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GuruNet Israel Ltd. – A Small Company With Big Answers / By Hila Yaakobi

GuruNet is a small Israeli company operating out of its Jerusalem site two websites together ranked on the list of the 50 most viewed websites in the US. In Israel the company is virtually unknown, but on the world map it’s a big player, running an informational site that attracts almost 17 million visitors a month. We met with Shmuel Rosenstein, the CEO and founder of GuruNet, and Leah Shpitz-Goldenhirsh, human resources manager, who told us about the concept behind the company’s founding, its operations, its special character and its approach to management.

What led to GuruNet’s founding?

Shmuel: GuruNet was founded nearly ten years ago following a phone call I received from Yossi Vardi. Yossi is a very generous and important figure in the Israeli market. I call him “the grandfather of Israeli high tech.” At the time he was the force behind ICQ and since then he’s been involved in dozens of Israeli startups. Yossi Vardi was the one who gave us the original idea that eventually turned into GuruNet.

How did your paths cross and what was the idea Yossi Vardi proposed?
Shmuel: The previous company I founded was called Accent, where Israel’s first Windows word processor was developed, and we helped Microsoft add Hebrew and Arabic to Windows. The last product we developed at Accent was a click-on translation tool.
Yossi Vardi saw a CD we distributed with the program and called me one day, saying, “I have an idea for you. Do what you’re doing on the Internet rather than on a disk. Develop a downloadable program and store the whole database out there on the Web. Also, expand the use of the tool you developed for information of all kinds and turn it into a single-click information tool.

How did the idea eventually result in the founding of a company?
Shmuel: I told Yossi the idea he suggested was brilliant and he said he said it was his gift to me. All this took place almost ten years ago and afterwards we founded GuruNet. We set up the company with the help of eight people. Those eight people who joined me were the ones who did the hard work and deserve the credit.


Shmuel Rosenstein, CEO and founder of GuruNet (right), and
 Leah Shpitz-Goldenhirsh, human resources manager (left)

What was the product you went on the market with?
Shmuel: The product was one-click information. By downloading a small program we provided every Internet user access to information with a single click. Over the years everything has changed a lot. There have been ups and downs, recruitment drives, budget cuts, names and products, and eventually, in 2005, we launched our new product and changed the name of the company to Answers.

What was the new product?
Shmuel: The new product was a website, Answers.com, that provides information services. The site provides very extensive, accessible and easily understood information and today contains over five million entries. At the beginning of 2005 we launched Answers.com from here, from Jerusalem. At the same time we made a number of significant changes and took a few big gambles, not knowing whether they’d work. Luckily, all of them did.

What changes did you make?
Shmuel: First, we changed the name of the product from GuruNet to Answers.com. Second, we shifted the emphasis from the software to the Internet site. Until then the product had functioned primarily through downloading the program, but starting in 2005 we enabled users to benefit from the product without having to install a program.
Third, we made it free. Previously we had required a payment of $30 per year for the service. Following this move the percentage of product users increased very significantly. At the same time we started displaying notices and ads on the site, earning money from users viewing the ads and clicking on notices.

Why did you change the name to Answers.com?
Shmuel: We wanted the name of the website to be closer to the idea that forms the basis of the product – an Internet engine that searches for answers. In 2005 we changed the name of the US parent company to Answers Corporation. Until then all of our activity had been under the name GuruNet. Starting in 2005 we changed the name, but decided to keep the Israeli subsidiary under the old name, GuruNet.

How do the two companies operate?
Shmuel: I’m the CEO of both companies, but I receive my salary from the subsidiary. The US company has a staff of about 10 workers, who are Americans. The subsidiary is located in Jerusalem and has 50 employees, and most of the R&D takes place there. The US company is involved in marketing aspects, community activity surrounding WikiAnswers.com and public relations, and our servers are operated out of the US. The two companies are intertwined, of course.

What is unique about the product you developed?
Shmuel: We have agreements with a lot of content sources and our product makes it possible to mass very extensive information on one page. Users can enter the site, type in what they’re looking for and receive information from over 180 encyclopedias and dictionaries. We compiled all of these information sources under a single roof and we present all of this information in a simple and accessible manner, all in one place.

How do you generate income from operating this kind of site?
Shmuel: In two parallel ways. One, like Yahoo!, through ads that everyone recognizes and identifies as ads, and two, sponsored links, which are ads that don’t look like ads. Whenever a user clicks on one of these links, we receive money from the advertiser. We employ both methods, both classic ads and sponsored links, and that’s how we earn money.

