eHub Interviews Qunu

Posted by Emily Chang on Monday, July 30th, 2007. Filed under: eHub Interviews

Visit Qunu, originally added to eHub on Jul 10, 06.

imageThanks to Murray Gray and the team at Qunu for this email interview.

eHub: What is your web application/service about?

Qunu: Helmar: Qunu is about RIGHT NOW! Not in 5 minutes or two hours or 3 days. Qunu is about instantly finding and talking to someone who most likely knows what you don’t.

Murray: To add a little context, Qunu was originally dreamt up as a quick way for people to get free, live chat tech support on products direct from those who were most passionate about those products—the users themselves. We implemented it on Jabber/XMPP so that it would talk direct to any Jabber-friendly IM client. This seems to have been the right move because more than 3,000 experts joined up in a huge range of topics fairly quickly.

In a short space of time, we’ve started to see the experts take Qunu beyond tech support into a much wider range of topics, and it’s clear that what we have now is a search engine that returns people instead of documents.

Think of it like a mashup of search and instant messaging.

eHub: Why did you start this project?

Qunu: Helmar: Impatience. Especially when you’re a programmer and you’re stuck with something that could easily take an hour or two to figure out on your own, it’s supremely helpful to have a means to access real-time help. Goes without saying that it’s not limited to getting programming help, but could and will soon be used for tourism, translation, design and any other field imaginable.

Murray: We realized that people love to help, but they want to do it in a way that’s convenient for them which means integrating with existing instant messaging software. This is where all the existing Q&A services were lacking. If you wanted to help out, you needed to visit a site repeatedly or keep a page open all day.

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

Qunu: Murray: Helmar and myself are part time with a day job income stream. Justin is full time. We try to support each other financially as much as we can to pay bills, hosting fees, and the contract programmers we work with from time to time.

The three of us have always been freelancers with crappy job prospects and a problem with authority, so the idea of working together to build something cool in our spare time wasn’t a tough one.

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

imageQunu: Justin Kirby – I’m the Jabber guy and am responsible for all software development. I’m also project lead on the Jabberd 2.0 open source project, and big open source advocate.

Helmar Rudolph – I’ve been involved in software development and marketing since 1995. I’ve worked with such products as Geoworks Ensemble, Opera, Sonork and BeOS. I was employee #5 at Opera Software and opened their German-speaking market.

Murray Gray – I put together the first investment to get Qunu off the ground and have managed everything from the start. I’m a marketing geek with some technical pretensions and develop websites for a living.

eHub: What is your design philosophy?

Qunu: Justin: We have 3 basic rules we try to live by on Planet Qunu. 1. Keep things as simple as possible, but no simpler. Make tools to do one thing and do it well. Combine tools to make new things, do not reinvent the wheel if possible.

Helmar: Technically, to make it as easy as possible for people to obtain instant help; to use open standards and protocols and to make Qunu available to as many people as possible. Conceptually I want to create a bridge between the unknown and the known – in real time. How hard could it be?

Murray: I’m a big fan of the “Getting Real” philosophy from Signal VS Noise. They espouse simplicity and the preemptive removal of features.

eHub: What technologies are you currently using?

Qunu: Justin: XMPP/Jabber protocol paired with Apache/Tomcat and a mountain of C++ code. Front end we’re based on Python/Django and Ajax.

We also have an XMLRPC component available that software publishers can take and throw into pretty much any website, piece of software or connected device and start delivering live experts to their users. We open sourced to make this process as easy as possible.

eHub: What are the most requested features from your users/community?

Qunu: Murray: Discoverability. Users wanted better ways to discover who was online in a range of topics. And RESTfulness: Qunu experts and result pages are now bookmarkable. You can also access Qunu results and request a chat from any Jabber-enabled device (eg: blackberry) or Jabber-friendly site (eg: meebo), as well as with a traditional IM client.

People who have been helped can now leave a donation for the expert and professional freelancers and consultants out there can now advertise their services on Qunu as paid experts and only pay us when a connection/conversation occurs. We call it pay-per-conversation marketing. ;)

The new website contains about 90% of the features requested by our expert and user community over the past 6 months. It took us quite a long time to make it happen because we had to switch our web framework completely.

