Inside Quora’s quest for relevance: Why CEO Adam D’Angelo has gone all in on AI

Innovation

Nearly 15 years after founding Quora, D’Angelo wants to reinvent the question-and answer company around AI with its second product ever, Poe—before it goes the way of Yahoo Answers.
4x5-Adam-DAngelo-by-Augustin-Le-Gall-Haytham-REA_Redux

Quora CEO Adam D’Angelo

Augustin LE GALL/HAYTHAM-REA/Redux

“Can I show you a demo?” Adam D’Angelo says as he prepares to share his screen on Zoom.

The CEO of Quora is extolling the virtues of Poe, the company’s platform for letting people chat with multiple AI models at a time. But during a test earlier that day for what should have been an easy task—generating a logo design using my name—the service had glitched. D’Angelo is quick to jump into troubleshoot mode. (I probably hadn’t set up Poe to access an image-generating model, he diagnoses.)

Last year, D’Angelo said at an AI event that most of the company’s energy these days is devoted to Poe, a service the company launched last year that serves as an interface for using and comparing multiple AI models, as well as bots built on top of them. That means less energy on Quora, the nearly 15-year-old Q&A forum that D’Angelo founded after leaving his post as Facebook’s CTO. But D’Angelo is so excited about AI’s potential that he’s gotten hands-on with the company’s new product, which has its own URL, separate from Quora.

“Poe needs more of my attention because it’s in this more rapidly changing landscape,” D’Angelo told Forbes. “Quora has been around for many years now. It doesn’t need to adapt. It doesn’t need to change every week.” Quora’s goals are quarterly, he said, whereas Poe’s targets are set every two weeks.

The two products are vastly different. Quora is a message board where people answer questions like “What did Marilyn Monroe carry in her coffin?” and “What is the best small business to start in Gambia?” Meanwhile Poe, which stands for “Platform for Open Exploration,” is a freemium $200 per year subscription service that gives people access to several models, including OpenAI’s GPT-4, Anthropic’s Claude and Google’s Gemini. With the service, users can sample multiple models at once, comparing how each one tackles the same prompt. Developers can build bots on top of those models, creating, for example, an AI focused specifically on travel booking or creating coloring books for school children. Those developers can get paid per query, adding another revenue stream for people building AI tools. D’Angelo likens Poe to a web browser for AI, making the tech more accessible, like Netscape did three decades earlier.

“Poe needs more of my attention because it’s in this more rapidly changing landscape.”

Adam D’Angelo

On its face, Poe and Quora don’t seem connected. But D’Angelo says Poe was born out of AI experiments the company began running two years ago, where it used OpenAI’s GPT-3 to generate answers for Quora questions. They were not as good as human-written answers, but the company found that there was a sweet spot for AI-generated answers: replies to niche questions that no human had ever written an answer for. Getting a lower quality AI answer was better than waiting around for a human to answer your question, he concluded. The experience resembled something more like private chat than an open forum, D’Angelo realized, so the company set out to build that kind of service.

D’Angelo’s rallying of the company around Poe comes at a confounding time for Quora. Founded in 2010, it has become a venerable throwback to the late web 2.0 era, surviving where rivals like Yahoo Answers fizzled out. But it hasn’t evolved into the modern era compared to competitors like Reddit, which went public in March and long ago became a cultural hub of the internet. That raises an interesting question: Who still uses Quora, really. It’s hard to say, but the anecdotal evidence isn’t great. Earlier this year, Slate proclaimed Quora dead. And on Quora itself, “Is quora dead” has been asked many times dating back to at least 2017. As one respondent answered, “Maybe Quora [has] just run its course, sort of like Yahoo or MySpace.”

D’Angelo declined to comment on Quora’s revenue, though the company says it gets 400 million users a month.

With Poe, a seemingly disparate product from Quora, the company’s trajectory has gotten more murky. Is it a social forum backed by an advertising business model along the lines of Reddit, or is it going to become a player in AI? D’Angelo says it’s now poised for the latter. In January, the company announced $75 million in funding from Andreessen Horowitz to build out Poe.

“Maybe Quora just run its course, sort of like Yahoo or MySpace.”

Quora user

D’Angelo has had an inside look at the explosion in generative AI over the last few years in part because he’s been a board member at OpenAI since 2018, when it was still a nonprofit. But that also meant D’Angelo was at the center of the AI universe during one of the most dramatic boardroom power struggles in recent history. In November, the ChatGPT maker’s board fired CEO and founder Sam Altman, citing a lack of “candid” communication. The bombshell announcement set off a firestorm in Silicon Valley, and within five days, the board reversed course and rehired Altman. As part of the reinstatement, OpenAI replaced every board member except D’Angelo.

Poe does have some overlap with OpenAI’s GPT Store, a hub for customized AI bots that was announced less than two weeks before the ouster, leading to some speculation from industry observers about D’Angelo’s role in the coup. When asked about that speculation, D’Angelo called it “conspiracy theories” and pointed to the public summary of an internal investigation which said that the board acted “within its broad discretion” to fire Altman. He declined further comment on any OpenAI-related questions.

Quora has dealt with other AI controversies, especially when it comes to machine-generated answers. Some users have complained that the quality of content of the site has degraded, becoming a mush of AI slop. In one viral example, an AI-generated Quora answer stated that eggs could be melted. Google, which sources content from Quora in its answer boxes, then amplified the response.

D’Angelo downplayed the criticism. “There’s always room to do better on showing better answers,” he said. “Sometimes it’s not going to work well and people will be unhappy. But on average, we’re quite confident that the AI answers have been a net positive to Quora.”

While Poe has a distinct identity from Quora, D’Angelo said that he never really considered starting a new company to follow his AI ambitions. “It was my full time job and I couldn’t just leave and start another company,” he said.

Instead, D’Angelo said he wanted to leverage the talent and structure he had already assembled at Quora, especially as the AI environment moves at a blistering speed. Plus, some of the original source code he wrote for Quora is built into Poe’s foundation. “If it was a new startup, starting from scratch, you might spend the whole first year building up a team that good,” he said. “This was a technology wave and opportunity where we needed to move very, very fast.”

Now the plan is expansion. Building Poe was like “graduating” to becoming a two-product company, D’Angelo told Forbes, akin to Google’s first steps beyond web search. To get it done, the company needed to overcome the “organizational inertia” it had built up over several years. But now that he’s learned how to navigate that change, he doesn’t want to stop there.

“It took a lot of willpower,” he said. “My expectation long term is we should not be only a two-product company. We should continue to build new products.”

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