What kind of exposure does your site have?
Shmuel: Our most significant exposure is through the US Google site, where most of the pages have a link at the top right called “definitions.” This link leads to Answers.com. As far as I know we’re the only website in the world that Google refers users to, every day, all the time.

What is the nature of your cooperation with Google? Do you pay for the link on their site?
Shmuel: We don’t pay a cent for this link. I offered to put their logo on our site in exchange, and I even offered to pay them for the traffic created through the cooperation with them, but they said there’s no need.

Why?
Shmuel: I asked them that too and their reply was that they simply like our product. The only stipulation they made was that we wouldn’t sign a contract. This, of course, carries a certain threat because our status is not guaranteed and we constantly have to ensure our content remains high caliber and relevant.

What’s the significance of this link on Google?
Shmuel: It means half a million visits a day on our site. This is an astounding amount of traffic for which we don’t pay a cent.

Besides the website and the original product, one-click information, have you developed additional products?
Shmuel: Another product we acquired and invested a lot in developing is WikiAnswers.com. Its aim is to provide information that’s not a definition or a term, but answers to questions. Unlike Wikipedia, which is the Internet encyclopedia, our site is based on questions and answers. Like Wikipedia, it’s also fed by user contents, i.e. the answers to the questions are provided by users within the community. It’s a community of people who ask and answer questions, and it’s grown at a tremendous rate. Just to give you some idea, the only community-based site larger than WikiAnswers is Yahoo Answers, and our site is gradually eating away at Yahoo!’s dominance.

How do you draw users to the site?
Shmuel: A user who enters a question into the Google search box will almost certainly get Wiki.Answers as one of the first links that appears.

How do you explain the fact the site is among the first links that appears on Google?
Shmuel: In order to appear in a good spot on Google, you have to provide good, interesting information and you have to be popular.
Google ranks our site very high in terms of the quality of the information and the interest it creates.
Through Google’s informal partnership with every website in the world, it finds the interesting contents and we benefit from this a lot. Both of our sites, Answers.com and WikiAnswers, have grown at a very remarkable rate. In recent months the number of pages viewed per week on Wiki.Answers comes to 16 million, which is extremely impressive.

*****************************

What can you tell us about the Israeli company, GuruNet?
Shmuel: We’re a small company, and despite the American accent it’s Israeli and is located in Jerusalem. What makes us unique is that we’ve made our way onto the world map. We’re building an international product image and doing it from here, from Israel. We’re very well known in the US and as of today we’re positioned around the 50th spot among all US websites and we’re considered an American success story. In Israel we’re almost entirely unknown, but being among the top 50 most popular sites in the US means an enormous number of monthly visits by different users – about 280 times that of Ynet.

What kind of numbers are you talking about?
Shmuel: About 60,000 different users enter Ynet per month. Answers.com and WikiAnswers.com together get 16.8 million different users per month.

Which do the Israeli company’s activities include?
Shmuel: GuruNet in Israel serves as the company’s development center, so most of the employees are developers. We have very interesting work in terms of development. We develop in PHP, MYSQL, Java, Linux, etc., and we employ very high-caliber people capable of building a website according to international standards. In addition to developers and testing personnel, Israel is also the headquarters for the contents, administrative, executive, finance and technical support staffs.

What are the content personnel responsible for?
Shmuel: Our contents people are the ones who check the encyclopedias and the dictionaries before purchasing them and help us decide which of them are the best. They’re responsible for combining them and adapting them to the system, and they also check and write some of the contents posted on Wiki.Answers, verifying, correcting and improving the answers.

What kind of people comprise the GuruNet staff?
Shmuel: The company is a very interesting amalgamation of cultures. We’re an ingathering of the Diaspora – Israelis, Americans, Europeans, Russians. Most of our employees are English speakers, but there are native-born Israelis as well. It’s a highly variegated company.
Leah: We have it all: religious and secular, people in their early 20s, former MAMRAM soldiers studying in college and working here part-time, and 55-year-old employees. We have no discrimination based on background, age, religion or gender. There are a lot of women here, many of whom go on maternity leaves and come back. All of the employees here do their reserve duty and it doesn’t pose a problem.

