So you want to build a webpage. Maybe it’s a blog. Maybe it’s a site for your small business. Maybe it’s a portfolio for your artwork.
In any case, you have options. A lot of them, including WordPress, Movable Type, Tumblr, Virb, Weebly, and a variety of niche sites that cater to specific use-cases and communities.
And Squarespace, the premium hosted blogging platform that raised a whopping $38.5 million in summer 2010, is about to take all of them on.
Today the company is unveiling Squarespace 6 — a totally reworked version of its platform that has big enough ambitions to justify its ample funding. The new version of the service is in a strict friends-and-family private beta for now, but it’s giving users a first glimpse at what they can expect as it opens up more broadly in the weeks ahead. And it’s looking good.
[vimeo http://vimeo.com/30922118 w=630&h=400]
As startups go, Squarespace is relatively ancient. The company got its start back April 2003, when founder and CEO Anthony Casalena began programming the first version of his website builder (it launched the following spring). Several years later he finally hired a few more hands and wound up with a team of around six people total — and a multimillion dollar run rate thanks to the service’s premium subscriptions.
Then, in July 2010, the company decided to do something drastically different: it raised a $38.5 million funding round led by Accel and Index Ventures. This was the company’s first outside investment, aside from $30,000 Casalena’s father invested when Squarespace was first getting started. “We decided we wanted to go for it,” Casalena explains.
Today’s launch represents the first fruits of that funding round. After raising the money the company began hiring lots of additional talent — it now has 63 employees, and is growing quickly. Casalena says that shortly after this hiring spree began, a group of Squarespace designers held a meeting to figure out what their ideal website would look like, independent of the tools available. Then, they tried to figure out it was possible to build those sites using Squarespace’s existing consumer-facing platform.
Their conclusion? It wasn’t.
Which brings us to today. Over the last year the company has rebuilt its technology from the ground up in a way that it hopes makes it both extremely flexible and easy to use, with the goal of allowing those designers (and consumers) to build whatever they want.
To be clear, I haven’t gotten to use it yet. But Casalena did walk me though an extended demo, and it certainly looks very promising. And, like the current version, Squarespace will still be a premium-only service, with plans running between $12-$40 a month, but he says that a more straightforward pricing plan will be revealed soon.
At its heart, Squarespace is built around templates, each of which is constructed using a variety of building block widgets: text, images, and other common webpage elements. A blog template presents the text and image blocks in reverse chronological order; an image portfolio template puts your images front-and-center, and so on. If this system sounds pretty basic, it’s because that’s sort of the point.
For starters the site is only going to be offering templates that focus on portfolios. Users will be able to tweak the layout of these standard portfolios using intuitive controllers for font, color, and the size of each column, so even the same template won’t look too similar between each site.
And Squarespace will quickly be ramping up the template types available — it’s not hard to imagine templates for small businesses, personal and professional blogs, or even restaurants (Squarespace already offers many templates for these use-cases on version 5 of the platform).
Developers will also be able to construct their own templates from scratch, which they can sell on a one-off basis to their clients. Casalena wouldn’t confirm that a web store that would let developers sell their templates to other users is in the works (Tumblr has had success with this), but it seems like an obvious step down the line.
In some ways, it seems that Squarespace is taking an Apple-esque approach to its tools. It isn’t just WYSIWYG — it’s an editor that’s actually pleasant to use. The interface is very clean, pretty at times, even, and it’s got a lot of subtle niceties. For example, the portfolio templates will serve up images at sizes that best suit the viewer’s browser size — if they have it full screen, they’ll get a high-res version; if it’s smaller, they’ll get a downscaled version (which will load faster). And if you resize the browser, Squarespace will serve up the appropriate image version on the fly. You probably wouldn’t notice if you weren’t looking for it, but it’s well done.
Another very nifty new feature is a dynamic grid-based layout system. It’s a bit hard to describe, but the embedded video above does a great job showing it off. In short, you can drag and drop any piece of content — be it a block of text, a photo, a map, etc. — wherever you’d like on the page, and everything else will resize and shift around to accommodate it. Better yet, eventually you’ll be able to tweak these designs on a per-post basis, which means it’s easier to mix up the layout of your posts than it is with designs seen on Tumblr and WordPress.
Ultimately this is still very early days for the new platform, and it’ll be hard to tell if this promised flexibility and ease-of-use really make a difference in practice. But I’m liking where it’s headed, and have every intention of trying it out on my personal blog as soon as I have access.