Ten years after being founded, Where Are You Now is still the top player in the travel social network space. Jason Hesse looks at the next steps for company that continues to grow strongly.
Being a start-up in the social networking space is not easy. It is difficult to compete against established players’ vast user numbers and even harder to monetise. Yet, Where Are You Now (WAYN.com) has managed to do both.
WAYN.com is a travel social network that allows users to connect with one another based on their travel experiences and aspirations. Though the site was launched in 2002, it only became a mainstream social network in 2006, when its traffic reached one million users. Growth has continued ever since.
The site, says co-founder Peter Ward, was designed to be the travellers’ version of Friends Reunited: “When I’d been travelling, I’d lost touch with so many people that I’d met along the way. My co-founder Jerome had experienced the same thing, so we knew there was an opportunity there. There must be other people, like us, who would like to reconnect with each other.”
Other than sites such as Trip Advisor, Expedia and Lastminute.com, which focus on travel advice, reviews and sales, WAYN does not have any serious direct competition. “These are sites that we want to challenge. But we already do social much better than them,” says Ward.
Smaller start-ups, such as Gogobot or Virtual Tourist, recently bought by Trip Advisor, do not have sufficient scale to challenge WAYN, which now receives eight million unique visitors per month.
Ward views generalist social networks as both competition and as being complementary. “Of course, we’re competing for the same users’ eyeballs and time, but we can also use Facebook to enhance our site and give users a better experience. We’re not trying to compete against Facebook, we’ve missed that opportunity.”
WAYN’s visitors can be broken down into two core groups: those focused on meeting other people, potentially dating, and adding international connections, and those interested in planning their future trips and experiences, who visit the site to plan their trips and share their experiences.
The website is open to over-18s only, and is used by all age groups above that threshold. “There is a large portion of our users that are over 35, and some of our most active users are over 55. We attract a lot of early retirees who have more time on their hands to travel.”
The WAYN team has three co-founders: Peter Ward, Jerome Touze and Michael Lines. Ward and Touze are co-chief executive officers of the business while Lines is the company’s chief technology officer. Touze is responsible for the commercial side of the business and Ward looks after the company’s product and strategy.
While Touze and Ward have a background in management consultancy (they met while working at Accenture), Lines previously worked for Friends Reunited, where he was a systems manager. “This gave us insight into the Friends Reunited model. We knew they were making a lot of money, which gave us a business case for WAYN,” says Ward.
As a whole, the company employs 47 people, split between London and Szczecin in north-west Poland. (There is also one person based in Cape Town, South Africa.)
The 11 London-based workers look after WAYN’s front-of-house operations, including sales and product, while Szczecin’s 35 employees look after all of the company’s back office. This includes development, testing and quality assurance, administration, account management, marketing support, project management, human resources and accounting.
“Literally every aspect of the business that can be done in Szczecin is done there. It is more cost-effective for us to have operations in Poland; it gives us a competitive advantage,” explains Ward. Ward is also half Polish, while Lines is married to a Polish woman.
The WAYN website was initially built in Microsoft Visual Basic. Since then, the company’s developers have built on top of that in other programming languages, including .NET, C++ and Java. The main database is in MySQL.
“The site is built using interconnected, different, languages. This has been very effective for the site and has allowed us to scale,” explains Ward, who is a self-professed non-techie.
WAYN was one of the first two European companies to be a part of Microsoft’s BizSpark programme (the other company was Huddle) which, says Ward, was beneficial to their growth and has allowed them to do most work in house. ”We’ve built all of our infrastructure in-house. We use the cloud for caching photos, but we don’t use it for anything else. It’s all our own infrastructure,” he explains.
The company has considered moving infrastructure into the cloud, but this would cost them three times as much. “Having our own infrastructure has given us a competitive advantage. We’ve got the knowledge to keep things in house, and we’ve got 99.9 per cent uptime. Why would we want to change?”
