I went to see Yelp Founders Jeremy Stoppelman and Russell Simmons speak about Yelp at the Commonwealth Club last week. These guys have been very selective about public speaking engagements, so it was a rare opportunity.
Although my company competes in the margins with Yelp (we have a local business review channel), I'm a huge fan of the company. I know from personal experience how hard it is to hit the right recipe for online community - and these guys have nailed it, and in the process, have created a very useful service.
One of the big topics of conversation was the question of how Yelp has thrived, when a number of other well funded, local business review companies have failed or given up (Judy's Book, Insider Pages, Zipingo). Russell Simmons pointed out two things that he thought Yelp had done better than its competitors:
- Emphasize community tools
- Nail one market (San Francisco), and expand out from there
I would agree with these two points (although I do think that a horizontal review play can win in this space), and add a third. An important aspect of Yelp's execution has been its ability to build an offline presence through local parties. These parties have served to reinforce the company's image (hip, fun, trendy), and to build real life relationships between the site's reviewers, making the online community stronger. I also admire how Yelp has pushed out stickers to local businesses - which again, provides that online / offline link.
The night also had a little bit of controversy which I accidentally was involved in.
I learned about the event (about 15 mins before it started) through a twitter (on Facebook) from Xavier Vespa - a guy who had interviewed me a while back for his blog Hyve Up. I pulled Xavier's cell phone of his profile, and texted him to ask him where the event was, and to say I was going to try and go. I got there late, and Xavier didn't see me walk in.
The session ended with a discussion of how all the other local business review start ups were dead, and opened up to Q&A. Xavier got up to the mic and said "This question is from Lawrence Coburn of RateItAll... do you know who RateItAll is? Jeremy said yes. "Do you mind if a video tape this answer?" asked Xavier. "No I don't mind," said Jeremy.
Meanwhile, I'm sitting in my chair thinking wtf... I've met Xavier exactly twice, and I certainly didn't put him up to asking any questions on my behalf. This was sounding awfully confrontational.
Xavier then asked a perfectly fair (and interesting) question about Yelp's widget and app related plans, and if they were prioritizing apps or widgets. I learned later that Xavier had known I wanted to come, and thought it would be cool to have a video tape for Sexy Widget of the Yelp founders talking about widgets and apps.
Anyway, I immediately texted Xavier with something pissed off like "I don't like anybody putting words in my mouth." He explained to me what he was trying to do, and apologized. I accepted his apology, as it was clear that he had asked his question with good intentions. I later apologized to Jeremy, who was very gracious.
Here's the video of the actual question and answer.