Balaji Vishwanathan Quora

Just 24K followers? You might be laughing or wondering if I am having a hangover since there are thousands of users on Facebook and Twitter who have more followers than that. Before decoding the story of Balaji Viswanathan and the reason of his fan following on the network, lets drill a bit about Quora as it is still not as popular among the masses like Facebook, WhatsApp, and LinkedIn.

Quora, which recently raised $80 million in a Series C round led by Tiger Global in a bid to ‘stay independent forever’, is a network of popular questions and answers. The community driven platform where questions are created, answered, edited and organized by its community of users, says it has the largest library of first-hand knowledge and second largest library on the Web overall, after Wikipedia.

Quora was co-founded in 2009 by two former Facebook employees, Adam D’Angelo and Charlie Cheever while making it live for public in June 21, 2010. The company that shies of revealing its exact traffic figure says it’s got 400,000 topics on the site and that popular writers on the site can get as many as a million page views in a month.

In 2013, Quora announced the top writers on its platform largely based on contributions made over the year – answers, questions, and edits. Balaji Viswanathan is one of them who gets to display the badge on top of his Quora profile. Till date Balaji has answered more than 1365 questions revolving around 48 topics.

“When I started out, I focused only on entrepreneurship, business and technology. Then started writing answers on history. Then I wrote a lot on economics & finance. Then it shifted to religion. Then world history. Now, it is in public policy and politics,” shares Balaji in an email interview. His latest answer on how can corruption be eradicated from India? has already fetched more than 1000 upvotes/ appreciation from the users.

His popularity on Quora is credible and is built on the basis of his in-depth and vivid knowledge, in fact there is a discussion going on if he is the second Google; his introduction to the platform is rather interesting like his early life.

The computer engineering guy from Tiruchirappalli did a MS in Computer Science from Univ. of Maryland, Baltimore County. He did his thesis on Multiagent Systems – that combined economics & computer science. But he didn’t finish his PhD since he couldn’t refuse a tempting offer from Microsoft.

“In my early 20s, I started as a developer in the Core Operating System Division (COSD) managing a core component – RPC, in Windows’ communication stack. Then I moved into a hybrid research division, where we created new startups internally. Then my team was asked to move to the Windows Phone division to help build the Windows Phone 7.

By my mid 20s, I realized that I was having way too much fun and I forgot my core goals. I had frequent vacations, a nice sports car and rented a lake front house,” states Balaji on Quora.

With time Balaji realised that his fundamental ambition was becoming an entrepreneur. “Since US had no startup visa, we had to move back to India. But, in India we could not find the customers for our businesses as our target customers were in the US.”

During this time Balaji dipped his hands in multiple things, which were:

1. Analyzing investment opportunities for high net worth individuals through a premium newsletter program.

2. Building a virtual university – NalandaU.

3. Starting up Agni, magazine to connect Indian entrepreneurs.

4. Running social media and inbound marketing campaigns for small businesses and developing inbound marketing strategies for politicians.

By his late 20′s, Balaji had built a reasonably profitable inbound marketing business. But, this also meant that he had moved away from his original financial product idea. So, he once again returned to the US, joined an MBA program at Babson that totally focuses on entrepreneurship while completely rebuilding his product, Belimitless – a new productivity plugin.

“What can we do to make people be more productive throughout the day? Is there anything that can reduce their time wastage by 10 minutes every day?,” was the apt answer from Balaji when I asked him what’s keeping him busy.

Writing was always with Balaji who has been blogging since 2005. “My blogposts on economics were cited by Asia Development Bank and a few other reputed sources. Months before the Financial crisis of 2008, I have been blogging on the impending crisis. I was also quite active on Twitter in 2011-12 timeframe and was in the Pinstorm’s Indian Influencer list. Besides that, I was very active on internal networks in Microsoft,” he shares.

He first met Quora before 2011 but it wasn’t a sweet meeting as he felt Quora was a little nauseating at first (with excess of Silicon Valley banter). But it was his wife who finally convinced him to go for it knowing his potential and what the platform could offer. Though she regrets it now as Balaji now spends 2-3 hours every day.

He adds that it was,“In the summer of 2012, my wife finally convinced me to get on to Quora. She said it has got a lot more interesting and diverse. So I started actively using since June 16, 2012. Within 2 weeks, 4 of my answers went “viral” and that was encouraging and they got into the “wall of fame”.”

While Balaji modestly shrugs off my tag of a Quora Rockstar, he adds, “I don’t know the rockstar part, but I do spend a lot of time on the network ;-). Initially, I didn’t notice a lot of the follower part and was focused merely on upvotes. Upvotes were quite scarce as late as 2012 and felt I should be focusing more on that. After writing the first 500 answers in 6 months, I got to about 2000 followers. Since then it accelerated (throughout the network it was felt by everyone) and partly helped by the ‘Top Writer program’. In the next 6 months, I wrote 500 more answers and got 8000 more followers. The first 1000 takes the longest time in any network.”

Most of us might be thinking that Quora is a waste of time but for Balaji, it is brain exercise and also partly a tool to express. Talking about the benefits from the platform he adds that, “It improves my writing and thought process; I got a book deal with an Indian publisher due to my Quora contribution. I make a lot of new friends. At the end of day, spending time on Quora is akin to taking a road trip or getting submerged in a novel. There are no takeaways more important than being in the midst of that journey.”

In fact he has been so popular on his political knowledge and support for BJP, there is a question on Quora that he should return to India and BJP. Though the man has refused the idea, his answer has fetched more than 147 upvotes.

While he has dreams of making a successful exit by 30, he also plans to shift a lot of his contributions to be either anonymous or question comments, to prevent them from getting on to his feed. “In the next months, I’m planning to pull out the lower quality answers.”

And what is his take on Quora becoming a very popular platform among Indians of late? At a time when Indians are actually driving 37% of traffic followed by US at 27%.

“India is a natural market for Quora. Indians are voracious readers/debaters and even poor villagers spend a lot of time debating stuff in chai shops. During college, we have spent whole night bantering random stuff in the hostel. I have never seen any other culture that is as talkative and as voracious consumers of content as Indians. Unlike the US, Indian media still makes money and books still sell in big numbers. Unfortunately, Quora management has never sought to make use of this advantage they have got in India. The poor quality of Indian mainstream media and the weak nature of our social sciences education at school is making a lot of Indians rely on Quora as their primary knowledge source,” adds Balaji.

Is Quora listening? If Quora can be made available in regional languages then Facebook can face a problem in India.

For now Balaji thinks that Quora is going good, but they still have to open a lot more doors for their content. “They should enable the authors serialize their content into a book. That would enable a lot of professional writers get in the network and test the market. They also have the potential to replace most of the news magazines and forums if they play well.”

But then not everyone is happy with his answers on Quora. While he has a good base of followers who love his bullet point answers, there are users who are claiming that his answers are factually incorrect.

Nevertheless, he has a quick piece of advice for users who are dreaming to build a sizable network and have a million credits like Balaji does now. “Focus on one niche and build a fortress around that. Go very deep in each answer, even if that forces you to answer only a few. If you have a choice between writing 10 one-paragraph answers and 1 ten-paragraph answers, write the ten-paragraph answer. Most popular authors on Quora got there because of a few very good answers,” he states while adding that there is a long way to go and things often swing between banality and super-interesting.

A horse-sized duck is always more potent than many duck sized horses.

Image credit: Facebook