Wists-ful thinking: lessons from a prelude to Pinterest

Back in 2006, Wists, a visual bookmarking site I had launched a year earlier was gaining traction with women who were into crafts. I showed the website to two whip-smart friends, Shana Fisher and her husband, Jonathan Glick. Like many people, they didn’t buy my argument that collecting thumbnail image links would be a big deal, but they were less skeptical than most. Last year, I got a cryptic Tweet from Jonathan saying, “You Were Right.” Shana was an early investor in a visual bookmarking site called Pinterest, and it was growing like a weed.
I get too much credit for RSS and for Yelp, but the one thing that I can unashamedly claim to have invented is visual bookmarking, and more specifically the “choose images to thumbnail via a bookmarklet” method that Pinterest is based on. It’s not much of an “invention” per se. It’s a moronically simple thing, but it’s the right moronically simple thing. And given that more than one billion dollars rests on the idea, maybe it’s worth looking back at its history.

Wists’s service was originally dubbed “visual bookmarks.” Later we used the term “social shopping,” since people were mainly using Wists to share wish lists of things they wanted to buy. The original revenue model was via affiliate links. Wists used Skimlinks, the same affiliate aggregator that Pinterest adopted (then dropped).

To use Wists, you signed up and installed a bookmarklet that you clicked on while browsing other websites. This allowed you to collect images by simply clicking on them. You could then add a description, view these images as a thumbnail gallery, and share them with friends. (The site is still running, but it’s an old rickety shell.) The flow was almost exactly the same as Pinterest except that the metaphor was slightly different. Wists was used as a platform to power product blogs, such as Cribcandy and the visual lists site, Oobject.

There were several other visual bookmark sites that later appeared, including Kaboodle, Stylehive and later, ThisNext, but each of these was less like Pinterest in terms of flow.
Right before I moved from San Francisco to New York City, I worked out of the Obvious Corporation’s offices for a week. At the time, the team had just launched Twitter. I visited the re-incarnated Obvious Corp. a month ago, and Biz Stone asked me why I’d shown them Wists and said it was a piece of crap when clearly the concept had legs. Was that a self-deprecating Brit thing? The short answer is that the quick and dirty prototype that I’d partially written myself (on top of a much better version written by Yaroslav Faybishenko) looked like crap. I’m a designer not a developer, so I was embarrassed to show something unfinished — even though I wanted to finish it. It was as if I was an architect and I’d tried to lay bricks rather than design the wall. I was damned if I did and damned if I didn’t. If I said it was great (even though I believed in the concept), I could look like a bad designer. And if I said it was crap, it would be hard to acquire the resources to make a good version. The lesson here is only deliver as much as you can finish and do well.
Wists was also too early. The big social networks weren’t in place yet for the site to leverage off of. Still, it started to grow on its own, with exactly the same early adopters that Pinterest attracted five years later — Etsy users, crafts people and, above all, women. It also managed to get reasonable PR. The New York Times and Wall Street Journal covered it, largely because the term “social shopping” sounded particularly lucrative. Instead of raising money, I wanted to bootstrap a lifestyle business and do things on the cheap. My friend Graham Hill had a great time building Treehugger from scratch and exited successfully, and I hoped to do the same. In retrospect, however, no matter how simple the product, a consumer Internet application is not like a content site. It requires bespoke software and scaling, and it needs funding if it’s getting traction.
Lastly, Wists didn’t have the pinning metaphor that people have claimed is important. But despite what marketers will say, this part of Pinterest’s resonance is largely irrelevant, because the craftsters who were early Wist adopters and evangelists got it fine without the pinning metaphor. I suspect that because Pinterest isn’t very different, quantitatively speaking, from some of the applications that preceded it, people latch onto the only thing that is new about it. Pinterest is a success because it is qualitatively different and properly timed. It had proper resources to make it work well and scale at a time when the market was ready for it. The lesson to be learned here is that first to market is not as important as sometimes claimed. Most successful Internet platforms are second or third generation versions of an earlier idea.
So Wists was early, and it was never built into much more than a prototype. Pinterest really works. It’s a good, fast, snappy product that scales with the technical demands caused by “many to many” social features, and that is all there is to it. When people look for the special sauce that helps some sites displace others — why Google trumped Altavista or Facebook beat Friendster — they miss the obvious fact that “simple” and “works” go a long way.
The reason I’m sanguine, however, is that Pinterest’s success with the visual bookmark model has opened up a new crack in the ecosystem that will allow others to innovate further. Traditionally, stores have been both a showcase for a curated selection of items and a place that handles transactions and inventory storage. I think that e-commerce may now experience significant disruption as shops are curated online, separating logistics from showcasing. Online stores will be more like product galleries, and there are opportunities to build platforms for these. In the future, experts with an online “voice,” and people we are genuinely familiar with, may endorse items in lists of curated links. These curators will replace some aspects of celebrity endorsements in retail promotion. E-commerce services that handle the transaction and logistics could then pass a commission on to the curator for each sale — the CPA model of Skimlinks. I believe that this is a long term change in the nature of retail, and I’ll be creating something to fulfill this opportunity at Curations.com.
In a post tomorrow, I will examine the evolution of visual bookmarks and grid sites, and how those websites paved the way for Pinterest’s massive success.
David Galbraith is an architect turned tech entrepreneur. He is the co-creator of RSS and co-founder of Moreover, Yelp, Mocoms and Curations.
Image courtesy of  Flickr user Mykl Roventine.