A Hunky-Dory Week at Hunch—Questions and Answers with Caterina Fake, the Only “West Coasty” in a Roomful of MIT and Harvard Grads

It was a huge week for Hunch, the New York-based startup that’s experimenting with a new approach to answering life’s big and little questions—from “Which savings account should I use?” to “Which science fiction author would I like?” After more than two months in invitation-only preview mode, the site threw open its doors to the public on Monday, and doubled its user base in a single day to some 80,000 registered users.

An excited Caterina Fake, Hunch’s co-founder and chief product officer, told me, “There’s been a ton, a ton, a ton of activity” on Hunch since the public launch—including an unexpected number of users who are contributing to Hunch’s signature collection of questions or “topics.” As I explained in a column on Hunch back in April, each topic steers users toward concrete results after asking 10 or fewer multiple-choice questions. Designing topics—which take the form of decision trees, with each answer leading to a different set of possible outcomes—is fairly challenging, which is why Fake is pleasantly surprised to see as many as 20 percent of visitors trying their hands at it.

Caterina Fake, co-founder and CEO of HunchFake, who’s famous as the co-founder of the photo-sharing service Flickr, calls Hunch a “collective knowledge system.” She thinks the high early participation rates can be attributed at least in part to the fact that audiences have been primed by similar online collections of user-generated advice and information, such as Yahoo Answers and Wikipedia.

But my bet is that Hunch is also tapping into something deeper—the fact that there are a lot of people who love giving advice. I’m talking about the congenitally opinionated; the people who, based on the scantiest information, seem to be able to supply definitive recommendations about where their acquaintances should shop or how they should dress or who they should marry. In other lives, these people might have been therapists, advice columnists, or astrologers—but now they can become topic authors on Hunch.

Actually, I’m being a bit tongue in cheek—in reality, as you can see from visiting Hunch and looking at the profiles of contributors, the service is attracting people for all sorts of different reasons. For now, according to Fake, the company isn’t too focused on making money—its staff of 10 is working mainly to make sure that it’s easy to build topics, and that users find useful answers.

While Hunch is based in New York, it’s practically an outpost of Boston, considering that General Catalyst Partners of Cambridge supplied most of its $2 million Series A funding. New York’s Bessemer Venture Partners, which has a Boston office, also participated. Then there’s the fact, in Fake’s words, that “We’re pretty much an MIT shop.” Co-founders Tom Pinckney and Matt Gattis, product designer Hugo Liu, and software engineer Peter Coles all have degrees from MIT. CEO and co-founder Chris Dixon and software engineer Will Gaybrick are from Harvard, which is close enough. And several of the Hunch principals worked together at SiteAdvisor, a Boston-based anti-spyware company acquired by McAfee in 2006. “I’m the only West Coasty type,” Fake says. [Correction 9:20 a.m. June 18, 2009: Polaris Venture Partners is not a Hunch funder, as this paragraph previously stated.]

I spoke at length with Fake on Tuesday. Here’s a condensed version of our conversation.

Xconomy: What’s the activity been like at Hunch this week?

Caterina Fake: Yesterday was obviously a huge day, because of the launch. We got a ton more contributions. We launched with 500 topics, and by the end of the preview period we had 2,500, and I’m going to venture a guess that we had roughly a bajillion added yesterday. We had roughly 40,000 members at the end of the trial period and that roughly doubled in one day yesterday.

X: What unexpected lessons have popped up since you opened up Hunch for preview in March?

CF: The main thing is that we didn’t anticipate we would have as many contributions as we got. That was huge, actually. We weren’t quite ready for the influx of topics, questions, and results. We had 20 percent of our users during the preview period turn out to be contributors. Usually, whenever you build a social media or collective knowledge system like this, like a Yelp or a Wikipedia or a Flickr, you get a different percentage of contributors, and our estimate was that less than 5 percent of Hunch users would become contributors, because [contributing] is fairly complex. It’s a different idea. And when I say 20 percent, I mean that 20 percent of people are contributing topics and questions, which is just a crazy number.

X: What do you think you’re doing with Hunch that draws people in and get them contributing?

CF: I think we’ve hit on something that is at large on the Internet today. We were well set up for this by previous sites such as Yahoo Answers and Wikipedia and the quizzes on Facebook. They’ve all set us up well for people understanding what we’re doing and accepting the idea that collective knowledge systems can be beneficial.

X: Do you think your 20 percent contribution rate will continue now that you’ve opened up Hunch to everyone?

CF: From my experience with Flickr and other products I’ve worked on, including Yahoo Answers, it tends to diminish over time. The contributors at the outset tend to be early adopters, people who … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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