Even as you read this, somewhere in or above the United States, maybe in a nearby house or the next seat on the plane, a figure sits hunched over a computer, ready and willing to answer any question you might have about anything at any time of the day or night. That's the premise, and the promise, of ChaCha.com, which was founded in December 2005 in Carmel, Indiana, by two impatient entrepreneurs.
ChaCha's chairman and CEO, Scott Jones, invented, at the age of 25, the world's most popular voice mail system (now used by more than 1 billion subscribers). He went on to establish companies in fields as disparate as music-recognition technology and robotics. His innovations show up in Apple's iPod and in robotic lawnmowers. Brad Bostic, ChaCha president, founded Bostech Corporation, which has evolved from custom software development into an enterprise integration software provider; he also built NearMed, a telemedicine service for healthcare providers.
What the two men were impatient about, back in 2005, was traditional search engines. It was taking them too long to sort through the dozens or hundreds of irrelevant answers provided before finding one they were looking for. Their solution was a Web site that combined the investigative talents of machines and the human brain.
A ChaCha search starts when you enter a search term. The instant results are the combination of the best search technology and so-called hand picked sites from the ChaCha community of skilled search experts known as ChaCha guides. If you require further assistance, you can select the option to work directly with a guide. An instant message chat session will begin, and a guide will greet you with a typed message indicating that he or she is ready to help you with your search. Once a guide clarifies what you need, he or she will find the most relevant information and display only those links. If you're not satisfied with your guide's work, you can ask for another.
As of fall 2007, Scott Jones expects to have a community of about 50,000 guides at work, assisting in providing content, and 1 million users of the site. The guides are trained and generally paid between $5 to $10 a search hour—the rate depends upon the reviews they receive from those they help and the number of searches they conduct. The success of the enterprise, all parties agree, will depend on just how good the guides are.
ChaCha searches are free; the founders hope to make their money in part, at least, from on-site advertising. Their serious income, they say, will come when their service becomes available to cell phone users via a toll-free number. Voice-recognition software will take care of simple searches such as sport scores, and other searches will be turned over to the guides. The founders predict that advertisers will be eager to fill the 15 to 30 seconds when callers are on hold, awaiting search results.
In case you were wondering, the company's name isn't a reference to the cha-cha; rather, it comes from the Chinese word cha, which means "search."