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Last Updated: Friday, 30 March 2007, 12:01 GMT 13:01 UK
Web 2.0 wonders: Yelp
By Darren Waters
Technology editor, BBC News website

Jeremy Stoppelman, BBC
Yelp has started local but is starting to go global

The web has evolved into an indispensable tool for our daily lives. But who are the people driving this growth? All this week the BBC News website is speaking to young, talented web pioneers working in Silicon Valley and beyond.

When Jeremy Stoppelman was 14 years old he had a subscription to Forbes magazine and dabbled in the stock market.

His ambition was to one day run his own company and be featured in his magazine of choice. Fifteen years later and both goals have been accomplished.

Mr Stoppelman is the co-founder and chief executive of Yelp.com, easily the internet's most sophisticated solution to finding local information and reliable reviews of services.

"I was a computer nerd but also investing in stocks in high school," he says.

Finance first

After graduating in computer engineering he moved form Virginia to the west coast and landed a job at a start-up company which eventually became the banking behemoth PayPal.

"I got my first experience of consumer internet and I discovered that that was what I was really excited about.

"I worked my way up through PayPal and left as VP of engineering - and went off to business school at Harvard for a year.

"My hope was always to start a company and I had been on that trail since pretty young.

"I knew a wanted to leave a big company environment I just wasn't sure how to do it yet.

"I joined PayPal after it had started to take traction and I knew I wanted to be somewhere at the moment of traction."

At PayPal, Mr Stoppelman had met his Yelp co-founder Russel Simmons and at the end of his first year at business school the pair were invited back to San Francisco by PayPal co-founder Max Levchin.

Levchin initiated what was called the Incubator; a group of current and former PayPal executives, as well as some outsiders, were brought together to brainstorm ideas around the consumer internet.

"In the early history of the consumer net pretty much all the companies were adaptations of things offline - porting things online," says Mr Stoppelman.

We give them all the tools and let them go crazy. We don't look at it from the other lens of trying to create a business and demanding content from the users
Jeremy Stoppelman

"In 2003/4 the internet had been around long enough for us to realise it was a new medium - we could riff with it, slice and dice data and do things with information that were never before possible.

"That's when net savvy folks out there started putting ideas together in novel ways that have led to this new crop of websites."

The Incubator brainstorming sessions lasted more than a month and out of those emerged Mr Stoppelman's idea for accessing reliable, local information online.

Local hero

"Both Russ and I had been trying to find a good doctor in San Francisco. I had used Google but I couldn't find anything.

"We knew that local information would shift online but no-one had solved the problem. We also felt there was a way to involve the social networking trend that was developing."

Mr Stoppelman says Incubator could not have happened anywhere other than in San Francisco.

"It's okay to start things here and fail. My friends in New York and Boston don't have that mentality; they want to join a successful company, with a great brand and have a stellar resume,

"Here, there is a core group of people who want to change the world, to push disruptive innovations, push new directions."

When Yelp launched it centred on e-mails sent out to people asking them for information about local services.

"We knew the big question was how to get people to write. Yelp initially was about blasting out these questions but buried in there was an option to write your own review.

"People were disappointed by the questions, noise and spam. But they would hop in and write a review when they found that button."

So Yelp re-tuned, focusing in on user reviews and community.

"I felt that the exciting part of Yelp was having my own soap box and platform, and having it associated with me."

Mr Stoppelman says they realised the need to change Yelp because they had seen how other start-ups had changed before finding success.

Dentist, SPL
Yelp helps people find good dentists in their neighbourhood
"All successful start-ups begin differently then correct their course.

"I thought YouTube had hit it out of the park first try, but the real story was that it was a hot or not clone, with video.

"They launched it quietly, then they re-tuned around sharing videos."

The key to Yelp's success is that it is a reliable, user-friendly local information service that reflects the passion of its users.

Many local information services are sterile websites which are often left without updates.

"It's all about keeping people on the site happy and having a good time

"The site first and foremost is entertainment - they want to have their voice, they want to write about things they want to, they want their section of the world they control

"We give them all the tools and let them go crazy. We don't look at it from the other lens of trying to create a business and demanding content from the users."

He adds: "They have to want to be there and not because you tell them to be there."

Yelp covers reviews around areas such as food, nightlife, local services, education and travel.

Cities that have vibrant Yelp communities include San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and Seattle.

More cities are being rolled out and international expansion is on the cards too.

"It is certainly on the radar. But growing locally takes time - we still have a lot of work to do here in the US."

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

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