Yesterday we sat down with two of Aardvark’s founders, Max Ventilla and Damon Horowitz, to get an update on the company and learn about today’s integration of Aardvark into Twitter.
Aardvark is a question an answer service with a twist. Instead of services like Yahoo Answers where the anonymous masses try to answer your questions (resulting in mostly spam), Aardvark sends questions to your social graph via email, SMS, instant messaging, etc. Your friends answer your questions (restaurant suggestions, things to do in Paris, whatever). Most questions are answered within 5 minutes.
Last week the service opened up for Facebook users. Today they integrate with Twitter. For now, the integration only includes asking questions – if you add @vark to the end, Aardvark picks it up and adds it to your account. In future versions, they may try to integrate responses from Twitter directly into Aardvark as well.
I spoke with Max and Damon at length about the Twitter integration as well as the service in general now that it has been tested by beta users for the last few months. The video and transcript (provided by SimulScribe, it’s not perfect but they are fast) are below:
INTERVIEWER: Max Ventilla. I pronounced your last name correct. You’re the CEO and co-founder of Aardvark. We also have Damon Horowitz, you’re the CTO and co-founder. And you’re showing us the new Twitter integration.
VOICE 1: That’s right.
VOICE 1: And so, we are excited to basically allow people to interact with Aardvark over Twitter, the same way that they would over IM or e-mail or any other channels that they’re currently using to interact with their network. This is my Twitter and let’s imagine that…
INTERVIEWER: You only have 677 followers.
VOICE 1: I know. I haven’t been at it too long. So…
INTERVIWER: Will it be OK? You need to do a little more Twitter spamming.
VOICE 1: Right. Would be to say, what’s going on in SF this weekend?
INTERVIEWER: And normally, you’d be typing this into your Instant Messenger or directly on the Aardvark site where you normally use Aardvark.
VOICE 1: That’s right.
VOICE 1: Let’s say, something outdoors. It’s like – and…
INTERVIEWER: Are you using a hashtag or – OK. Yeah.
VOICE 1: You can. So, you could put in sort of like, concerts, or if you don’t, Aardvark will sort of pick out from that question about what’s going on…
INTERVIEWER: Really, just because they know you’re a user?
VOICE 1: That’s right. So, essentially, what’s happened now is – let’s imagine that I sent this in to Aardvark…
INTERVIEWER: You actually are just sending this through Twitter?
VOICE 1: This is a regular Twitter. This is like what I might do know and ask like, oh my Twitter followers, what’s happening? What you can do now is you can either send a direct message to vark.
INTERVIEWER: So, Aardvark isn’t aware of it yet.
VOICE 1: That’s right. Nobody can send direct message to vark. Or what you can do is, you can take your normal Twitter message and just put somewhere in the message Aardvark.
VOICE 1: And then, essentially, that clues in Aardvark the same way if you send that message to anyone else that it should be paying attention to it.
VOICE 1: And it’ll pick it out of My Twitter Stream and it’ll do what it normally does.
INTERVIEWER: It’ll pick up the original Twitter? Do people start responding to the original Twitter that had no Aardvark at it? Aardvark will see it?
VOICE 1: It would not. So, we want people to be intentional about wanting Aardvark to answer their message. There are some instances where you don’t particularly want that to go out to your network. But, the idea is that if you wanted to sort of in addition to have Aardvark answering the question, then you’ll put an add message, you know, with that Aardvark syntax and if you wanted just to go to Aardvark and for it to answer the same ways it would if you sent it over IM or e-mail, then you send the direct message. And in either case, as the answers come back, they’ll get direct message to me. So, I’ll show to you – so, earlier today, I asked, you know, what’s going on in New York on a certain weekend when I’m going to be there. Sort of other questions that I asked to ask about Twitter. You go to this…
INTERVIEWER: These are all questions you ask.
VOICE 1: Over Twitter.
INTERVIEWER: And if somebody responds, Aardvark picks that up.
VOICE 1: That’s right. So, here’s an example. I said, you know, at Twitter, do try to copy several features (unintelligible), I see your terms, you know, in tags. Twitter, here you see answers coming from different people. Many of these are sort of people that I have friends in common with. Here’s another one and then you have the ability on the transfer page to go and you can thank the person or send a follow-up message to them or to tell Aardvark whether or not the answer that they came back with was particularly helpful to you.
INTERVIEWER: So, any reply is pooled in?
VOICE 1: The replies that come through the Aardvark system are all pooled together on a transcript page…
INTERVIEWER: So many people have to have the Aardvark in their replies as well?
VOICE 1: No, so these are actually people that had answered over IM or e-mail or – so the nice thing is we’re using it the same as we would with any other communication channel. When a question comes in, you can interact with someone no matter what IM network they’re on or if they’re on more advice or anything else. So…
INTERVIEWER: But if somebody responds on Twitter, you’re not picking that up at all.
