Wikio – A European user-managed news search engine on course to become the continent’s next high-tech blockbuster

November 19, 2007

By Sarah Wachter

Wikio is the latest internet start-up from Frenchman Pierre Chappaz, who is best known for selling Kelkoo, a European online price comparison service, to Yahoo! for €475m. Wikio is a user-managed news search engine that allows people to create their own pages of news, blogs and podcasts subdivided into a dozen categories, from health to fine arts. Users can vote for favourite items, or default to the most-accessed news and blogs provided by other subscribers. Wikinauts also have access to the site’s shopping search engine; to buy a camera, for example, a user can call up product reviews for comparable brands and find the lowest prices from a list of stores closest to home.

While custom news services abound in the US, Europe is an open playing field. Wikio covers more than 10,000 reliable sources for France, for example, while Google News covers only around 500. “There is nothing comparable on a European level, aside from a few small sites,” Chappaz notes.

Wikio launched in mid-2006 after Chappaz conducted the largest “beta” test in Europe, which involved 28,000 users registering their feedback online. Today, the site draws 2.3 million visitors a month, half in France and half outside. In its first year, the company aims to build its user base to three million, but Chappaz, who is the executive chairman, says the site has the potential to attract an audience of more than 10 million.

The company aims to turn a profit by using the “cost per click” business model of Google, where Wikio will receive 10 cents per click for every user who visits a vendor’s site. The shopping service is currently available in France, Italy and Spain, and will begin soon in Germany. “We’re not obsessed by sales,” says Chappaz, who put €1m of his own funds as seed money into the venture. Traffic has grown solely by word of mouth, and some analysts claim Wikio is the most interesting European start-up since Skype.

Unlike the Skype founders, though, Chappaz is no computer geek. Equipped with just a general studies degree, he stumbled into the high-tech arena when he was hired to create the permanent computer exhibit for Cité des Sciences, located inside Paris’s Parc de la Villette. He then spent a decade in various marketing posts for high-tech firms, including as marketing director, western Europe for IBM, and later struck out on his own with a communications boutique.

The company is truly a “2.0”-style undertaking: its technical staff of 30 hails from various parts of France and Switzerland (Chappaz resides in Geneva, where the company is headquartered). There is no office space, and staff members “meet” once or twice a week in cyberspace. CEO Bertrand Peretra is the former managing director of French shareware outfit Planète Soft.

Many users of Chappaz’s service may be surprised to learn that Wikio has absolutely no connection to the creators of Wikipedia, the free-content encyclopedia written collaboratively by contributors around the world. Chappaz insists he chose the five-letter word because it is short, simple and conveys the meaning “tell me quickly”. Actually, Wikio doesn’t stray too far from the original meaning of wiki – the Hawaiian word for “fast”.

First month of trading June 2006
2007 predicted sales €100,000
Start-up money €1m in seed money; €4m in venture capital
Product range Customised online news, blogs, podcasts, videos and shopping
Marketing spend Nothing yet

Source:CNBC European Business