The Grid: Startup Promises AI Webdesign for the Masses

04/24/2015 03:30 pm ET | Updated Jun 23, 2015

The Gutenberg Press revolutionized printing in the 15th century, but it wasn't until the 1980s that the dot matrix printer brought the ability to print into every home.

Today, the much celebrated power of the Internet to demolish barriers to publishing for the average person still requires the use of cumbersome intermediaries or "walled gardens" like Facebook.

Enter The Grid, a San Francisco and Berlin based startup founded on a simple truth: everyone wants a website. No one wants to build a website. The Grid promises to fully democratize the promise of the Web for a modest monthly fee ($8 for early adopters who commit to a year, $25 for latecomers).

Yes, website builders like Wordpress have been around for a while. The infamous Geocities websites of the dawn of the web were a type of basic website builder. Allowing website creation with a minimal use of code, drag and drop interfaces like Wix and Squarespace enable creation of presentable websites with a bit of work.

But according to founder Dan Tocchini IV, The Grid, launching in June, will level the playing field even more. Tocchini points to the words of the great web prophet, Steve Jobs himself.

In a 1996 Wired magazine interview, Jobs presciently observed that the promise of the web was that "[a]n individual can put up a website that, if they put enough work into it, looks just as impressive as the largest company in the world... It's a very profound thing, and a very good thing."

Tocchini claims "We're getting the cruft of websites out of the way, this will help level the playing field in the spirit of Steve's quote, and keep focus on the real, hard work - creating quality content."

The Grid looks impressive.

But how does it work? The Grid is essentially a website builder with a benevolent artificial intelligence behind the scenes. (Really a complex set of algorithms.) You feed the ghost in the machine with content and it builds a design around it. Most attractively, it continues to evolve as you feed it more content.

Imagine you start with simply a title, some text, and a few pictures. With a traditional website builder, that little content, unaltered and un-prettified, is going to look terrible, incomplete, you might as well put up one of the 1990s construction icons that blighted so many websites in those days. (Millennials, take my word for it. Not only was the web figuratively the wild west, there were actually tumbleweed icons on websites. Cray, huh?)

But with The Grid, that sparse content will be organized with an artificially intelligent artistic sensibility that makes it look like your meager efforts are intended. Visitors will think that it is all by design. And it kind of is. As you upload more content, your website will continuously update itself and reformat the content so that the initially prominent-by-necessity images recede into the background based on the algorithms' behind the scenes work.

There is a growing realization that everyone is a content creator of some kind through social media. But, when a service is free, you are the product. As The Grid asks, cheekily, why build Zuck's website (Facebook) when, with a radically simplified interface, you can build your own?

It isn't difficult to see the promise: flash websites set up to capitalize on a cultural second--like Oreo's 2013 Superbowl blackout tweet--or just a close to real time updated website for a soccer team, or camping trip, without being mediated by Facebook or Tumblr.

For time strapped entrepreneurs too, The Grid's promise is undeniable: you can literally set up a site in minutes and actively curate it with the same ease and less investment than social media. If it all pans out, it will be a true game changer.

When e-commerce comes online, The Grid will offer an affordable alternative for product sales and fundraising--the company promises to only pass on transaction costs with no additional fees.

It's a pretty exciting premise, and one that has convinced 35,000 thousand people and counting to sign up without so much as a beta run in exchange for a permanently discounted rate of $8 a month for the life of their subscription.

But then there's the million dollar question: can the Grid deliver?

Skeptics, among them web designers who claim The Grid's code is inelegant and will result in "SEO nightmares," flatly state that it won't work as promised.

Founder Tocchini disagrees. In an exclusive demonstration for the Huffington Post, Tocchini made on the fly changes to the main Grid website, and sure enough they just worked. Bolstering Tocchini's confidence is the impressive pedigree of talented folks working on The Grid--ex-Googlers, a former Medium design guru, and a bunch of great software engineers.

In a similar presentation to a gathering of startup entrepreneurs, Tocchini wowed the crowd and demonstrated some of The Grid's promise.

With a planned roll out in June, soon dreamers will be able to judge for themselves if Tocchini's dream will be the one that enables their own. It appears to be at worst, a very very slick tool, and at best, a truly transformative tool that will fulfill Steve Jobs's vision of a level playing field for every Girl Scout troop, small business, theater troupe, struggling artist, or even bigger concern that wants a snap website to exploit a cultural moment.

The Grid launches in June and offers the ability to create seven different websites, with professional level design sensibilities that evolve and grow as you provide more content. Pre-orders receive a year for $96 with a grandfathered $8 a month price, after launch The Grid will be $25 a month for new subscribers. Users can run up to seven websites through one account. E-commerce will not be available at launch, but is promised by the end of the year. More details about The Grid can be found on the company's website.