9 lessons about the web and business from Pearltrees, the original curator of the web

50 million pieces of curated content can't be wrong

Pearltrees is a French startup that wants to change the way we organise the web. Describing how it works would lead you to believe that it’s another social bookmarking site, which would do them injustice.

Most of the social bookmarks are organized either alphabetically or chronologically, which doesn’t do much good when you try to retrieve stuff later. Also, due to how most social bookmarking sites were designed, they’ve become more like a curated list of the hottest headlines out there right now, and about what Mashable calls “velocity” – the question: how fast is this thing spreading?

This idea of velocity is not what Pearltrees is about – on the contrary, it’s a tool that helps you keep an eye on context and history in the endless stream of blogs, tweets and Facebook posts. It’s a mental map of noteworthy things you’ve read online, organized by subjects and sub-subjects that are endlessly divisible. It’s curation done right – in fact, explains CEO and co-founder Patrice Lamothe to Whiteboard, they were the first startup to use the word ‘curation’ (eat that, Pinterest).

It sounds unspectacular, but there’s something quite pleasant about adding a “pearl” and knowing that you can find that one blog post about a media deal between CNN and BuzzFeed from a few months back with a few clicks.

(I can hear you think that you “don’t like to click”, but that would be missing the point. What you hate is clicking on something and noticing that you have clicked *the wrong thing”. When you have to click five times but you know for a fact that at the end of those five clicks is your intended destination, five clicks is nothing. Nothing!)

So there’s the genius of Pearltrees: the not getting lost while searching for stuff on the internet.

Peartrees is the brainchild of Lamothe, who has a background in math and social sciences – he studied math and economics, did a stint at Boston Consulting and holds an MBA from Insead. As he says modestly: “I mix some competences in science and social sciences.”

1. (Real) curation is the next step on the web

It’s in that mixed bag of competences that the idea for Pearltrees germinated, he says. “In 2008, the main issue online was this: with hundreds of millions of people creating content and billions discovering content – like on Facebook – how do you inventorize all that content? Do you let an algorithm decide that? Or the crowd? My idea was that you have to democratize the organization of the web. And Pearltrees is designed for that. The purpose of the community of Pearltrees is that: to organise and retrieve important things.”

The early e-mails of Tim Berners-Lee, Lamothe says, plainly say that the intent of the web is to democratize media. “Then the question is: what is a medium? And that happens to be one of the areas that I specialise in. A medium needs three things: content creators – like writers, or whatever. But it needs more than content – just like you need both music dj’s, labels and musicians. It’s exactly the same for the web.”

“So very early on, the web had three levels of organisation that any medium has: FTP, which is essentially broadcasting, an address system – which is the content creation, and HTML – the organisation language. Those things make the web.”

“Now, what happens is that apart from 5000 geeks, nobody was able to use FTP and HTML in those early days. So this medium didn’t grow evenly: the first thing that grew was distribution. It’s the early nineties, when we put the library of congress on the internet and everybody was impressed. This internet thing is great! The information superhighway!”

“If you look at the next phase, the web 2.0, it’s all about content creation. Flickr, Wikipedia, Facebook,  YouTube. Building a huge business is almost easy. You just ask: what is the kind of document that doesn’t already exist on the internet? Twitter is the last one in the row. To me, the weird thing is that people doubted it while it was actually happening. The content distribution had proven a massive success online, but now people were doubtful about the question whether content creation would ever become a thing. This Facebook thing will never take off.”

“But if you take that risk as an entrepreneur, you know: content creation is democratized – either this year or the year after. There is no going back. And now for me it’s quite logical to say: the next step is on the level of organization. Either this year or the next (smiles).” And that organization of the web is of course Pearltrees (and the many, many competitors that it will attract if Lamothe’s vision is correct).

2. If media don’t adapt, it will get worse

If I hear him correctly, I say, the worst days for the media aren’t over yet. Until now they managed – to some extent – to monetise the very fact that they were organising information or content. Even if, at this point, it’s often redistributing stuff that was written elsewhere (see: the media distribution deals that I spoke of higher, between BuzzFeed and Business Insider and Mashable and Forbes and so on and so on).

But if the act of organizing knowledge becomes distributed or democratized, it’s game over for the business model? “Well, media can adapt, of course. But yes, if they don’t adapt, it will only get worse.”

3. Organizing things is not a chore if you do it right

But back to Pearltrees. Pearltrees was founded on a hypothesis about bookmarking: that it can be enjoyable to bookmark, says Lamothe. ‘Until now, most bookmarking apps regard bookmarking and organising as a pain to be solved, not a pleasure. It’s the idea that you have a computer and you let the computer handle the boring stuff. Hence the auto-organisation and semantic web ideas. Our initial take was the opposite. We thought: everybody likes to organise stuff that he or she cares about. Shoes, clothes, books, whatever. When you like something, it’s actually a pleasure to cureate.”

“What is curation? It’s not just organising content – it’s the idea that organizing this content creates value for you and others, and pleasure. That was the idea: let people make sense of things.”

“What’s really original about us is that we are the only ones who consciously curate. In fact, we were the first startup to use the word curation. Pinterest is only a very light version of curation. What they do is build lists. That’s not curation, if you ask me. If you have to use a search function to find something, it’s not organised, it’s a list. Organising is taking things and putting them on a shelf.”

