iBegin – Local Search That Works

iBegin.comBack in April, I posted about Ahmed Farooq’s up and coming online “local search” contender – iBegin. What initially drew me to the site was the iBegin: The Craigslist of local search Digg article which at the time was receiving plenty of “diggs” and praise from the technical and usually critical Digg community. And there’s good reason for all the praise; the site has been obsessively tweaked into a simple yet solid local search engine whose user-generated and user-driven content has been quickly growing since the site went live in March. After getting the chance to interview Ahmed, I got the feeling that he has definitely done his homework on iBegin and is preparing the site to start making waves in the months to come. As you can tell, I’m pretty excited about the site since the philosophy behind it is all about individual empowerment through user-driven content, and giving people a break by helping them find what they’re looking for. Anyway, enough of my ramblings, here’s Ahmed’s interview for all to enjoy.

Before iBegin

I moved to Canada in 1997 and began dabbling online, and kept playing on the web through High School. I got serious about the web about 6 months before the dot com bubble burst, and incorporated a web development firm in 2003. We don’t do client work; instead we create websites for ourselves where we have advertising, subscription, virtual products, and other methods of making money – iBegin is a small part of what we do, but will hopefully become a large part.

The iBeginning

I started a blog called AJAX Review around the time AJAX came out and started heating up. As I started reading about Web 2.0 companies for ideas, I found that many did solve a problem or an issue yet they were superfluous. Then one day I was searching for something online and became frustrated because I couldn’t find what I wanted, and then it hit me – there’s all this user participation and what if it were to be used for local searches where it was needed. I already had a company that was making money, so I didn’t have to go to an investor or outside sources for funding. I started on a project and sketched out some ideas in October 2005, and by January 31st I had a workable system.

iBegin was released in March, and we decided to skip all the invitational stealth mode and startup hype that other companies were doing. We’re almost 3 months old now and just got 53,000 unique hits last month; people have been joining up and submitting reviews and things are going good.

It’s Not A Web 2.0 Site!

I tried my best to steer away from pumping up the site as a Web 2.0 company; my main focus has always been local search that works. I’m involved in the domain industry and the valuation is absurd for domains these days. People are buying domains and so much money is being thrown around, and I tried my best to keep away from Web 2.0 because local search is not a fad. My target audience is far beyond the tech niche of the “audience of 53,651”; of course I would love for them to use the site yet I have no interest those specific users who like fire ants go through a farm and eat everything then move on to next thing. And I don’t really see all these [Web 2.0] websites doing much that a normal user would find useful at all, some do make sense but 99% of sites don’t have sustainability in what they’re doing.

Driven By Need

I’m a very socialist oriented person, and I don’t see why you have to make the maximum amount of money. I have a comfortable life, a condo with a nice view, my woman, my doggie, and I’m not that driven by money. Google kept it clean and could’ve made more money if they whored out their site. With iBegin, I want to keep the site clean and make around 75% of what I possibly can – which is much more important because I’m not driven by money but driven by an actual need. Searching Toronto was a pain, just today I was using the website to find a breakfast place and found a totally new restaurant and that’s a reward for me.

Keeping It Simple

I did a bit of benchmarking after I built the site. My entire idea was to make it easy to use – Google Maps uses one line to find a location instead of separate fields to make their search as simple as possible, they let the system compute what the user puts in to find results. I also wanted to keep it as simple as possible; you could say that my idols were Google and Craigslist. The entire philosophy is to just make it as simple as possible and k.i.s.s.

I’m a CE by degree, but have lots of interest in psychology and usability. I spent a lot of time sketching things out the way I wanted things to appear. Since we’re a profitable web development firm, it wasn’t a burden to send out my ideas to the graphic artists and create a mock up. The final site has been a bit of an evolution, I wanted the elements to be as simple and clean as possible; and it’s a lot cleaner now since we’ve tried to keep the graphics down to a minimum.

The Future of iBegin

I’m actually very leery about our staff getting too big, the more people you bring in, the more control you lose. We’re happy with the size of the company and don’t want to manage too many people. We’re also around 90% of where we want to be feature set wise because we don’t want to complicate the site. A large majority of iBegin users don’t care about tags or other features, they find what they want and move on. We may decide to let companies offer coupons, but we’re not interested in integrating companies on a larger scale because it starts becoming a headache. Integrating companies will develop the need for a sales force and customer support, and then there’s the issue when they want to try to get all your data. I own one of the bigger blog directories and frequently get contacted by marketing companies trying to buy ads, and sometimes they ask if they could buy marketing data from us which makes for an uncomfortable situation. We’re happy where we are and are not too keen on expanding into other businesses.

Expanding Into Other Cities

It’s a given that I will take iBegin beyond Toronto, I don’t see why it can’t be the biggest local search engine around. I believe it’s faster and much more useful than the other local searches out there. And since I’m living in Toronto, I can stay under the radar whereas the competition would be giving me a lot more attention had I been in San Francisco. We’ve ordered some new servers for iBegin Ottawa which will be here in a few weeks, and 3 or 4 weeks after that we will slowly but surely expand into the US. The system is setup in such a way that if one city becomes too popular, it won’t bring down the local searches for other cities.

A lot of people are interested in bringing iBegin to their city; we’ve been “dugg” twice and have only received 3 or 4 negative responses amongst the positive responses of people interested in bringing the local search to their city. And because of the setup and utilization of search results, once we’re well established we will skyrocket to the top of the search – which is already happening. My biggest worry is people not finding the value built into the site (user notifications, events systems, etc), and I hope that the way I’ve approached the site in terms of philosophy and setup will help propel us beyond the competition.

For now, the first few cities we will be targeting are pretty much set in stone because of market size and internet use. Ottawa is about 6 weeks out, and I want to make sure the system is as solid and fast as possible before hitting the big cities like San Francisco and New York. After that, I’m not sure – maybe we will build a system where you can submit your own city and create something people can run themselves, or maybe work with municipal governments and have it run through them.

Ahmed Farooq
Founder of iBegin.com

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  1. Cool interview! I admit the logo for iBegin looks really web 2.0 but after I thought about it decided there really isn’t any way around that. Cool features indeed. My favorite: Searching for coffee and then being able to view the results as a map. That’s clever.

  2. TOMAS

    I forgot to ask Ahmed if the skyline depicted in the logo was a generic city or specific to the city of Toronto. It would definitely be cool to see the logo’s skyline change depending on the search city.

  3. Definitely custom one for Toronto – Skydome + CN Tower 🙂

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