A how-to-do it site for the YouTube crowd

By Josh Quittner 

Want to learn how to make your own sushi? Or how to make an origami bird? Or how to dance without embarrassing yourself? Starting today, Howcast, a New York City-based startup founded by three ex-Googlers, will show you.

The site aims to be a kind of Wikipedia of user-generated videos for people who want to learn how to do just about anything. “We’ll show you how to chop an onion, how to swaddle a baby, how to flirt with a girl,” CEO Jason Liebman told me yesterday. “It’s kind of endless.”

That’s the goal anyway. The trick of this venture will be getting users to step up and make the kind of high-quality videos that will attract an audience. That’s a high bar. YouTube succeeded in large part because its founders made the act of uploading videos about as simple as possible.

But garbage in, garbage out. YouTube is having a hard time monetizing its vast library, partly because the content is so bottom-of-the-barrel. If Howcast succeeds, we’re talking about a $1 billion-plus venture here. Why? Because instructional videos, especially those made with decent production values, will fetch much higher rates from advertisers than the junk that predominate on YouTube.

To that end, Howcast offers a video director’s kit, complete with the elements — opening and closing credits, overlays, and so on — that any aspiring Quentin Tarantino will need to create a top-notch how-to video. Daniel Blackman, another co-founder (and an old pal I first met back in the late 1990s, when he was managing Barnes & Nobles’s online store) told me that the startup is working with film students — and will pay them to produce content. “You apply to our program and if you’re accepted, we’ll pay $50 a pop for videos,” he said. Plus, students in the program stand to get a revenue 50% share on pageviews above 40,000 views.

For now, Howcast has been seeded with a few thousand videos, mainly produced by Howcast and its partners, Blackman said.

Howcast’s video player is worth noting: Very cool. When you watch a video in full screen, a series of written steps appears in the right margin as hypertext. Click on, say, Step Five of How To Fake Being Sick, and you can go right to the disquisition on How to Make Fake Vomit. Pretty sweet. Likewise, you can easily zoom in on anything to study it closer.

Aside from videos, the site intends to amass user-generated, how-to wikis. Indeed, the path to creating a specific video starts with a how-to wiki, which becomes a step by step guide that a director can later use as a script.

The company has a list of partners who will be distributing its videos, including Verizon Wireless and a Howcast channel on YouTube. Revenue now comes from sponsorships from the likes of JetBlue , and Starcom USA. Liebman also told me that Tudor Investment Corp. kicked in $8 million in first-round funding to build out the staff and content library.

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