Scribd started out with an inspired, stripped-down business plan: "a YouTube for documents." That sounds like a niche, doesn't it?
But that was five years ago; $25 million in venture capital funding ago.
Since then, this San Francisco start-up, led by Trip Adler (right), has expanded on that simple mission by adding all sorts of trendy social and interactive features. They've re-branded themselves as "the largest website for social publishing and reading." On their What is Scribd slide show, documents with wings flit from Facebook, to Twitter, to Google.
The result: today Scribd is... still a YouTube for documents.
It's good for that. Early users included candidate Barack Obama, who posted campaign documents.
But Scribd has higher ambitions. In 2009, for example, it launched an online store and struck deals with O'Reilly and Simon & Schuster. (The initial S&S "Featured Titles" included "sTORI Telling" by Tori Spelling. Who reads that, in any format?)
One big challenge for Scribd: can text documents be ramped up to be the center of an exciting, fun, burgeoning online community? Scribd wants to make documents more interactive, more webby, more social. It wants to "liberate the written word." But maybe the YouTube comparison really doesn't work: text documents aren't videos. Text documents aren't smart phone photos either.
But if Scribd fails, it won't be for lack of trying. That's why we'll watch them for another year. They are always hustling, trying to catch the next wave.
Example: Scribd also made a bold bet when it scrapped Flash in favor of HTML5. The Flash player worked pretty well, but HTML5 opened up a whole new frontier of possibilities. Scribd has also done a good job exposing its content to the search engines. Scribd is one of the few places where an author can post an ebook, and expect to get indexed by the Google and the Bing.
In April, 2010, Scribd partnered with Facebook and launched a product called Readcast. It's now possible to "like" documents on Scribd, share them, and see what other people are reading.
Scribd is trendy like that. They are "fast followers:" they see something gaining traction out there, and they incorporate it. When everybody started talking about Flipbook, Pulse, Zite and Instapaper, Scribd launched "Float," a read-it-later feature that mimics the functionality of Instapaper with some social networking stuff layered on, naturally. They almost sold it to Yahoo, according to TechCrunch.
And they do have tens of millions of documents, and attract 50 million unique visitors a month -- so they are out there, mixing it up in the Internet mainstream. Scribd is like a smaller planet in the ebook universe. It's not a bad idea to have a colony there.
I sent up a few exploratory missions. I uploaded a PDF of this ebook, put a $1 price tag on it, and have made a few dollars, literally. I also extended this analysis by leading a Scribd Field Trip to the service. I urge you to get meta and read about Scribd on Scribd.
Scribd has a simple, explainable, clearcut niche on the Web: that "YouTube for documents" idea still resonates. There needs to be a place where you can post Facebook's IPO registration statement as soon as it comes out.
But Scribd has to keep moving, shark-like, until it finds a mix of sustainable revenue streams to munch on: some e-commerce, some advertising, etc. Scribd's backers are hoping it will figure out the right mix before it runs through the $25 mil.