PracticePeople In PracticeE-Business: Taking the internet local

E-Business: Taking the internet local

Winners of Accountancy Age's business incubator competition, Nick Silk and Geraldine Calpin, are hoping their prize worth of incubator advice will help them realise their dream of seeing Visitalocal.com become a household name.

Globalisation and harmonisation have been touted as important contributing forces at the peak of this year’s dot.com gold rush.

So ‘taking the internet local’ seems an incongruous concept to most aspiring dot.com businessmen. But realising an internet business plan on a local level is just what dot.com entrepreneurs Geraldine Calpin and Nick Silk are trying to do.

Visitalocal.com – their internet toddler – is the result of obstacles experienced themselves when trying to arrange venues for business meetings and social gatherings.

Silk and Calpin came up with the idea while setting up their marketing consultancy C&S Marketing. ‘We needed somewhere to meet as we are both home-based,’ explains Silk. ‘We chose a town between us, but then couldn’t find anywhere. There were pubs, but we didn’t know whether they were open; we needed maps, and so on.’

Know the feeling? Everyone has had to go to a strange town at some point in their lives, be it for business or pleasure. And unless you have a mentor to show you around, you end up feeling like a foreigner in your own country.

Not knowing what choices are available even in your own neighbourhood is frustrating when trying to come up with a place that meets the tastes of your mates or colleagues.

Calpin and Silk have come up with a business strategy to combat the problems people face when trying to rally a group of friends for a night out in a local pub that has a garden, hot food and serves Guinness, for example.

Or organising a business meeting in an alien city for potential investors who need to be treated like royals – Visitalocal.com provides the wherewithal.

If you are wishing to whisk your loved one away on Valentine’s day to an idyllic pub setting in Bury St. Edmunds, for example, that serves vegetarian food and plays jazz music you have two ways of finding your venue of choice at Visitalocal.com.

When you enter the site, you complete a profile (this also saves you time on your next visit) and specify two or three options. Or you can carry out a quick search for the most suitable venue, print the map and details and head off.

The Visitalocal idea was able to reach partial fruition following the duo’s success at clinching the prize in Accountancy Age.com and business-incubator.com’s competition in June. With the prize of #15,000-worth of e-business advice from business-incubator, a consortium of Oracle, Cisco Systems, Exodus and Sun Microsystems, Calpin and Silk have been able to piece together the technological jigsaw.

Now, however, comes the toughest part. On the back of recent dot.com flops and despite a flow of enthusiasm for their idea, the pair have faced growing reticence from investors. But this year’s internet collapses, the most infamous of which was Boo.com’s, has simply fuelled their enthusiasm.

‘There are lessons to be learnt there. We don’t want fancy graphics. We want to provide a wholesome product,’ says Silk.

Potential investors with little time on their hands expect a two-page summary of a business plan outlining why one idea is unique to another.

Calpin and Silk are finding this process leaves investors with a staid vision of their plan.

Indeed, the time is less than ripe to be looking for investors.

Peter Hemington, partner at BDO Stoy Hayward, says: ‘It’s a very difficult situation at the moment. People don’t really believe in it (start-ups).

There’s a lot of distrust.’

Confidence in the dot.com gold rush has been knocked sideways over the past few months following reports on the financial losses of the most popular and reportedly most successful websites like Amazon.com and Lastminute.com.

Just last week Lastminute. com’s losses have been splashed across the media drawing negative attention to the start-up and increasing the public’s caginess towards dot.coms. Lastminute.com reported pre-tax losses of £9.3m for the three months to June 30, an increase of £8.2m on the same period last year. It is expected to start making a profit in 2004.

It is B2C sites that have been hit most severely and this is one of the dilemmas faced by Silk and Calpin. It is frustrating that most investors view it as a business-to-consumer site, say Visitalocal.com partners.

‘It’s a business-to-business site. We match people to suppliers. We’re not trying to sell products ourselves,’ explains Calpin. Although Calpin and Silk are wise to their competitors, such as the Yellow Pages site, and the plethora of others offering choices of where to conduct business, dine, drink or party, they see none as providing such a specifically targeted audience.

Despite Hemington’s predictions that investors are beginning to target what is known as infrastructure sites, software and telecoms sites, he was upbeat about the value of Visitalocal’s database. The database is in fact the team’s trump card. ‘Advertisers will love that. It’s powerful information, but it’s going to be tough for them,’ predicts Hemington.

Through enabling users to enter their criteria, Visitalocal will draw revenue from sponsorship and online registration fees. ‘Our rates are cost-effective compared to local newspapers for example,’ says Silk.

By building up a vast database of users, the country’s pubs and restaurants and the length and breadth of the UK, Visitalocal is planning to design pages to suit age groups. ‘We want to profile pages using different colour tones, type face and even language,’ adds Calpin.

Given their professional history which between them spans 30 years of marketing experience in the hotel and restaurant industry, they have all the key components to know who wants what, when, where and how. ‘We’ve been managing other people’s investments for years. We understand cost-efficiency, especially when it’s our own money,’ said Calpin.

Indeed, despite the funding barriers they come up against, the duo are adamant about the future success of their site.

‘This is such a good idea. The whole point is to make people’s lives easier,’ says Silk oozing enthusiasm. ‘Many companies have concentrated on the dot.com failures, well, this just makes us more determined.’ The beta site will be up and running in six weeks’ time in preparation for the autumn launch. The initial launch will be a pilot programme focusing on one of the southern counties. After that, the big rollout will take place throughout the UK spreading over three years. Following the pilot launch, Calpin and Silk will concentrate on one county per month.

As for what the future holds – the pub and restaurant theme is just the beginning for the marketing couple. Their future ideas are yet to be divulged.

Watch this space for the unfolding of Visitalocal.com

www.visitalocal.com

www.business-incubator.com

http://www.accountancyage.com/IT/107624

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