The Big Idea at Springpad
Quite a few tasks in life require investigation and planning. Cooking dinner tonight? First you need to find a recipe, then you need to make a shopping list. Going on vacation? Before you can even begin to finalize your itinerary, you’ll probably collect reams of information on plane fares, local attractions, and places to stay.
The Internet obviously makes these types of research easier. But unfortunately, Web browsers don’t come with handy organizers where you can store and personalize all this information. Or at least, they didn’t until Springpad, the creation of Boston-based Spring Partners, came along. Springpad is a free online organizer that automatically files away the kinds of electronic information involved in planning many everyday tasks, from recipes to restaurant listings, then makes it easy for you to find that information and use it when you really need it.
But while the guys at Spring Partners are really nice (I’ve met them), they aren’t providing this service wholly out of the goodness of their hearts. The big idea behind Springpad is that giving consumers a free platform for organizing their lives can be a profitable business, if it also gives publishers and brands new ways to reach potential customers.
[Editor's Note: Every startup has a "big idea" that it thinks will catapult it to success. With this story, we inaugurate an occasional column highlighting the big ideas---and the resulting challenges---at companies in Xconomy's home cities.]
The 12-employee startup is out to prove its big idea by bringing consumers and advertisers together in two specific realms: cooking and parenting. Of course, as I detailed in a column published shortly after Springpad’s launch last November, you can collect many more types of information than that in a customized Springpad notebook, from holiday gift ideas to date-night plans to “Getting Things Done”-style to-do lists. But when it came to demonstrating how the platform can connect consumers and advertisers, explains co-founder and CEO Jeff Janer, the company had to start somewhere.
“The notion of focusing on food and moms first is that from a monetization standpoint, consumer product companies are keenly interested in moms who are running the household,” says Janer. “And food is a huge category. So if we can essentially build a beachhead in these two verticals, people will then discover that they can use this for a lot of other things as well.”
Last week, Janer walked me through Springpad’s latest features—there are quite a few new ones since I last wrote about the company—as well as the monetization mechanisms, which weren’t yet in place last November. You might think that that seeing marketing messages pop up amidst your personal data would be intrusive and annoying, but from the examples Janer showed me, Spring Partners has come up with tasteful ways to integrate brand messages that actually make the site more useful.
Say you’re planning dinner, and you find a lasagna recipe that sounds good at a cooking site like Epicurious, FoodNetwork.com, or MyRecipes.com. If the site’s publisher is a Springpad partner, you might see a “Spring It” button right alongside the recipe, allowing you to clip it into your Springpad account in one step. If the site isn’t a partner, you can do the same thing using a special browser bookmarklet. In either case, the Springpad software is smart enough to recognize that you’re saving a recipe and to grab the ingredient list, the source URL, and any images that went along with the recipe. It assembles all of this into a convenient little file, a lot like the old-fashioned 3-by-5 index cards that my mom uses to keep track of all her recipes.
But here’s the first marketing twist: say the lasagna recipe calls for Parmesan cheese. Springpad’s software will reason that you’re probably going cheese-shopping soon, so it might show an ad for a product like Kraft Grated Parmesan Cheese on the same page with your recipe file.
Your next step might be to add the lasagna recipe to your weekly meal planner. Springpad offers a predesigned template for just that purpose, and it includes a handy shopping-list function that compiles all of the ingredients for the week’s recipes into one master list. To help seal the Grated Parmesan deal, Kraft might serve up a $1-off coupon alongside the shopping list—right at the moment you’re most likely to be paying the most attention.
“For most brands today, their participation in social media and Web 2.0 is more ‘alongside’ than it is integrated,” Janer says. But in the Parmesan example, he says, the advertising ties directly into the task, and everyone benefits. “Kraft is establishing a communications channel. The original publisher of the recipe, because they are providing the content, gets a share of the ad revenue. And the consumer isn’t seeing some random ad for whiter teeth; they’re saying ‘I want to cook this recipe’ and they’re getting an offer that makes it even more enticing.”
A zippy mobile-friendly version of the Springpad Web tools, introduced a couple of weeks ago, lets you take all the shopping info you collect on Springpad straight into the grocery store on your phone. The mobile version doesn’t yet include the ads and coupons, but that isn’t far off—the Spring Partners team, after all, is mostly made up of former executives and developers from Third Screen Media, the Boston-based mobile advertising company that AOL snapped up in 2007.
The “Parmesan pattern” of engagement between consumers and brands could play out in any number of market categories. If you’re using Springpad to organize your kitchen renovation project, for example, it’s easy to imagine appliance makers and home supply stores competing for a chance to share their ideas and product offers.
The beauty of the Springpad platform is that it’s basically agnostic about the types of information users put into it. Janer and his developers programmed the site so that users can build customized notebooks, called springpads, around almost any conceivable task. And in the near future, Janer says, the company will provide programming interfaces so that outside developers can create fancier springpads that integrate with their own websites and services.
There’s a lot about the Springpad platform I don’t have time to describe here—for example, the ability to follow other users the way you would on Twitter or Facebook and import whatever data they’re sharing publicly, such as their favorite recipes, into your own springpads.
The big challenges for Spring Partners—which collected a Series A venture round from Cambridge, MA-based Fairhaven Capital in June 2008 and plans to go for a B round in the fourth quarter of this year—are to demonstrate in at least one or two niches that these tools have real value to both users and advertisers, and then to parlay that into specialized deals across the consumer-product universe. For instance, Janer is working with Gary Vaynerchuck, the publisher of the popular Wine Library TV wine video blog, to put “Spring It” buttons alongside the lists of wines Vaynerchuck reviews.
Beyond the culinary cases, the company is busy pitching Springpad as a story-planning tool for the growing community of mommybloggers, women who blog about parenting issues. Springpad is a sponsor of the BlogHer ’09 conference coming up later this month in Chicago, and has created a BlogHer ’09 event-planner springpad where conference-goers can grab data on specific events for their personal calendars. The company is also wooing specific brands and advertisers such as Kraft, as well as publishers like Scripps and Gannett.
At its most basic level, says Janer, the Springpad platform is about collecting and sharing reusable information that applies to real life tasks. But a tool without a revenue stream is just a toy, which is why Spring Partners has put so much effort into making springpads advertiser-friendly. “We think we’ve cracked the nut on a personal organizer that enables not only consumers, but also publishers and advertisers, to derive value,” Janer says.
Just how big will that idea turn out to be? I’ll make a note on one of my springpads to check back in with the company early next year.