Why we built Mahalo Answers

For the past couple of years, I’ve been studying the intersection of individuals and three Internet services: search, content and knowledge exchanges (aka KEs). These three products–or processes–serve individuals by helping them solve their real-world problems, and all three services have been booming over the years.

Look at the massive success of search, content, and KEs here:

1. Google and Yahoo! have made huge businesses (worth tens of billions of dollars) out of helping people use search technology to solve problems (Note: in that sentence I’m pointing out that search is a technology that helps people solve problems. More on this later).

2. Wikipedia, About.com, HowStuffWorks, and my last company, Weblogs, Inc. (which produced Engadget, Joystiq, and Autoblog among 100 other blogs), have built amazing brands around content which–on many levels–solves a user’s problems (even if that problem is just “staying informed”).

3. Knowledge exchanges, commonly referred to as “question and answer” sites, originated in Korea from companies like Naver and Daum.net before being copied by Yahoo! with their phenomenally successful Yahoo! Answers product (I’ve been spending time in Korea and Japan recently, as many of you know, in order to personally learn about this phenomenon).

The unspoken vision for Mahalo, which we conceived of two years ago and launched 18 months ago, was to take these three offerings and combine them into one product. I didn’t explain this day one, as I subscribe to the Steve Jobs rule of only talking about products people can actually go use–or buy–right then. This created a lot of second guessing and speculation about what Mahalo was for the past 18 months–something I’ve learned to love.

The first piece we launched was Mahalo’s “human-powered search,” in which we built the top 100,000 or so search terms. Next we focused on content, which came in the form of detailed Guide notes on our search results, as well as vertical content like our “How To” articles, video game walkthroughs, and the live blog on our home page.

Today we’re launching our third product, which will thread the needle of search, content and KEs: Mahalo Answers.

What is Mahalo Answers:
Mahalo Answers is a Knowledge exchange where you can post questions which are answered by other users. Optionally, but highly encouraged, you can offer a tip for the best answer given for your question. Tips are given in our virtual currency, called Mahalo Dollars, which are purchased at a one-to-one rate with U.S. dollars, and which can be removed from the system less a 25% fee (i.e. how we make money!).

For example, if you asked “what five things should I do while on vacation in Los Angeles with my 10 and 12 year old boys?” you could attach a bounty of five Mahalo Dollars. Then our rabid group of researchers–both employed directly by Mahalo and not–will race to answer your question.

In a day you’ll probably be faced with the difficult task of selecting which answer was best and awarding the five dollars. If you didn’t get an answer, you can rescind your tip–but be careful rescinding tips too often, as it goes on your profile (aka permanent record).

Your question about your vacation in Los Angeles will be syndicated to Mahalo’s search result for “Los Angeles Vacation” and to our “Kids Vacation” page so that searches can benefit from the knowledge you generated with your question. Additionally, some of our Mahooligans might point you to our “How to fly with kids” article.

Finally, when you come to any Mahalo search/guide page you’ll see a box to ask a question. So, if on our Sarah Palin page people keep asking the question “what is the natural color of her hair?” we can not only syndicate that question to the Sarah Palin page, we can also add the fact to our “fast facts” section.

In this way the Answers product builds out our search engine, and our search engine leads people to our Answers product.

Right product for tough times?
Our goal is to create a sustainable, large exchange of knowledge and currency through the system in order to make a vibrant business for not only Mahalo, but for the people answering questions. Our hope is that individuals with knowledge will someday be able to earn a decent portion of their monthly income–perhaps all of it–from answering questions on Mahalo Answers.

Keep in mind that the people answering the “money questions” are doing so on spec–the person giving the tip might not select them or might rescind the tip–so we can’t promise that this will become a huge business for anyone overnight.

