Ever wondered how to...well, anything? Welcome to Howcast, offering instructional videos on everything from tying a sailor’s knot to decorating a cake. FastCompany.com spoke with Howcast cofounder Darlene Liebman.
Fast Company: What is Howcast?
We’re a new media company that creates shortform instructional videos and distributes them online, over on-demand TV, and through our iPhone and Android apps. We launched two years ago and have more than 100,000 videos on the site.
Instructional video seems like such a sleepy topic. How does Howcast reinvent it for the Web?
Well, "how to" is one of the #1 things that people type into Google. And people go searching on YouTube because they want to learn, but oftentimes the video will be low quality—you’re looking at someone’s pile of laundry in the background. It’s not something people want to advertise against or enjoy watching. We do lots of stuff that’s based around fun campaigns, like "How to Date a Vampire." Or we’ll also take something dull—how to use a drywall screw—and make it exciting, intriguing. My goal is to take the ordinary and make it extraordinary.
You’re responsible for Howcast’s "emerging filmmakers" program. How do you crowdsource your videos while maintaining quality control?
We write all the scripts—each is 2 to 3 minutes in length. We record a voice-over and provide the graphic toolkit and music package, so it’s all branded as ours. People take our content and do all types of stuff to it. They insert their creativity: They can film it, use aftereffects, animate it, use claymation or dolls. Now the filmmaker can be anywhere from Indiana to India. We recently did a contest where people could pick the topic. The winner was How to Make Olive Bread, which was all done in stop motion with a talking loaf of bread. Really charming!
How are you innovating as a technology company?
We built our own video player with slow-motion, zoom-in, and step by step, so viewers can see how the hammer hits the nail. We thought about how-to: Everyone wants to watch this thing, but if you can’t see what’s going on then what’s the point? We’ve also started to develop a new type of technology to pick out smarter topics. When we started this three years ago, we were making stabs in the dark—of all the thousands of origami projects, which one would you start with? We’re using this new platform that looks through SEO, a basic editorial calendar, video viewer count and CPMs, helping us choose videos that more people want to see.
How do you make money, and how do you share it with creators?
We get revenue two different ways. First, every single how-to has a natural advertiser that we get through Google AdSense. "How to Grow Flowers," for example, is MiracleGro. Second, we’ve started to partner with much bigger companies—Staples, AT&T, 1-800-Flowers. For GE’s Healthymagination campaign, not only did we create 20 health videos, we did a campaign on YouTube where 20 different YouTube celebs were competing on doing healthy stuff together. For our filmmakers, we used to base it on playcounts, but it was too hard for us to be able to accurately figure them out. So we have a tiering system, from $50 to $100 a video, based on experience and craftsmanship. I’m the one who cuts the checks and I can tell you, people can do a lot of videos in a month.