Brownbook - Free Business Directory That Anyone Can Instantly Edit

Vishal Friday, August 08, 2008 , , , , ,

Today we showcase an exciting and a successful venture founded by, Marc Lyne from, London, UK, Brownbook - Free business directory that ANYONE can instantly edit.

Brownbook, one of the emerging players in the local search market which is heating up, seems to be following the wikipedia model - publish then filter. All these players are competing in this market worth $235 million as reported last year (2007). It is expected to reach to $532 million by 2010.

In a recent email based interview with Marc, he gave insights into his venture and how he is progressing with it. This is what he has to say:

• Please tell us about yourself, your background and interests?
I have an extensive directory industry background, having put Scoot (formerly Freepages) on to the web in 1995, rolled out to Belgium, Holland and France and then sold Scoot UK to British Telecom. I then spent 4 years as the CTO of BT Directories - added the classified business directory to the BT PhoneBook, directory enquiries and BT.com. Then headed up a social
networking, file sharing, user generated content startup for a group of investors, and then left in February 2008 to start Brownbook.net.
I am 40, live in Winchester in the UK with Swedish wife and 2 great kids, into boats (anything on the water), running (just did the Manchester 10k, next one is the Beaulieu 10k), snowboarding (anything in the mountain except climbing and caving…), cycling, diving, sand yachting (blo karting) – basically anything outdoors.


• Where did the name Brownbook come from?
We made all our initial notes and screen flows in a brown A4 note pad and as we started thinking about a domain name my wife said one night...'oh, are you going to work on your Brownbook project'... needless to say the name stuck.

• What was the inspiration behind Brownbook.net?
Business directory services are one of the most lucrative advertising businesses, despite the high overheads of managing and maintaining their core data, running large sales forces, IT departments, order entry teams...

But, for business owners it’s difficult and time-consuming to make updates, and it takes considerable time for updates to take effect. For smaller businesses it’s too expensive to advertise or promote their businesses, they have no control over how their listings are maintained, and many of today's SOHO businesses never even make it into existing business directories. For users there is no indication of the reputation of suppliers, and no way to
provide their own feedback, correct obvious mistakes that they see, or add additional useful information.

Those familiar with the web2.0 fundamentals are used to seeing smart startups and open-source movements breaking established rules and turning entire industries on their heads. Once-unassailable businesses are routinely turned upside-down, for example: Wikipedia versus Britannica, Linux versus Microsoft, Firefox versus MSIE, and YouTube versus the entire
entertainment industry.

• What is the main objective/mission behind Brownbook.net?
Brownbook applies the concepts of peer-production and wikis to revolutionize the business directory market. It is the most disruptive change to the industry since the birth of the Internet. By harnessing the power and principles of wikis, user generated content, social media and social networking it creates a business directory service that: becomes the most up to date and comprehensive puts the power, production and feedback into the hands of everyone
is the simplest, quickest, and best value-for-money for advertisers removes massive cost from the traditional production cycle can be launched worldwide from day 1 Brownbook is the collision of Web2.0 with traditional directory businesses.

• What services does Brownbook.net provide to everyone?
Instantly find, edit, add and review any business in Australia and the World.

• What type of customers are you targeting?
3 areas, businesses, everyone and developers;

  • Businesses - http://www.brownbook.net/for_business.html
  • Everyone - http://www.brownbook.net/for_everyone.html
  • Developers - we have implemented OpenSearch, Microformats, and an affiliate scheme so any developer can add / mash-up a business directory to their web site for free:
Description here, Resulting string, Same results on our site:
Result on a site using our Brownbook.net OpenSearch Atom powered content
The point being that anyone in the World can use Brownbook.net data and our platform.

• How many people are using your services?
7,000 people a day at the moment. It was 4000 a day a few weeks ago...