However, most people in these systems in Korea and the United States do so for free. Additionally, if you come to Mahalo Answers and find an amazing answer to a question that someone else answered, you can give a tip to that person.  So, the chance of making some money in Mahalo Answers is obviously a lot better than the guarantee of making none in Yahoo! Answers–not that I’m comparing the two products. 😉

Direct Questions
Another significant feature of the product is that you can offer to answer questions directly and privately. For example, if you want to charge people $10 to give them relationship advice, you can explain your qualifications on your member page and wait for the questions to come in.

How will people find value in your advice? Simple: they can look at the number of questions you’ve answered, read the answers that are public, and look at the feedback ratings your customers have given you (just like eBay).

We think there is the chance that a cottage industry of traditional, and not so traditional, experts could emerge from Mahalo Answers. For example, we could see the following occur:

1. A lawyer could quickly and cheaply review the advice and information given to you by other lawyers.
2. A professional copywriter could directly review sales proposals and websites through the system, with no need to reveal the information exchange to the public.
3. A PR expert could write press releases.

Anything that can be delivered digitally can be run through the exchange.

You’re here to help
The most important thing I’ve learned about these KEs is that they run based on the goodwill inherent in all of us. We like to help solve each other’s problems, and there is great fun and reward in doing so. If Google’s goal is to index all the world’s information, our goal at Mahalo Answers is to index the world’s good intentions.

Get in there and help someone… you’ll feel great even if there is no tip involved!

The street will find its own use
We understand, and in fact we’re counting on, the fact that the street inevitably finds its own use for technology. We’re hoping that the trust mechanisms in place, along with some moderate policing of the system, will result in an orderly experimentation process. We ask that folks use their judgement and ethics when thinking of things to offer for sale (i.e. please don’t offer to sell bomb recipes or give medical advice if you’re not a doctor).

The system starts its beta today and we invite you to sign up. Try asking a question and giving a nice tip (say $3 or more). What have you got to lose? The cost of a cup of coffee in exchange for gaining a lot of knowledge or solving a complex task–sounds like a deal to me!

Additionally, we ask that folks be extra careful using direct questions and that they report any suspicious activity. Since we hold all money exchanged for at least 30 days (and we only pay folks with over $40 in their account), we can avoid most scams or problems. Of course, don’t do something like give your bank account information to someone you don’t know or send a wire transfer directly to them in order to claim your portion of someone’s $15m estate for $5,000 (i.e. be cautious, just like you are with spam).

Some details
1. Please report any suspicious behavior you find in the system.
2. Please send me any thoughts you have–good and bad–about the system.
3. Please do me a favor and post a question with a one to five dollar tip this week. We really want to see what the gift economy can do in the real world.
4. Please take a moment to answer a question really well. Go overboard, give citations and really try to help the person.

All the best,


Some early reviews:

TechCrunch: Q: What Do You Get When You Add Karate Belts To a Q&A Service? Mahalo Answers.
AllThingsD:Jason Calacanis Rolls Out the New Mahalo: Yahoo Answers-killer
VentureBeat: Jason Calacanis’ “Project A” is surprisingly compelling Mahalo Answers
Rafe Needleman / Webware.com:   Mahalo expands human-powered search with paid Answers service
Adam Ostrow / Mashable!:   Mahalo Picks Up Where Google Answers Left Off

19 thoughts on “Why we built Mahalo Answers

  1. Great idea! You should expect many professional librarians to participate. They’re all underpaid anyhow.

  2. uh, you present it like it was all planned out but i genuinely do not believe this…i get a strong sense
    that you were chasing opportunities left and right trying to find something that produces the most
    easily measured page views for ad metrics and answers is the easiest (return to a static/refresh model)

    just a hunch. no offense dude, but steve jobs you are not. your sites are nifty and interesting, but they are
    not new product categories, new technology or defining standards, they are simply a collection of ‘me too’
    business models (as evidenced by your own statement that everything you’ve done has been done before)

    but with that said, i really DO like mahalo answers – in fact, more than yahoo answers – there would
    appear to be far less crap (right now) and strong motivations to keep ‘great answers’ in check through
    a combination of real and imaginary currency…

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