Wikia CEO claims profitability, 3x growth

gpenchina-1Gil Penchina, chief exec of wiki community hosting company Wikia, says the firm has quietly achieved the main goal that differentiates it from non-profit Wikipedia: It’s making money. In a press release scheduled to go out later today, Wikia will claim profitability, plus a jump from 2.8 million to 6.5 million U.S. visitors in the first half of 2009, as measured by comScore.

Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales co-founded the company in 2004. Wales is still “very involved” with the company, Penchina said in a phone interview, as its chairman and chief spokesperson. Most recently, Wales led the launch of WikiAnswers, a Q&A site hosted by Wikia.

Wikia sites differ from Wikipedia in that they often offer surprisingly extensive coverage of a single topic about which a large audience is passionate. Recipes.wikia.com holds 48,000 cooking recipes. World of Warcraft? 75,000 pages. These are topics on which the more encyclopedia-like Wikipedia doesn’t go nearly so deep. Wikia sites bear little resemblance in appearance or tone to the fussbudget definitive-reference-page voice of Wikipedia.

Penchina has been in the CEO hotseat as Wikia struggled through the same tough times as nearly every other business on the planet this past year. “Like many companies, we did layoffs and got our costs under control,” he said. But he’s working the phones this week to tell reporters that the company hasn’t just been squeaking by. “The trick that’s hard to do,” he said, “if there’s one thing I’m proud of — I’ve seen companies that have gotten to profitably by killing their growth,” for example by cutting all product development, or by not marketing to new customers. “We have about 30 employees today,” Penchina said, “and we’re actively hiring.”

Wikia’s product development is more low-key than some sites. The primary goal is to make it easy for contributors to jump in and create or improve the hosted content sites.

wowRevenue-wise, targeted ad sponsorships aimed at Wikia communities of readers is how Penchina’s team prefers to raise cash. Ford advertises its suburban-workhorse Taurus sedan on the Recipes Wiki and runs a more interactive choose-your-car advertisement on WoWWiki for World of Warcraft gamers.

Penchina spent eight years at eBay prior to taking over at Wikia in 2005. He says he learned something there that explains the success of eBay, Craigslist and hopefully Wikia: “The people who do well at this have small mouths and big ears. Listening is really a skill. Anytime you think you yourself have the right answer, you’re usually wrong. But if you listen, you can hear the right answer. The people who are successful at this have a high degree of humility.” Hard to believe I’m on the phone with a tech startup CEO.