Experts Exchange began in 1996 as a partnership of Cal Poly computer science professor Clint Staley, his friend Dan Gardner, and his former student Matt Wormley. Together, they launched www.experts-exchange.com, an online community where technology professionals solve problems and network.
The forum is primarily a question-and-answer exchange among community members. The site employs gamification principles, meaning members can award each other points for answering questions correctly or for writing articles that the community deems helpful. This system of recognition and positive reinforcement is one key way Experts Exchange differentiates itself from similar online communities.
“In some environments, people get beat up online, whereas ours is much more supportive and focused on networking,” said CEO Brian Clausen, who came to Experts Exchange earlier this year after six years as Shopatron’s senior vice president.
In the beginning, membership grew relatively slowly, with numbers rising into the thousands by early 1997.
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“Our founders solicited technology Usenet and newsgroups forums to draw users from pre-existing communities,” said Jenn Prentice, content manager at Experts Exchange. “The value of the service was well-understood by a community of loyal early adopters, and news spread quickly after a couple of years of organic growth.”
Experts Exchange attracted the interest of JP Morgan, which invested $5.5 million in the company in 1999 and relocated it to San Mateo. Just two years later, during the technology crash, the company went bankrupt. Still, the online community remained intact.
In 2001, Randy Redberg, a Paso Robles businessman, and Austin Miller, a former Apple marketing executive, purchased the company at auction. The early years of Experts Exchange’s rebirth were humble; its servers were housed in a garden shed outside the offices of Redberg’s landscaping business. The company relocated to offices in San Luis Obispo by 2003.
Reliance on advertising revenues limited growth, so in 2006, Experts Exchange introduced a premium membership plan. Nonpaying members now have limited access, and unlimited access is granted for a monthly fee of $12.95. Members who achieve a certain threshold receive unlimited free access.
The company experienced rapid membership growth between 2006 and 2010, largely because the site’s extensive question-and-answer database became well-indexed by major search engines such as Google.
By 2012, the company had secured enough premium members to eliminate advertisements from its logged-out pages as well as its mobile site, which was launched in July of last year.
Today, Experts Exchange is a global community of more than 100,000 subscribers who have access to a database of more than 4 million answered questions. Sixty employees work for the company. Because it is privately held, Prentice declined to disclose detailed financial information, but she said the company “has operated profitably and has had annual revenues in the eight figures for many years.” The company has averaged 20 percent growth over the past six years and anticipates at least 20 percent growth in 2014.
Clausen believes the company’s future growth depends upon reinventing its image as a question-and-answer forum. Within the next year, he hopes to put greater emphasis on the site’s educational content, which includes technology-focused articles, video tutorials, product reviews and step-by-step guides.
“Our goal is to be a top educational resource for tech professionals,” he said, “so when you’re starting a new job, your manager sets you up with your Experts Exchange account on your first day.”