Jonathan Brill: Quora Writer Relations

“We are capturing the world’s knowledge in a way that is different than anywhere else.”

Jonathan Brill

Jonathan Brill is the Writer Relations lead at Quora. He came on The Quoracast to talk about his background and his role in the Quora community.

Throughout much of his origin story Jonathan worked in Sales and Marketing.

“I took a retail clerk job in high school, and the person who ran the chain of stores was an old salesperson at Xerox. He was able to teach me the communication style to maximize opportunities.”

“Early on I was pretty interested in what made the business world work.”

He has studied the entire history of business, from the robber barons and the seedy beginnings of IBM, to the modern, unique models of Facebook and Quora.

The more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same.

“In traditional business, there were three parts of the business. You either made stuff, sold stuff, or were administrative. I pegged myself early on that I would be in the sell-side.”

“You have to go out and meet with people and explain [the product] in a way that people can understand. I gravitated towards the idea that I wanted to work with people directly and only on groundbeaking new technology that would have to be explained, where the benefit wasn’t necessarily intuitive.”

Quora upended his conventional understanding of businesses.

“In businesses like Quora, there isn’t necessarily a sell-side, or a distribution arm. Facebook is a good model. Salespeople for the advertising product were there from the start, but it would be weird to call them core to the business. There were lots of companies that sold advertising, but Facebook is different because of the level of engagement.”

“Overwhelmingly, the value of Facebook’s business is on the make-stuff side of the house.”

While I was delving into his background, I found a surprising lack of material about Jonathan online. He told me this was in accordance with his past desire to keep a light digital footprint.

“Prior to joining Quora, I was a business-to-business salesperson. One of the things you have to be careful of when you are representing a company is allowing people to be biased against the company because of something you wrote. I felt like putting too much of myself out there might have been a liability.”

“I kind of grew out of that over the past couple of years. But even then I had to be very careful about what I said.”

I proposed that maybe the world is moving in a direction where users benefit from disclosing more about themselves online. Specifically, I was thinking of James Altucher, who rose from the ashes of his embarrassing failures by writing about them candidly.

“I think it’s completely the opposite,” said Jonathan. “Everyone should worry a lot more about what they are putting online. Having a digital footprint is like having a credit history. Having a bad one is better than having none at all, but you don’t want to have a bad one.”

The purpose of Jonathan’s role at Quora is to act as an intermediary between the users and the engineering team.

“The principal mission for me is to positively impact the writing experience at Quora by providing feedback from the writers into the product team, and working in a closer way with people who are doing a lot of writing.”

“There are things that I can impact that the product team cannot exactly do.”

Jonathan contrasted the experiences of Top Writers with the rest of Quora’s user base.

“The experience of writing on Quora may be the same, but the Top Writers are writing more, and spending more time on the site. Even before I joined the company, I was probably on Quora upwards of 20 or 30 hours per week, just having the app open. I don’t use Facebook or LinkedIn the same way. My experience [on Quora] is unique. If I’m spending 10 hours a day in my feed, I need something different than someone who is checking it for 15 or 20 minutes per day while they look for something to write about.”

In a discussion about how Quora is growing into the mainstream, he pointed to LinkedIn as an analog.

“There are some places where knowledge of Quora is assumed. And in some places not as many people know about it. Facebook has achieved critical mass globally and is in every language. Quora is in English only, and we are still in a phase of early growth.”

“From the time Adam started the company, he has been consistent that the mission of Quora is to build a place where we are capturing the world’s knowledge in a way that is different than anywhere else.”

“The hardest thing for most people is finding out what to write about.” When blogging, Jonathan argued, 80% of the time is not spent writing. Much of it is spent on formatting, distribution, and other ancillary activities.

“Writing on Quora is fundamentally different. If you are looking to write in volume and you want to get a lot of people reading what you write, it’s difficult to find a better place than Quora.”

Right-click to download the episode.