The business of platforms for developing websites and publishing online is a crowded one, with established players like WordPress, Wix, Zoho, Weebly, Duda Mobile and Squarespace competing against newer entrants like Medium and the likes of LinkedIn. Now make way for another one: Universe, a startup that hopes its mobile-first approach for building “light” websites on mobile — the pitch is that these can be built in “under a minute” — can give it a unique foothold in the market.
Universe, which is based out of Brooklyn, New York, is today launching its first app, for iOS, with $3.2 million in funding from General Catalyst, Greylock Partners (from its development and seed fund), Eniac Ventures and led by Box Group.
Universe founder Joseph Cohen said that he envisions Universe sites to be the kind of thing you might find linked on an Instagram profile page.
“Millennials are not using the Squarespaces of the world,” he said. “Our intent is to let you be creative in a whole new way.” Sites tacked to Universe’s own domain are free, while those registered with custom domains start at a competitive $2.99/month.
Cohen tells me that the idea to build Universe first came to him three years ago after he sold his previous startup, education-tech company Lore, to Noodle Education. (Cohen himself dropped out of U Penn in his sophomore year and never went back).
“I’ve been obsessed with this space for three years,” he said. “It comes from the desire to turn phones into creative devices. The web is still this incredible platform for sharing identities, and there needs to be a mobile-native way for creating for the web.”
Universe tackles the balance between creativity and templates to speed things up with a slick interface that presents the real estate of the phone as a 3×5 area, where you can select a background and then start to add text, photos, videos and link modules through a drag and drop interface.
Indeed, the intention is not to give serious developers or large organizations one more way to build complex sites with large backends and processes behind them.
At launch there isn’t even a module to incorporate purchases — although this is likely to come in an update, Cohen tells me, along with other features. Nor are there any plans to extend this into a quick native app builder.
“We’ve thought long and hard about apps and explored prototypes,” he said, before coming to the conclusion that “not everyone should have their own apps. It’s hard to get apps distributed and as a casual user you shouldn’t have to do that.”
Instead, the intention is to provide a way of creating simple web-based presences, which could be viral-ready widgets in themselves (think of sites like IsThisForThat or Is the L Train running?) or landing pages for more details about something like an event you’re organizing for yourself. In a way, Universe feels less in the vein of services like Wix or Squarespace and more like other web-based tools that have been built to make other small things on the web that might go viral, like GIF creators or the now-defunct Checkthis (from the same people who then created Frontback).
“About.me is also too desktop focused,” Cohen countered to my question about the once-AOL-owned online Yellow Pages.
Cohen said that a lightbulb went off when he realized that the range of website builders that exist today approach the concept in a very constrained way that is just “not casual enough.”
Notably, Cohen himself doesn’t come from a technical/developer background, which also likely had an influence in how Universe tackled building tech for non-tech people.
His investors like to highlight the non-tech element here, too. Josh Elman of Greylock noted that Cohen’s mother has designed event websites using the app, too.
“The most transformative companies change the way we communicate and create,” another investor, Spencer Lazar, partner at General Catalyst, said in a statement. “With its playful building-block interface, Universe transforms the slow, esoteric process of web design into a simple, creative mobile experience.”
While Universe sites are desktop-friendly, there are no plans to develop a desktop version of the builder.
“I really think that we can go very far with mobile,” Cohen said. “My feeling is that the phone has so much creative potential as a tool. I think that a lot more of the web is going to be consumed and created on mobile.”