eHub Interviews Judy’s Book

Posted by Emily Chang on Monday, December 5th, 2005. Filed under: eHub Interviews

Visit Judy’s Book, originally added to eHub on Oct 14, 05.

imageThanks to Chris DeVore, co-founder & COO of Judy’s Book for this email interview posted December 5, 2005.

eHub: What is your web application/service about?

Judy’s Book: We help you make good decisions about where to spend your time and money by swapping advice with people you trust.

Our site makes it easy for anyone to write about the people, places and things they care about, wrapping structured ‘information objects’ like local business and product listings with their personal experiences and opinions.  All of these member reviews are linked on multiple dimensions—location, category, author identity, friend relationships etc. – and by following these informational threads, site visitors can create relevant, personalized context for the opinions on the site, building trust and fostering ‘serendipitous discovery’ of members and their views.

Our current focus is on local information, since that’s where people live their lives, but you can also use Judy’s Book to share and discover opinions about pretty much anything that you or your friends want to write about (products, websites, blogs, etc.).

We launched our beta in February, and already have hundreds of thousands of reviews authored by tens of thousands of people. So in addition to making it easy for members to share their views, we also needed to make it easy for readers to find trusted local content.  Our Social Search(TM) features currently allow registered members to search for views authored by people they’re connected to, giving every member the power to create highly personalized local search results.  A near-term enhancement will compile several kinds of site usage data to assign “trustworthiness scores” to all of our content, so you’ll know who to trust even if you’re not directly connected to them.

imageWe’re constantly tinkering with our Social Search feature set to make it easier and more fun to use, but we think the ability to deliver personally relevant search results will become increasingly important as general web search becomes more and more commercialized.

eHub: Why did you start this project?

Judy’s Book: My business partner (Andy Sack) and I both moved to Seattle around 2000 and were kicking around ideas that we’d personally be excited to work on.  We both owned older houses that were in a constant state of renovation, and one of our most trusted sources of information about local tradespeople was this notebook that Andy’s mother-in-law (Judy) had given him with her personal take on the best Seattle-area services.  Everyone we talked to about the idea loved the concept of a local referral community that was personalized, so you could quickly get to the views of people you knew and trusted.  So we just dived in and have been experimenting our way forward ever since.

eHub: How much time do you devote to its growth?  Do you have a day job?

Judy’s Book: When we started working on the idea, it was just something we were doing for fun, but as we got more involved we discovered there was a lot of interest in the idea, and that we needed to give it more time and attention if we were really going to make it happen.  Late last summer (2004) we raised some money to help us accelerate the growth of the business and our team, and now it’s what we do all day every day.

eHub: How large is your team and what are your backgrounds?

Judy’s Book: When we started, it was just Andy and I and Jeff Rodenburg, a developer Andy had worked with in a previous company, all working together in my unfinished basement.  We grew the basement team to five, all developers except for me and Andy (the new team members included John Roper, Chad McNees and Gabe Othman).  Then my wife and I had a baby, so we moved the company out of the basement and added two more developers (Mike Carreno and Tom Laramee) a testing lead (Rob Beneson), and a UI designer (Josh Hepfer).  Later this summer Andy and I realized we needed more help on the business side, and we now have a marketing and customer service team (Ben Straley, Sydney Patrick and Sarah Johnston), a team focused on our local merchant customers (Dave Naffziger, Rahul Pathak and Ethan Gustav), and a development team lead (Brad Struss).  We’re always on the lookout for great people, and our team will continue to grow as we do.

eHub: What is your design philosophy?

Judy’s Book: Keep it easy and fast and get out of the way.

People who visit our site may be there to write reviews, discover information, find new customers or meet people. This community grows every day, as does the amount of information our members publish. We know that we have to provide a fast and easy platform for all these audiences. Our internal catchphrase for this is “molasses removal”, and it’s an ongoing discipline of looking at every process in the app – whether that’s signing up, or adding a new review, or posting a comment – and figuring out how we can remove steps and do things in the background to make it as frictionless as possible.

eHub: What technologies are you currently using?

