Lonely Planet Launching Mobile Travel Startup ‘Wenzani’, Seeking Partners

Lonely Planet has created a separate technology startup in San Francisco to develop next-generation social mobile travel guides together with competitors.

The new company is called Fourforty Inc, whose first product will be a free app called Wenzani (Zulu for “Where are you going?”), launching in the next few months.

“We’ve set up a freestanding company in San Francisco and we’re going to use equity to attract a world-class team,” Lonely Planet CEO Matt Goldberg revealed to paidContent. “Lonely Planet is contributing key assets like brand, talent, technology and distribution.

“With the explosion of mobile and the scale of social, with a GPS in every smartphone, what does a guide look like?

“We’re going to launch in the coming months a product that we think will become the travel guide for the social generation. We can tap your social network – your friends, your mindset – and get context from your location, time of day, your preferences and create a guide experience that we think will be unique.

“It will leverage premium content from Lonely Planet and from our competitors. We created an equity structure so that it can compete like a startup – so we can attract talent.

A CEO for Fourforty Inc is in place. The name came from the project’s South African originator on the Lonely Planet team. Lonely Planet’s owner BBC Worldwide, which bought most of the firm in 2007 and acquired a remaining 25 percent this summer, is not itself an equity holder.

That Melbourne-based Lonely Planet is choosing to set up Fourfourty separately from the mothership is increasingly indicative of its approach to product development – and of a mindset that suggests innovation is best done outside of legacy media businesses…

To minimise the effect of international conversion to and from Australia’s high dollar, Goldberg recently relocated Lonely Planet’s web team out of Australia to sit alongside BBC Worldwide in London, has its mobile team in Oakland, California, but retains its print publishing business Down Under. It is also developing international travel guides for all media for Indian audiences in Delhi rather than in either Melbourne, London or California.

“By doing this (Fourforty) as an independent company, we can invite those around the travel space to join us without feeling any compunction,” Goldberg added.

“We are out to prove (The Innovator’s Dilemma author) Clay Christensen wrong – we can do it and not worry about disrupting ourselves. Innovation requires restless experimentation. It’s something that requires a particular cultural mindset.”

Lonely Planet already has over 220 mobile app editions of its city guides across four platforms, many with built-in augmented reality features and many of them free. When it made many of these apps free during last summer’s Icelandic volcano eruption, they clocked four million downloads in four days – a spike Goldberg says produced a halo which benefitted other apps in the portfolio.

Fourforty will add to rather than replace those mobile apps, Goldberg said.