Wikis go for-profit
Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales teams up with a former eBay executive on a new opinion-based site.
By Adam Lashinsky, Fortune senior writer

(Fortune Magazine) -- Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia, has become one of the fastest-growing and buzziest destinations on the Web, thanks in large part to the devoted community that slaves over its authoritative entries. The site's founder, Jimmy Wales, hasn't made any money, however, because the site is free and relies solely on contributions for its $1.5 million annual budget.

Now Wales, 40, is ready to trade buzz for cash, and he's turned for help to a guy who knows something about profiting from an online community: Gil Penchina, 36, a longtime executive at eBay (Charts).

In June, Wales (left) landed eBay vet Penchina as CEO of Wikia, his for-profit discussion group site.

As the new CEO of Wales's for-profit creation, Wikia, Penchina aims to take what he learned at eBay - where he helped build the online marketplace's key trust-and-safety tools, such as dispute mediation and insurance - and apply it to the burgeoning power of wikis. (For those who've only consulted Wikipedia to learn about everything from horned lizards to the history of Myanmar but haven't contributed to it, wikis are software programs that allow users to create and edit each other's documents online.)

Whereas Wikipedia aspires to be a neutral reference tool, Wikia's business plan is to capitalize on opinion. It aims to have articles and discussion groups on any subject under the sun.

And while it deploys the same technology as its successful cousin, Wikia is intended as a freewheeling forum for all kinds of topics - from Star Wars to pet diabetes - with argument and advocacy welcome.

"Wikipedia is the encyclopedia," says Penchina. "Wikia is the rest of the library and the magazine rack."

Wales and Penchina have a small pot of cash to play with and some big-name backers. In May, Wikia (Wales pronounces it Wi-KEE-ah) raised $4 million from Bessemer Venture Partners and a group of Silicon Valley luminaries that includes Marc Andreessen and Pierre Omidyar. Penchina signed on in June with one condition: that Wales move Wikia from St. Petersburg, Fla., where he lives, to Silicon Valley.

The site - which has been up since 2004 but has thus far been a low priority for Wales - currently has some 250,000 articles (compared with Wikipedia's four million). The plan for profits is simple: Keep overhead low, grow the site, watch traffic increase, and run text ads supplied by Google (Charts).

That means Wikia's cash will come in incredibly small bits. And at least for a while, Wales will have to settle for more fame than fortune.  Top of page