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 heard that there was an under-monetized segment of the online economy and put up a site,” says Wilhelm. “This was put up by people who love it, and maintained by people who want to keep it going so they can document their projects. That authenticity is our greatest strength.”

But it’s the rare crowdsourced site that actually turns a profit. Wikipedia, for example, is supported by a non-profit foundation. Wilhelm says Instructables has devised a successful business model by offering something of value to each of its three overlapping constituencies: authors, readers, and advertisers. “We have to serve each of them in different ways,” he says.

Instructables helps authors by providing them with a pulpit for sharing. “When you build or create something, you want to put it on the coffee table so that people can come and look at it,” Wilhem says. “You want to tell them ‘Here was the part that was really hard, and these were the choices I made.’ But at some point your friends and family get sick of hearing about it. We take the project off the coffee table and give people a very large, engaged audience.”

Readers, obviously, come to the site for entertainment, instruction, and inspiration. Quite a few of them sign up for a “Pro” membership at $1.95 per month or $39.95 for two years. The benefits include fewer ads, access to PDF versions of articles, and single-page versions on the Web (so they don’t have to click “next step” 10 times). Wilhelm says about a quarter of the company’s revenue comes from these premium subscriptions.

Advertisers, finally, get to put their brands in front of an audience that, by definition, is in the mood to make something—which often means they’ll have to do a bit of shopping first. The site is rife with ads for brands like Scotch tape, comparison shopping sites, and Liberty Mutual homeowners insurance (just in case your next projects sets your house on fire?).

A Glimpse of Instructables' SoMa office

But some of the most creative advertising campaigns on the site, says Wilhelm, emerge when “we try to think of projects that can serve all three [customer groups] at the same time.” Instructables frequently offers “challenges” sponsored by a single advertiser, where authors compete by uploading articles on a common theme. For two years running, Craftsman has sponsored a Craftsman Tools Contest with $20,000 in Craftsman products at stake for the winners; the 2011 grand prize went to a guy who turned his Geo Metro into a plug-in hybrid. Currently, Krylon is sponsoring a contest offering an iPad 2 to the author with the coolest project involving spraypaint.

Wilhelm calls the challenges a classic win-win. “The advertisers get to associate their brand with something running on our site, the authors get a chance to show off what they’ve done, and the audience gets an influx of high-quality content.”

Wilhelm’s plan for earning a venture-scale return for his investors is to build up Instructables’ content archive, audience, and advertiser relationships to the point that the business is an attractive acquisition target for a large media or software company. “At the size we’re at, the actual revenue and earnings are not really that interesting to people who might buy us,” he says. “The most interesting thing is the authenticity of the site. That’s the key reason somebody will want to buy the company. They will want to understand how we’ve built that, and how to build it up in other communities. What we have done is not necessarily specific to how-to; there are aspects of it that I think would work for finance, or health, or whatever.”

But that authenticity probably wouldn’t come through unless Wilhelm himself were an engineer and inveterate tinkerer. His office at Instructables is dominated by a pair of makeshift treadmill desks, one for him and one for his wife Christy Canida, the company’s community and marketing director. In fact, the company’s entire second-floor space, located above a bar and a burger shop on 2nd Street in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood, is cluttered with circuit boards, craft kits, half-finished robots, and other contraptions. Wilhelm says the last Friday of every month is “Build Day” at the company, when “everyone is encouraged to build a personal project and document it on the site.”

Given that hands-on ethic—which is flowering these days into a larger “maker” movement centered on companies like TechShop and MakerBot, unofficial hackerspaces, and publications like Instructables and Make Magazine—I made a point of asking Wilhelm whether he felt driven by an urge to improve the general level of technological literacy among Web readers. Surprisingly, he demurred.

“Sure, if Instructables had been around when I was in sixth grade building lasers, it would have been fantastic,” Wilhelm says. “But if I were to say that I’ve had this big plan, wanting there to be another generation of kids building lasers, that would be disingenuous. I don’t have big thoughts beyond ‘I want to do something positive.’” Except, maybe, to make sure there’s still some time for kitesurfing.

Wade Roush is Chief Correspondent and Editor At Large at Xconomy. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

By posting a comment, you agree to our terms and conditions.