Plurk users bring microblogging to many languages

Microblog provider Plurk has won market share in Asia with the help of users around the world willing to translate it into dozens of languages outside of its main lingo, English. The company remains far behind Twitter globally and faces a challenge with Twitter's recent moves to include more languages, but a cofounder of Plurk is hopeful that an early lead will help his company fend Twitter off.

It's quite a challenge considering Plurk's small size. The whole team at Plurk is nine people, says cofounder Alvin Woon, spread around the world from Canada, where Plurk is incorporated, to Denmark, Poland, Taiwan, the U.K. and U.S.

Plurk ranks at the top of the microblog market in Taiwan, according to Internet researcher InsightXplorer, with Twitter in second place. Plurk also holds a large share in other parts of Asia where people can access it in their own language, such as Indonesia, and is even popular in places where English is common, like Singapore and Hong Kong, where it ranks second to Twitter.

Woon sat down with IDG News Service (IDGNS) recently to talk about how Plurk's language translation system works and what the future holds for the company.

IDGNS: How did Plurk get started?

Woon: We've been open for over a year. One of the cofounders is in Canada and the company is registered in Canada but the whole team is spread across the world. I am in Taiwan, we have one guy in Denmark, U.S., Canada, England, Poland, that’s about it. We know each other from the Internet. We’ve mainly found staff members through open-source work they’ve done and stuff like that. We’d give them a trial and see how it went. I think you’ll see this kind of company, this kind of organizational structure more and more in the future, you know, where people just work from home and they meet online via Skype, have meetings, e-mail, chat, and they come out with a Web service.

We have three cofounders, including me. Another cofounder is from Canada and he's in venture capital. The other is in Denmark, he's a programmer. I’ve never met the cofounder in Denmark. It’s pretty crazy if you think about it, I’ve never met one of the cofounders of the company.

IDGNS: Do you plan to build a headquarters anytime soon?

Woon: I think our HQ would be in Asia and not in Canada based on our growth. Venture capitalists kind of freak out when we tell them we’re spread all over the world. They’re like, "No, we want you to all be in one office, the same place." But right now, this works for us. Next year, we might bring everybody in and work in Taiwan. I think Taiwan would be a good place for our headquarters. Right now we’re number one in Taiwan, and also in most of Southeast Asia. In the U.S. and Canada, top five.

IDGNS: Why do you think Plurk is so popular in Asia?

Woon: I think there are a couple of reasons for that. First is the localization of our user interface. When Plurk first launched, we had a translation system where the whole system was translated into 25 different languages in two weeks. It’s all done by our users. We have some difficult languages, like Gaelic, Arabic, and Japanese, and it’s all done by our users. That gave us a head start, especially in a place like Taiwan. I think it’s different here than in Hong Kong or Singapore. People don’t speak English here as well, so when they come to Plurk and they see a traditional Chinese interface, they will be like, "Wow, this is done by a Taiwanese company." There is this kind of connection between the service provider and the user. We have users in Zambia, Denmark, Norway and other places, too.

IDGNS: What about China?

Woon: China is a tricky thing. It's so big you can't ignore it but it's one of those markets where being good just isn’t enough. You have to have connections. Right now we are banned in China so in order to penetrate the market we have to go there and meet with some people and make some connections... It's a totally different market from Taiwan or the U.S. But it's important.

IDGNS: Why are you blocked? Does that have to do with the protests in Xinjiang province earlier this year?

Woon: Yeah, even Chinese sites can’t get permission to operate. It's kind of sad, actually, because we had very healthy traction in China. Our growth has been steady and then suddenly we were shut down in China.

IDGNS: Your Web site says Plurk is offered in 33 languages and lists 45 languages, in all, under construction. How does the translation system work?

Woon: When we launched, some Plurkers from a faraway country said, “Hey, can we translate that for you?” And we said sure, why not. Then, it just turned viral. It’s kind of interesting to see how passionate people are about the service. They really want people in their own country to use Plurk. This is all volunteer work, but we do have this kind of reward system in place where you get a badge for everything you accomplish. If you become a translator, you get a Rosetta Stone badge, stuff like that. People are gratified by stuff like that.

Now we have groups of translators all over the world. When we write a new feature we will put it all out in text and push it through the system, then all the translators will take them. So all these translators will get an e-mail saying, "Hey, there’s a new string, please help us translate it." It's very democratic. Say you have maybe 10 Taiwanese translators translating a string but they get to vote among them for the best translation and then the system will push the best one up to the live Web page. So we push things out, then they translate it, then they push it in.

Languages are tricky. You know, in Japanese, the placement of the verb is very different, it’s not "I drink coffee," the verb is at the end of the sentence, so it’s "I coffee drink." So we have to change the whole user interface around. In Arabic and Hebrew, the whole page is switched from left-to-right to right-to-left. So it's tricky, actually. But we always wanted to become a service that works for everybody, so we have probably put too much effort into that. You can switch language at the bottom of the homepage and you can see how much the Web site changes. It’s kind of interesting. I think the users appreciate that, in the long run. Once you set up the translation system, it’s not that hard to do. I think every social-networking site should try to do that. If you only implement an English user interface, you shut out a lot of users.

IDGNS: Have you been approached about buyouts or investments?

Woon: Oh, sure. We've been approached by investors, rich people, big corporations… Our position right now is we’re not going to sell. We are, however, looking for investors, or partnerships. We’re not going to give up 51% of our company but we will be willing to give up 10 or 20 percent in exchange for capital and connections, things young people like us wouldn’t be able to get. That’s the kind of venture partnership we’d be willing to go into, instead of a total buyout.

Twitter has a lot of money in the bank. We’re kind of jealous about that. When you have a lot of money in the bank, you don’t have to rush to figure out a Web revenue model, how you’re going to make money. You can sit back and see what other people are doing and copy from them. Because when you try to start making money and then if you can’t make the amount of money people expect you to, your valuation will crash.

IDGNS: How do you plan to make money?

Woon: We want to find something that it is not annoying to the users. Display ads, banner ads, are annoying… Ads is definitely not the solution we will be going with at first. I personally hate to see a page full of ads when I use a site, and I try to think that way when I think about how to make money. There’s got to be a better way to do it.

The thing about making money off something like our site is that you need to provide value to the user first and once you’ve done that I think the money will start flowing. As long as you provide value to users then I don’t think you’re going to go bankrupt, because even if users aren't willing to pay for it, they are willing to see some ads for it. They know you have to survive. And that’s the kind of goal we’re targeting right now. It doesn’t take a lot of money to run a Web site like Plurk.

IDGNS: Well you must have some costs, at least marketing?

Woon: No, it doesn’t. I do interviews with newspapers and magazines, get invited to conferences, book launches... Everything has been free except for my air tickets and accommodations and whatnot. Like all the TV commercials, HTC (High Tech Computer) with Plurk inside. We didn’t pay for that. They actually have to ask permission from us to use Plurk and we said sure, why not. We also have a kind of integration now with Yahoo in Taiwan. If you are using Yahoo Mail now, you can actually check your Plurk without leaving Yahoo Mail.

I think our number one cost right now is our service and employees. Basically we are still at the stage where we are still burning investor money, which is common.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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