joined in 1999, a paid membership. It is certainly true that almost no one paid from that time through about 2003, when the two people who bought the site from the bankruptcy trustee (which is what venture capitalists will get you) realized that advertising revenues — in a day when Google was just beginning to become the advertising behemoth it is today — also wouldn’t cover the bills and provide any profit. However, as you rightly noted, EE also had in place a system where those people who contributed answers were not charged for the same Premium Services membership that paying members got (how crazy is that?). In a month, I’ll have been a member of EE for 12 years, and I have never paid it a penny.
Call me crazy (oh, wait — you’ve already called us crazy… no matter), but bandwidth and servers and rent and lights and payroll don’t discriminate between people who ask questions and people who answer them — so it’s reasonable that anyone who uses those services be asked to contribute to paying for them. However, as far as I know, Experts Exchange has always recognized that it’s the people who answer the questions that make the site tick, so it has always given the method described above for people to earn. Anyone who tells you anything different is either a bald-faced liar or… no, that’s pretty much it. Now, if you want to say that EE hid or buried the link to the free registration, you won’t get an argument from me (it did, and I complained about it from the day they started doing it), but it was always there, and I and my colleagues (the volunteer staff) were always able to tell people where to find it.
And you can complain that EE wanted people who got a benefit from the site (by finding solutions through a search engine) to contribute one way or the other — but they DO use the site, and like I said, bandwidth and servers don’t care who you are. You can also be offended that Experts Exchange got pretty good at following Google’s rules — but why blame EE because your good friend Matt Cutts came up with the rules in the first place? EE was quite happy when all you had to do was do what you said you were going to do; EE doesn’t have Mr Cutts on speed-dial like you and Mr Spolsky do. And don’t blame EE because your complaints resulted in the Panda update to Google’s algorithm that smacked your site’s traffic; Mr Spolsky knows all about that whole “unintended consequences” thing, so maybe he can explain it to you.
But back to your podcast. There are a couple of things that bothered me, and perhaps you can clear them up, because it sounded like you were a little surprised to hear them — like your partner’s misanthropic comment about programmers from India. I did hear him try to backtrack on it, but given that there are about a billion people there, is he really surprised that there are a lot of programmers there? Does he really think that all of them are “slightly less-qualified”? No matter, though; a quick check shows that it’s really a very small percentage of EE’s Experts (people who have earned points by answering questions) who have done so at a level sufficient to earn their subscriptions just so they can ask questions — and most aren’t from India.
What that means is simply that your partner doesn’t know what he’s talking about. At EE, the mere posting of an answer doesn’t get you anything; in order to earn points, your comment actually has to answer the question, at least to the extent that the Asker feels he knows enough to carry on with his project. Do we keep questions where the Asker never comes back? Sometimes — but far more often it gets deleted. Do Askers sometimes accept crappy answers? Sure, but it doesn’t take long for someone who thinks an Asker has accepted a wrong answer to complain.
What concerns me more is your oft-stated position that Q&A sites should always be “free”, and something your partner didn’t say. You were saying that once a program or web service has been built, the cost of providing it to the next person who comes along should approach zero. That, in economists’ terms, is called the “marginal cost“, and you’re right; it does. My background is in publications; printing the second one and printing the 50,000th one cost about the same individually — but printing the first one costs you a pile, so in order to equitably distribute the costs among the consumers, the total is divided by the number of people who buy the publication.
A website is the same thing. Yes, once you’ve built it, the marginal cost per user is pretty low — a little bandwidth, a little server space. But someone has paid somehow for getting the site to that point. Your partner said you have 46 employees; if you try to pay them on what you would charge each new customer (assuming you’re charging only the marginal cost) you’re not going to take in enough revenue to pay for that 47th person Mr Spolsky wants to hire. Now, I don’t presume to tell you and Mr Spolsky how to run your business; if he likes jetting around the country with his hand out, that’s fine with me. I hope, for your sake, that he has continued success; just remember that sooner or later, the people who give you money are going to want to see a return. By the way, you will need about 30 more ads on your Careers site this month to pay for that programmer — for this month. And another 30 next month, and the month after that. Do you see a pattern emerging here?
But back to the podcast again. You were talking about launching sites, and he went on this really weird analogy of a tank in the front yard that had things and people hanging all over it and how hard it would be to get it to roll (he really needs to focus). I’m pretty sure that he was trying to get that whole “frictionless” thing you guys have on your home page, but here’s the thing. He said,
“I believe that the way to launch them is to make them absolutely totally free with a sort of promise that they’ll always be free and get up to speed, get a big audience and then try to figure out how to… once you have the gigantic audience and you’re a gigantic powerful tank rolling down hill try to figure out things you want the tank to pull.”
Now, when I was listening to it for the first time, it sounded to me like he was going to say that you should make something free, and promise that it will always be free (which is a pretty long time), and then when you get to be gigantic you should… Yeah. I thought he was going to say “start charging”. And since nobody from your company has ever given anyone a clear description of what your plan for paying your bills is, don’t you think you owe it to all those good people who are contributing to your site some kind of answer about that? I mean… after all, Experts Exchange is honest about it. They paid a bunch of people to build the site. They pay for the equipment and the bandwidth and the building. They provide customer service. They give away t-shirts. So to do that, they charge people a little money. If you’re just putting up a front so you can cash out and spend the rest of your days on a beach somewhere — great. But don’t lie to your
customers 15,000,000+ software developers about it.
So which is it? Are you going to charge? Or maybe Mr Spolsky hasn’t told you about the plan to start charging people for stackoverflow yet? That the plan is to get a lot of people to use the site, and then sell it off and let the new owners start charging for it? Or filling it full of all kinds of ads that you’ve been railing about?
C’mon, Jeff. Be honest — for once. You’ll feel better for it.