Quora and the merits of shark jumping

December 29, 2010, 1:36 AM UTC

A little bad behavior can be good for a startup, so long as it doesn’t become habit.

By Matt Harris, contributor

Like most professionals who give some thought to their online profile, I’ve spent some time on Quora in my fields of interest. I’m not a ninja at it, like Suster and increasingly Ehrenberg, but a man’s got to sleep sometime. In response to a question I thought was hilarious [Would it be terrible to pitch a VC with a preso done in all lolcats?], I posted a facetious but well-meaning and not totally ridiculous answer [“just make sure you bring a pen to sign the term sheet. done.”].

If there was any point to my response, and I’d like to think there was, it was a form of applause for a question that gently exposed the ridiculousness of the form of the “pitch,” and encouraged entrepreneurs to laugh at VCs and themselves. My response got voted up and received a couple of positive comments, but was then deemed “not helpful” and thrown into the oubliette. With some mild chagrin (the stakes here are very, very low), I looked into this and found that it was a Quora staffer who stuffed my answer in the memory hole.

It was with some self-righteous pleasure then that I found the following piece, criticizing Quora for this very practice. It was with much greater pleasure that I noted the killer quote from Molly Ivans, which goes into my bag for later: “The strongest human emotion is neither love nor hate. It is one person’s desire to f#ck with another person’s copy”.

Now, on the merits of this question, I think Quora is wrong, or at least a little off, and will probably tack back to letting the community judge the strength of answers, and letting a little humor creep into things. But that’s actually not the point of this tempest in a teapot. The point is this: If I’m sitting at Benchmark Capital, wondering how my Quora investment is performing, I’m now thinking “Finally, we have some controversy over there! Maybe now the normals will start paying attention.”

We’ve all seen this movie before. It happened with Zynga and Scamville, with Groupon and that retailer who went out of business from an over-abundance of customers (I swear they actually planted that story), with Twitter and their downtime (and more recently Tumblr), and so on. Each of these minor crises, at the time, is touted as the moment each company “jumped the shark”. (The reference, of course, is from an infamous Happy Days episode.) And after each stumble, these companies emerged stronger and kept growing. Arguably, the press and buzz that resulted from each incident actually improved each company’s trajectory.

Here is a chart that helps to illustrate my point:

This is the Google Trends data showing the incidence of search and news relevance of: “Facebook,” “Jump,” and “Shark.” During the period which this company has gone from zero to global domination, at an increasing pace, vocal segments of our society and the media have been clamoring for our attention with news of its demise. Whether it’s transmission of personal data, or a failure to penetrate China, or failure to crush Foursquare, or whatever the shank du jour happens to be, there is always someone there to claim that it signals Facebook’s downfall. Of course, there are valid critiques of Facebook and its business model, but the company is not going away, and all of the hysterical predictions to the contrary merely point to its ongoing prominence.

What does this mean for entrepreneurs? As a noted hiphop artist turned superangel once said, “those who have a propensity to hate [for any reason, or no reason], are going to exercise that propensity [regardless of what you do to either draw or defuse their wrath].” (NB: I paraphrase slightly).

It seems trite, but it is no less true, to say that it is your success that draws these critiques and therefore it is truly a good sign.

Nonetheless, it is sometimes disconcerting to your investors, board members, employees, partners and customers, and you will have to react … just don’t over-react. Make sure what you are doing is 100% clean as a whistle and makes good business sense. If it isn’t, or doesn’t, fix it quickly and with no embarrassment. If you’re confident, just keep keeping on. Your growth will continue, your critics will find more and more casus belli, and your customers will be as happy as ever.

Matt Harris is the co-founder and Managing General Partner of Village Ventures, an early stage venture capital firm with over $175M under management. His blog is called For the Win.

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