Thu, Jul 16, 2009 - Page 14 News List

How to start a company (and kiss like Angelina, or do the Moonwalk)

Howcast offers high-quality instructional videos on everything from fixing a leaky faucet and creating a living will to using Twitter and having sex in a car

By Julie Creswell  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

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Intheir star turns in James Bond movies, Ursula Andress and Halle Berry perfected the art of emerging from an ocean swim and walking onto the beach in a dripping-wet bikini.

For everyone else? Not so easy. But there are some tricks for aspiring Bond girls, and they involve, among other things, waterproof mascara, Vaseline and double-sided tape. There are some finer points, too, to pull off such a feat, and words can’t quite convey their subtleties.

Sometimes — and this is a difficult sentence for a newspaper to print — it’s easier to learn from a video.

That notion led a handful of Google and YouTube veterans to start Howcast.com, and jump into the bustling and fast-growing crowd of Web sites offering how-to content.

Given the competition, from sites like Howdini and even YouTube, Howcast Media is betting that its particular blend of information and entertainment, presented in short and snappy video, will draw plenty of traffic and, most important, deliver a profit.

Certainly the demand is there. People like to watch videos, and, in a bad economy, the ranks of do-it-yourselfers and would-be MacGyvers are swelling.

Already, Howcast has 100,000 videos in its library, some that it has produced itself and many more from others like Playboy, Popular Science, Home Depot and the Ford modeling agency that share in the ad revenue.

The site offers instruction on a range of topics, from everyday issues — fixing a leaky faucet, creating a living will — to the more obscure, like how to survive a bear attack or how to have sex in a car. (Nothing on Howcast is particularly graphic. Plenty of other sites, of course, already offer that sort of stuff.)

Given the ease of posting on sites like YouTube, where 20 hours of video are uploaded each minute, it takes more than a bunch of short clips to succeed. Part of the trick to winning on the Web is having a distinct personality.

Some industry executives give Howcast credit for finding a way to stand out.

“They understand that video is an incredible medium to share and instruct,” says David Eun, a Google executive who oversees strategic partnerships. “But they also realize that they can use video to provide instruction in an environment that is entertaining, not dry.”

One of the biggest challenges for a site like Howcast, though, is the same one that has vexed old-school media giants and survivors of the dot-com boom: How can content creators turn a profit on the Web?

Howcast’s solution is to partner with advertisers and create instructional videos for their specific products or services.

Blurring the lines between editorial and advertising is a tricky endeavor, of course. Companies that try to be too stealthy or clever risk seeing their brand roasted on Facebook, Twitter and beyond.

“Users are sensitive to brands trying to muscle into what appears to be an organic social media environment,” says Nick Thomas, an analyst at Forrester Research. “Yes, I want to learn how to cook something, but do I necessarily want to be taught by someone who makes the ingredients?”

Howcast’s team of young executives argue that they can tap-dance along that fine line by making sure that any branding effort is in a supporting role, rather than a starring one, in its instructional videos.

They are even forging relationships with the State Department as it looks for ways to use social networks and other media to communicate directly with people around the world. Among the videos they’ve produced for it are How to Protest Without Violence and How to Launch a Human Rights Blog.

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