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Startup Spotlight: handbag.com

handbag.com and those like it pave the way to a new kind of Web site, tailored for a specific audience, in this case women. But can it survive in a world of broad-based portals like Yahoo! and AOL?

If you need evidence of how quickly the Internet is shifting away from the anorak crowd, you need only to walk into Boots. At the entrance of most shops you'll find a stack of brightly-coloured, handbag-shaped cards -- and inside each a CD offering free Net access, email and an online source of news and information called handbag.com.

The site, aimed at the growing market of wired women in the UK, offers information, advice, interactivity and online shopping, tailored by a staff of editors and writers across channels such as heath and fitness, careers, entertainment and parenting.

techTrader spoke to Dominic Riley, founder and managing director of the site, which was launched in October, about how he hopes to gain the attention and loyalty of women online, and why he thinks sites like his are the wave of the future.

Why did you decide to target the women's Internet market specifically?

handbag.com is a joint venture between The Boots Company and Hollinger Telegraph New Media, who both wish to invest in the new media market. Women are the largest-growing group on the Internet -- at present 40 per cent of Internet users are women, and this is increasingly rapidly. When handbag.com was set up, there were no existing Web sites that were targeting women: we saw the opportunity.

What do you see happening with this sector in the future? Is the women's market there already, or is it just beginning to emerge?

The Internet as a whole is just beginning to evolve -- at present only twenty to thirty per cent of the population have access to it. We are at a very early stage of market development -- there was nothing there beforehand, and handbag.com are now taking the first step. The Internet will become increasingly competitive and segmented, and the women's Internet market is setting the trend for this.

Would you categorise this as a niche market?

No, I would never describe this as a niche market. We are at the point of market development where we are moving from an unedited market to the first stage of creating a segmented and edited market. handbag.com offers lots of interactive content that is divided by interest rather than age. This is a mass market product, which constitutes a very broad offering. We want to build handbag.com as a brand.

Who are your main competitors?

Our two main UK competitors are CharlotteStreet.com and beme.com which was launched last Thursday by IPC. handbag.com however are well ahead in terms of awareness, reach and its market share.

We do not view ourselves as having to compete with women's magazines as their purpose is very different to ours. handbag.com offers a totally different experience, as it is about interactivity and a very personalised approach. It is also impossible to reprint magazine content online, as the articles are far too long -- copy for the Web must be short and succinct.

What plans do you have for handbag.com over the next six months? What are your visions for the future?

There are three broad avenues that we wish to go down. Our first aim is to get. handbag.com to establish itself as a brand. You will be seeing an increased marketing campaign for the year 2000, which will give it a personality, allowing it to expand its audience. Secondly, we are also looking to move into the two areas of mobile phones and television. Our final goal is to greatly enhance our retail offering, and to build something that will make it an advantage to buy online with us.

Do you see the company making acquisitions to round out your offering?

Up until now we've worked with forty to fifty content partners, including a lot of experts within their fields such as Gordon Ramsay. I wouldn't rule out the prospect of making acquisitions in the future though, as it is a good way of developing a business quickly.

How are you able to use your relationship with Boots and Hollinger Telegraph New Media?

Our relationship with Boots meant that when we launched on 6 October we were in every Boots store distributing our ISP discs. We are able to use the store network and advantage card database, and trade on the research that Boots has. From the Telegraph group we take content, and cross promote ourselves in the newspapers which reach one million women a day.

Is a floatation in the works?

We couldn't rule out anything at this stage. handbag.com is market leader in a big sector of the market, and Boots and Hollinger are both quoted on the stock market. At the end of the day it is down to the pound!

Startup Spotlight is a new weekly feature on ZDNet UK News and ZDNet techTrader, featuring the bright sparks of the UK's high-tech startup industry. For more of the faces behind the news see the Startup Spotlight archive.

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