David Sifry, founder and former CEO of Technorati, has apparently had enough of new media and of blogs. His new venture is attacking a traditional business: printed travel guides. As of this writing, the site is in private beta. (Webware's invitations to beta test this service, mentioned in previous versions of this story, have all been given out.)
Offbeat Guides is a service for printing customized travel books. When you go to the site, it asks you five basic questions: Your name, your destination, your trip's dates, where you live, and where you're staying (if you know). With that information, it scours various open sources (like Wikipedia, Wikitravel, and Eventful) as well as some licensed content providers, and builds a custom file for you about your destination.
Users can tweak the content: If you don't know where you're staying you can be sure the hotels section is included; if you already have a place, you can remove it and save some paper. You can include, or not, sections on food, events, history, transportation, etc. Books will always be customized for your travel dates and will be printed with the most recent weather forecasts (or historical weather data), exchange rates, and other relevant and timely information like fairs and festivals happening when you're there.
Your custom book will be delivered in four days, Sifry says, and will cost $24.95, with a PDF download available as well. If you just want the PDF file, it's $9.95.
Will people pay for the convenience of the printed guides? Most of the data that appears in the guides is available for free online, after all. But I believe the convenience factor, and the very attractive printed end product, will win over a broad base of consumers. The travel segment of the book publishing business has always been strong; people pay for the convenience. Furthermore, Offbeat Guides can cost-effectively produce printed books for "long-tail" destinations that wouldn't otherwise be attractive to traditional publishers, opening up a deeper market than most publishers can reach.
Technology, business, and outlook
Offbeat Guides' key technology is its capability to parse all the data sources it subscribes to, and render that information in a useful, consistent, and attractive format for printing. A sample book I saw looked great for the most part, but there were still some weird formatting artifacts on some pages. Sifry said that by public launch the formatting would be much better (and in full color; the book I saw was black and white on the inside).
But the technology is only part of the equation for this business. Getting the word out, and getting people to pay for the books, sight unseen, is the real trick. I'm convinced that this is a great business, but I do not know if Sifry's company has the marketing chops to push this product into the mainstream, where it belongs.
There are other opportunities for Offbeat Guides, too. For example, "destination weddings" are on the rise; Sifry said he thinks that he could market a version of this service to that market. Partnerships with travel sites, corporate event planners, or housing services (like VRBO, which I use and love) would also work. Local advertising could also add some revenue to the business.
Sifry is also considering opening up the content side of the service to local writers, who could write specialized guides for the service. (Example: The geek's guide to shopping Akihabara; I'd definitely want that in my book.) Offbeat would pay those writers a bounty when customers chose to include their content in books.
Sifry and I talked about this business at some length at the D6 conference, and the more we talked, the more ideas for the business and for making money from it popped up. Offbeat Guides is one of those business ideas that seems almost obvious after you've looked at it for a few minutes. That doesn't mean that execution on the idea will be easy: getting customers, fending off competitors, and maintaining margins will be serious operational challenges. But as Sifry's business ideas go, this one has much longer legs than his previous venture, which had still not turned a profit when he left the CEO job in August.