Union Street San Francisco...

... meets Tuscany. The light was beautiful today as I walked down Union Street on my way to lunch with my old friend John Clippinger from Harvard. We had a very mind-bending lunch, John is working on some really interesting identity-related systematic ans software that have very far-reaching implications.  Still digesting - not the meal, but the chat!

Offbeat Guides Public Beta!

I'm proud to announce the launch of Offbeat Guides first product in public beta! What's Offbeat Guides? Offbeat Guides homepage. 5 simple steps to build your customized guidebook.Our first product is quite simple: On-demand, Personalized Travel Books. Travel books that are tuned just for you, only about the place that you're going, with local information like festivals, events, and concerts that are going on during the dates of your stay. We put in local maps that are tuned to where you'll be, and we even customize the guide based on what we learn about you, like the timezone differences from your hometown, electrical plug differences, embassies and consulates nearby, differences in tipping policies, exchange rates, local weather forecasts, and much more. We provide guides for over 30,000 city destinations around the world - of course we cover New York, Paris, Rome, and Tokyo, but we also have guides to Newark, Paradise, Romeoville, and Tokorozawa, and many more places. We're trying to solve the problem that most of us have when we travel - you want to know where to go, what to do when you're there, and what's going on while you're there. We're a company run by obsessive technologists who happen to travel a LOT. We don't come out of the travel industry. We're travelers, just like you. We value your time, so we focused on simplicity. To get started, we only ask you 5 questions:

  • Where are you going: We currently cover over 30,000 city destinations
  • When will you be there: So we can include information about local festivals, events, club meetings, sports teams, concerts, and other timely information
  • Where are you coming from: With this information, we give you contextal information, like timezone differences, embassies and consulates for your home country, language guides, exchange rates, electrical adapters needed, and more.
  • Where are you staying: So we can localize the maps that go into your guide, and put your hotel right at the center of things.
  • The Traveler's Name: Well, we need to know who you are, so we can put your name right on the book cover! Makes for great gifts, too.

From that, we show you a live preview of your guide, with sights, attractions, restaurants, and hotels - but we also pull in all the local and contextual information we can find, tuning your guide just for you, your preferences, and your trip details. We also brought on a top-notch team of travel experts, who have gone through the top 1000 city destinations in the world, called the museums, checked on the hotel information, and chatted with the restaurateurs. We built an travel search engine to help us to locate the most interesting information about the other 29,000 destinations, using both freely available information as well as licensed information from partners like Wikitravel, Wikipedia, Flickr, Eventful, Upcoming, Meetup, the World Factbook, and many other local sources. As we continue to build out the site, we'll be adding in many more validated sources as well as incorporating feedback from travelers and locals into the future guides. Can I customize it? The Book Preview Screen, with Customization FeaturesOf course. You get full control over your guide - so if you already know where you're staying, you can click to deselect all of the information about hotels, for example. You can add customized chapters and fill them with information that you gather from your friends, or from around the internet. And when you're done, you can get your guide in multiple formats:

  • As a beautifully printed full-color book, shipped to your door (or your hotel!) right before you leave on your trip so it has the freshest information in it,
  • As a PDF suitable for printing on your home printer, or downloading onto your mobile phone or reading device, or
  • On the web so you can read through the book on-line, and update information before and during your trip.

Why only City Guides? Well, we had to start somewhere. One of the most-requested features from our private beta testers has been to create regional or area guides, for example, for Maui, or for The Napa Valley. We're working on this, it's in the pipeline, but we wanted to open the doors to all of you, even if those country or regional guides aren't ready yet. Another frequently requested feature is for multi-segment trips - where you are visiting multiple places on a single trip. Right now, you'll have to get a guide for each place, but this is something that we're definitely keeping an eye on as we continue to build out the product. How much does it cost? It's USD $9.95 to buy the PDF version, so you can print it yourself and save money. It's USD $24.95 + shipping to buy the book, and the PDF comes included - you can download updated PDFs as many times as you want before your trip ends, as well! That's about the same or less than you'd pay to buy a guide in a bookstore, and you'd end up with information that's 12-24 months old, that's not customized to you. Is there a Money-back Guarantee? Yes! If you're unhappy with your guide for any reason whatsoever, simply let us know, and we'll refund your money. No questions asked. Even if it is after your trip, and you've used the book. We're committed to making a really great experience for you, so if you're unhappy with the guide at all, we will refund your money. Where's the catch? Why is it Beta? This is a pretty ambitious product, and we're really happy with what we've built so far - but there's still so much more to do. We've been testing for 5 months in private beta with over 6,000 people helping us to get things right, but things still crop up, and we want to learn more from you. We're opening up the doors to let anyone come and kick the tires and buy some guides, and we really want to get your thoughts and feedback so we can make the experience and the guide information as good as possible. There will be bugs. We promise to stay in touch both on our blog and on Get Satisfaction and keep you in the loop as we find and fix bugs and issues. We appreciate your willingness to work with us on this and to help us create a great product together. For our Private Beta Testers We love you. We really really do! Thanks so much for all the help and feedback, you are the best group of testers I've ever had the opportunity to work with. The free book coupons that you got as a private beta tester are still valid until November 30th; after that they won't work anymore, so don't procrastinate! We'll also be sending you a survey as we close up the private beta - please check for it in your mailbox soon. It should take 10-15 minutes to fill out, but it will really help us to get your thoughts and feedback and to continue to improve the product. Thanks!!! How to get involved Well, first off, come and kick the tires! Check out the guide preview for your hometown, or for a place you're visiting soon. Drop us a line and let us know how things look. Are there errors? Problems with the information? Are we missing a great feature? Let us know! Also, follow us on Twitter! We're @offbeatguides. We love hearing from you. And Thanks! Thanks for all of your support. On a personal note, I want to thank the Offbeat Guides Team who have weorked their butts off getting this built. I'm really excited to be taking this next adventure with you!

