Holiday website Stayz was a unique way for holiday homeowners to get the word out about their property, turning physical assets into digital capital. The website's founder now hopes to replicate this for the broader category of small businesses, helping SMBs to spruik their wares online.
When Chris Sharkey launched Stayz in March 2001, he targeted the largely ignored self-contained holiday market, and gained traction with homeowners and holiday goers alike. The move paid dividends in 2005, when the site was sold to Fairfax.
After surveying the online start-up landscape for the past couple of years, Sharkey has returned with another venture, which this time targets the many small business owners without a website.
Bislr.com is a web application that allows small businesses to build a website via a simple drag-and-drop interface and customised themes.
It is targeted at businesses that are too small to employ a digital agency, and are unsure of how to hire a local web developer, he said.
The strength of the Stayz model is that it gives holiday homeowners the tools to get the best value out of their online properties, he said.
Bislr will provide the same functionality for small businesses looking to go online, via integration with social media, CRM and marketing applications.
"Stayz was a microcosm of Bislr," Sharkey said. "The difference now is we have far more advanced tools, giving small businesses best experience."
"It could still be for holiday accommodation, for a yoga shop or a band ... they can use various tools and to integrate video, they can drag in a YouTube app, for reviews for a restaurant they can include Yelp."
"We have built-in email marketing, so you can follow up with clients, and a CRM system so they can keep track of information."
He said that other offerings, such as WordPress, are too complicated to customise, and the Google/MYOB free websites are too simple.
The company has received investment from a combination of local and international venture capital (VC) firms and angel investors, he said.
If the model is proven in Australia, his aim is to expand the operations to the United States and developing countries, such as India and China.
"One thing I feel very strongly about is that I don't like businesses that don't get money," he said. "We let people use the system for free ... then we make ongoing income from running these websites.
"We'll make our business profitable, premium and attractive enough to investors — that's what we'll do, that's our medium-term goal."
Sharkey has previous experience of launching a product, developing a business and selling this off. He also knows the small business market.
It's hard to quantify and measure the value that a website delivers to a business, which can make the sales pitch confusing. It's unclear how the business can scale rapidly.
There's a huge opportunity with the number of small businesses that would like to go online, both here and around the world.
Nearly every major web company has something that could compete with this, whether it's Facebook Pages, WordPress, Google, web marketplaces or app marketplaces. Take your pick.
It's always impressive to see an accomplished entrepreneur return for second dig. Chris has already proven himself in the small business, via the niche of Australian holiday homeowners.
However, I think that this is a much bigger challenge: the online market has matured significantly since 2001, and there are far more competitors. I don't think that this site can compete with established web players that could switch on this functionality quite easily for their established user base.