Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Awesome Web Business: justanswer.com

Yesterday I bought this car, a 1982 Mercedes-Benz 380 SEC:

It's pretty sweet, and it's aged unusually well -- the seller said his father was the original owner -- but no 30-year-old car will be perfect, and I discovered an imperfection early this afternoon, when I couldn't find the parking brake release lever.

I started googling and came across justanswer.com a few times. The first time, I thought it looked like a spammy SEO trap with no actual content, but the second time I gave it a look and discovered some useful answers, along with an "ask a question" button. By the time I realized I had to pay for an answer, I was willing to give it a shot. You pay a $1 deposit to initiate the process, and then they pipe your question to possible answerers. I had an experienced Mercedes mechanic in live chat in no time, and he told me where to look for the release lever.

Unfortunately, it wasn't there. For some insane reason, somebody had actually removed it.

My new-found mechanic supplied me with a diagram of the parking brake release mechanism, and I ran back into my apartment for my tools. It only took five Phillips screws to take off the lower driver's-side dashboard, and a few more seconds to find the internal release lever which the dashboard release lever normally pulls on. So I just pulled the internal release lever myself and released the parking brake.

Best of all, I've got 3G internet on my iPad through Verizon, so the entire process was completely seamless in terms of my experience. I worried that I might have to go inside to use the chat room, since many sites would have implemented that functionality in Flash, but justanswer.com was smart enough to implement it in HTML and JavaScript. The whole experience was pretty much exactly like the concept in Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age of digital "books" linked to outsourced workers in faraway countries, except without the unpleasant overtones of class division and indentured servitude. (Yes, I was a privileged white guy repairing his Mercedes via iPad, but I took the dashboard apart myself, after all -- something which none of the Neo-Victorians in Snow Crash would have ever done.)

justanswer.com totally made my day. I thought I was going to have to call a mechanic out just to start my car, and instead I had the problem solved almost instantly for $15. All in all, I have to say, this is an absolutely terrific web site, and a great counter-example to the weirder success stories out there. When you look at Facebook buying Instagram for $1B, or Google trying to buy Groupon for $4B, the web can seem a bit senseless and deranged. It's nice to remember that you can also build a business online by supplying an incredibly useful service to people.