“That’s where we’re unique. It’s a lot of work, but it’s pleasant work. Did you ever tire of organising your favorite toys when you were a child? Children spend hours on that activity. Pearltrees is like that. It’s like a room. You know how to find your shirts and your shoes, because you know where you put them – you didn’t put them in a list, you gave them a place. That’s the difference with “bookmarking” tools. And that’s why people come back.”

4. You don’t have to believe us, but we’ve never pivoted

The hypothesis was immediately validated, says Lamothe, when Pearltrees was launched in 2009. “We had immediate traction and immediate viral growth. Not explosive growth – not like 10 million users in two days (which is a lot rarer than people think anyway). But we continued to have traction. From a very initial idea we built a product with now 2 million monthly uniques, and growing at a very constant rate.”

“We have now 50 million pieces of content organized. Our goal simply is to become the biggest community of people who organise things – photos, notes, content. Not with people who say “I like this or this” but by making sense of the information.”

Here’s an indication of how right Pearltrees vision was: Pearltrees has never pivoted. Not once, says Lamothe. “Our initial vision has proven to be more accurate than we thought, and the need for organized content was bigger than we thought.”

One thing that certainly helps, says Lamothe, is the interface. “You’re not just bookmarking stuff – you can actually manipulate the links and put them in a pearl in real time. You can move them around, play a bit with them, all in real time.” Which, from a technical point of view, is a nightmare, he says. “From the point of data visualization, it’s not that easy. It’s not a game database with millions of players – it’s databases for millions of contributors. Technologically, that’s a challenge, and in terms of design interaction it’s a real challenge as well.”

5. There is no such thing as natural design, all design is learned

And then there’s the pearl. Why a pearl? “We didn’t start out with the idea: it has to be pearls. We looked for something that would be fun to move around. What is that – manipulation. You take something in your hand, and look at it. That’s how we came up with crystal balls, so that you can see what’s inside. Again, it was just about thinking about it in a really fundamental way. The rest followed from that.”

“The design might feel natural now, but here’s the thing: there is no such thing as a natural way to design things. Design is learned. You learned Twitter and you forgot how surprising it was the first time you used it. Now it’s the new natural. When you build a new interface like Pearltrees, by definition you go against convention. Actually, you shouldn’t build a new interface, unless you’re doing new things (laughs).”

“But if you want to create new things, you have to create something that will surprise people. And you have to understand their behavior and expectations very well, so that you can deliver a pleasant surprise to them. They’ll go “this is so natural!” No, it isn’t. But if they said that, you did it right.”

6. Don’t confuse inventing new stuff with learning

What are some important insights that he can share with other founders? “Get user feedback and iterate, iterate, iterate. That’s one thing. Go out in the street and talk to hundreds of people. Half the work is inventing new stuff, and half the work is learning. And: don’t mix those. People know what they like, but they are awful at envisioning what they would like.”

7. People are smarter than you give them credit for

“I don’t think there’s a big mystery there. Maybe this insight is worth sharing: that people are a lot smarter than professionals think they are. Mosted people, by now, are used to learn design. They don’t like to learn new stuff, but they’re used to it by now. A billion people have learned how to use Facebook! So people are used to learn. And if you make it fun, they are eager to learn.”

I can see how Pearltrees is huge with researchers, academics, journalists, bloggers and professionals. But how do you cross the chasm with this? How do you go from the academics to the public, I ask. “Actually, that’s a point where many people were sceptical. They said: yeah, this is great for geeks. I can use this, but my mother would never use it. Never! But we never encountered that issue. There was never a time when we said: yeah, geeks like it but nobody else. I think because the interface is so new, it puts everyone on the same basis. Geeks and non-geeks struggled. Today, we’re really at a point where people find it intuitive.”

“We never hit a wall. Most of our users are mr. and mrs. Smith from Minnesota.”

8. People will LOVE your product in ways that you can’t predict

Today, Pearltrees has about 2M unique visitors per month. “But there are many passive users,” says Lamothe. “They use it as a research tool, or a discovery tool. That was a big surprise, actually. It was clear from the beginning that a database of organised content will be useful for research too, but our surprise is that many people don’t even build their own pearltrees, but just dive into it to discover stuff.”

Pearltrees is funded by a family office called the Groupe Acceuil, rather than a traditional VC. Is that because the terms are better than what VC’s are offering? “They might be better,” says Lamothe, “but in our case the reason is very simple: no outside investor could match their offer, because they’ve been an investor from early on, and they have access to information. Every startup says “people love our product”. But our investors can see from the numbers that people really use it intensely.”

9. Once you hit 10 million users, media attention is no longer an issue

Like many other European startups, I ask, do they feel a bit – obscure? “”It depends. Compared to our size, we could possibly have more media attention. But it does not really matter since in our model, the user base, not the amount of buzz, is driving growth. Buzz may have become part of the business model for some – like Foursquare – who build huge buzz and try to build a userbase on it. It might work, but you know: once you hit 10 million users, media attention is always there (smiles).”

PHOTO: Clesenne, Flickr / Gordon Plant, Flickr / Rory Finneren, Flickr

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About the author

Raf Weverbergh

Editor of whiteboard. Raf Weverbergh was a magazine journalist whose work appeared in magazines like Rolling Stone, Playboy, Mail on Sunday, Publico and South China Morning Post. He is the co-founder of FINN, a corporate communications agency where he advises startups and multinationals on their PR and Mustr, the easiest media database for PR professionals. You can contact him on Twitter, Linkedin or Skype (rafweverbergh).

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