The Practical Magazine for Net Professionals #54 Feb 2002 - pages 32 & 33

Find life beyond advertising

Providing information about London for European visitors with dedicated German, French and Italian sites, iTCRAFT was relying on advertising to keep afloat. However, when it discovered there just wasn't enough advertisers to go around, the company looked to its own assets to find new ways of financing itself. A year later founder Mehrdad Aref has found his finger in many different pies.

LondonheuteOver 13 million visitors walk the streets of old London town each and every year, but believe it or not, more than 50 per cent of these are our European neighbours. While the majority will speak English, most would like to be able to plan their trips by reading information about London in their own native tongue, while still back in the comfort of their own homes. This is where iTCRAFT enters the online arena, its aim to do just that, providing content in the major European languages. So far in its year-and-a-half life, iTCRAFT boasts three distinct sites with more in the pipeline.

The original site was the brainchild of Mehrdad Aref, a veteran of the publishing world for some 15 years. At first he had planned to publish the London guides as off-line, paper newsletters, traditionally sold and circulated to those planning on a trip to the UK. Then the wide world of e-publishing with all its promises of instant access and free content appeared on the horizon, fuelled by his partner's career in the IT industry, and Aref's own personal experience of designing Web sites for a handful of clients. Three months later, in April 2000, was born, built using a combination of Dreamweaver and Go Live!, ready to offer information about the capital for German visitors in their own language. But this was only the first stage. Aref wanted mirror sites in varying European languages with content catered for each distinctive audience. Half a year later a French site, appeared almost instantly followed by the Italian after a further six months wait. (The Spanish site is now live).

It was a cautious but wise move by Aref. "Tourism is the second biggest industry in London and a big, big market," Aref explains. "But we needed to try the market with the German site first and gradually build it up rather than going for all the languages at the same time. We could see a need for Euro-language sites and so took it. Even the London Tourist Board wasn't planning anything back at that time."

With most of the content of the sites static, it was decided to translate each site manually and not rely on largely unreliable Babel programs. A small team of multi-lingual site managers was set up and visitors started to hit. Then the trio of sites hit a snag.

The original idea was to fund the sites by advertising, a plan that sounded fool-proof in the early days of the new millennium. Little did iTCRAFT know that the year 2000 would see the dotcom bubble burst and on-line advertising plummet, let down by a hype that the Internet could never have realised.

"The timing was against us," recalled Aref, "plus there was the sheer volume of people fighting for the same advertisers. Let's face it, the cost of entry into the Internet market is relatively low, so more and more people were setting up sites which only makes it harder to appear original and attract advertisers. Banner advertising wasn't working so we had to find something else, we needed a different approach."

The answer was quite literally staring him in the face. Every month the three sites receive around 30,000 unique visitors all hungry for information about London. Each day iTCRAFT receives between two to three hundred emails ranging from requests for the location of the Churchill bunkers to people looking for rooms to rent. Swamped by personal and business requests, iTCRAFT saw that there were other ways to make the money it had been expecting to pull in from the advertisers.

Capital city
So the group of London-based information sites became the focus points for a number of new revenue-generating schemes. The first was to sell the content, adapting it to suit the style of whoever was willing to stump up the readies. But this was only the beginning.

With 30 advertisers on the books, a large number of whom were hotels and language schools eager to reach a European market, Aref realised that iTCRAFT had a marketable resource to offer: itself.

"We don't see businesses such as hotels as just advertisers – we see them as partners. They want people proactively to visit, we can push that further. We have the expertise to target the European market, to localise the message they want to portray to suit the culture they're trying to reach. We've proved that we can achieve this with our own sites, so now we can do it with their sites."

Local people
The localisation services include building a site from scratch or simply translating current content. While others simply offer robots to translate what's on the English site, leading often to gobbledegook, iTCRAFT can offer manual translation. Of course, this takes time, and time is money, so Aref has been working on a new software package called Xchameleon with a number of developers.

This technology will offer faithful and reliable localisation of content with no extra intervention. Xchameleon will be running on iTCRAFT's own server processing contents directed to it by clients. Businesses have the option of storing localised content on their own sites or sending content to be localised as required by visitors. This way they can be sure that the browsing public gets the latest updated localised content.

There are plans for a release of a standalone version of Xchameleon to offer businesses the chance of producing DIY translations of their sites in the new year.

And that isn't all. iTCRAFT is now dipping its toe into other virtual waters. While it has no ambition to become a job agency, the number of emails it receives every day from people looking for jobs in London, such as Aupairs, pointed to another opportunity that it would've been mad to miss. So, teaming up with a number of third parties, it has now started to link those looking for work with those offering it. Other, more obvious, choices such as selling tickets for the latest WestEnd shows have also been taken up providing yet another stream of revenue.

Flexible friend
If you had told Mehrdad Aref that his company would be providing such services a year ago he wouldn't have believed you, yet today he's fully aware that in e-business sometimes it's not necessarily survival of the fittest, but of the most flexible.

"We had no choice, we had to move with the market," he told us. "There aren't many e-publishing companies that rely solely on their Web sites. You need to sell further products and services to survive. But that isn't to say that our original online sites aren't still important to us. They have become our showcase for what we can do, which is why we're launching a Spanish version within the next two months." With a whole new market to explore, there's no doubt that the new Web site is going to open up even more avenues to explore.

© 2002 Future Publishing Ltd.