Visual How-To App Snapguide Passes 1M Uniques, Snaps Up YouTube Designer, And Gears Up For Growth

Daniel Raffel says that when he started work on the app that eventually became the how-to platform Snapguide, people advised him to make a “food guide” app (he has worked as a chef so might naturally gravitate to that vertical).

He resisted, possibly because he had a bigger ambition in mind: “My goal is to inspire people to make things that they might otherwise buy,” he told me in a conversation earlier this week. In an online/offline world filled with lots of ways to consume just about anything you want, wherever and whenever you want, Snapguide is one of those places that runs counter to that, and its flavor of DIY — delivered via a series of mobile-friendly, photographic and video-led how-to guides covering everything including crafts, makeup, cars, and, yes, food — is growing.

An ideal ratio of developers to designers

Launching in March 2012, Snapguide’s still small — just nine employees — but something that Raffel has tried to put into place is an emphasis not just on technology but also design. Currently the ratio of designers to developers is 2:1 there are six engineers and three designers. “An insane ratio,” he calls it. “It’s not shocking usually to see 1 designer to 15 engineers.” He believes this is part of what’s helping Snapguide get one up over would-be competitors. “We’re in a space where competition is still on desktop and they’ve not worked out yet how to do it on mobile.”

Raffel says that he considers Snapguide a “design driven” company, giving an attention to detail that he says was reinforced by his experience working as a chef. “The experiences I want to build are deeply considered. It’s not just slapped together.”

Snapguide recently picked up another designer to help with that goal: Rebecca Bortman, who joined Snapguide in January as a product designer. She is a catch, having come from YouTube, where she led the design team in YouTube’s first major refresh in seven years. She will work with creative lead Edwin Tofslie. “We are super excited to have her working with all of us in a product designer capacity where she is lending her amazing visual and interaction skills in addition to her product management chops,” says Raffel. (And in addition to her singing chops — she also sings in punk band Happy Fangs and previously was in My First Earthquake.)

Traffic growing at three-digit percentage points

Raffel says Snapguide is currently growing at three-digit percentage points per month (2.5 times in the last 30 days). It passed one million unique visitors in November across both apps and web, and is now “well past that,” said Raffel. Searches on the site also passed the one million mark in January. Today it’s having one of its biggest traffic day ever Raffel says, a result of a “combination of search traffic, Pinterest traffic, and ton coming from Reddit.”

The social pinboard Pinterest, as it happens, is proving to be one of Snapguide’s biggest and most consistent sources of traffic — Snapguide’s pictures and general purpose lend themself to how Pinterest is used and explored as a social pinboard of interesting ideas and concepts, and it has the distinction of being the first iOS app with Pinterest integration, shy of an official Pinterest API. And for those who have wondered why Snapguide has yet to develop an Android app, Pinterest is partly to blame for that:

“Pinterest is driving nearly as many page views per month as Google,” says Raffel, “and one of the things that’s really interesting is that we see a large perentage of Pinterest traffic coming from Pinterest on iOS. The traffic shows that iOS is the place to focus for now. It’s mouth droppingly shocking how much mobile traffic comes from iOS and how much comes from Android. It just reinforces that social services are performing exponentially better on iOS.”

Platforms: iOS is king

That traffic from iOS is one of the reasons why Snapguide has decided to keep developing on iOS before expanding to other platforms. Starting first with its iOS app in March, it followed that up in December with an iPad app. There is also a much-used website, and a mobile web version — it’s the web versions that people see if they click on links from other sites.

That doesn’t mean that Snapguide is not working on Android, but right now the focus is to make iOS work better. “It’s tempting to go wide and add stuff and apps to the product base, but for a startup it’s not a small thing to take on a new project,” says Raffel.

Improvements that are coming up include small things like upgrades to basic editing on the iOS apps, as well as bigger projects like trying to make it easier for people to figure out they could learn from Snapguide, and what they should be creating to share with others. “That’s not obvious to everyone, and we want to be a place for people to get inspired,” he says.