VOICE 1: That’s right. So, presently, we’re not pulling in the normal app replies you get from your actual followers. You’re already going to be getting those in whatever you know, Twitter appliance you’re using. And in the same way that, you know, if you didn’t ask a question through Aardvark as of yet, you know, we’re only pooling together the answers that you got through the system.
VOICE 1: And then, similarly, you get the same benefit that when you sign up for Aardvark and you sync with Twitter, it’s using that same social graph that you’ve aggregated from either yourswers, better answers, faster answers. It’s because it’s easier for a human to answer which by the way is almost exactly the opposite as any sort of static content database, where the more filters you put on what you want, the less actual content you get back.
INTERVIEWER: But it makes sense that if you have a little more context to give, it should give you a (unintelligible). What’s a good restaurant in San Francisco is different than –
VOICE 1: Exactly.
INTERVIWER: I’m taking my parents off for their anniversary, what’s you know, they love sushi and Italian. Where should I go?
VOICE 1: Exactly.
INTERVIEWER: It’s much easier.
VOICE 1: Think about how much easier and more satisfying it is for someone on the other end. And that sort of what we generally say is like you know, use the golden rule – ask the question in same way that you would want to receive a question with all the detail and all of the context and you know whatever else you could think of. And you absolutely see it in people’s responses based on the quality of what they come back with. And again, and that’s what you lose when you’re saying, you know what, the end goal of all of this is just to get a huge amount of generic like reviews and then just find different ways to sort of slice and dice stuff and return it to people. And again, it’s not to say that that is not fantastically useful. Not only is it usually useful and it’s a hugely useful thing in compliment to this. As soon as I get back a restaurant recommendation, I love going Yelp and seeing what everyone says about it –
INTERVIEWER: Taking the next step, you know.
VOICE 1: And seeing you know, what their store hours are and everything else.
INTERVIEWER: Which is why Yelp should be paying you to get their stuff on there.
VOICE 1: Or we should be paying Yelp to make our answers, you know, that much better. In any event –
INTERVIEWER: I’d start the discussions which they should be paying you and go from there. But…
VOICE 2: So, I guess one of the kind of like cute, I just have a new paradigm to kind of like focus on what we’re working on, what wouldn’t work. It’s to really think about the answering experience because that’s what made us certain we wanted to build Aardvark. When we were trying the different prototypes that were similar, we found answers were extremely responsive when we send in a little IM saying, hey you there, you know – a friend of Max Ventilla has a question about, you know (unintelligible) everything. People loved to be called upon in the moment, when somebody has a need right then that they can help us.
INTERVIEWER: So the people who answer quickly, I assume you intend to go back to them.
VOICE 2: Yeah and we favor people who respond and have been answering. And so, it’s that moment, it’s the same moment, you know somebody introduced you, probably your friend who needs a hand like, oh I know all about that, I can just help you. So, all of our decisions are kind of driven by that experience and you say there, what would preserve that experience? If I say well, it’s a different thing if I’m posting a static review on a site. It’s much more like I’m helping somebody live in the moment.
INTERVIEWER: Have you ever thought of paying people? Like giving them say those Facebook credits or something? Sort of something they can actually use.
VOICE 2: In a sense but we…
INTERVIEWER: You don’t wanted to get…
VOICE 2: In any systematical graph, it’s the really the human experience that we want to drive it. For instance, we don’t a point system or a reputation systems, you are the best answer. Instead, what those are really useful for is for the flood of user generated content to try to distinguish it, it has some authority for some and not others. But we found, there’s another dimension for dealing with content which is if you’re just having a one on one conversation with somebody in the moment, you know, you tell them the truth, you’re honest with them. And that’s a type of intimacy that you know comes along with that. So, that’s how we approach the issue instead of saying, hey, for that (unintelligible) they can spend 10 hours a day on an answer site, rack up your points, that’s a very different audience. And when I ask some question, I don’t want an answer that’s solely for that kind of audience like we get for some things. But usually I want somebody in my network who’s not spending their days kind of, just focusing on web content but they’re going about their affairs. We catch them at a convenient moment and they answer, if they want to.
VOICE 1: And the final dimension too is that the referrals really compliment the routing that are worked out. So, I’d probably answer as many questions as I refer to other people that got answered. And this is a channel in which referring questions feels very natural. You know, if you sent me a direct email, you know, asking me, you know whatever you’re going back to Hawaii for lobbying like what are places that are worth checking out if you stay for a few extra days. You know what? I’ve been to Hawaii twice but my buddy lived for six years, you know, on the big island. I’m going to email it to him. And here because it’s coming directly to you because you know that you’ve been selected, it’ a small number of individuals, it’s not like put on the web page for anyone to see. We actually do find that people refer to the question on to someone else. So it just points to the fact that there are very different motivations here going on than you know, I want to get paid for it, I want to get points for it, or like this is actually going to be my full time activity. What we like about Aardvark is that it doesn’t have to be like something that you know you’re going back to this website on a regular basis and it’s like one of the major things you do. It just fits pretty seamlessly in your day-to-day interactions over IM or email or Twitter in this case.
