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Inapub.co.uk is a website that allow users to search and find out what is happening in their local pub, while landlords can publicise upcoming events.
The website was originally launched in 2007 by Robin Brattal, and has recently undergone a redesign. I've been talking to Robin about the site and the challenges of getting the project off the ground.
What gave you the idea for inapub.co.uk?
I was on the train into work one morning and I realised that my friends and I always said 'let’s catch up for a beer', but with us all being busy and useless at organising our social lives, it meant we hardly ever did. So I decided to start Official Beer Club.
I thought by saying we’d go out for a beer on the last Thursday of every month and by emailing everyone the week before and on the day that we’d get that beer, and we did, every month a different group pitched up. Being regular meant if you didn’t or couldn’t come this month there was always next month!
It was so successful I started a website to let others do the same thing, and then realised that if people were to organise nights out in pubs, it made sense to have pubs to go to on the website. Then if there were going to be pubs, it would be good to know what the pubs were up to, like who’s showing the football, or who’s serving food, or which beers they’ve got on. It was then that I realised the website had evolved.
We then re-branded to Inapub and focused more on pubs communicating what they’re up to rather than on people organising events in pubs, although you can still do that very easily.
What were you doing before?
I was Director of Digital Products for TSO, the largest publisher by output in the UK. Before that I worked for various companies as a website consultant and previously I was Head of Online for a dot com start-up.
How have you funded the project so far? Will you be looking for funding / investment in the future?
Initial funding was provided by an angel investor who was found through my own business network. A second round of funding will be sought in the near future. This will either come from Angel investors or a VC fund.
How much of the country are you covering?
We will cover the whole of the UK.
It is aimed at a B2B market with a low penetration of web users, has it been easy to get pubs and venues involved?
In short, no!
The users range from those without a computer let alone an email to those who are so busy running successful pubs and bars they don’t have time to look at their email from one day to the next and everything in between. Then there’s the 'you’re new why should we?' argument.
We’ve overcome both of these issues; firstly we created subscription packages tailored to suit publicans with no time and no computer through to the most technically savvy Facebook, SMS, Tweeting publican. Allowing them to do it all themselves or getting us to do it all for them, which is hurdle number one overcome.
We have overcome hurdle number two by creating a consumer promotion which the pubs get involved with; something tangible they can see will work and that, coupled with our focus on regions means we now achieve around a 90% sign-up rate in pubs we target.
How will you get the amount of participation needed to make the site a useful resource?
On foot we’re targeting a city at a time, like Facebook did in the earlier days with university campuses. We’re going to big vibrant cities with a good nightlife culture to start with, this way we can get content which appeals to a city’s population. Our pilot was run in Norwich and we’re just running our first promotional campaign in Brighton. Next on the list are London, Bristol, Bath, Reading and Cambridge.
We recently launched our Ambassadors campaign which, over time, will see us have a local representative in each major town in the UK. We’ve also recruited the services of a specialist PR firm and they are helping to co-ordinate and run our media activities in both trade and consumer press.
Finally we’re speaking to the larger pub companies and breweries, such as Enterprise and engaging with them at a senior level as, between them, they own or run around 50% of the pub estate of the UK.
What kind of technology are you using on the site?
From my experience of running Official Beer Club I knew how important the mobile phone was in helping to organise things! And it’s no surprise that our questionnaire threw out that 28% of organising is done through Texts. Therefore the site is designed to send SMS event reminders to those who want them and our mobile stylesheets for iPhone and other handsets will be launched this August. Later in the year we’ll look to launch a mobile app as more content comes online.
We’ve implemented the Facebook Connect technology throughout the site which means we’re also an app on Facebook. Basically this allows anyone with a Facebook account to both create an Inapub account easily, but also then connect the two together so that publishing content to their wall can be done with a simple click.
For example, you find an event you like the look of e.g. 'The George’s Curry Night' and you can publish it with a message straight to your wall so all your Facebook friends can click to see all the event details including a map! For pubs this is a boon too as they can publish events to existing Facebook accounts they may have.
We recently launched our Twitter feeds for pubs service. This means that subscribing pubs can have their events, drinks and daily food specials tweeted automatically. We needed to interface with the TinyURL API in order to shorten our URLs and ensure consistency in our URL structure for both future and past events.
Naturally we’ve got customisable RSS feeds and will be looking to disseminate the data as much as possible through semantic technologies going forward as ultimately we are representing the pubs information and want to be the source of the data.
All of the above has meant that for pubs we’ve become a one stop shop so to speak for social networking activity, instead of managing an SMS service, Facebook and Twitter they can do it all in one place – they can even use the RSS feeds to update their own website.
How are you approaching the marketing of the site on a limited budget?
This is our biggest challenge. Not only are we on a limited budget we also need a B2B and B2C marketing strategy. Initially we focussed on B2B by developing sales and marketing literature and using traditional methods of engagement.
We’re now about to start our B2C activity and as mentioned above, is something we’ll be involving the pubs in. It’s designed to be viral and utilise existing social networks.
Are you charging for listings? What's the business model?
We don’t charge for listings as we don’t feel this offers value to the publican but we do charge for the Inapub service subscriptions and also for a range of bolt on extras, such as Twitter feeds and SMS bundles.
Our business model is to deliver an excellent offline and online service to the publican and become the centre of their social networking and online strategy.
Are you doing it all yourself? How have you approached this problem?
As you’d expect I’m working extremely hard, and by nature of my experience I’m capable of turning my hand to most challenges – from coding, to sales, to marketing to accounting!
But I’m not doing it all myself.
I have a small team of people working permanently on the project and we bring in preferred freelancers as and when we need them, e.g. a CSS developer etc.
I have a magnificent advisory panel of people I’ve worked with or met over the years, from a creative director at a leading agency, to a communications expert at a telecoms giant, to a product manager at a San Francisco-based start-up to a leading light and author of several developer books, to name just a few. You really do need these people to guide you through your decision making process as they save you so much time and therefore you make the most of every single pound.
Finally, we have formed partnerships with suitable businesses where their services match our requirements, for example 2Ergo manage our SMS solution. We have IT support, PR, Legal and a telesales business backing us up.
So we’re a small team, with around 150 people supporting us.
What have been the biggest challenges in getting the project off the ground? How have you dealt with these problems?
That’s a tough question to answer! I suppose it started with funding, and that came from an avenue I wasn’t expecting!
There’s always the daily trauma of deciding what the most important priority is. We’ve (almost without choice) been forced to run a SRUM and Agile approach to the way in which we develop the application and website. Every fortnight we sit down, review the deck of requirements and reshuffle them based on the priorities to form the next batch of work.
Getting the first pub to sign up was hard; I almost begged them to sign up, I’ll not forget the moment when they did but when you get one more will follow and they did!
Another significant challenge is finding the right people to work with, whether that be to join the team, the panel or the partners list. With everything you look to answer as many questions as you can, but sometimes you simply have to live on your instincts and go with what feels right.
How do you see the business developing over the next couple of years?
Assuming we continue to grow, we expect to have pubs on inapub.co.uk from across the country and see consumer usage grow as more people realise it’s a great source of up to the minute real time events from pubs near them.
We’ll also be launching our other brands targeting different venues or events. Watch this space...