A VC’s Guide to Building a Startup Community on Quora
Did you know that Quora is the #137th (and climbing) most-trafficked website on the entire Internet?
That’s approximately the same amount of traffic as Yelp, Etsy, and Flickr — and significantly more (25+ Alexa spots) than SoundCloud, StackExchange, SlideShare, and TripAdvisor. At its current growth trajectory, Quora will surpass BuzzFeed and the Huffington Post within a year.
More importantly for investors, the discussion on Quora skews heavily towards topics that are highly relevant to startup investing. Technology (5.3 million followers), Science (4.4 million), and Business (3.8 million) are the #1, #2, and #4 most-followed topics overall on the platform. Startups, Computer Science, Entrepreneurship, and Software Engineering are all in the top 35. Outside of Twitter and the comments section of Feld/Suster/Wilson blog posts, Quora is probably the number 1 place on the Internet where startup investing discussion should be taking place.
And yet, Quora is somewhat of a ghost town when it comes to investment professionals. Check out this list of the most-read venture capital writers on Quora. A few things should immediately jump out at you:
– I’m in the top 5 (as of this publication), which is absurd since I am decidedly not an authority in this field.
– Many of the folks who you would expect to be on the top of this list are nowhere to be found.
– It only takes 900 daily pageviews to crack the top 10. Not so much. You could write something in the next ten minutes that goes viral and puts you on the list by tomorrow morning.
Why is the VC presence on Quora so lackluster? It appears that most of the big-name VCs joined early in 2009/2010 when the website first launched, and then mostly abandoned the network by 2011 when they realized it wasn’t growing as fast as, say, Twitter or LinkedIn. But now it’s 2015 and Quora is prospering on its way to becoming a top 100 website in the world. Quora is the value stock of social networks, and if you’re looking for an entry price — that time is now.
But what’s the point?
Well, there are actually a ton of awesome reasons to become an active Quoran (yes, that’s what we call ourselves). You can:
– Meet a ton of really bright investors and entrepreneurs (both digitally and in real life).
– Learn more about technology and investing (and plenty of other things).
– Build a reputation for being helpful and insightful.
– Identify & conduct diligence on potential investments.
– Write something that can be discovered and read by people all over the world.
– And so on…
To summarize everything I’ve written up to this point: Quora is an egregiously under-utilized platform for VCs and angels to interact and contribute to the broader startup community. And not merely for the purpose of building a large following. Whether you write popular answers that get read by millions of people; write surgical answers that are immensely valuable to just a few people; or merely contribute by commenting and sharing — it all deepens your connection with the community and consequently makes you a higher-value and better-informed investor.
To help you do just that, I’ve sketched out some tips below that you can employ in your Quora journeys.
12 Steps for Building a Startup Community on Quora
1) Start by lurking. The tone of the Quora community isn’t obvious from the get-go, and it’s a very different vibe than other networks like Twitter and Facebook. There’s a weird mix of earnestness and dorkiness that becomes second-nature over time (just like how people get used to the sarcastic observational brevity on Twitter). So start by spending some time reading others’ material and getting a feel for the place. There’s a ton to learn just from consuming content as a lurker for awhile.
2) Ease your way into writing. Start with topics that are decidedly non-professional. Do you run marathons? Play backgammon? Ever broken a bone? Been to Zimbabwe? Answer questions about those things. Don’t put a lot of pressure on yourself to be a thought leader in your field from day one. Benedict Evans might be a famous pundit at a16z, but most of his best writing is about history. Not only is it more interesting for him personally, but it conveys to the rest of the world that he’s, ya know, a real human being.
3) When you’re ready to write about professional topics, be ambitious. If you answer questions that are super obvious and ho-hum (“What’s a term sheet?”) then you’re really providing no more value to the world than a 2 second Google search. Instead, seek out questions that scare you. The best unanswered Quora questions should make you feel like, “Wow, I barely know anything about this — there’s no way I could write a whole post on the topic.” The right thing to do when you encounter these questions is to actually attempt to answer them.
The reason behind this is twofold: First, because the effort of filling in our personal knowledge gaps is an example of deliberate practice that helps us become better writers and investors. And secondly, because it forces us to write something thoughtful, non-obvious, and (hopefully) original. So it leads to value for both the writer and the community at large.
4) You are not the PR department for your venture firm. If you only write about how your firm “delivers value through a unique blend of operational experience, investment know-how, and entrepreneur friendliness”, you will be 1) boring, 2) inauthentic, and 3) a liar. People want to listen to actual human beings, not whitewashed venture capital robots. You know what’s way more interesting than a list of all the reasons why your venture firm is awesome? A list of all the reasons why your venture firm is horrible. Try that instead.
