Lessons in anything

How do you publicize a Web start-up? eHow counts the ways.

Published October 11, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

How do you get your Internet start-up to stand out in a sea of dot-com advertising? Sounds like a question for eHow, the new "how-to" Web site that hopes to teach the world to sing, dance and do just about everything. eHow's own advertising strategy includes a novel new effort: live advertising in downtown San Francisco.

For the last two weeks, eHow has organized thrice-weekly "eHow Live!" sessions in a storefront in San Francisco's Financial District. The concept: An "expert" will teach passers-by how to swing dance, paint sidewalks, change a doorknob, get a massage, juggle, decorate for Halloween and (don't laugh) "how to show thanks during the holidays."

On a recent Friday, the how-to of the day was "How to be an extra in a movie" -- at least that's what was listed in the flyer that was distributed by the passel of promoters on the sidewalk. In the storefront itself, an actor in jodhpurs and suspenders wasn't explaining movie careers, but was instead leading the passers-by in a jovial game of movie trivia, passing out free DVDs of the movie "Titanic" to the winners. A handful of idle passers-by played along, quizzically listening while the actor ran down the merits of the eHow.com Web site. Perhaps this isn't the cheapest or most effective way to reach customers, but you've got to give eHow credit for trying something new.

Still, even if the actor failed to teach me anything -- outside of the obscure fact that Katharine Hepburn won four Academy Awards for best actress -- eHow is hoping that its Web site will be able to answer all my questions. The company is trying to cover everything: from the useful ("How to change your motor oil") to the odd ("How to be autumn for Halloween") to the useless ("How to have a fun shore leave") to the "no, really?" ("How to tie shoes"). It's a daunting task to tell the world how to do, well, just about anything; so far the company is just scratching the surface, with only a few thousand how-to's in its database. And don't expect to find how-to's explaining some of life's more mysterious secrets -- asking the search engine how to have an orgasm or how to roll a joint, for example, will yield no answers.

Regardless, eHow is one of those quick-turnaround companies currently all the rage in the valley -- a start-up that flew from concept to launch in less than six months, conceived after CEO Courtney Rosen couldn't find a Web site that explained how to change the wheels on her in-line skates. Venture capitalist Ann Winblad channeled millions into the company, banking on eHow's ambitious e-commerce efforts for returns.

The perpetually cheery Rosen was on hand Friday, surreptitiously observing her advertising in action. "The eHow live events have been really popular, especially the interactive ones like swing dancing," she chirped, while one eagle eye noticed a sagging sign in the back of the storefront display. "We drag people off the street and into the window to learn. They love it!"

Rosen then whirled into place to play trivia, taking position at a bank of headphones in hopes of helping a forlorn woman who was quite valiantly attempting to win that "Titanic" DVD. Three questions later, Rosen had accidentally won the movie, much to her chagrin. "I can't win!" she explained, embarassed, to the crowd. "I'm the founder of the company!"

By Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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