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Acquaintanceship with Wayn, a grinning youth in a green T-shirt is the social glue connecting 10m people around the world. He is the single degree of separation between Lesley, an amateur belly dancer from Stoke, and Angel in Dubai, who plays volleyball. He is also the connection between Aussie petrolhead Matt in London and Mohsin in Mumbai, who wants to show off his terrifying home video of a baby playing with a cobra.
Wayn himself is a taciturn, two-dimensional individual. In fact, he is a cardboard cut-out occupying a corner of the London office of his inventors, Jerome Touze and Peter Ward. Wayn is the mascot of their travel-themed website Where Are You Now. This is one of the most successful social networking ventures to come out of the flowering of web start-ups in the UK capital, referred to as “London 2.0”
“Successful” is a relative term. The main criterion for a web venture to achieve wide recognition is to sell shares to a big media company for a shocking sum. For example, CBS acquired web-based radio station Last.fm for £280m earlier this year. This has not happened to Wayn yet, although it has had some offers.
Ask struggling London web entrepreneurs about Wayn and their answers tend to betray qualified admiration, along the lines of: “Yeah, those guys have done pretty well, I guess ... but is it sustainable?”
The triumph of Mr Touze, Mr Ward and Mike Lines, Wayn’s chief technology officer, has been the “stickiness” of their site. It has pulled off that piece of magic most social networking sites have failed to conjure: it has lured internet users who posted content, which lured other internet users who posted content. And so on.
Wayn has nudged into the top 10 of UK social networking sites, albeit a long way behind behemoths such as Facebook and Bebo. It has attracted investment from web pioneers such as Steve Pankhurst, co-founder of Friends Reunited, and Brent Hoberman, co-founder of Lastminute.com. And it makes a profit – last year around £406,000 on turnover of £844,000.
Mr Touze, 28, an intense Frenchman with Lebanese roots, had the idea for Wayn. He says: “I was travelling after university. I was in San Francisco and had the idea of visualising my friends on a world map. When you travel you meet people, but you lose contact quite easily. I thought it would be great to have this way of visualising where your friends were.”
Travel is a modern rite of passage for kids from developed countries. They stick some clothes in a backpack and set off round the world, susained by temporary jobs and money transfers from parents. Wayn taps into the trend. But globe-trotting middle-class youngsters are only one element. Many users have in fact travelled little, never venturing outside, say, America, Malaysia or Jordan. For them, Wayn is an electronic penpals
The mood of the site is chirpy, friendly and clean. It lacks the hormonal ferment of a teen-oriented site such as MySpace but is also lighter in tone than a business-oriented community such as Linkedin.
Mr Touze and Mr Ward are the kind of bright, well-educated young men whose canny appreciation of trade-offs between risk and reward typically propels them into management consultancy. Indeed, they met at Accenture. Mr Touze invited Mr Ward, who is English, to participate in the fledgling
venture because he was impressed by his enterprise knowledge.
Mr Ward may even be overqualified for entrepreneurship. The calumny against students on enterprise courses is that they all want to work for McKinsey, the consultancy. Mr Ward, as laid-back as Mr Touze is edgy, has completed not one, but three such courses: at Cambridge University, London Business School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Mr Ward, 29, says: “Doing the three main technology-driven entrepreneurship programmes available in the world gave me a great sense of confidence and motivation to set up my own venture. So when Jerome phoned me about [Wayn] after my year out travelling it sounded perfect.” They “brainstormed it over a pint of beer, as you do” and launched Wayn in May 2003, accumulating just 45,000 members by March 2005. Over the next few months membership mushroomed to 1m. Mr Touze and Mr Ward took a sabbatical from Accenture in October 2005 and resigned in early 2006.
A significant other is missing during the interview at Wayn’s offices near the Barbican – Mr Lines, who runs the 35-strong technical department in Poland. He had been systems manager at Friends Reunited, the pioneering UK social networking site for former classmates, and was recruited with an equal share in Wayn equity. Mr Ward betrays something of the college boy’s admiration for a rough diamond when he says Mr Lines “didn’t even do his GCSEs at school because he was far too independent”.
There is a striking single-mindedness to Mr Ward and Mr Touze. They field questions without confusion over who should answer. As Mr Hoberman says: “They debate issues as passionately and analytically as Martha [Lane-Fox] and I did at Lastminute.com”.
Mr Hoberman was among a group of investors that put £5.7m into Wayn just over a year ago. Others included David Soskin and Hugo Burge of Cheapflights, and Esprit Capital Partners. As chairman, Mr Hoberman has persuaded the co-founders to dismantle their subscription model and make Wayn a free access site funded by advertising. Mr Touze says: “It’s quite difficult for users to justify coming back to a site that charges if there are other propositions on the market that cost nothing.”
Commission on products sold through the website, such as holidays and travel insurance, is another prospective income stream. Here Wayn must tread gingerly as too hard a sell could drive away users.
Where are they going next? Microsoft’s purchase of a 1.6 per cent stake in Facebook for $240m has heartened them. On the same valuation criteria Wayn would be worth a tidy sum. But the pair are evasive when asked whether they are seeking an exit. “We are not looking to sell, equally we are not going to dismiss any opportunities presented to us,” hedges Mr Touze.
On this subect he is no more forthcoming than the cardboard cut-out of Wayn, grinning silently from his corner.
Stand out from the crowd
Most social networking websites fail to attract users and never make a penny. Where Are You Now, a travel-themed website, has recruited 10m users and makes a profit. Co-founders Jerome Touze and Peter Ward have
some tips for would-be imitators:
●Just do it: It is easy to tell your mates in the pub about the great website
you plan to set up.
Making it a reality takes determination and courage.
●Differentiate: The web is saturated with “me-too” social networking sites, few of which have critical
mass. Wayn got in early, but was also helped by its focus on travel.
●Build a team with matching skills: Mr Touze, who oversees operations, recruited Mr Ward, who specialises in refining
the website product.
They enlisted a third partner, Mike Lines, to manage IT.
●Bootstrap: These days internet start-ups are mostly self-funded. Wayn began with capital of just £25,000. The co-founders sought external investment only when the site had
●Offshore: Wayn has 35 technical staff in Poland, allowing it to control costs that would otherwise have been inflated by high salaries for London-based web specialists.