WAYN: a British social business success story

Social media is completely ingrained into our daily lives. It’s hard to imagine what life was like without it. The recent launches of social networking sites such as Bebuzee and Ello, (which has been described as ‘the anti-Facebook’), shows that we are still fascinated by the virtual community and connecting with like-minded people. Your Ready Business speaks to Peter Ward, co-founder of WAYN, a travel and lifestyle social networking community, on the lessons he’s learned from building a successful social business.

You and Jerome Touze founded WAYN in 2002. What was the inspiration for your business?

At the time, there were very few social communities around. The most popular ones in the UK were Friends Reunited and Classmates.com and Friendster in the US, so we were very early. Our inspiration for the business was initially sparked by Jerome’s trip to California, when he was cruising along the Pacific Coast Highway with the roof top down and it hit him – wouldn’t it be cool to let your friends know where you are and to see whether your friends are nearby? Jerome shared the idea with me and I immediately fell in love with it, having just returned from an around the world backpacking trip where I met loads of people but found it difficult to keep in touch with them.

The problem we were looking to solve at the time was simply to connect people based on where they are, where they have been and where they are going. Out of that, a vibrant community of travel enthusiasts was born and in some ways it took a life of its own

Since then, a lot has changed, both in terms of a shift in culture and consumer habits but also, in terms of technology and how people engage with technology. Back then; nobody had a smart phone with applications, whereas now, people come to expect it. Having said that, not all businesses need an app – even now. Sometimes, having a fully responsive website that works like an application on your phone is enough.

How did you develop and commercialise your business?

We launched our first generation application a couple of years back. Since then, we’ve learned that apps don’t need to contain all the features of the website. Instead, we made the website itself fully responsive so that it adjusts to different screen sizes and resolutions. Our latest generation apps are much simpler and concentrate the user experience on a more localised experience. Our website on the other hand has been a constant iteration since the start, having re-launched the website completely at least 4 times, to keep up with the changes in consumer habits and market trends.

We commercialise WAYN mainly through advertising and integrated brand engagement solutions. We also offer a VIP service to members, which gives them access to exclusive travel and lifestyle benefits and online perks. Plus, more recently, we launched travel bookings where users can book hotels all around the world.

To get us started, we received seed money from the co-founder of Friends Reunited. We then boot strapped the business until raising money from venture capital investors in 2006 and 2012.

What was the crucial moment or tipping point, for your business?

The tipping point for growth on WAYN was when we made it easier for members to invite their friends to join them on the service. Since then, it was when we made it very easy for our members to share recommendations on where they had been, which is growing by over 35,000 opinions a day at present, with up to 10% of these coming from mobile.

What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs entering the market?

The biggest challenges when running your own business can often be practical ones, such as attracting enough funding for your business, prioritising the right opportunities to those that will make or grow the business and keeping people motivated and performing at a high level. The key is to have passion in what you do, provide the autonomy to the right people to be able to help you make it happen and never give up. Don’t be afraid to change your focus if things are not working as you expected them to.

How has your business evolved as a result of its success and have you ensured on-going success?

WAYN has had to continually evolve or it would have dramatically suffered. The main thing is to have a clear vision and to execute against that vision as effectively as possible, which means also identifying the right measures of success and showing progress against them. It means listening to your customers and putting them at the centre of the equation. Running a consumer facing business is tough and your customers can be critical with their feedback, which you should take on board.

What are some other apps that you admire and why? What do you wish you’d developed yourself?

Some of my favourite apps other than the obvious ones that we all use, Misfit (in conjunction with the Beddit device that measures your sleep), Breeze (which measures your steps), Telegram (which is like WhatsApp but not limited to groups of 50 people), and Sonos, as it seamlessly syncs my Spotify, SoundCloud and other music services so that I can play them on my sound system at home. Other than that, I use Skype regularly for business, Google Maps and Mail. I wish I had developed WhatsApp as it’s so simple and clearly made its mark when it sold to Facebook for more than the market capitalisation of Nokia at the time, and when they only had 40 people on the payroll. Genius.

What do you think makes Britain a good place to innovate? What needs to improve to encourage more innovation and further growth for the UK digital economy?

First and foremost, the tech community here is unique. I helped set up a founder entrepreneur network called ICE (International Conclave of Entrepreneurs) with a few friends, which represents almost 200 founders and ecosystem supporters, mainly based in London and that community has been enriching for all people involved. It includes some of the leading founders in Europe such as Michael Acton Smith OBE (Mindcandy and Moshi Monsters) and Taavet Hinrikus (co-founder of Transferwise), which just raised $58m and showed us all what’s possible with the right product and problem to solve. We help accelerate each other and foster friendships over 2 trips overseas a year plus a series of close-knit events in between.

In addition to that, Tech City has really evolved to lead the way in Europe in fostering a vibrant and celebrated tech community in London. The current UK Government has been super supportive of the start up scene with great tax incentives that surround angel investment with EIS and SEIS and also with the Future 50, which we hope to be a part of next year. There are also a plethora of initiatives and other organisations sprouting to support the ecosystem – not just in London but throughout the UK as a whole. This is including accelerators such as WAYRA, events such as Startup Bootcamp, and crowdsource platforms such as Seedrs and Crowdcube, which are helping start-ups raise funding and accelerate their businesses forward.

The industry is evolving so fast – what’s changed even since you started?

Everything. Having said that, some things are universal, such as putting your customers first. Engaging your customers in effective ways and coming up with legitimate ways to solve a customer problem. The tools and the technologies may have changed and made such things easier, more competitive or in some cases harder – to create something defensible and unique enough, but ultimately it is better for everything if innovation is accelerating. However, it is not always the first to market that wins – but the best. There will never be a substitute for the simplest, cheapest, fastest of best quality set of products. Those are the ones that will win the race if they focus on what they are best at.

How do you see the role of apps in 5 or 10 years’ time?

Apps will become so pervasive that they will be embedded into anything and everything that has the potential to make our lives better. I can imagine my mug of tea telling me or my phone when it drops below a certain temperature so I don’t let it get cold, or my pen will buzz my phone (or watch) when it is close to running out of ink. Whether it be an app for a phone, a watch or even a mug, I think anything is now possible. Wearable tech and the internet of things in general will change a lot of things, and the data that is generated from all this should lead to even bigger changes in the way we do things in the future. There’s no real way of knowing exactly how far it will go, but it’s exciting nonetheless.

What does the future hold for you and WAYN?

That is a good question. Our vision is to become the best place in the word to discover where to travel to next, whether it be to plan your next ski holiday with great après ski, or whether it’s to find the best family beach resort in Sicily. We believe that the traditional way of finding the best place is flawed, as it is based on ratings and reviews, but often the question asked in the first place is a different one. We want to arm people with the right information at the right time, based on people liking them, so they can truly find the best place for their needs based on who they are and what their interests are. It sounds simple and it needs to be for the consumer, but getting it right is the challenge that we are currently working on.

We hope that WAYN will help people make the most out of life by discovering places they never would have experienced otherwise. If we can achieve that, then we will have fulfilled our mission. For me personally, I want to follow through on the vision for WAYN and beyond that. All I know is that I want to engage in things that I am passionate about, that keeps me learning every day and hopefully makes the world a better place.