• What sort of marketing you are using to spread the word?
SEO, email, general social networking

• How are you measuring the success of your venture? Are their any special mechanisms/tools in place to monitor the progress?
Success is really easy to measure for us; number of businesses added, edited and reviewed each day, combined with the number of businesses that claim their business for $10 (or $20 including all the promotions).
We use Google Analytics for all our traffic monitoring.

• What is the monetizing/revenue model? Is their any new model, which is being tried?
The business model is based on businesses claiming their listing for 1 year for the insignificant sum of $10. With additional promotions totaling $10, the most a business can pay for the year is $20. The whole order and fulfillment process is automated and payments are taken via Paypal. There are no sales people, no data cleansing teams etc, Brownbook has minimal overheads.

• Which are the main competitors or major players in this market segment?
Increasingly the web is breaking down international barriers, and so Brownbook is an international service with international competitors. The distinguishing factor is that none of the competitors provide an open worldwide user generated directory platform and none have attempted to truly break the traditional business model that is essentially driven by a costly
sales force, resulting in high cost advertising premiums, and / or have not adopted the true power of peer production:
  • Traditional directory advertising companies - i.e. Sensis, SuperPages, Berry, BT, Yell.
  • Phone and web-based directories - i.e. 118118, 192.com, 411 services, etc
  • Internet Search companies adding directory and local search capabilities - i.e. Yahoo local, Google local, etc
  • Local- or vertical-focused online directories - i.e. thebestof, citylocal, touchlocal,
  • Other emergent wiki business directory services and local review websites - e.g. Yellowikis, wikicompany.org., Yelp, Qype, Trusted Places
• What are the main technologies used behind Brownbook.net?
Linux, PHP, MySQL, Smarty, Openads, Sphinx, Paypal, OpenSearch, Microformats, and then we use a form of agile scrum based development so that we get a new version live every 2 weeks.

• What has been the most easy to use, out of box and helpful technology?
All the technologies that we have been using have been brilliant. If I had to name one that really surprised me, it would be Openads. When you spec a new requirement, its always easy to say 'we will write it ourselves', but our dev team suggested using Openads, we were apprehensive at first but within an hour realized it did exactly what we wanted and more and future-proofed the serving of any ads and promotions. Brilliant, I have got to take my hat off to those guys it’s a brilliant product.

• Have you put any time to a mobile version of Brownbook.net?
We certainly have, it went live 2 weeks ago. You can:
  • Instantly write reviews
  • Instantly edit or add any business
  • Invite others to review any business anywhere in the world
  • Save any of the 27 million records via v.card directly to your ‘contacts’ address book on your mobile device.
  • View maps of the business location
• What's your thought on being an entrepreneur? How tough it is to start a venture like Brownbook?
A lot of long days, sweat, blood and tears.... Originally funding development ourselves and working on Brownbook during evenings and weekends was tough, especially when trying to balance family life. Now we have backing from Friday Holdings a large independent UK publisher the money pressures have reduced and we find ourselves driving the business harder,
their help has given the luxury to really focus on making Brownbook.net very successful.

• Do you have any advice for people who want to start their venture?
Stop talking about it and get on and do it. If you don’t, you will regret it, guaranteed. Then commit 110%, that way, if it does fail you will have tried your hardest and that’s all you can ask of yourself. Then you take the experience and apply your efforts to something new. If you don’t keep trying, you stand no chance of getting to where you want to be.

• What are your main challenges right now?
Usage in Australia is one of our challenges and we are after a great marketing person to help us spread the word
Finding a strategic partner in Australia is another key challenge; one that currently has market reach and business customers. In the UK, Friday Ad gives us access to promote Brownbook in the UK via their web sites (12% penetration of UK internet population each month) and within all their publications (900,000 copies per week), and their extensive email marketing
programs. It would be fantastic to have a similar relationship with an Australian company.

Thanks Marc for sharing your thoughts with us. All the best for future.

For coverage on other Australian startups, innovation, analysis, tech trends, check this out and our coverage on interviews can be found here
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