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Biz Stone Dishes Details on Jelly, His Post-Twitter Mobile Startup

A Q&A with the CEO of the app made for Q&A.

Paige Green / Jelly

A solid second act is tough to pull off — especially if you’ve created one of the world’s best-known social networks.

That’s the case for Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, whose new mobile-only startup Jelly launched to much ado earlier this month after more than a year under wraps.

Now Stone’s job is to convince the world that Jelly — an app that aims to serve up answers to your on-the-fly questions — is worth downloading over, say, Quora, or perhaps even better than using Google.

We sat down with Stone earlier this week to hash out what exactly goes into — and comes out of — his new startup.

Mike Isaac: So tell me, in as few words as possible, what Jelly is.

Biz Stone: Jelly is a new way to search with pictures and friends from your social network.

Okay, thanks for that. So if I was, say, not a tech journalist but a normal dude, why would I use this instead of Google?

For some percentage of your questions, a person is better than answering them than an algorithm or a computer. For example — very visual questions that a person could simply look at and answer in a couple of seconds, whereas a computer may be stumped.

So, how about the way I use Twitter right now? I could blast questions out like that. Do people need another separate app to do that?

I guess it depends on who you are and how you use Twitter, and if the people who follow you want to see that sort of thing.

It comes down to a matter of expectation. If you were to send a query out to your social networks, you might get an answer, you might not. So you could get lucky.

We designed Jelly so that the expectation specifically was if you ask a question you’ll be getting an answer to it. Also, it doesn’t go out to everybody in your networks. It goes out to a percentage of your Twitter and Facebook connections — and their connections.

So it’s not just a matter of expectation, it’s also taking advantage of the strength of weak ties. You’re sending it out to your network, some of your friends’ networks, and then from there it can go to anywhere in the world — off application [using other messaging like email and SMS].

Okay, so help me with this — as a first-time user, the interface was tough for me to grasp. Am I dumb? Or is that common?

Well, we broke the conventional stream on purpose.

We built an earlier prototype that felt like using Twitter or Instagram. And it felt great; it was really fun to scroll through everybody’s questions, skipping over them, going back.

But what we noticed was that it wasn’t generating the type of activity we were trying to engender.

For example, I’d post a picture of my son in a hat, and I’d be asking if this was the right sort of hat for UV protection. And all the comments I’d get were, “Oh, he’s so cute, he looks like you!” And, yeah, he is cute! But I was kinda asking a specific question, you know.

We realized that the world has plenty of that. We really wanted to make this about getting a short, snappy answer on any mobile phone, as quickly as possible.

So we switched our model to what we were internally calling “one and done.” Which means we show you a question and you have to make a decision right then and there. Do you know the answer? Do you know someone who knows it? Or do you skip it, because you don’t? And when you skip it, it’s gone forever, and you’re on to the next one.

So for the most part, we intentionally broke the familiar model, knowing that it would feel awkward for many people who have become accustomed to it — having faith that it would work to do the job of the application.

That actually brings up a point I wanted to touch on. Something I see — and do — in Jelly, is comment on questions without necessarily answering them. I feel like there’s this impulse to converse — how do you handle that?

So, like I said before, we made it somewhat awkward — it doesn’t really invite that type of behavior.

I am certainly familiar with the impulse people have to just react, and I think that’s good, in a way. Whenever we’re using these tools, they’re not useful unless some amount of fun and silliness is inherent in them that attracts you to use them on a semi-regular basis. So when you do need it, you remember it.

If it was too strict, then you just wouldn’t use it regularly.

I think what we need to do in the future is try to find a way to let some of that in, while at the same time surfacing the true answers and truly useful responses to your questions. Getting those to you first; then, if you want, you can have a little fun with it.

Back when [Jelly COO] Kevin Thau worked at Twitter, he was once asked by someone, “Isn’t Twitter just another messaging service?” And he said, yes, it is. But there’s a specific time and place for a text or a tweet. And our hope is that [Jelly] enters into that muscle-memory lexicon for apps.

So, is that the verb? To “Jelly” it? Jam on some Jelly?

(Laughs) I dunno, who knows what people will say? Our Twitter handle is @AskJelly, so I guess we’re trying to promote that. If it turns into “Jelly it,” that would be fantastic — but I’m not going to presume that.

Lastly, are you guys even thinking about monetization at this point?

Only in that we see ourselves in the search business, and we think that that’s a good business to be in when it comes to making a profitable company.

But we’re also in the mobile Internet business, which means we can’t really think about doing anything worthwhile until there is proven value — critical mass, people doing things across Jelly that are proving to be valuable such that we can come up with ways to enhance that value.

We have to wait through that uncomfortable canyon of spending a lot of money, time and work hours until we’ve proven that Jelly is a valuable tool to a whole lot of people.

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