Instructables, A Mecca for Makers, Reflects Eric Wilhelm’s Passion for Building Stuff—and Telling the Story

7/28/11Follow @wroush

People who work hard, the old saying goes, often play just as hard. But for many tech entrepreneurs, the converse is also true: all that play sometimes generates new ideas for work. That’s definitely the story behind San Francisco-based how-to site Instructables, which grew in part out of founder Eric Wilhelm’s obsession with kitesurfing.

Wilhelm took up the sport while finishing his PhD in mechanical engineering at MIT. This was 2001—before commercial gear was available, and before you could see swarms of other kitesurfers at places like San Francisco’s Crissy Field Beach every breezy afternoon. “It was perfect for an engineer because you had to build all your own equipment,” Wilhelm says. “I was sewing my own kites and building my own boards. It was very exciting, because you never knew which piece of equipment was going to fail. The Coast Guard got involved on numerous occasions.”

Wilhelm’s homemade rig provoked curiosity among the windsurfers and others at the beaches where he kited, and he says he found himself spending more and more time answering their requests for plans and drawings. “It was taking just as long to write a Web page about a kiteboard as it was to build one,” he says. “It was clear I needed an easier way to document the stuff I was doing and share it with a wider range of people.”

After grad school, Wilhelm and a few MIT friends moved west and started an Emeryville, CA-based technology incubator and consulting company called Squid Labs. One of the group’s first creations was an online documentation system to keep track of the lab’s hodgepodge of projects, from electrospun nanowires to low-cost eyeglasses. And it was that system that finally provided the solution for Wilhelm’s kitesurfing outreach challenge. In late 2005, he and a Squid Labs colleague Ryan McKinley created a public-facing version of the documentation system, filled it up with kitesurfing posts from Wilhelm’s personal blog that had been rewritten in step-wise instructional form, and voilà: Squid Labs’ first spinoff was born.

Eric Wilhelm, with Instructables' robot mascot

Today, Instructables boasts more than 2 million registered users and a collection of 55,000 how-to articles authored by more than 20,000 contributors. Wilhelm is a bona fide CEO who employs 24 editors and programmers, has raised just shy of $2 million in venture financing from O’Reilly AlphaTech Ventures and Baseline Ventures, and has guided the company to a profitable advertising- and subscription-based revenue model.

“I was kind of slow, but it occurred to me about five years after we started this that ‘Hey, we are a publisher,’” Wilhelm says. The core product at Instructables is the article collection, which covers a huge spectrum of projects from “Android-controlled Pneumatic Cannon Powered by Arduino” to “Mexican Hot Chocolate Chip Cookies.” Every article follows the same step-by-step format; the company provides contributors with a simple Web-based editing interface that allows them to upload instructional text, images, and video. The largest article categories, according to Wilhelm, are technology—including computers, software, and electronic—and “living,” which includes crafts, sewing, painting, and kids’ projects. Recipes are also popular: the single biggest Google search keyword that leads new visitors to Instructables, Wilhelm says, is “sweet potato fries.”

Despite the stepwise format of the articles, the goal at Instructables isn’t really to provide readers with every detail they’d need to reconstruct an author’s project, Wilhelm says. There’s far more emphasis on storytelling than on instruction.

“An article on ‘How to fix your sink’ is interesting to me, but ‘Why I made this haunted house’ is way more interesting,” says Wilhelm. “I am happiest when somebody comes in and is inspired to finish their own project. They might find a method or a technique that helps, but it’s more like, ‘Hey, I see that somebody did something that they’re really proud of, and now I’m going to go do something myself.’”

The crowdsourced nature of the site is key to this inspiration, Wilhelm says. Aside from a few articles written by Instructables’ editors, the whole site is created by makers, for makers. “When you come to the site it’s clear that this isn’t just a bunch of MBAs who … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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