As Experts-Exchange's resident historian, I'd like to put our story in context, introduce some of the human beings referenced, and put things in an accurate sequence:
Experts Exchange was developed in 1996 by Clint Staley, a California Polytechnic State University, computer science professor in San Luis Obispo, California, along with his former student, Matt Wormley (who went on to author the editable type tools used in Adobe Photoshop) as a departmental pet project. They envisioned a better system than Usenet by inventing Q&A mechanics like points, rewards based on difficulty, accepted solutions, ranks, etc. that would help educate both asker and answerer. These basic concepts are still in use by most Q&A services today.
Experts-Exchange originally launched as a free service (and remained so for eight years), but it took 2-3 years for the site to reach critical mass. California Polytechnic State University computer science students participated as the first Experts-Exchange's original experts, developing programming skills while answering questions. Dan Gardner was brought on as the business mind and several folks were hired. I was hired as employee number five. Austin Miller (the future owner referred to in Jeff Atwood's post and a former Apple VP) was brought in to mange operations in 1998-99.
Those were exciting times. We obtained 5.5 million dollars of VC funding from JP Morgan and built a small and talented staff in San Luis Obispo. The VC money came with a catch. Most start-ups at that time were unprepared without the VC lessons we take for granted today, and (of course) we gave JP Morgan a 51% interest in the company. Within months, they opened an enormous office in San Mateo, California, and filled it with sixty additional employees along with brand name executives from Electronic Arts, NASA, etc. James Gosling served on our board. We inked deals to provide internal Q&A installations to companies like Oracle and Sun Microsystems. External instances were sold to clients like Alta Vista. Experts-Exchange's member base and traffic were growing exponentially. We kicked serious ass and slept on cash pillows. The sky was the limit.
But less than a year later the honeymoon ended. The founding office in San Luis Obispo became increasingly irate with the lack of output from our San Francisco Bay Area peeps. We also disagreed with the company's direction. After a few months of conflict and whistle blowing, we arrived to work one morning and were greeted by a security guard who escorted us into the office to collect our belongings. We were then instructed to meet at a local hotel conference room to discuss next steps in front of a long table headed by our new executives. They flew down and laid us off in an effort to save face to our investors. Our labor of love had ended. Or so it seemed...
Eight months later, the exorbitant burn rate for the San Mateo offices/salaries exceeded what was in the bank. The dot-com era was coming to a close in early 2001. Cash was running out. There were no second round VC suitors. The San Mateo team rushed a shoddily built Java version of the site which experienced days/weeks of downtime. The expert community was in revolt. The company plunged into chaos. It looked like the beginning of the end of Experts-Exchange.
Then ironically, JP Morgan then decided to hire some of the original team as contractors (myself included) to keep the site afloat so they could either sell or liquidate Experts-Exchange's assets. We were unemployed, gaining weight, and still living off severance packages, so we shamelessly took the work and drove to San Mateo with a U-Haul to collect computer equipment, assuming the office was already empty. As we walked in at 8:00 a.m., we watched the CEO walk out. It turned out the executives never told the staff what was happening. They simply left. We were then tasked to lay off sixty people - the same folks who'd laid us off only months before. You can't make this stuff up.
By late 2001 Randy Redberg (Experts-Exchange's current owner) and Austin Miller purchased the site. By late 2002 we rewrote the code base. Uptime was steadily improving. Most of our competitors became part of the dot-com dead pool. But co-location costs, staff costs, and ad revenue alone couldn't keep the lights on. After a lot of experimentation (think of New York Times' pay permutations, only years before) nothing really worked (like New York Times), so Randy went with the controversial decision to go with paid subscription. We really had no choice. We could either offer paid subscriptions or close the shop.
Some of our community didn't want to shift to a revenue model (imagine if Stack Exchange went from free to paid, the sentiment expressed in Jeff Atwood's post) and we experienced a lot of turnover with both members and community volunteers. But after the dust settled, the thousands of members, experts, and volunteers that hung around laid the foundation for what we have today. In fact - after the dot-com bomb, with no corporate entity to speak of, our community volunteers and experts self-organized, built their own offsite tools (with no API) and essentially kept Experts-Exchange alive. After that Randy led the company to profitability after nine years in 2004. Since then, we've had the resources to maintain an ongoing service that's stable for our community and staff.
Experts-Exchange is still a labor of love. We have a great story. We're proud of where we come from. We're proud of how we got here. Now we're going to talk about it. A lot. Paid does not equal evil. A business model does not mean we're bad folks.
We're happy to continue this conversation wherever/whenever.