Recipe for a billion-dollar website

Taking on the established players is something that Jeff Kelisky, CEO of the now Microsoft-owned Multimap, knows all about. “Needless to say, it can be very difficult,” he said. “Once a brand becomes closely associated with a valuable consumer proposition, they can sew up the common entry points to a successful website and make it very difficult for other sites to gain traction.” Indeed, brands can become so associated with a type of activity (Amazon for book buying, for example) that they’re bookmarked or typed directly in as a URL. “Once that happens, the user is no longer offering the web the opportunity to compete for that consumer proposition,” Kelisky explained, adding “finding new entry points is critical, which may involve developing partnerships to embedding links in existing, popular web properties.”

Recipe for a billion-dollar website

Multimap certainly wasn’t the first UK company to put maps on the web, so it had to find new ways to attract surfers. “We invested in consumer advertising early on to become associated with mapping in the UK in the minds of the online community,” Kelisky added. It also established business models to create a virtuous cycle of growth and drove traffic from the community of websites beyond by allowing them to include links to its maps.

The ability to differentiate your new website from that of your competitors is paramount, more so if there’s a chance it might be perceived as a copycat service. Mann argues that it’s not only essential to have unique and improved feature sets “but it is also vital that prospective users of your service are aware of them and motivated to use them – it is essential that they tell their friends about them”. This enables newer underdog services to establish a bedrock of fundamental support upon which they can start to develop a wider userbase. “The upside of being second or later is that you can use your competitors’ systems and work out their weaknesses, so you might improve them in yours,” Mann said.

Wilson prefers to sum all this up in two words: customer service. “Throughout history, the winners have been the businesses that understand who their customers are, communicate with them, and make their wants and needs an integral part of their business,” he claimed. Take Facebook: it gave the customer back their right to privacy and started with a closed college community that was perceived as safe and exclusive to its members. “I believe that only when those members ventured out into the professional world did Facebook take the opportunity to open up to others, which I also believe was what the members wanted at the time.”

Beating the growing pains

Opening up to the world at large isn’t always the golden opportunity it may seem, especially when you consider that rapid growth means rapid spending. Being exposed to a global audience from day one and experiencing phenomenal growth can present “both an opportunity and a threat”, according to Rob Steggles, marketing director at NTT Europe Online. “An opportunity in terms of revenue, and a threat in that unprepared websites can fall over under the pressure of high traffic levels, potentially leading to damaged brand reputation and lost revenue.”

So how did Flickr, YouTube and Facebook manage the stratospheric growth that the internet can deliver? Nielsen advises that the best approach is to have a profitable service that makes money for every user: “Then it’s no problem to get the funds to expand as usage grows, because your income will be growing just as fast. The problem is in services that live in the eternal hope that income will come, even though they don’t make money from their current users.”

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