Jason Baptiste, co-founder and CEO of New York-based startup OnSwipe, has a slide in the pitch presentation that he does for VCs and others interested in the company that simply says: “Apps are bull****.” That’s a succinct expression of OnSwipe’s view on apps for content. Baptiste believes that dedicated iPad and mobile apps make sense for games or specific tasks, such as looking for a restaurant, but for content, “they suck,” he says. So OnSwipe gives publishers the ability to mimic many of the user interface and features that apps provide, but on the open web — and it wants to do the same thing for advertisers too.
For a company that hasn’t even been around a year, OnSwipe has had a pretty exciting life so far. It started as an experiment launched last June, a WordPress plugin that would allow bloggers to make their websites look nice on the iPad. Baptiste and his co-founder Andres Borreto, who lived in Miami, and a programmer in Mexico came up with the idea and created it in a matter of months. A second version came out a few months ago, the company did a deal with
WordPress WordPress parent Automattic Inc. (see disclosure below), and then venture capitalists came calling: OnSwipe raised a $1 million seed round earlier this year from Spark Capital and Betaworks, as well as individual investors such as Dharmesh Shah from Hubspot, and the company joined the TechStars incubator program in New York.
“We started out based in Miami, then we were based sort of part-time in both Boston and San Francisco, and now we’re based in New York,” Baptiste said in an interview recently in the TechStars office in New York, which OnSwipe shares with half a dozen other startups. The company is currently working on closing a Series A funding round — which Baptiste says he likes to call “Series Awesome” — and expects to close it soon, the OnSwipe CEO said.
Baptiste’s view is that publishers got sucked into creating apps for a number of reasons: partly because the iPad was so new, and they didn’t really know what to do to take advantage of it, and apps seemed like the easiest way to go about it — but also because Apple offered an easy route to get the content on the tablet and potentially monetize it. But what publishers give up, the OnSwipe CEO says, is the interactivity, ability to customize and other features that the web allows, plus they have to create multiple versions of their apps for multiple platforms.
With HTML5, however, content publishers can have the swipe features, the page movement, the rich graphics and all the other things that apps provide — and still be open and easily portable to other tablets or platforms. “The web has always been kind of ugly,” says Baptiste. “No one wants to admit it, but it’s true. We wanted to make it look and feel like print, but with the best of the web’s look and feel.”
At first, the company figured it would just license its software platform to publishers who wanted to create a quick app-like experience for the iPad. “But that would just be a services business, not a really big company,” says Baptiste. “Not that that’s bad, but we wanted to do something really big — there’s so much potential there. So we decided to give the software away, and have as many people publish in an infinitely customizable way, and we would build a thread that pulls them all together.”
The idea now, Baptiste says, is to create a kind of networked layer on top of the OnSwipe publishing tools, to turn those tools into more of an ecosystem. So the team built their own version of Instapaper, the service that saves webpages, so that users of OnSwipe could save their pages for later — and the potential there, he says, is to provide recommendations based on what people save (something that YouTube’s founders seem to think is a good idea as well, judging by their recent acquisition of Delicious from Yahoo). Baptiste says he somewhat jokingly thinks of this as the “reader graph,” in the same way that Facebook has popularized the term “social graph.”
The other part of the plan, Baptiste says, is to give advertisers the tools to take their existing print campaigns and turn them into full-fledged app-style pages and features that can be used on an iPad or other tablet. “We want to make beautiful ads too,” he said. OnSwipe is currently testing this idea with “a very large publisher,” said Baptiste.
Disclosure: Automattic, maker of WordPress.com, is backed by True Ventures, a venture capital firm that is an investor in the parent company of this blog, Giga Omni Media. Om Malik, founder of Giga Omni Media, is also a venture partner at True.