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The answers and FAQ/help space seem to be hot over the last 6-9 months. Google tried with Google Answers but closed late last year. Yahoo Answers appears to be the big winner in the space currently but lots of other smaller players are giving it a go.
I learned about a tool called Tinbag when I read a review on TechCrunch. Mike doesn't believe the service has enough differentiation from Google Answers to succeed. The comments got pretty interesting and when Richard Allinson, Tinbag creator commented, I thought it might be interesting to learn more about his service. Richard has had some interesting jobs over his career and seems to be very passionate about his service. His wife does the testing, he does the coding. Below is the transcript of our discussion.
Allen: Can you provide a brief background about yourself?
Richard: Although working as an IT Manager for most of my life I've been involved in several startup companies along the way. The first of note was Skullduggery Live Action Role Play, a company that runs Lord of the Rings style adventure games in the real world. The company organizes events for players to get dressed up in costume and act out their characters over the course of a weekend. I then worked with Rapido3D, a company that provides 3D laser scanning services for film and television. My last project with them was on location in Gotham City for the film Batman Returns, where I worked with the company founder and scanning genius Kevin Stenning. From these diverse backgrounds I moved into working with open source software and in 2005 was picked for the Google Summer of Code project. This involved working on the award winning Joomla CMS of which I now write Extensions for in my spare time.
Allen: What is Tinbag?
Richard: Tinbag is a tool that allows users to setup pay-for help & advice websites in the same way that Wufoo is a tool for creating on-line forms. It was born from the requirement to support my Joomla Extensions, when looking for an easy way to charge for providing support I couldn't find one. So Tinbag was created to fulfill the need of a person who has an existing product or service and wants a simple way to charge for their one-to-one help and advice. For example bloggers have few ways to make money. Most of their revenue models are based around ads or sponsors. Tinbag provides a tool that allows bloggers to sell advice centered around their blog. A successful blog is a great credential to people looking for specialized help, so it's a natural step to start providing one-to-one advice for both parties. The blogger creates revenue and the user knows the information is credible based on the existing blogs content.
Allen: Where did the name come from?
Richard: The name Tinbag was created from three requirements. Firstly it had to memorable, secondly it had to be hard to miss-spell and thirdly it had to be short. I decided along time ago that company names are largely silly and if they do have meaning it's only known to the few that came up with name. Yahoo, Google, Apple, none of them mean or say anything but it didn't stop the companies from becoming successful.
Allen: How did the negative review from TechCrunch affect your sales/traffic/overvall reviews?
Richard: The unexpected review from TechCrunch was at first very baffling. The sensationalized title made a huge impact on traffic to Tinbag, while at the same time I was at a loss to understand what the comparisons in the article were based on. With the first round of comments it became very clear that users where viewing Tinbag from the perspective of the article, a generic Q&A site. Action had to be taken in order to reinforce the real message of what Tinbag is about, creating self promoted pay-for help sites. After a late night and revisions to the site text reviews began to reflect the correct message and showed in a positive light the ideas behind Tinbag. The hidden bonus of the article was that many users saw the nothing-to-lose angle Tinbag provides, this was evident by many exploratory sign-ups creating active Help Sites.
Allen: Is there a team at Tinbag? If so, what is the makeup?
Richard: The team behind Tinbag consists of my Wife and I. The role of chief tester belongs to my Wife, if she doesn't understand or has difficulties using the product it goes back to the drawing board. The rest is the sole responsibility of myself. I can also say long hours and blind dedication are part of team too.
Allen: Who is using the service? Is it geek-only or mainstream?
Richard: The core of the Tinbag user base is currently Computer and Software support sites ranging from Linux support to general website trouble shooting. As many early adopters are generally full time Internet users this is the market we originally targeted.
Allen: Do you monetize Tinbag? If so, how?
Richard: Tinbag is free to join and there are no fees for creating Help Sites. At the end of each month users are simply charged 20% of the money they made through Tinbag. So if they didn't make any money it didn't cost them anything. This was one of the main factors in the original design. I don't use a service I have to pay for if I'm not sure that I'll use it, so I wouldn't expect anyone else to do the same. This approach is a real win for everyone involved. Users have nothing-to-lose by creating a Help Site, as the service is free until someone pays them, at which point they then have the money to pay their Tinbag bill.
Allen: Who are your competitors?
Richard: I'm not sure there are any? Not as direct competition in the traditional sense. There are many scripts and code examples of how to create various charging and billing systems. But equally there are users that have no idea how to make them work or where to look for them. Tinbag removes the requirement for programming knowledge and makes it painless to create a one-to-one support billing system.
Allen: How would you compare Google Answers or Yahoo Answers?
Richard: Comparing Tinbag with the Answer products from Yahoo or Google is like comparing a Cabinet Maker to Sears (www.sears.com) or Walmart (www.walmart.com). You can by furniture from all three, unless you need that little extra detail or personal touch.
Allen: Is Tinbag funded? Can you share any info on the funding?
Richard: Tinbag is as boot-strapped as a startup can be. I'm happy to put the hours in to make it a success and it gives me a great feeling of pride when I look at what my Wife and I have accomplished in such a short space of time. I use the software every day to support my own software and Tinbag users, so for me the first bench mark of success has been met. I will continue to grow the software as long as I can before I look to outside funding but at the moment we are on safe ground.
Allen: What's coming in the next 6-9 months for Tinbag?
Richard: Tinbag development is driven by its users, the latest addition added by request was the ability to style Tinbag to match a users current blog or support site. Other requests implemented in the last month include Per-Question billing and RSS feeds for new questions. Listening to what our users want is important to us and if they have genuinely productive ideas we add them as fast as possible. As for long term plans we are looking at introducing a public API so users can better integrate Tinbag into there existing tools and we have just started talks with a coming-soon Startup who are looking at using Tinbag for their internal support system.
Allen: What do you believe are the most important things that a startup must have to be successful?
Richard: Press Coverage – This is the single most important ingredient of any startup! If people don't know you exist all that hard work and prefect code means nothing. Its tough building a presence on the Internet if you don't have contacts. If you're like me and naturally a quite person its even harder. I've spent probably just as much time if not more pushing Tinbag to people in order to get the buzz going. So unless you already have a world coverage press plan in place get out there and start collecting email address.
Allen: What is the greatest business lesson you have learned in your career?
Richard: Just do it, there are always those little jobs left at the end of each day. Do them! These are the jobs make the difference, the fine details that you think will take two minutes to fix or that no-one will notice. These are the jobs that come back to bite you.