Today is a very big day for me and my team - Offbeat Guides, the new company that we've been working on for the last 6 months is launching in private beta!What does the company do?
Offbeat Guides' first product is personalized, on-demand printed Travel Guides. Ever go through the experience of planning a trip using the web? I've always found it pretty painful - finding all the sights, the best places to stay, restaurants, walking tours, public bathrooms, wifi maps, and all that, not to mention finding out what bands are in town, or what interesting local meetings, book signings, museum and gallery openings are out there. I also end up getting maps for my hotels and meetings, too.
When I do end up having the time, I often become like a packrat, finding tidbits on the web, bookmarking, and then printing them on my home computer. Add in a big black clippy to keep all the pages together, and if I'm lucky, it'll hold things tightly so I won't be dropping papers everywhere as I'm running through airports, or searching through papers in taxis. The end result often gets stuck at the bottom of my bag, totally crumpled and ripped.
The problem with everything else out there
Here's the other thing I noticed - when I've got time to do more extended planning, the travel guides that I get at the bookstore are really only about the "big" destinations - you know, the big cities and tourist spots. And I'm paying for lots of information that I really don't need - I end up getting a book that's mostly about the places where I'm NOT going, often hundreds of miles away. Of course, that's all that the current publishers can do - the economics of the book publishing business demands that you focus all your energies on the lowest common denominator - and that you mass-produce the same out-of-date content to every bookstore on the planet that puts you on the shelf. It's also pretty wasteful from an environmental standpoint - all those unnecessary pages means more dead trees.
That's just not right, and in the age of the net, there's got to be a better way. After five years of building a search engine that scoured the "live web" for new, fresh information from authoritative sources, I knew that there was an exciting opportunity to add in a new dimension - location - and maybe build something really neat: A constantly changing, up-to-the-minute set of travel guides that could also be personalized to your preferences; but also something that was easy to build and easy to read.
Oh, did I mention that these would be physical books, not just virtual? Of course, if you want to get the PDF, you can do that too, and print it yourself, or put it on your Kindle, for example. Call me old-fashioned, but I think the technology of paper still has some legs yet: When you do it right, paper is lightweight, extremely low power, flexible, you can even write on it! You can get it wet, no need to reboot it, and it fits easily in a knapsack or back pocket with no fear of breakage. You can also feel perfectly safe riding an elephant in the jungles above Chang Mai, Thailand even if you drop it in a muddy puddle, or if it gets stepped on by a following pachyderm. No 3-year warranty necessary!
Of course, when I head on a trip somewhere, I like to have my computer and mobile phone with me, and I love it if I can get internet access while I'm on my trip, but sometimes that's just impractical or impossible - I don't like leaving my computer or phone on a beach, or wait for a crappy net connection when I'm on the road. Those things are great at the end of the day, when I'm in my hotel room, but they're terrible when I need to look up how to say "Where's the bathroom?" in Italian, or "I'm staying at the Sheraton Hotel" in Thai. For that, we put a bunch of useful information on the back cover of each guide - just for the important facts that take too long to look up, like how much to tip your taxi driver!
Ideally, what I wanted to bring with me is a nicely bound personalized travel guide, that has information about just the destination of my trip, and includes more detailed information - not only the history and the like, but also gives me updated information on exchange rates, local events and festivals, and what's actually going on in the city while I'm there. Who cares if there's a great festival in December if I'm there in June? I wanted to add in information that is relevant to my preferences, too - If I'm traveling with my kids, I want to know what's fun for them in that town, or if I'm on business, I want to know where to get free wifi. And of course, I want to know where to get a great meal; but if I already know where I'm staying I want to be able to pull all of the "where to stay" info out of my guide too! And it would be great to have this guide accessible to me when I'm in front of my computer or phone, as well.
Offbeat Guides was born from that personal itch.
There's a lot of technology on the back-end: You could say that in a way, what we've done is flip the implementation of travel search on its head. We're trying to actually give you more of what you want, and less of the unnecessary or irrelevant stuff. We've scoured the web for the best information about over 30,000 different travel destinations, using a combination of search technology, and curation by both amateur and professional travel experts (our travel content coodinator spent the last 4years at Lonely Planet!) But technology is only useful if you can make it simple - so we spent a lot of time boiling the user experience of building a guide to it's essence: 5 simple steps that everyone should be able to answer easily:
1) What's your name?
2) Where are you going?
3) Where are you coming from?
4) What are your travel dates?
5) (Optional) Where are you staying when you're there?
With that information in hand, you can create a personalized guide. You can go in, customize your table of contents to add or remove sections depending on your interests.
And more is coming soon as we continue to build out the product: For example, you'll soon be able to add your own chapters with any information that you cut-and-paste into the guide, and you'll be able to tell us a bit more about yourself and have the guide tailored for you: If you're travelling with kids, for example, or if you want WiFi maps, or food preferences.
We're currently pulling information from some really great places on the internet - about two dozen sources so far, and more being added every day. We're very cognizant of copyright issues, and try to work first with folks who put their information in the public domain, or use creative commons licenses that encourage commercial use. With some sites, we've worked out commercial relationships to be able to use their data, and we're actively negotiating with lots more who want to make available their writing and data to our customers - and we're looking at creative ways to build an ecosystem where everyone wins. We're also working with some fantastic companies that are solving big pieces of the puzzle, like trip recommendations, flight reservations, and other travel scheduling tools. If you want to work with us, drop us a line!
It's been a thrilling and exciting 6 months, and I'm so proud of the team that has gotten us here - it's been such a blast to be able to work with such smart, motivated, and fun-loving folks!
If you're interested in helping us to deliver a great experience, looking to help a young company produce just the kind of guide you want, and aren't afraid of seeing a few bugs along the way, come to the site, and sign up for the beta! We'll be adding folks to the beta as we continue to fix bugs and increase scalability, and we'll be doing it largely on a first-come, first served basis.
More to come. Onwards and upwards!