Cleaning gutters

When 500 Startups alumni BrightNest launched its home maintenance utility platform platform in early 2012, it offered a simple calendaring and reminder tool. Not surprisingly, it bombed. The problem was that home maintenance isn’t sexy.

Soon after, BrightNest founder Justin Anthony caught a talk by AOL CEO Tim Armstrong, in which he played up the importance of content, saying, “Content is the engine that drives everything else.”

“It was the most influential moment in our company’s history,” Anthony says. “We immediately took Tim’s advice and started focusing on how to use content to make it fun and hyper-relevant to the individual user.”

BrightNest relaunched as a Web product offering motivation, tips, and tricks to keep homes in great shape. Rather than focusing on dull and dreary to-do items, the company focused on the results, or potential rewards. For example, a tip about replacing a home air filter might read, “It takes only 5 minutes to change your air filter but it will extend the life of your furnace by X percent and reduce your electricity bill by Y percent.” In parallel, the site would offer a simple tutorial for completing the task.

With this formula, and a carefully crafted editorial voice that focuses on simplicity and entertainment, the founders say they have since seen a spike in engagement. They’ve also layered into this content strategy utility and engagement features like maintenance tracking, through which it can remind users in six months when it’s time to change that filter again, or to clean the gutters.

Using content to drive engagement is nothing new, and we’ve even seen a similar strategy applied elsewhere in the home category. Home remodeling and design platform Houzz built its massive and highly engaged audience on a rare combination of the three C’s: content, commerce, and community. The key with both Houzz and BrightNest appears to be focusing on user experience and delivering value in an enjoyable way, rather than allowing monetization to come at the expense of both.

Since launching its mobile app less than two weeks ago, with the same content consumption and discovery focus, BrightNest has seen “dramatically increased engagement,” according to its founder. In the last week, 20,000 new home maintenance projects have been completed and logged. At the time of the app launch, the company had just crossed 100,000 total projects created to date, making this a significant increase. At the same time, traffic on the Web has been doubling monthly in parallel to the recent mobile engagement. Earlier today, the app’s popularity was recognized with featured placement in the “New and Noteworthy” section of the iOS App Store.

From the consumer point of view, the best part about BrightNest is that it’s free and is not trying to sell them anything. And according to Anthony, it will stay this way. The startup has found a number of B2B monetization strategies that don’t require the consumer to pay.

For instance, BrightNest offers a white-labeled and co-branded version of its product to insurance companies, real estate brokers, and other businesses who want to maintain customer engagement between claims and transactions. Under such an example, the app experience and reminder emails could be branded as “brought to you by Stan Smith, State Farm Agent.” Agents then invite their customers to join as a perk of doing business together.

Because of the quality of its content and the engagement levels it has been driving, Anthony says that BrightNest has been receiving inbound inquiries from content portals and large enterprises looking to message to consumers.

BrightNest has grown its team to eight people. In October 2011, the startup announced $950,000 in seed financing from OCA Ventures, New World Ventures, Quotidian Ventures, 500 Startups, and David Cohen, but Anthony reports this number has since increased slightly to “just over $1 million.”

We’ve talked at length about the intersection of content and commerce, and whether it makes sense to start at one end of the equation or another. In the case of BrightNest, like Houzz, great content has proven to be the key to developing large and loyal audiences. The fact that frictionless monetization opportunities followed suit, is yet another point of validation for the model.

BrightNest has yet to reach the scale of Houzz – which has more than 14 million users – and there’s no guarantee that it will. Home maintenance will likely alway remain an unsexy category, without the aspirational nature of home remodeling and design. But Houzz raised nearly $50 million, and needs to create a return on that sum. BrightNest has yet to set the bar anywhere near that high.

The good news is there’s no shortage of businesses that wish to engage with homeowners. Assuming the company can continue to deliver entertaining content that speaks to its audience, there will continue to be opportunities to monetize that attention.