Databank Integrated Solutions – b4baby.com
Company: Sybase Customer: Databank Integrated Solutions Submitted by: Portfolio Communicationsb4baby.com, a web-based enterprise targeting new parents, has benefited from the e-business midwifery skills of software house RCMS. Now RCMS is providing both technology and ideas to nourish the infant business.Plenty of entrepreneurs have come up with their ‘Big Idea’, but far fewer manage to keep the ideas flowing after the initial flush of enthusiasm. One that is succeeding is b4baby.Part of the secret of sustained creativity seems to be to form partnerships in which the partners are comfortable enough together to spark ideas off one another.
b4baby’s MD Harry Hobson credits e-business specialist software house RCMS with contributing commercial acumen, as well as technology, to the undertaking.”When RCMS helped us to find a method of extracting customer information from our market data that would also benefit other companies as well as ourselves, we jumped at the opportunity. Now RCMS is helping us translate that idea into action.”
The basic idea of b4baby is a web site that provides information, advice and shopping facilities for people who have, are going to have, or would like to have, babies. The site engages with its users for a typical span of 18 months, from pre-conception and the embryonic stages through to when the infant starts to take its first steps. For that period b4baby aims to meet every aspect of a parent’s needs, from cots, food and bottles to expert advice.
As well as offering on-line consultations with leading paediatricians and fertility specialists, there’s a community of parents and parents-to-be supporting each other via bulletin boards and the like – people who have a lot in common but who wouldn’t otherwise get a chance to meet.The site not only offers a full range of goods for sale, but also adds value by furnishing first-time buyers with supporting information, including the impartial opinions of their peers. If you’ve never bought a pushchair before, it’s helpful to be told ‘don’t worry about what’s trendy, this one really works for us’.
THE BIRTH OF A BUSINESS
b4baby must have broken some records in the time-to-market stakes. A team of four came up with the idea in late 1999. Only one of the four was a parent, but others had friends who were at that stage in their lives where they were considering starting a family and it was clear there was a gap in the market.
While there are plenty of magazines for parents and parents-to-be, the editorial is repetitive and based on the idea that people will not buy more than a couple of issues.”We could see this application was ideally suited to the web,” recalls Harry Hobson. “We could use technology to present information in a searchable form, and keep adding to our body of information instead of saying the same thing over and over again. We could build a community, and interact with our audience instead of all the communication being one-way, as it is in a magazine. And we could use multimedia to present the whole thing in the most appealing and practical way.
” There were sites in the States doing something of the sort, but in the UK pet lovers were better served than parents.After six months of planning, during which the four worked unpaid from their kitchen tables, there was a specification, and the company obtained its first round of funding, £1.3million from venture capitalists, on 1st March 2000. Just four months later on 1st July, the site was unveiled at a full consumer launch.
To begin with, b4baby consisted just of the four founders, and even now that the site is up and running, the company has a slim in-house team of 10 people covering core areas such as retail, buying, business development, and editorial. The company relies on outside partners for other functions, one of the most significant of which is technology development.To make their vision of the web site happen, the founders joined forces with a major web design agency, now called The Wheel. This agency in turn introduced RCMS, to whom it subcontracted the technical aspects of development. “Although both did a good job, you could say that RCMS did the more difficult bit.
Just making a site look nice isn’t too hard, but they provided the mechanics. Their shopping engine, chat engine, databases and so forth are the basis for the trust and ease of use that we’re now so proud of.”Did having two suppliers involved cause extra hassle? Harry Hobson says not. “The collaboration was seamless as far as we were concerned.” In fact RCMS collaborated not only with The Wheel but also with other suppliers, such as fulfilment house netfulfilment, to whose systems RCMS had to develop an interface in time for the launch.
That all this could be achieved in so little time [just six weeks] was partly due to the fact that RCMS already had an e-business framework and methodology, RCMSGenesys, which had been proven in the course of many other projects. The main development language was Java running against a Jrun application server communicating with an Oracle 8i database. Apache was used as the webserver and was seamlessly integrated with the RCMS platform.By drawing on previous experience, the team could develop the site quickly; yet create the distinctive look and feel the b4baby founders wanted. Despite the ultra-compressed timeframe, all the basic functionality was available for the launch, including secure online payment and not just in prototype but in fully tested, fully scalable form.
Once the site was live, b4baby decided to employ its own in-house web developer to handle the “presentation layer” or front-end of the site. At the same time, it signed a support contract under which RCMS would further develop the underlying technology. “There were two reasons this made sense.One was the excellent job RCMS had done to date. The second was that, rather than implementing a steady stream of changes, we want to do them in a burst every six weeks or so, so outsourcing is an ideal solution.”
BUILDING ON EARLY SUCCESS
b4baby has already made its mark.
By the end of its first six months of trading it was the second biggest baby-related web site in the UK, and the biggest independent one. In January 2001 it had around 35,000 signed-up users and the list was lengthening rapidly. The b4baby site has won various accolades including the “site of the week” award from New Media Age, and a recommendation from The Lancet, no less.At its inception, b4baby had two main sources of revenue. The first was e-commerce, and the second was advertising sales and sponsorship – for example, Club Med sponsors a travel section proposing pre-conception holidays together with holidays that can be taken with one’s tots.Rather than sit back and wait for money to roll in from these channels, b4baby embarked on some lateral thinking about how else it could exploit its assets.
As a key partner, RCMS was privy to these discussions and pointed b4baby to a promising avenue. Harry Hobson explains: “There are a lot of other companies – supermarkets and manufacturers of nappies for example – who are selling like mad to new parents. RCMS helped us realise that we were in a position to offer these companies valuable research that would help them understand their market better.” Companies outside the world of baby products are also keen to reach parents, choices made by one’s parents are thought to influence choices that people make for the rest of their lives – a classic example being the first-time student who continues to buy the brand of detergent favoured by his parents.b4baby was already collecting demographic and behavioural information, primarily as an aid to commanding more sponsorship and better rates for advertising. As in the magazine publishing world, web advertisers and the like will pay more for media which they know will reach a specified audience size and profile.
So the data was already there, waiting to be “mined”.RCMS will help b4baby to develop technology to convert raw data into customer insights. The information will be provided in the form of reports to a syndicate of interested companies; possible topics are “parents and finance”, “parents and politics”, and so forth.While b4baby is conscious of the limits imposed by privacy considerations on the use of personal data, here we’re talking about aggregated, anonymised information about customers in general, rather than about individuals. “The sort of thing that these companies are looking to learn about might be, for example, which parent tends to choose what nappies are purchased, as opposed to what nappies Mr Smith has bought,” Harry Hobson explains.
b4baby has many ambitions for its site, but has prioritised a couple of enhancements for imminent development, in addition to the data mining application. For example, there are plans to incorporate a ‘gift list’ facility on the web-site, similar to the ‘baby shower’ concept in America and also an on-line chat area. Because RCMS’s design is component-based, adding extra functionality like this causes minimal disruption to the status quo.
AN INVESTMENT IN FLEXIBILITY
At the outset, b4baby deliberately went for a high-powered solution rather than a cheap one, realising that the investment would give it long-term flexibility. “If we’d skimped on the technology, we wouldn’t be in a position now to collect all this customer information, and to do so much with it.
Not only has having the information given us the opportunity to create a new high-value revenue stream; it also helps us improve our own business. Understanding how people use our site is vital to the quality of our offering.”Harry Hobson sums up: “From start to finish, we’ve been incredibly pleased with the work RCMS has done for us. They translated our ideas into a site that didn’t just looked good but that really worked for our users, as the feedback we’ve received proves. And the technology has never gone wrong yet.”