September 13, 2010

After traveling around the world for the last two years, paidContent founder Rafat Ali has a new venture. In a separate Q&A, he describes why he wants to avoid the business of covering news.

Here, he discusses how the travel guide industry piqued his interest and how he started to explore whether the industry can be re-imagined for mobile devices.

Dorian Benkoil: Could you tell me about what you’re working on?

Rafat Ali: One of the sectors that I’m deeply interested in, and very likely my next venture, is going to be in the travel guidebook sector.

And that’s born out of a few things. One is, as people who have been following me on Facebook and Twitter know, I have been traveling for the last 24 months. I have been to five different countries and all kinds of various places, and as a result I think it’s fair to say that I’ve caught more than the travel bug, and have also been using all kinds of guides, whether it’s books or research online, or a bunch of mobile apps.

I think there is an opening in the market that I can help address in the travel guidebook sector, particular as the sector gets re-imagined in the mobile arena. If anything says mobile, travel guide says mobile …

Exactly what it means for me and what the final thing I’m going to be working on will look like, to be honest, I don’t know yet. What I have done is launch a site, a blog, which is what I know best, about the travel guide sector called, which essentially is the daily links that I’m posting as I learn about the sector. …

Can you tell me more about your intentions with mobile and things you want to do?

Ali: It’s obvious that the scope for reinvention of the guidebook is on the mobile platform. Clearly, online there are too many sources of information. Most people start their research on Google.

So how do you as a startup or an established brand rise above the noise? I think on the mobile platform that becomes slightly more clear, because by the time you’ve reached the mobile platform, you’ve already done pre-research of where you want to go.

At a destination … you need a guide, whether that’s a printed guide or a mobile guide. Just making an e-book out of a guidebook is not enough. Some of the guide companies have done that. That’s not even taking advantage of the medium, which is a live medium. Mobile is a connected medium, so there a lot of things that you can do. And that’s what I’m trying to figure out.

This seems rather different than what you did before. This a vertical, but you’re not really talking about covering a vertical, and you’re not talking about doing a news media company.

Ali: Correct. Also, this is a consumer vertical, not a B2B vertical, which I’ve done previously. When I started thinking about leaving, and especially as I was traveling, I think one of reasons I was traveling so wide was to clear my head and also figure out what I want to do next.

One of the things I did not want was to do something in my comfort zone, which I’ve been doing previously for the last eight years of my life. The easiest thing for me would be to take that vertical building knowledge and apply it to another B2B vertical that I can apply the same treatment, which is fast-breaking news, bite-sized chunks, analysis, opinion, data, research. Add conferences, add classifieds, add video — all the elements that went into ContentNext and paidContent, and all the stuff that I’ve done. …

In business to business, everything is incremental, right? You get this many visitors or this much money, you hire another person. Or you do this much, and you expand. And the audience growth is also incremental — it never is exponential — which is good and steady. …

But having covered the consumer companies, I’ve always liked the high that comes with the exponential growth. If something clicks, that’s the high I want to experience at least once in my life, however naive that sounds. But of course there’s good and bad. Good is if you get that high. Bad is you can flame out so much faster. …

Isn’t everything you’ve said about news applicable to travel guides? Whatever brilliant content you get, brilliant applications you build, brilliant platforms you get them on, there is other content. Others with just as few barriers can do the same thing you’re talking about with travel.

Ali: Yes and no. I can’t explain for two reasons. One is I will disclose more than I’m willing to. And secondly, I’m still learning. The reason I say no is because for something where people have invested a bunch of money to go a certain place — especially destinations outside your own country — the planning and the guide part of it cannot be left to chance, which is left to brands that are untested and not well-known.

From a consumer point of view, if they’re investing so much money and time and effort to go, there has to be enough security, in terms of when they’re taking a guide, whether it’s a book or it’s mobile. It has to have reliable information. They can’t be stranded in the middle of nowhere without knowing where go.

I’ve learned this being a traveler, and learning about the travel industry. While it seems to be the easiest thing to get content, it’s one of the hardest, backbreaking kinds work that these guys have done over the last 20, 30, 40 years, which is how long these guys have been in existence. … It’s not just creating something one time; it’s updating that is also extremely difficult, especially outside the popular sectors. …

But there are four or six established brands I could name. Even in the backpack sector, the high-end sector, there are a couple or three brands in each.

Ali: If you look at the numbers in the travel guide sector, all of them, especially in the last couple of years, have declined.

Of course, those are secular trends. The print part of the guidebook sector is in decline. It’s also cyclical because travel in the last two to three years has been hit by the economy, and [that will continue] for the next couple of years, in all likelihood.

It’s also why I’m looking at it as an opportunity because now is the down cycle, and there are probably things to start and things to pick up that will be much cheaper now than they will be in a few years.

I do think brands matter in this industry. Imagine the content dropped into these books. I mean, a company like Lonely Planet, just as an example, has 800 different titles. Imagine the amount of content that is built into those books. How can a startup even begin to rival that, even if all they’re doing for the next five to 10 years is gathering content?

So what’s your opportunity?

Ali: Maybe not in the travel content industry but maybe an allied services thing that will become a hit. It could be a technology. It could be a way of presenting these books on these platforms. It could be search in the travel guide sector. So I don’t know yet, to be honest. That’s what I’m trying to figure out. Search certainly seems to be an interesting opportunity.

If you do create the brilliant application, brilliant technology, sure that gives you a head start. But somebody else could come along and create another brilliant technology that somehow undercuts or steals or improves upon what you’ve done.

Ali: Hopefully I will be that person.

Again, there are slight risks in going public for competitive reasons or even talking about it in the posts that I did. But if your competitive advantage is silence, I don’t think that’s a huge advantage.

I feel like I’ll learn more being in a public forum, as I say in my post [on the site], and also I’m getting e-mails from people in the sector, so clearly I’m already getting more opportunities than I would have just being silent.

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