Scott Jones's big bet

Can human-powered search beat Google?

By Julie Sloane, FSB contributor

(FSB Magazine) Indianapolis -- Last summer Jones devised a process to bring more ideas out of the filing cabinet and into active development. He assigned Lee Jorgenson, a 22-year-old former intern, to build a team of college students and recent graduates who would research what Jones boasts will be the next big thing in Christmas lights. (He declines to explain further.) Jones was so delighted with the team's prototype that Jorgenson now has the green light to hire as many as 25 more young techies to work on four additional projects.

One idea Jones wants them to investigate: the world's ultimate fly killer. (Dead in two seconds! Accuracy 100%!) Their youthful naiveté is key to the equation. "It's good to work with senior people," says Jones, "but a lot of times their first reaction to an idea is, 'That's dumb, and here are all the reasons why you can't do it.'"

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Jones's workshop: The inventor likes to stuff his office with oscilloscopes, signal generators, solar ovens, and any other gadget that helps him tinker.

At the center of Jones's world today are his three sons, ages 11, 13, and 15 (he divorced twice: once in 1997 and again in 2004), and ChaCha, the human-powered search engine he launched last year. The premise is one Jones says he has been mulling for two decades: What if you could have a gizmo embedded in your ear that would answer any question that occurred to you? That's the Star Trek version. In practice, he envisioned a sort of 411 for all recorded knowledge, primarily sold through phone companies.

The trigger to launch ChaCha came when Jones was preparing a speech for the National Academy of Sciences at Stanford in 2005. To fill in some technical gaps in his talk, he phoned several venture capitalists and technology experts for help in tracking down information. Each pointed him to a specific website. "I thought, 'Holy s---! I can actually do it now! If I recruit an army of experts, I could actually do what I was considering doing 20 years ago.'"

Jones has invested $2 million of his money in ChaCha and raised another $6.5 million from two rounds of financing led by Bezos Expeditions (bezosexpeditions.com), Amazon founder Jeff Bezos's venture fund. Other investors include Rod Canion, co-founder of Compaq, and Jack Gill, a managing director at Vanguard Ventures. The startup, with a few hundred thousand in annual revenue, has yet to make a profit.

The idea of so-called social search isn't new - Yahoo started out that way - but that approach has long since been trumped by Google's algorithm-driven model. Several startups are now attempting to incorporate human judgment into search engines, but none have significant market share or name recognition. "Not yet," says Jones boldly. In one sense, ChaCha looks like any other Google-style search engine. Punch in a term - say, "leather sofas" - push the ChaCha Search button, and you'll get links aggregated from other search engines, including Google and Yahoo.

Can human expertise enhance automated web search?

ChaCha's secret sauce, however, is the second button, which reads Search with Guide. Click that (registration is required) and your query goes to one of 30,000 researchers who work from home and supposedly know something about leather sofas. ChaCha pays these independent contractors from $5 to $10 an hour for the time they spend tracking down the answer. The site is ad supported. The company plans to roll out both phone and text-message versions with a regional carrier. The carrier will probably charge from 50 cents to $2 a question, and Jones will get a cut of each payment.

Analysts agree that search engines offering something Google doesn't - say, blog or MP3 searches - won't soon overtake the giant but can gain popularity as a secondary tool. ChaCha, however, is aiming higher. "I think if you're trying to change the search experience as a whole, it's a much bigger challenge," says David Berkowitz, director of emerging media and client strategy with 360i (360i.com), a New York City search-marketing agency, "and that's where ChaCha falls in."

Once Jones gets sold on one of his ideas, he'll go to almost any length to make it happen. Ajay Bansal, 45, ChaCha's newly hired VP of engineering, was living happily in San Jose with his wife and 9-year-old daughter when one of Jones's recruiters called. He was intrigued by the job offer but not by the idea of living in Indiana. He declined. Jones continued interviewing dozens of candidates but found himself comparing them with Bansal. "I had to go get him," says Jones matter-of-factly.

So he called Bansal once a week for months. He flew out Bansal's whole family and gave them private tours of the Indianapolis Zoo and Children's Museum (his foundation gives generously to both). They petted baby elephants, felt a triceratops fossil, and heard Jones's lengthy spiels on the advantages of raising children in Indiana. "Any roadblock I threw up, he said, 'Tell me what the issue is and I'll solve it,'" says Bansal. "The 'no' was not acceptable. I ran out of excuses not to join the company."

Jones has recently moved his 50-member ChaCha staff from a small house on his estate to a 6,000-square-foot office in an upscale outdoor shopping mall with restaurants, stores, and a Wild Oats supermarket. He figures that while the space costs 20% more than a regular office park, a happy staff is a productive one. The mall's owners don't know it yet, but Jones plans to import street performers to give the place more energy. Are the owners okay with that? "They will be," he says mildly.

Jones and his staff have drunk the Kool-Aid in a big way. "It would never occur to Scott to think, 'Is this going to work?'" says Brad Bostic, ChaCha's 32-year-old president. "There may be a moment when he thinks, 'Is this idea going to be $1 billion or $10 billion?' But every employee walks around knowing this company is going to be huge." Jones wears ChaCha-logo apparel just about every day. "It's kind of like when people shave their head for a cause," he explains. "This is my cause." Top of page

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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer.

Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved.

Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved.

Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2014 and/or its affiliates.