The company has its own data centre, based in Manchester, which can be accessed remotely from both Poland and the UK. “It’s taken a number of years to develop this capability in house, but we’ve now got a reliable infrastructure. It’s optimised and fully scalable.”
The team’s next move is to grow traffic and build the site into a more complete travel experience. WAYN will soon be relaunching user profiles so they are more focused on sharing users’ experiences, and the team is also refining the existing offering so it is easier to share social recommendations, both on the site and through mobile.
“We are looking at developing the mobile platform, increasing the number of apps that can offer a social travel utility. Our focus for now is to help users on the discovery side – where they want to go and what they should do. We are incorporating points of interest and encouraging users to share where they’ve been,” explains Ward.
WAYN is performing well. The site has more than 19 million registered users, and there are more than 20 million visits each month from eight million unique visitors. Visits have grown by 500 per cent in the past 12 months thanks, says Ward, to the company’s focus on user engagement and social sharing.
The top ten countries represent 50 per cent of this traffic. Visitors come primarily from the UK, the US, France, Germany, India, the United Arab Emirates and Canada, as well as other countries in the Middle East. Most of these users are local people interested in travelling, not just expatriates, says Ward.
The team is also looking at translating WAYN into different languages, opening up new markets. “It’s a massive opportunity for us to grow our audience,” says Ward. The five languages that the company is working on are Portuguese, Spanish, French, German and Italian. The second round of languages will include Mandarin, Arabic and other emerging market languages.
Though he will not share turnover figures, Ward confirms that the company is profitable and revenues are up. The company is on track to more than double revenues compared to last year, and last quarter’s profits had a 30 per cent margin on revenue.
The company is backed by serious investors. WAYN was launched with £25,000 of seed funding from Friends Reunited’s Stephen Pankhurst. In 2006, the company raised an $11 million series A investment round led by DFJ Esprit, which allowed it to reboot its revenue model. When the site first launched, it had a subscription model, but after taking investment, and reacting to the growth of free social networks such as Facebook, the founders made the site free.
Ward explains: “New social networking sites had no subscription element to them and were growing really quickly. The investment allowed us to flip the business model and become free, too. This allowed us to grow our audience, and it worked: traffic trebled.”
Of course, this also meant that the site had to create a new commercial model from scratch. The founders opted for an advertising model, which is still in place today. Advertisers are, unsurprisingly, companies in the travel space, such as travel companies and tourism boards. But the site also attracts advertisers in the non-travel space, such as lifestyle companies and financial services firms, keen to get to WAYN’s users.
WAYN can offer advertisers detailed information about its users: where they want to travel, what they want to do, what they enjoy, and more – there are more than 100,000 data points collected each day, says Ward. “This is data unrivalled by any other website. We’ve just started to commercialise it.
“This data is in addition to the general demographic information we obtain when users register; it’s a massive opportunity for advertisers.” As a result, he adds, WAYN is winning accounts from Facebook, Trip Advisor, Lonely Planet, and other travel sites, and advertising revenue has doubled year on year.
The site relaunched its premium subscription service earlier this year, giving users – in Ward’s words – a “turbo-boost upgrade”. Premium users can see who else has viewed their profile, and can feature at the top of search results. Since launching at the start of 2012, the service has grown around 14 per cent month on month, which has also boosted WAYN’s revenues.
The founders’ exit plan would either be a trade sale or, if they can “really unlock the next stage of growth”, a flotation. “But right now, the main goal is to make WAYN as successful a business as possible.”
WAYN was founded in 2002. In start-up terms, it’s one of the older kids on the block. ”There are some frustrations about the time it’s taken us to be where we want to be,” says Ward, “But we wouldn’t still be involved if there weren’t untapped potential in the business. Our focus is on improving the product and fulfilling the customer need.”
The long-term goal for WAYN, he adds, is for the site to become a one-stop shop for social travel needs. By the look of it, the company is moving strongly in the right direction.