Snapguide will also soon feature some ways to encourage more interactivity among the community: this includes what Raffel calls a “leaderboard.” “There are all these people making stuff, so why not give them some ideas?” So, the community of Snapguide users will be ask to pitch in on 10 ideas around an event like Valentine’s day. “For some people, that will inspire them to physically make a guide; for others it will inspire them to like and follow those people,” he says. “It’s been a challenging feature, something we’ve wanted to do for a long time.”

And there is likely to be more developments on Snapguide’s desktop and mobile websites. “We think that’s a place where we haven’t invested enough, based on the proportion of web traffic we get today,” which he says is “pretty significant.”

Competitors: YouTube, not content farms

It seems fitting that one of Snapguide’s most recent hires came from YouTube. Raffel says that he views Google’s video site as Snapguide’s toughest competition at the moment. YouTube has become the home for a number of other how-to site’s video content — Howcast being one well-executed example mentioned by Raffel — and that content is easily found through search engines.

“We’re not trying to beat traditional how-to sites because they’re getting in their own way,” says Raffel. “They’ve in the past paid people to make their own content. But that doesn’t scale well and the people writing the content aren’t passionate.” The other issue is that much of their content has been created for web use, but those experiences are not that easy to transfer to mobile. “It’s millions of pieces of unique content — you can’t reformat something that large. They don’t have photos or other ways of looking good on mobile.”

While Snapguide already lets users add videos to their guides, this may be an area that will see more attention. “We feel like a lot of how-to searches do end up on YouTube, so if we don’t make experiences that compete, that will spell trouble for us,” Raffel says.

But it will likely keep video length short and not compete head-on with YouTube. “Making video is hard, snapping pictures is easy,” he says. “If you’re documenting something it’s much easier to do with photos.” Photos also are what helps Snapguide “lend itself naturally” to its big traffic-driver, Pinterest. “Every one of our guides has multiple images, and when you pin something usually it’s an image.”

Money: paying contributors, advertising, and brands

Raffel would not comment on whether Snapguide is raising more money to continue growing — in June 2012 it picked up a $5 million Series A from Index Ventures, Atlas and CrunchFund, on top of a $2 million round in 2011.

But money is on Raffel’s mind in other respects. For one, it is starting to consider business models for its service.

“We’ll look at revenue sharing, allowing people to sell content. I enjoy the fact that at the moment we can be pure and not do that, but longer term it is not realistic not to do those things.” Inevitably, ads will also be considered. “When you chase advertising too early you make it a different experience, but we’re not opposed to it and don’t have an issue and I don’t think it’s a bad fit for us.”

Driving more inventory to the platform may also lead Snapguide to paying contributors. “It’s possible we might compensate,” says Raffel. “We will will always be interested in exploring what incentives motivate people to create high quality content. Maybe [creators] are getting ideas for things they can make. That might not be enough. But when you reward people financially you get back to that model where it’s not the most passionate people. It just changes the reason for sharing.”

He believes, though, that the content farm model has been proven to work effectively. Their weapon has been SEO experts who look at query traffic and “quickly rise to the occasion” to get whatever is needed made. “We should all be so responsive,” says Raffel. But he also thinks that there can be another way to achieve this, such as through Snapguide’s leaderboard concept.

There may also be partnerships in Snapguide’s horizon: Raffel wouldn’t name names, just the “sorts of brands that would be natural fits on our platform, that would complement it.”

Remember that Snapguide’s 912 employees consist of 6 engineers, 3 designers, 1 community manager, a office manager and Raffel — no business development people. That means the partnerships that are being cooked up come from third parties reaching out to Snapguide. “And the top of our list has already reached out to us,” Raffel says.

“There are certain brands making stuff on our service already, and larger partners and brands will want things like being treated specially. They want additional analytics that traditional users don’t need. They need to evaluate whether something working or not.”

He says that as an app that was created thinking about the consumer first, it would be “amazing to have a huge brand who we respect, with high quality content, sharing content with us.”

This goes back again to Raffel’s and co-founder’s Steve Krulewitz’s original concept of making the platform as wide open as consumers wanted it to be. That has ended up being a business engine, too. “The variety has not only challenged us but opened us up to a much wider audience faster,” says Raffel. “And it has created a wealth of marketing opportunities that would have otherwise been closed to us.”