It’s a beautiful day in Palo Alto and a perfect setting to talk tech and living in Silicon Valley with Justin Kitch. He’s CEO and cofounder (along with Thai Bui and John Tokash) of Curious, a Menlo Park-based video app and site that provides lifelong learning on thousands of topics. As we waited for our drinks in the pleasantly airy courtyard, I asked him about Pizzeria Delfina.
Q. This is one of your favorite restaurants?
Justin Kitch: Yes. My wife and I have always enjoyed healthy and delicious food and we’ve spent a lot of time in Europe, specifically Italy, and this restaurant, Delfina’s, is one of my favorites.
Q. Do you have a favorite dish?
JK: They make a Spicy Broccoli Raab Pizza that’s quite delicious.
Q. Nice. Okay, let’s talk big picture and then we’ll drill into some specifics. How’s life?
JK: (Laughs) Life is great. I cannot complain. I’m living a pretty fabulous life.
Q. What do you like about Silicon Valley?
JK: I grew up in Wichita, Kansas, and I came out here to go to Stanford and basically never left. I couldn’t believe there was a place with so much fantastic weather, but also diversity—intellectual diversity, racial diversity. Growing up in Wichita, you have very limited career opportunities. You pretty much do what your dad did.
JK: No, we were in the city. My dad is a lawyer, my mom is a professor, but coming out here and seeing how much youth is driving the place and that ideas mattered, not just how big your bank account was, that was really inspiring and, of course, Stanford was a great entree to that.
Q. Were there any famous alumni in your class we would know?
JK: Rachel Maddow was in my class. And Janet Evans. I went on a date with her once, though I wouldn’t say it was very successful (laughs). Stanford is full of people like that, Summer Sanders, Fred Savage, lots of amazing people. But most of the amazing people you meet don’t necessarily become famous. Some majored in political science and are doing well without any glamour in the third world, and other people had been jerks along the way and became famous. And I would not aspire to be one of those folks. It cuts both ways. Also, Stanford is where I learned programming and just fell in love with it.
Q. When I met you 15 years ago, you had started Homestead, one of the first companies that made it easy for individuals and companies to create a website. Is that what drives you as an entrepreneur—here’s a problem I can help people fix or learn how to do?
Q. The web has really changed since you launched Homestead.
JK: Mobile has completely changed things and social has completely changed things. It’s about presence, where you exist on your phone, on Facebook, Twitter, and on LinkedIn.
Q. These are very different kinds of companies than we saw in 2007.
JK: Yes. Facebook made a lot of decisions about how something should be called a wall or page and how friends work. Those decisions forced them to create a certain kind of network that turned out not to be good for professionals. LinkedIn chose a different metaphor and was able to be a Facebook for professionals. Twitter chose a different metaphor focused on messaging and relationships. So now you have followers and these little bursts of information. Those metaphors are very restrictive and would cause them some day to become obsolete.
JK: Yes, because there will be some new thing that contradicts that metaphor and the same thing that made them successful at one point in time will make them obsolete or less successful in the future. There is almost no way to get around that.
Q. What did you do after leaving Intuit that led to Curious?
JK: We had our third child, so I was able to be at home. We were also building a house and I’m an amateur woodworker, so I was able to join the crew every day with my hammer, saw, and paintbrush. My wife also took a year off from teaching and we decided we wanted to use the time to learn things.
Q. Like what?
JK: I wanted to learn how to play guitar good enough to perform. I also mountain bike and wanted to get better at that.
Q. Sounds like we’re getting to the idea for Curious.
JK: Right. At night I figured I’d learn stuff using YouTube. I spent a year trying to do that and learned it’s really impossible to learn those type of skills at the level I wanted to be using YouTube. I found teachers who were strewn around the Internet who were struggling to find platforms they could use to teach. Curious came out of that experience.
Q. Why can’t I just go to YouTube and learn how to play the guitar?
JK: YouTube is a great resource. If you already play the guitar and you want to learn how to play a song by Dire Straights, you can find that on YouTube. If you don’t know how to play the guitar or can’t play bar chords, or you don’t know what an A minor chord is, there is no way the video will teach you that. If you already know Yoga, you could find some exercises and you can maybe get something great out of it. If you don’t know how to do Yoga, or if it’s a new kind of Yoga, or if you are trying to get a real experience of Yoga, it’s not right for you. What’s missing is the interaction with the teacher, understanding what you’re not getting, and pacing and structure in a way that allows you to start at the very beginning, move your way up, stop and test yourself, ask for help.
Q. Apple tightly controls what’s available on the App Store. Are you more like Apple or Google?
JK: We’re definitely more like Apple. We have a lot of rules about it being a certain quality, and we have to judge that it’s educational. Once it’s in the marketplace, the students either do or don’t like it, so we know the quality pretty quickly.
Q. And that can lead to what if say a teacher is getting a lot of negative comments?
JK: We have taken down a few teachers, but mostly it leads us to giving them feedback as to what they can do better.
Q. Has the level of participation been about what you expected?
JK: It’s ahead in some areas. We’re very delighted with where things are. But anyone running a business thinks it should be bigger, and you spend your waking hours agonizing over things you should be doing better.
Q. You play in a rec basketball league. I wonder if that competitive mentality carries over to business.
JK: I definitely think it helps. I’ve channeled a lot of my failure to be better at athletics into my business career (laughs). I try to have that same attitude.
Q. I’ve seen you play. You’re pretty good.
JK: I’m always dissatisfied with my game. No matter how well I play, I always remember the shots I missed or the guy who scored on me.
Q. What are some of the whackier videos that Curious features?
JK: We have several Parkour instructors. It’s like the art of running through an urban landscape, and the stuff you can do is amazing. We have great wilderness and survival people. I do a lot of mountain biking and have taken a couple of bad falls when I was eight miles into the backwoods of the Rocky Mountains, so I’ve taken those lessons to heart.
Q. You have new lessons coming on all the time, so the sky’s the limit for your growth?
JK: We used to think we’d need a few thousand lessons to reach a sustainable point, but we’re now close to 10,000 lessons and I think we might need 100,000 or even a million lessons. There is so much knowledge in the world. We have this short format where we teach in bite-sized pieces, but you can still learn a lot of interesting stuff. We set out a daily curio I write, which is coupled with a daily lesson. Our philosophy is you should be learning something new daily. When you’re in line at Starbucks, you could be learning.
Q. Curious is on the iPad and iPhone. What has mobile meant to your business?
JK: The fact that you’re freed from the desktop is huge. We have a feature when you go to your phone or iPad. It asks if you want to continue where you left off, so the lesson follows you around.
Q. In five years, is Curious just bigger or do you see other changes ahead?
JK: I think it can go in many different directions. The problem we’re trying to solve is huge. People think their education stops after they’ve completed school, but it’s really just the start. We’re trying to create an easy, delicious way for people to learn stuff all the time. I don’t know where it goes, but I do think the Curious brand has enormous potential, and we’re excited to see what happens.