VOICE 2: Yeah, on that side, a big theme(ph) to us is although there’s a lot of, you know, we talked about this. There’s a lot of complexity in the technology for how we are going to figure out the routing, you know, these situations from the point of view, you know, the user is supposed to be just that simple like, you type a question just like you’re sending it to a friend. Instead, it goes to Aardvark and he finds the right person to answer. So, that simplicity is really important to us and we want to kind of keep that. Oh, it’s interactive but like, you are in contact to it. It’s closer to a telephone than it is to a website.
INTERVIEWER: What is your most popular interface?
VOICE 2: IM (unintelligible).
INTERVIEWER: IM before. What’s second, e-mail?
VOICE 2: Yeah, I think e-mail comes in second now.
INTERVIEWER: All right. Great, so anything else we’re talking about right now on video? Any big announcements?
VOICE 1: Well, there’s a lot stuff coming down the pipe.
INTERVIEWER: Like what?
VOICE 1: We’re actively developing.
INTERVIEWER: It’s probably off record.
(Soundbite of laughter)
VOICE 1: It’s going to be off record. Well, this is off record. You know, the icon thing it’s going to be a big thing which we’re not talking about. You know people know it’s in my hair but, you know, we’re not going to give any timeframe for that kind of thing now.
INTERVIEWER: So, when do you think that will launch?
VOICE 1: Exactly right.
(Soundbite of laughter)
INTERVIEWER: Is there a problem with, you know, just push notification for background apps and that kind of stuff or is it literally just –
VOICE 2: Push notification, I thought we’re going to, I mean, it (unintelligible) fine. It always will.
VOICE 1: That was certainly you one of the things we were excited about you know coming out this year to be able to use that functionality. I mean, it’s totally fundamental to what we’re trying to do. And the other thing that’s exciting is just you now how much that platform has taken off And the fact that it is totally natural for people to install an app they’ll be going to be using on a regular basis. It’s not like the (unintelligible) thing that a few techies with the iPhone are doing.
INTERVIEWER: Are you guys – do you wear these t-shirts with that the tiny Aardvark logo? Do you wear this everyday like the whole office or just when you go out for meetings?
VOICE 2: You know, except again we’re clearly off the record and we’re definitely you know. My sister, excuse me, she’s an animal psychologist and she designed this logo. So, that’s why I wear this all the time. It’s a little aardvark.
INTERVIEWER: Is an animal psychologist –
VOICE 2: …particularly qualified to design Aardvark logos? I think so.
INTERVIEWER: Is there something on the bank?
VOICE 2: Of the t-shirt?
VOICE 2: No.
VOICE 1: Actually nothing. It’s very, very small. (unintelligible)
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, there some things going on with that. Okay. (unintelligible)
VOICE 2: But, I do wear it everyday.
INTERVIEWER: Really? He has multiple shirts.
VOICE 1: I have like a shelf full of these shirts so that we do wear it everyday.
VOICE 1 & 2: Yeah.
VOICE 1: Yeah. You’d be hard pressed to find me not wearing this t-shirt. On the weekend, I don’t wear it. But during the week, I wear it.
INTERVIEWER: I was following your chin there at the end. I was getting criticized for my camera work which is nonexistent. All right. So, there’s absolutely no major announcements. I mean, we’re doing Twitter but here at the end of the video nothing like super juicy like – oh by the way, Google just acquired us or we just raised another round of funding at a $500 million valuation or –
VOICE 2: But, that would be newsworthy.
INTERVIEWER: Just a slow and steady building of business listening to you (unintelligible).
VOICE 2: There are some exciting integrations coming out with a bunch of different services because we sent on top of all these services but, that stuff has –
INTERVIEWER: We have Facebook now. We’ve got Twitter.
VOICE 2: I think by process of elimination, you’ll be going to be able to like them. Yes, we’ll go and sit on top of all the social networks and the remaining IM networks.
INTERVIEWER: OK. And the iPhone would it be – are we thinking this year, I mean are you allowed to say when? You may not even know exactly but definitely thinking.
VOICE 2: Absoultely.
INTERVIEWER: OK. Thanks very much, guys.
VOICE 1: Thanks, Michael.
VOICE 2: Thanks, Michael.
VOICE 2: It’s great having your thoughts on these ideas, you know, and push back under different areas. It will be interesting.
INTERVIEWER: And TechCrunch by far your favorite blog?
VOICE 2: That’s exactly what I meant to say.
INTERVIEWER: Yeah, you have been to TechCrunch, right?
(Soundbite of laughter)