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Startup mines for riches in collaboration software

CHOICES • AboutUs relies on wiki volunteer cadre as well as its own staff

(news photo)


Vinh Nguyen (left) hits a pingpong ball with boss Ray King at AboutUs, a startup with offices in Portland and Pakistan that’s had no trouble finding interested, qualified workers – even volunteers.

New Seasons Market

Some employers are having no trouble finding new workers.

One of them is AboutUs Inc., a startup company that has created a Web directory using what’s called wiki software, which creates text that can be edited by anyone.

Dozens of local computer buffs and wiki fans show up for Wiki Wednesdays on the first Wednesday of every month at the company’s inner-east-side offices. Some have been hired to help build the firm’s Web site, which is intended to include individual pages on millions of businesses around the world.

Even the office looks different from a traditional business. The computer workstations are on wheels, allowing teams of employees to quickly gather for a specific project and then disperse when it’s done.

Founder Ray King also occasionally can be found playing pingpong with employees in an adjoining room.

AboutUs employs 31 workers in two offices, one of them in Lahore, Pakistan. Asked where he finds his workers, King looked puzzled, then said, “People we know.”

That reaction doesn’t surprise Ward Cuningham, a former Tektronix Inc. engineer who developed wiki software several years ago. The best-known application is Wikipedia, an online encyclopedia that’s collaboratively written and edited by volunteers who consider themselves members of a community — a community of wiki users.

“When I was at Tek, I was frustrated that computer hardware was being improved faster then computer software,” said Cunningham, who now works for AboutUs. “I wanted to invent some software that was completely different, that would grow and change as it was used. That’s how wiki came about.”

AboutUs is one of a handful of companies trying to figure out how to make money with wiki software.

Wikipedia is said to be the 15th most popular site on the Web, but it’s not a moneymaking enterprise. The plan is for AboutUs to list Web sites and give information about their content to become a source of fundamental, reliable information that can be supported by advertising.

The company launched its Web site, AboutUs.org, in August 2006 with more than 2 million pages that had been built largely by computer search programs and refined by a handful of employees.

It’s adding 25,000 pages a day and already has broken the 10 million-page mark. The pages on some organizations are reviewed and expanded by employees, some by volunteers who visit on Wiki Wednesdays and some by people who simply find them online and think they can be improved.

Investors appear to agree that AboutUs can be successful; they have contributed more than $1 million in startup funds.


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