Judy’s Book: We started out as a pure Microsoft shop, because that’s where most of our developers were coming from (and we could get great deals on developer tools at the company store), but as we grow we’ve been adding in more and more open source tools, first for operational needs, and more recently for customer-facing features (a few examples include: Apache Lucene for search, Subversion for source control, and Bugzilla for bug tracking). Also, our next major rev will include several AJAX-based features that should make it easier to both find and create information on the site.

eHub: If your project is live, what are the most requested features from your users/community?

Judy’s Book: People ask for it in different ways, but the core request is to ‘float’ the best and most relevant content to the surface so users can quickly find what they’re looking for.  In practice, this requires interrelated development in localization, keyword search, reputation scoring, and personalized relevance – all components of our evolving Social Search feature set.

eHub: Does your user base reside in a primary geographic location or is it distributed?

Judy’s Book: One of the most fun and satisfying surprises of the past year has been how broadly distributed our user base is.  We intentionally designed the app to flexibly address any combination of location and local service category (like Seattle plumbers or Memphis architects), and we quickly discovered that there are people all over the country – not just in the ‘wired’ coastal cities – who have a passion for sharing their local favorites and connecting with other people in their community.  We have members in all 50 U.S. states, and our distribution of members and reviews looks a lot like the general population distribution of the country.

eHub: Where do you see the project heading in the next 6 months?  The next 2 years?

Judy’s Book: We’re excited about all the possibilities that are opening up as a result of the growing trend toward open standards and interoperability, and we’re going to continue to experiment with ideas and features from the Web 2.0 community that put Judy’s Book at the heart of the local authoring and reading experience.  Longer-term, we think we have an opportunity to reinvent the way consumers select and interact with local businesses, making it more of a conversation and less of a one-way ‘sell job’.

eHub: What is the greatest challenge to your success?

Judy’s Book: Staying focused.  We’re constantly tempted to experiment with new ideas and features, some of which are core to our member experience and some of which are just plain fun.  Our challenge is to keep listening to our members and trying to give them what they’re asking for, while keeping our own flights of fancy under control.

eHub: What is the one thing you need to get to the next phase of the project?

Judy’s Book: Our daily lament is that we need to do more, faster on nearly every front.  There’s just so much to do, and we need more smart creative people to help us grow.

eHub: Do you have a business model?  If so, what is it?

Judy’s Book: We do.  Judy’s Book is free to anyone that wants to write reviews and participate in the community.  We also offer an array of free services for local businesses.  To make money, our premium services help high quality local companies win more new business by harnessing the organic word of mouth they receive on our site.  We maintain a ‘bright line’ distinction between paid and user-generated content on our site, so the user always knows what they’re looking at.

eHub: If you’re able to disclose this information, how much traffic or usage do you see on an average day?

Judy’s Book: We don’t disclose this information, but suffice it to say we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the growth of the community and the level of participation of our members.

eHub: What is the one thing you’re most proud of about the project?

Judy’s Book: This is Andy’s 5th startup and my 7th company, and we both think that Judy’s Book has the best team of people we’ve ever worked with.  Too many people spend their lives doing work they hate with people they don’t like or respect, so our biggest and most satisfying accomplishment has been to turn that model completely on its head.

eHub: How would you describe the shift that’s occurring with the web right now to future generations?

Judy’s Book: I expect future generations will find it bizarre that consumers were once passive consumers of media that they didn’t control or have a voice in.  We’ll have to explain that companies used to succeed based on how much they spent on advertising, not how well they served their customers.

eHub: What site(s) do you visit everyday other than your own?

Judy’s Book: Unsurprisingly, Google has been gobbling up a lot of my online attention.  Between search, Gmail, Talk and Alerts, I pass through one of their properties on my way to almost everything else I do online.

eHub: How many hours of sleep do you get a night?

Judy’s Book: Did I mention that my wife and I had a baby early this year?  Between our growing family and keeping up with the work we’re doing at Judy’s Book, I count myself lucky to get more than six hours a night…

Thanks to Chris DeVore, co-founder & COO of Judy’s Book for this email interview posted December 5, 2005.

Visit Judy’s Book
Originally added to eHub on Oct 14, 05