Why Wetpaint Went from Wikis to Social Publishing—the Next Step in Social Networks

Back in the summertime, we did a short piece about Wetpaint, the Seattle-based Web startup that had just surpassed its 1-millionth-consumer-wiki milestone. Wetpaint is one of the more heralded tech startups in the Northwest, backed to the tune of $40 million in venture capital—including, most recently, a $25 million round led by DAG Ventures in May. Investors (and others) are intrigued by its vision of “social publishing,” which many think will be the next evolution in social networks.

The basic premise is, now that social networks exist online, what are people going to do with them? Wetpaint thinks they’re going to generate new kinds of content, and that this user-generated content is the key to the future of many Web businesses. The company pitch is that with Wetpaint’s software, any site can become social—users can post comments, photos, and other content while connecting with a community around any topic—and that this social dimension will drive up traffic. But I wanted to know more about this strategy: where it came from, why the startup’s founders think it will work, and what they’ve done to overcome various challenges to this point.

So last week, I sat down with Kevin Flaherty, Wetpaint’s co-founder and vice president of marketing. Things looked to be running smoothly at the company, especially given that its staff of just under 50 had just moved into new digs on Second Avenue three days earlier. Wetpaint used to be upstairs from Armandino’s Salumi—Flaherty says that, regrettably, they never got the “Salumi cam” up and running to monitor the line outside the popular eatery (though he ate there only once himself).

Like most seemingly overnight successes, Wetpaint’s story goes back many years. In 2002, Flaherty, an ex-Amazon employee, was working in the Seattle area at Precor, a fitness equipment company. One day, he was interviewing a young guy named Ben Elowitz, who had been a co-founder of Blue Nile, an online jewelry retailer, and had worked at Fatbrain.com. “I thought, ‘What are you doing here?'” says Flaherty. It turns out Elowitz was a fitness fanatic (and still is). He got the job, and a friendship was born.

In late 2004, Elowitz started getting the itch to do something new, and Flaherty went along. They were watching the growth of Wikipedia and saw an opportunity. Their “aha!” moment happened, … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and Editor of Xconomy Boston. E-mail him at gthuang [at] xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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