5) Be humble. Be brave. A big reason why more people don’t write on platforms like Quora is that they’re afraid of appearing dumb, or getting something wrong, or pissing off their boss. These fears are far out of proportion to the actual risk involved. If you get something wrong, all you have to do is edit your answer and leave a correction (don’t forget to thank whoever pointed it out!). If you annoy your boss, then just apologize afterwards. Nobody is expecting you to be perfect. And if your writing causes some readers to criticize you… well, that might actually be a good thing if it means you struck a nerve. I’m still getting hate mail for this one.
6) Identify a whitespace. Figure out what nobody else is doing (or doing well) that other people would find valuable, and do precisely that. In my case, I noticed after a year of lurking that there were practically no junior venture investors who were candid, informative, and relaxed enough to occasionally lampoon the industry. It was basically Andy Manoske and then air. So I decided to fill that void. And it wasn’t even that hard a void to fill! Most of you reading this post could spend a few months writing better answers and blow me out of the water.
The nice thing about Quora in 2015 is that there’s still a ton of white space. Want to be the VC who knows everything about healthcare IT? The #1 expert on drones? The grizzled old angel with an axe to grind? These are currently vacant positions… come on board, and they’re yours.
7) “Brand” yourself accordingly. I don’t necessarily mean this as an overt “branding” exercise. I’m just saying that you should be mindful of the impression that you want to give, and how it meshes with the white space you’re trying to fill. Example: To emphasize that I’m not overly rigid, I use a photo of me wearing obnoxious oversized glasses. If you wanted to emphasize that you’re the world’s foremost expert in _______, the text in your profile page or topic biography is a great way to communicate this.
8) Identify and replicate the commonalities in highly-upvoted answers. Most of them use bullet points, bold and italic text, short sentences, pictures, charts/graphs, and an authoritative tone. Bonus points for citing sources and/or including a “recommended reading” list at the bottom.
9) Be accessible. Readers really appreciate authors that are responsive. Advertise in your header that you welcome messages and comments, and try to reply to as many as you can. If nothing else, leave an upvote on answer comments to acknowledge that you’ve read them.
With that said: Be careful with this. If somebody’s DM or comment makes you think “hmmm, this person kinda gives off a Ramsay Bolton vibe”, it’s best to not engage. There’s such a thing as “too accessible”.
10) Engage directly. This means upvoting, commenting, and following. If you read something that you enjoyed, let the writer know. Send targeted DMs if you have something precise and specific to discuss. Be positive and polite and contribute to the conversation.
11) Pretend that you’re a professional writer. You certainly don’t have to be the next James Joyce, but having the ability to write clear & concise prose goes a long way. What do professional writers do to ensure that their work is high quality? Well, they:
– Read a lot.
– Study the style of writers they admire.
– Force themselves to write every day.
– Notice which conditions (time of day, amount of coffee, etc) elicit their best work.
– Edit more.
– Edit one more time after that.
A quick note on editing: The ability to revise & collect your thoughts before hitting “publish” is the dirty little trick of all writers. If you just submit your answers immediately without doing this, you’re missing an opportunity to sound way smarter than you actually are.
12) Focus on the process, not the results. A sure-fire way to lose your confidence is to obsess over pageviews, upvotes, and followers. While these things are important, they’re entirely outside your control (unless you call your mom twice a week with demands for upvotes, like I do). And even worse is to start comparing yourself against highly-followed investor-writers like Jason and David, and becoming too dejected or intimidated to even get started.
Don’t worry about any of that. Trust in karma. If you deliver value to the community repeatedly, you will be rewarded accordingly. Spend your time constructing a system that allows you to ship quality material on a regular basis, and goal yourself in terms of output (i.e. the number of informative, well-researched Quora answers per month), not the recognition you get in return.
I don’t attribute my modest following on Quora to being a good writer; I attribute it to a process that permitted me to write ~1,000 posts in the span of 12 months. This is certainly more effort than I would expect from anybody reading this article (and should tell you a lot about my inability to do anything in moderation) — but hey, if you just start with 1 post per week, you’ll have fifty within a year, which is a pretty excellent start. And if that sounds like a reasonable goal to you: How about getting started right now?
Another nice thing about Quora is that you aren’t really expected to be any good at writing conclusions. Therefore, I still suck at them. The end!
Originally published on Mattermark’s blog on September 2, 2015.
Published in Mattermark Posts