In my continuing series of interviews with start-ups I had a chance to chat with VibeAgent founder and CEO Adam Healey.
VibeAgent is a combination of review site and meta-search - which I think in today's world is where every hotel focused meta-search player is pitching themselves. As I have discussed recently, content is now the number one tool that people are grabbing at to drive natural traffic to feed search. As PPC becomes more expensive it has become harder and harder for meta-search to make money the old fashioned way - traffic arbitrage. Now meta-search providers need content to generate traffic from natural search. Sidestep tried this through acquisition (though it seems that Kayak does not care for it very much as the new owners).
VibeAgent do things slightly differently from other met-search providers we have seen. They have matched content, maps, user reviews and activity tagging all in the same search. On its own none of this is revolutionary. It is "just" content, plus functionality plus supplier/inventory connections. It is not these choices and combinations that makes VibeAgent different it is the execution. The user interface and layout look good. Really good. This is a website designed with customers in the mind. It is easy to search - but more importantly it is easy to refine search by price, location, activity, requirement, category of activity and more. It is even fun to play with. Searching Paris and then refining by Historic, Nightlife and Gourmets and seeing what the hotel results makes hotel searching a game again.
It is not all roses - the load time is slow (though the interstitial manages it well). Also the mapping functionality appears to favour some supplier/inventory provider address formats. These thing can be fixed.
I don't think the VibeAgent idea is revolutionary (the revolution was meta-search itself) but the site is a winner. This led to my discussions with Adam about whether or not a fantastic site and product is enough. In my rules for content companies I said you need content and lots of it to get the traffic from Google. Healey says he will look to more than natural search fed by user generated content for traffic generation. The aim is to take the product and...well...productise it. In Healey's words the web and particularly networks life Facebook and MySpace are containers and VibeAgent is an application that sits in the container. This means that marketing efforts will be built around widgets & applications that can be imported into all of the "containers" sitting around on the Internet. First announcement - a Facebook application.
I see the rationale for this strategy. PPC is too expensive for a start up with just angle funding (from Trip Davis of TRX). Content acquisition takes a long time. But it is also risky as it takes a lot of developer time to build and there is a lot of noise in the containers (ie application spam).
In a lot of my start up interviews I reach a common conclusion around the enormous challenge of attracting traffic once the product is right. I see that same theme here with VibeAgent. In this case Healey and team (including founder Charles Seilheimer and marketing VP Dennis Ortiz) have a top class product, a clear strategy and (a little bit) of money. The container strategy is the new piece and an untested one. To make it work Healey and team have to keep the costs low and the product sharp.