A Conversation with Ramit Sethi, Co-Founder of PBwiki

Recently, I had a conversation with Ramit Sethi, co-founder of PBwiki. Among the topics we covered – how PBwiki started and where it stands today, a sampling of some notable PBwiki sites, and what he and colleagues David Weekly and Nathan Schmidt are planning for the future. We also specifically discussed PBwiki’s approach to education, and why a wiki is particularly useful for teachers and students. Thanks Ramit!
Me: so how did PBwiki start? can you give me a bit of history on the concept/company etc., and how you see it fitting into the wiki world?

Ramit: It’s a funny story–David, (co-founder and CEO) got frustrated with how it was to use wikis, so he hacked PBwiki up at an all-night hacking session! The code base has changed substantially since then, but we knew we were onto something when we had 1,000 wikis created in about 2 days. That was around July of last year, and we’ve grown to become the largest consumer wiki farm online.

Me: You and David were undergrads at Stanford?

Ramit: David had graduated from Stanford a few years earlier. I had finished my undergrad at Stanford, and was getting my master’s degree there. And Nathan, who is our CTO, also graduated from Stanford a few years ago. I think one of your other questions was how do we fit into the wiki world?

Me: Yes. Thinking in terms of MediaWiki, JotSpot as the application wiki, Confluence as the enterprise wiki, etc.

Ramit: Ok, so in answer to that question: We really think wikis should be easy to use. From our perspective, every group should have a wiki–whether it’s a little-league team (who’s bringing oranges to the game?), a group of friends (who’s planning that part of our roadtrip?), to groups of employees at work, running a project. And so wikis need to be easy to use and much simpler than they are. With PBwiki, every feature we roll out is about making it as easy to make a wiki as a peanut butter sandwich (hence the PB).

Me: I like the metaphor, and i’ve noted that PBwiki is very “personable” in its marketing, setup, etc.

Ramit: Exactly! Every time we communicate with our users, we try to make it fun, conversational…in other words, like there are real people on the other end of our system–which, of course, there are. Another area we focus on is showing people why wikis are useful–for example, running a project at work, planning a trip with friends, sharing a recipe, or running a classroom for teachers.

Me: can you give me a quick cross-section of some notable PBwikis?

Ramit: Sure, here are a few:

Me: How funny! English 15 is a featured wiki on my blog

Ramit: Thats GREAT!! And you can see more examples at http://www.pbwiki.com/tour

Me: how do you see education as a market segment? i.e., what would you say PBwiki offers to someone in education shopping for a wiki tool?

Ramit: That’s a great question, and I’m really excited to talk about wikis and education. Wikis can be used for a whole bunch of things in education. The simplest example is that make it drop-dead easy for teachers to create a Web page for a course–so if you’re a teacher, and you want a way to put your syllabus and course notes online, you can go to www.pbwiki.com, create a wiki, and be up and running in about 4 minutes. They can be even more powerful, though–As you saw in the UPenn example (http://epochewiki.pbwiki.com), teachers are letting their students collaborate with each other on wikis. So, for example, your student Michael might write an essay, and Nicole might visit his page and add comments to the essay. Imagine this happening with 20 or 50 or 300 students. The learning is incredible! And it’s unbelievably easy to get set up. You just create an account and start sharing.

Me: I’m interested to see how wikis prepare students who go into academic careers for things like peer review of publications, etc. and i think ease of use is key to adoption.

Ramit: The final thing is simplicity. We’ve heard from lots of teachers how they’re frustrated with their school’s technology software. Sometimes it’s down, sometimes they can’t access it, and most of the time it’s just plain hard to use. We’re acutely aware of this and have spent a LOT of time thinking about how to make PBwiki simple and easy to use, right from the start.

Ramit: I agree, that’s a great point. Adoption is a critical challenge for us–we’re trying to understand who our users are and what they’re looking for. At the bottom of every single page in our system, we have a way for users to give us feedback, and we read every email.

Me: Reliability is a huge issue in higher ed, where faculty are used to research computing systems being robust and always on.

Ramit: So you’re absolutely right that figuring out how to spur adoption is crucial. One thing I didn’t mention is the pains we’ve taken to make PBwiki reliable and FAST! If you play around with a PBwiki, you’ll instantly notice how fast it is. We spend lots of time architecting our backend to keep it reliable and to keep it blazingly fast. Instead of lots of fancy gizmos and flashy things, we’d prefer to keep it lean, mean, and superfast/reliable.

Me: I think your last point is what takes people a little time to get used to – they’re so used to software being so loaded with features they don’t use, and really being bloated. Wiki is so antithetical to that, and many faculty seem surprised that a tool exists which puts speed and simplicity ahead of bells and whistles.

Ramit: Agreed! What a novel concept–keeping it simple and giving people what they want! We have a couple of pricing options, too. The best part is that the basic wiki is free, and that includes 10MB of space (that’s many hundreds/thousands of text pages), pre-made designs, RSS, and much more. We also have a Premium service for $5/month. With a Premium PBwiki, we’ll give you 1000MB (1 gigabyte), no ads, more gorgeous pre-made designs, advanced permissions (so you can allow certain people to read, while others can edit the wiki), and much more.

Me: Along those lines – a couple of quick technical questions i know users will appreciate getting answered right in this conversation: What about data backup?

Ramit: Great question. We make constant backups of your data. And I should make one more thing clear–your data is yours and you’re always free to take it whenever you like. In fact, we make it 1-click easy to download your entire wiki into a ZIP file. So you can do that anytime you like. (The technical answer is we backup once every hour.)

Me: Great to know, and the 1-click backup is nice to know about too. Where do you see PBwiki going in the short and longer term as a service?

Ramit: Our goal is wikis for everyone! We think every group should have a wiki. So all of our resources are going to building a better service and getting it to the right people. We think that instead of buying lots of advertising, we should build a better product and let our users talk about it. So we’ve been spending a lot of time figuring out what features make sense, what we can eliminate to make PBwiki even simpler, and how to communicate the benefits of a wiki to people. Short-term, we hope to find interesting new ways to share PBwiki with people. Long-term…honestly, I’m not smart enough to know what will happen 5 years from now. But I can guarantee that group collaboration is only getting more important.

Me: Heck I’m not really worried about 5 years from now (look at the changes since the end of the dot com bubble 5+ years ago)! But I agree with you on group collaboration – a wiki made me reassess the way I was using Word and email for documents, and I now do everything on a wiki.

Ramit: Exactly! Using a wiki is a great way to cut down on email, too. But I’ll tell you something else about PBwiki You won’t find the flashiest, most AJAX-y interface with us. We’ve consciously avoided that stuff in favor of building a simple, reliable, superfast service that makes it easy to collaborate. “It’s as easy as a peanut butter sandwich” really guides us.

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