One of the biggest forces that has emerged in the Internet in recent years has been crowdsourcing, the way the web has empowered users to drive the creation of content and information online. For today's interview, we spoke with Clark Benson, CEO and Founder of Ranker (www.ranker.com), on how the firm is looking to harness that same force to power its own startup, which offers up a way for users to create their own ranked lists of pretty much anything.
What's the story behind Ranker?
Clark Benson: I'm a serial entrepreneur, and have had one prior Internet exit. I sold that company, eCRUSH, which operated espin.com, to Hearst at the end of 2006. It actually closed on New Year's Day, 2007. How Ranker came about, is I love to make lists. My whole life, I've been making lists of things. I'm a big music fan, and I'd make my end of the year album lists, the list of concerts I went to, those kinds of things. I also know similar people who are fans of movies, cars, and whatever, who also make lists. I also like the power of semantic data on the web, and the idea of linked data, so that you can really extract a lot of meaningful data and value from facts or opinions in a linked way. You can slice and dice information and pivot on almost anything, if that data is well-linked. The concept for Ranker came from merging the two together. The idea was to allow people to list and rank items, and use that to generate meaningful value as a recommendation engine. There are lots of things you can do with data if you can clearly organize it. The idea, is to take what has been unstructured data, and add structure to it.
How do you generate all of your data?
Clark Benson: Ranker has two layers. First of all is the data layer, which is what I consider to be facts or objects. We actually source that data from Freebase and Factual. We grab large data sets of different things, such as movies, cars, books, or people, and then our interface adds what I call the opinion layer to that. Using our system, users can very quickly rank things or vote on thinks, vote on rankings of existing lists, and copy lists. It's a very flexible, open platform, and is pretty open ended. We are able to take the Factual data so that users don't have to type everything out, and they can very easily create content or make a list because most of it is already there in the system. They can search for things very quickly, drag and drop, add items to that list, and add their vote to our aggregated, crowdranked lists. That's where the value really multiplies. Instead of having just one person's opinion on a topic, we can aggregate thousands of people on a topic, and eventually filter by demographic, psychographics, and extract meaning in all kinds of ways.
What is the business model here?
Clark Benson: There is the initial business model, and then there is also what we grow into as we scale. Right now, we are running targeted ads using ad networks or whatnot. We're not yet marketing or selling direct to advertisers, because we're really focused on growing and honing our platform. We also make some e-commerce revenue, because some people are ranking products, so we can make affiliate revenue or lead revenue on clicks on things like cars. That's the initial business model, which is ads and affiliate revenue. There are also some future revenue sources down the line, when we reach scale, which is kind of what we are going towards. However, we're really focused on growing the business and making money, but not necessarily going for a home run until we have enough scale to make it worthwhile. There are lots of things you can do with aggregated, opinion data, but we need to scale first.
How long has the site been up and running?
Clark Benson: I founded the company in 2008, and we took a little over a year to launch. We were in closed beta for a while, and launched in August of 2009. Our traffic metrics have been growing, and we're now up to over 2 million monthly uniques, and 7 million monthly page views. Our growth has been steady from month-to-month, and has just started to ramp up heavily in 2011.
What have you learned so far in getting the site up and running?
Clark Benson: The hardest thing, which I knew going in, is that there are many other people who have tried to build websites based on listing and ranking. But, there are not many funded players in the space. A very small amount of those sites have had funding, but there are certainly websites about lists. The hardest part, is if you want a platform which is a broad platform, and not just about one topic or genre, about all kinds of things. It's not easy to put together a user interface powered by all of that data, which is easy to use and scalable. It's only been in the last six months that we have cracked the code on aggregated lists. We spent a lot of time testng our interfaces, getting user feedback, looking at the analytics, and throwing things out. What we have learned, is that user interfaces are hard. Even though we knew that going it, it's harder than you quite anticipate. There's constant interaction and testing. One thing we have as a long term goal is not to just be a destination, but a distributed platform on other sites, so that communities can create their own, mini version of Ranker living on their site. There isn't really a ranking app out there, although there are plenty of polling apps. We're relatively close to launching a distributed app, but we've been holding it back to make sure things are working smoothly on our own site. Frankly, I never though we'd get to this level of traffic without a distributed app, because it's hard to build a community, hard to build a new content or destination website.
What lessons did you learn at your last company which you're applying here?
Clark Benson: Probably the single most important thing, is you need a great team. Although I've been in Los Angeles, my last company was actually based in Chicago. Although that worked, it took a long time to get to a strong, profitable model we could then exit. Part of the reason for that, is we weren't in the same office as a team. I learned that, certainly, the Internet allows you to do things remotely. We had some great offshore coders as part of the engineering team. But, I think that although you are only as good as your team, being in the office, hands on, day-to-day, is the single most important thing you can do as a founder.
Finally, talk briefly about the venture backers of your company and what you have been doing with your recent funding?
Clark Benson: We raised money from Draper Fisher Jurvetson in Palo Alto, Rincon Ventures, and a number of angels. Most of that funding is going towards staffing up. We've been running pretty lean to date, and now we're hiring. We're definitely looking for business development and marketing people, and we really could use a strong Java developer who is interested in linked data and the semantic web, and who is a good coder overall. I also have recently hired a couple of good people locally, on the product management and content side.
Thanks, and good luck!