Chatting with Dave Sifry

Though he’s also founded a Linux services company and a WiFi startup, serial entrepreneur Dave Sifry is best known for founding Technorati, an early blog search engine company that several months ago reemerged as an advertising network for blogs.

Sifry is still the chair of Technorati, but the 39-year-old left his CEO post last year to begin work on his fourth company, a publisher of customized, on-demand travel guides called Offbeatguides.com. (Users tailor the guides to their needs using an online dashboard, and later receive in either book form or as a PDF.)

To learn more about the San Francisco-based company, whose premise I love, I just chatted with Sifry.

This is a fairly low tech idea, compared with some of your past companies.

You know, the nice thing about a business like this is that you understand right from the start what your cash flow and margins will be. It’s very refreshing! [Laughs.]

Where are you with things? How many employees do you have at this point?

We’re still very small. There are four full-time people and three college interns, but God, I love the beginnings of companies. It’s so much fun. Everyone can sit around the same table and have meetings and get stuff done. And there’s a lot to do to build a very simple, easy-to-use, easy-to-buy travel guide that’s always up to date. It’s a daunting task.

How many people have signed up for your beta?

About 1,000 people are testing it out right now, though whenever we do a major release, every 10 days or so, we let in more people. We have about 4,500 people on the waiting list. When we learn enough and have fixed most of the major bugs, we’ll roll out publicly, hopefully by the end of the year.

The site says that you’ve already compiled information on 30,000 destination cities. How did you decide which ones, and how has that data come together?

We chose our first 30,000 destination cities based on their population size, and secondarily on how much information we have from those places. Currently, there are two dozen data sources we’re pulling from, from free stuff, like the CIA factbook and great guides like Wikipedia and Wikitravel, to customized embassy databases. We’re also licensing content from AccuWeather to give you historical data, and we’re working with travel content companies to license content. Not last we have editors and writers, both in-house and outside. Our fourth employee was with Lonely Plaet for five years, so she’s helped us find great travel writers and pull in information from great travel blogs.

And how are you handling copyrighted material?

We’re very focused on thinking about copyrights and making sure we’re not doing anything illegal. There are lots of bloggers who license their content under Creative Commons licenses, which allow for commercial use as long as we put the bloggers’ names and pictures and links into the guides.

How are you handling fulfillment of the guides, and can you give me some idea of what it’s costing you to print them?

We’re outsourcing their fulfillment and delivery. We have a few different printers here in the U.S.; we’re also in negotiations with printers in India and Europe to reduce the delivery costs of people buying outside the U.S.

We don’t disclose how much it costs us, partly because that’s changing all the time. But it’s also not a simple answer. The guides can be as long or as short as you want. If you’re traveling to Wilmington, North Carolina and plan to stay with your mother, you can uncheck all the information about places to stay — because who wants to waste paper? At the same time, you can add additional custom chapters. You can add your flight itinerary of places you want to go while at your destination. Whatever you want can be reformatted and printed into the guide.

Great idea to make these things available on paper and PDF. Did you give that much thought?

So we tried to think about the travel-planning experience. If you’re rushed, you can just do the basics for $9.99 and get a PDF that you can stick on your iPhone or computer and print up and carry with you. If you’re a planner and doing this in advance, you can buy a printed version and the PDF comes with it, and you can add chapters and select and unselect things. Then literally one week before you leave, we lock things down with the printer, so that three days before you leave, you receive a book with information so timely that you know which bands are playing where you are going and which museums will be closed. The price for the books is $24.95 plus shipping.

Aside from your site, where else will people be able to order the guides?

We’re interested in working with partners who can sell them off their sites. There are lots and lots of travel booking sites that might want to add our guides as an accoutrement. We’re in discussions with a bunch of different partners. But right now, they’re only available through us.

Is there an advertising component to your revenue model?

There’s no advertising to start. We’re trying to build trust based on the unbiased nature of what we’re doing. Our business model right now is selling books. If we do go down an advertising route, we’re never going to sell pay-for placements. There will always be a very clear separation of editorial content.

I know you’ve raise seed funding of a few hundred thousand dollars. Will you be announcing a venture round anytime soon?

We took angel money to get things off the ground, but right now, we’re just trying to prove the model and see what happens!