What is distinctive about the organizational culture and the atmosphere at the company?
Shmuel: This is a company that places emphasis first and foremost on respect. I don’t care in the least whether you’re a manager or a low-level worker, everyone is treated with respect. I have no interest in technological geniuses if they don’t know how to show respect for their colleagues. Of course we do need people with very strong technology skills, but to me it’s no less important for people to like the people they work with.
I try to set a tone of mutual respect and treating people as individuals. Obviously not everybody’s the same, there are differences in salary for instance, but all of us work together and our gratification comes from building something big and special. From a business angle we’re very aggressive, but from a human angle we’re very nice to people. It’s a very pleasant company. Our organizational culture is informal. As far as I’m concerned the atmosphere is more important than the tie. I hate office politics and intrigue, so I try to run the organization in a way that averts them. Stiff, formal management is not my style.
Leah: The open-door policy here is genuine. Any employee who wants to can go freely into Shmuel’s office and speak with him openly. There’s a lot of trust between the employees and the managers. As long as the work gets done well and efficiently, the attitude is very open and accommodating.

What kind of a company is GuruNet as a place to work?
Leah: It’s very pleasant here. The working environment is very nice and allows almost every employee his or her own room, which is a part of the respect the company accords its workers. Everybody has privacy. Almost every year before Rosh Hashanah, Shmuel calls all of the employees at home to personally wish them and their families a good year. I think this reflects his character and the character of the company he built. Of course he knows the names of the employees’ spouses and the employees’ birthdays. He mingles among the staff members, asking how they’re doing and getting updated.

What do you think are the main factors in employee retention?
Shmuel: In my opinion there are three factors that keep somebody at his place of work: fair compensation, a nice atmosphere, including an ability to develop, learn new things and cope with new challenges, and also good people whose company’s is enjoyable, and the third factor is getting pleasure from your work. The moment you lose the pleasure you lose your desire to come in to work in the morning. I think it’s very important for a workplace to be a pleasant place to work.
Leah: The day-to-day atmosphere is what makes the employees stay. We do the maximum to make people happy and make this a nice place to be.

And is this apparent in your staff turnover rate?
Shmuel: We have very few employees who quit. I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of people who left us during the past decade. People who come here are in no hurry to leave. There’s strong loyalty to the company. The atmosphere, the close-knit ties and the people are what cause that.

How do you encourage a feeling of belonging and unity among the employees?
Leah: Once a week we hold a meeting for the entire staff, where updates and reports are presented. It’s very important to us that everybody is involved in what happens. We have a group lunch once a week, drink a toast before holidays and organize outings and company events. Furthermore, since partnership is a part of our worldview, every employee who has joined the company received options. Our staff members work hard and they are partners in the success, therefore when there are profits they benefit from them.

What recruitment processes do you conduct?
Leah: For many of the positions the first phase in the process is a test intended to check how suitable the candidate is in order to avoid wasting his time and ours. The next phase is a number of interviews – a human resources interview, an interview with the manager and with one of the members of the team the candidate would be joining. Also, hardly any employee gets hired without being interviewed by Shmuel. It sounds scary, but everyone steps out of the interview with Shmuel wearing a smiling on his face.

Do you provide your employees training programs?
Leah: We ensure our developers are provided quality training programs. Almost all of them are held here in order to include as many employees as possible, both developers and testing personnel. All of the programmers are invited to the training programs, even if the training is not in their specific field, both for the sake of their personal development and to give them a better understanding of what their colleagues do.

How do you stay in demand in a market that has a shortage of quality manpower?
Shmuel: If I were a young programmer, a PHP or Java hotshot, I would view the possibility of working here as an exceptional opportunity to work at an international site of enormous dimensions. It’s no simple matter to build a site that can handle a load of millions of visitors per day and is growing all the time. Constructing a database this size and of this quality has many challenges. GuruNet is a company that allows you to learn a whole lot, grow and develop, all in a good atmosphere and with good job terms. The fun part is the tremendous challenge we have here. Site development is accomplished using advanced tools and technologies on the forefront of worldwide development – from search algorithms to caching systems.

What is the company’s growth forecast?
Shmuel: We’ve gone through difficult periods of budget cuts and I don’t want to have to go through that again. I’m assuming we’ll benefit from the profitability forecasted for us and that we’ll grow, but at a reasonable rate. I don’t intend to double the staff in the coming year. We’re hoping the growth will continue, which will bring with it growth in the employee roster, but at a conservative and reasonable rate. We’re looking for good people, people who love to work, learn and invest themselves.

In conclusion, what is the GuruNet vision?
It’s quite grand. Our vision is to be the site, the premier Internet destination for answers to any questions, the most useful and reliable information source providing answers – not links – to as many questions as possible. Our goal is to provide the best answers on the Internet. That’s a big goal, but it’s achievable.


For the Hebrew Article  

 
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