Helmar: Additionally, our experts request more fine-grained control over their availability status and some protective features against the time wasters. Our users are requesting more information about when certain experts are usually online or when they might become available again, instead of just presenting them with a ‘sorry, no-one found’ message. This is all in our newly launched version.

Justin: The feature I’ve most enjoyed bringing to the world has been the Qunu XMLRPC component. It’s a stupid easy way to put live experts anywhere.

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

Qunu: Murray: It’s fully distributed. I have helped engineeers on their lunch break in Mumbai, people in Russia, China and Wisconsin, teens in the north of England, and your regular mom and pop types too.

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

Qunu: Helmar: The next 6 months we’ll be debugging and refining our new release, and open our first revenue channels. The next 2 years will be spent building on the free public webservice and extending the service to the proprietary instant messaging islands of Yahoo, MSN, AIM, ICQ.

Murray: I’d love to see Qunu adopted as the default live help platform in every open source project. Also I’ll be working to establish Qunu in the private sector where companies want to run and manage their own expertise matching system.

eHub: What is the greatest challenge to your success?

Qunu: Helmar: Right now it’s access to funds (as we’re all still doing other work to finance this)… and at times our distributed setup over 3 continents and time zones does get in the way.

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

Qunu: Murray: Time, money, manpower. The three big ones. Any coders out there who are interested in contributing to the open source Qunu codebase should definitely get in touch. :)

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

Qunu: Murray: I love that these days you have to ask. :-) Our plan is to open source the codebase and encourage as many open source communities to integrate with us and offer Qunu live help within their help menus. This would expand the userbase of the Qunu community quite significantly fairly quickly and would allow us to offer simple sponsorships to begin with on our site.

Of course being open source means that anyone can take our code and run it wherever they like. We want to encourage that, and support it, so we’ll be offering a paid virtual hosted option like so organizations can be up and running quickly and have us take care of running everything for them.

For those organizations that want everything happening within their walls, we’ll also offer a moderately priced appliance that arrives ready to plug in and run.

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

Qunu: Murray: We’re averaging a couple hundred sessions a day with peaks of over a thousand.

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

Qunu: Murray: The response we’ve received from the users and the experts. Despite the obvious shortcomings of the alpha version we put out there, 99% of the reviews we’ve seen have focused on the big picture and positive intent—which is people helping out in subjects in which they’re passionate.

Helmar: I am proud that we were actually able to pull it off with a completely virtual team and while funding it entirely ourselves. And to do it 6.5 years after the original idea was born, and all the while seeing nothing comparable being launched into the market in that time.

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

Qunu: Helmar: With increasing processing power and available bandwith, plus the tools to diseminate information, there won’t be much that remains unknown. Privacy is already becoming the first victim of this shift. Not only future generations will have to learn to discern about what information they want to share. Likewise, corporations need to realize that collaboration, not exploitation is sustainable. The web is called the web because it’s all connected. We can’t do without each other, or as the Mayans say: “In la’kech”, or “I’m another you”. Let’s use the web to advance mankind rather than allowing it to degrade into yet another channel for commercial exploitation and separation.

Murray: I think the inevitable federation of IM over the coming years is going to be the most important thing to happen to the internet in quite some time. As we rapidly move from being loosely connected to being tightly connected always-on, Jabber/XMPP is going to become the backbone of so many new killer apps that we’ve yet to see. I can’t wait.

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

Qunu: Murray: seth godin, fred wilson, rick segal, dave winer, SvN, gaping void, /., Boingboing, Zefrank, Youtube, Reddit.

Justin: Kwanza, User Friendly

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

Qunu: Murray: A good nine. I would be a freak otherwise. Justin is the opposite. He’ll work for 26 hours at a stretch and then we won’t see him for a full day after that.

Helmar: As many as the body needs, on average about 7-8. If it’s less one night, it’ll be more the other. :)

Thanks to Murray Gray and the team at Qunu for this email interview.

Visit Qunu
Originally added to eHub on Jul 10, 06