Step 13: The Story of Instructables, Or Bring on the VC's

Here's a story within a story: How Instructables was started.

Around 2001, Saul, Tim, and I started learning to kitesurf. The combination of sailing, unpredictable weather, experimentation, and sheer power strongly appealed to each of us. The sport was still its infancy, and the gear was unrefined and way too expensive for anyone on a graduate student budget, so we built our own.

We'd turn up at beaches around Boston with hand-sewn kites and boards shaped from plywood. Half the equipment would break and the other half would perform beautifully. We'd then document our results on our personal websites and a blog called Zeroprestige (which has since moved to the Instructables ZeroPrestige group). Soon we were getting emails from people asking for more information, wanting to meet us at the beach, and looking for tips on finding/building similar communities. As a result of freely sharing our work, we met a ton of great people, received opportunities that resulted in the formation of Monkey Kites, and were smacked in the face with the need for a web-based documentation system.

Around the same time, ThinkCycle was starting up. ThinkCycle's concept was to utilize "unused braincycles" by matching up problems in the developing world with engineers in the developed world. While a few good projects emerged, the overall system was a failure because there are relatively few people who will passionately work on problems that are not their own.

After starting Squid Labs, and especially when Ryan joined, we finally had the resources to take the above lessons and do it right. We hammered out a prototype version of the site -- complete with the initial content of electronics, cooking, kiting, and bicycle projects -- and released it in August 2005 at the O'Reilly Foo Camp conference.

Within a few months, most of the new Instructables were posted by people we didn't know personally, and the site was attracting a fair amount of traffic (about a 1/10th of what it is today) while still growing. Squid couldn't afford to hire full-time people for Instructables, so I decided to try raising money from venture capitalists.

I had no idea what I was doing, and through trial and error discovered many of the things mentioned in Dumb Ideas. While pitching to OATV, who would later fund Instructables, they asked "So, who's going to be tied to the mast?" Their body language gave away that they thought I was the most mature of the Squid partners, so I said "me, of course" just to keep the meeting going. Everyone, Squids and VCs alike, seemed relieved, and that was literally the total amount of discussion around which partner would head the first spin-off.

The fundraising process took around 9 months of me working quarter-time on it. You couldn't possibly be any more naive, so take that as an upper bound; though more man-hours won't necessarily speed the process up as you're often waiting for introductions or for decisions from other people. With money in the bank, I hired Cloude, who has been absolutely instrumental in building Instructables to what it is today, and putting together the awesome team that runs it.

A quick note on hiring people in an intellectual hub: Finding good people to manage and run with our spin-off companies without us was impossible; but with one of the Squid partners involved and running it, attracting top talent became much easier. There is a caveat, though: You'll still need founder-class people for the first few positions, and in the 2006 Bay Area environment, nearly every smart person out there was already running/starting their own business. So, while interviewing, I always asked why people weren't doing their own thing, and I've since been convinced that everyone on my team could (or has in the past!) run their own team, but has a great reason why they now want to be with Instructables. In fact, Leah, who was one of the first hires at Instructables, has since started her own company, Pownce, a really cool social file-sharing site.
Keeleon1 year ago
So far, really great read. I've been a huge fan of Instructables and the whole DIY movement for a few years. I don't have any kind of fancy degree, and some of the projects are way over my head, but I really like your point about if you want to succeed you need to find liek minded people. There is definitely a difference between "founders" and employees".

I have been an "employee" my whole life, but I've always wanted to be part of something bigger, but you hit the nail on the head in "why would anyone want to give me an important part in their new idea" if I didn't have the initiative or the ability to do it myself. So last year, I bought some tools and started leather working, and actually have a pretty successful business at www.TheBrassWardrobe.com, and it feels SO much better to be a creator in this world, as opposed to a consumer.

But sincE I am only part time, I am having a hard time moving forward and growing(which is not a big deal really..). All of my friends say I need to start hiring some employees to do the simple stuff, but I still feel that I am at the ground floor, and as you stated, I need to find "founders" if I'm going to be successful. Of course this makes me seem like an elitist perfectionist to my friends, but it was nice to see some confirmation on what I have been thinking.

I'd like to post a 'Structable someday, unfortunately, most everything I've learned has been from here, so I don't think I have any wisdom to share that hasn't been covered...yet ;)