Yellow Pages & More

Austria’s Tupalo hopes to change how we explore our cities by allowing users to review and assess shared experience

Recently it seems more and more everyday items we used to depend on have become obsolete. I was one of the few in my circle of friends who knew how to operate a rotary phone – my parents saw no reason to change so we still had three in the house. Friends would come over and attempt to call home and be dumbfounded as to how to work the odd spinning disc with numbers.

If Vienna entrepreneurs Michael Borras and Clemens Beer are successful with Tupalo.com, kids will soon be just as baffled by the telephone book.

“We are trying to create a natural, online extension of the yellow pages,” said Borras.

Officially founded as a company in November 2007, Tupalo is an online database of favorite local stores, restaurants and clubs that has been compiled by members of the site living in selected cities across the globe. Members log on and review locations posted by other users, ranging from bookstores to pizzerias, sharing information and commenting on other entries. The listings, however, are open to all, member or not, allowing anyone to take advantage of the information read the reviews.

Much like its inspiration, the website functions by using phrases typed in by the searcher. If you’re looking for good sushi near your home, type in sushi and the website gives you a list of all the sushi places in Vienna, along with any reviews that may have been written on each particular location. This works for nearly every concrete location in the city. However, the main difference between the website and the yellow pages lies in the peer reviews that are posted alongside each shop.

“We have found that people trust their friend’s opinions more than one given by a professional reviewer,” said Borras. “Word of mouth can be very effective.”

Word of mouth is everything at Tupalo and no advertising has been done for the site. All of its current 40,000 members have learned about it through word of mouth or have stumbled upon it by themselves.

Unlike other services of its kind, such as www.yelp.com, which is based out of the U.S., Tupalo works with the yellow pages instead of competing with them. By becoming an extension of the yellow pages, Tupalo hopes to build on what is already there, and push the business to a new level.

Launched in Austria, the site so far has the highest concentration of users and listings in Vienna, with over 200 locations reviewed. Other active cities include New York, London and Portland, Oregon.

The idea originally was conceived while Borras and Beer were working at the Rockstar videogame studio based in Vienna. Whenever a new programmer was brought to Vienna to work on a project, all their new co-workers were always excited to tell the newcomer about their favorite place to eat or shop. This led to a big network of favorite eateries and stores that were constantly being shared by the whole team. When Rockstar closed their branch in Vienna, Borras and Beer decided to continue this way of keeping their friends informed alive.

The founders first began testing in 2007, and received a grant of $77,000 from the City of Vienna’s Departure program, awarded to entrepreneurs in so-called creative industries who bring “cultural and economic flair” to the city and the region. As one of some 150 grantees since the program’s founding in 2005 – and the first media project – to receive a Departure award, Borras and Clemens made sure to put the money to good use. But even then, it took a lot of hard work to get their idea into the functioning product it is today.

“When we first began, our office consisted of any coffee house that offered free wi-fi,” recalled Borras. “We would switch around every few days so as not to aggravate the owners too much.”

Oddly enough, we were forced to move the meeting location for our interview to one of the cafés they used to frequent in the beginning. Small but with free wi-fi, it was easy to imagine the development stages of Tupalo being constructed under the post-modern lighting cafés across the city.

In order to ensure that reviews are coherent and relevant, other users can rate a review based on whether or not it was helpful. If a reviewer receives too many negative ratings from their peers, they can have their reviewing privileges revoked.

This helps curb the efforts of any person who would abuse the system or place spam on the message boards. On top of this, anytime a review is placed, someone joins the site, or a new location is added, site administrators are sent an email informing them of the occurrence.  So far, there have not been any major problems with any reviewers

“But if we continue to grow as we hope, it will inevitably come up. That’s why we have already taken precautions,” noted Borras.

The restaurant that has received the most reviews in Vienna is Ronahi, a lounge on Schottenfeldgasse in the seventh district, where most reviewers loved the atmosphere but were disappointed by the service, highlighting the “comfy couches” up on the second floor.

Several reviewers recommended a small music store called Teuchtler Schallplattenhandlung off of Mariahilferstraße – seven reviews in all, a little above the average. Were they right? And helpful? After a visit, it was clear that all seven described the place to a “T”. The reviewers warned that those with dust allergies should avoid the store, or come prepared with facemask. Not having allergies I was not worried about this fact, after five minutes of rummaging through several crates, even I began to feel the effects of the musty interior.

But this slight problem was more than made up for by another quirk of the shop every reviewer mentioned. The owners never charge the labeled sticker price, which makes the experience that much more pleasant if you manage to find what you’re looking for. The only downside to the reviews was that store hours were never mentioned – the drawback to depending on amateurs. With variations as flexible as they are in Vienna, this could have been a problem.

Tupalo’s plans for the future heavily revolve around becoming feasible on the mobile level. With technological progress in cell phones and PDAs becoming so advanced, they anticipate mobile capabilities to even further increase site traffic.

“The next step is to allow users to not only be able to tell their friends what their favorite locations are, but also where and when to meet up,” said Borras. “If you’re posting a location, obviously you want others to know about it and what better way than to meet up with them there yourself.”

The quick expansion of social networking online has led to many new start-up companies offering a range of services – some of which have worked, some not. By taking the yellow pages and allowing users to make it their own, Tupalo hopes to become one of the business ventures that ends up a legend-in-the-making in the digital era.

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