Offbeat Guides Sneak Peek and Beta Update

We've been hard at work on the private beta of Offbeat Guides, and I thought it would be a good time to give y'all an update on our progress!We've been making huge strides both in making the site simpler and easier to use, as well as cranking away on the hard tasks of building out a deep semantic search service that dynamically builds guides for over 30,000 different city destinations around the world. We've taken a lot of what I've learned building comprehensive real-time search engines at Technorati, and also what Marina and her team have learned in building and curating a narrative experience when she was with Lonely Planet. We want to give you more than just the facts - to also get you a flavor and some the romance of the place and of your trip. We've expanded the partners we're working with to include even more local photographs, festivals, tickets, and events, and we've put in a lot of heuristic technology to help to make sure we weed out as much irrelevant information as possible. If you want to work with us, drop us a line. Algorithms can't provide everything though, especially for the top travel destinations of the world - humans mean a lot too. We've got a team of people who have been digging deep into the top 1000 city destinations of the world - calling the shops, restaurants, hotels, fact-checking, and pulling out the cruft, while focusing on bringing you the most interesting offbeat local perspectives, and we also take advantage of all of the great Creative Commons-licensed and Public Domain information thats out there on the internet to help to create a satisfying experience for anyone who is traveling. We're also looking to get feedback from locals and travelers so the guides stay current and completely up-to-date, too! There's still a lot to do, but I thought I'd put up a screencast (it runs a total of about 13 minutes) that takes you through the main features of the site - a sneak peek of what our private beta testers have been playing with.

We're actively adding more people to the beta, on a first-come, first served basis - so if you want to get involved in testing out our beta, helping us to identify and fix bugs, and get two printed guides shipped free-of-charge to you as part of the private beta, make sure to sign up at the site. This offer won't last forever! :-)

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Personalization and the publishing business

The Business Standard of India wrote up a really interesting review of Offbeat Guides today:

Recently, I had the chance to travel to Japan to speak and participate in an international conference. Ever heard of Sapporo? Quite honestly, I hadn’t. It’s Japan’s 5th largest city in the northern island of Hokkaido. There’s a good chance I would never have bothered to find out where it is, if not for the conference. Now that I had to spend a week there, I figured that it would be a good idea to get a travel guide. And so, off I went looking for a travel guide to Japan. I found two books, both very generously priced at around Rs 1,500 (ed. Note: That's about USD $35). I probably wouldn’t have minded it that much if the book had enough material about Sapporo. Unfortunately, all it had was a measly chapter about the city where I was travelling to and I was left standing with a book where 95 per cent of the information had no practical use to me. It didn’t take me long to put the books back in the bookshelf. It’s after this experience that I so much appreciate the value of OffBeat Guides, a make-it-yourself, personalised guide book service. The service understands that your main interest is the city you are travelling to. In this case, my only interest was Sapporo in Northern Japan. And in under 10 minutes, I had myself a personalised travel guide to Sapporo.

This sums up so succinctly why I started the company - I travel a lot, and I was disappointed with what more traditional guides gave me about the places I was going - especially if they were not the 50 most traveled places in the world. I wanted travel search that worked for me, rather than something that made me work hard to collect all the information on my own. Here's what Kiruba Shankar, the author of the article writes:

It then gives me the choice of menus of the different information about the city and I get to choose what I want and what I don’t want. For example, I did not want information about 5-star hotels. So, I unchecked them. But what I definitely wanted to know was the Subway train map and the local bus routes. Likewise, there’s a long laundry list of items I can choose. Even though all the information is available on the Internet free of charge, there are two distinct advantages that the book provides. One, someone else does the searching for you, saving you time and two, all the information is neatly packaged into a small book making it easy for you to carry along. You can either choose to have the PDF version for about Rs 400 Ed. Note: USD $9.95) and read it off your laptop or choose to buy the printed book for about Rs 1,000 (Ed. Note: USD $24.95). I prefer choosing the PDF version and taking a printout on my printer. Works better this way. The beauty of the book is it’s personalisation. Since it knows what dates you are in the city, it only lists important events that take place in the city when you are there. For example, I was told that there is a Beer Garden Festival happening which I made sure to attend.

Go read the entire article, and sign up for the private beta - there's a waiting list right now, but we're letting more folks in to the beta on a first-come, first-served basis. We believe, as does Kiruba, that personalized publishing is a tremendous opportunity in the publishing business - and that printed books have a lot of value, especially if you can personalize them to each individual reader. I'm a big fan of customized product companies like Moo, Cafepress, Lulu, Spreadshirt, Threadless, and JPG Magazine. I think there's a new sector forming around creating tangible representations of digital creations - and I like it...