For those unfamiliar with In Your Pocket guides, imagine arriving for the first time in an unfamiliar city and purchasing an upbeat, accurate and objective sightseeing and restaurant guide, packed with maps, useful telephone numbers and a myriad of facts for only one dollar. A sort of miniature Fodor's, Yellow pages and city map neatly blended into one pocket-sized glossy booklet. On the surface, it seems like a straightforward concept, but think of the last time you visited a tourist information bureau and came out with a handful of fancy brochures, only one or two of which was really objective or of any real use.
Vilnius In Your Pocket (VIYP) was started in 1992 by a German journalist, Matthias Lufkens, and the three adventurous Belgian Ortiz brothers (who have now moved into the giant supermarket business) then looking for a toehold in the emerging Central European market. The company now publishes city guides for the Baltics and surrounding areas: Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn (five times a year), and Kaliningrad, Minsk, Kaunas, Klaipeda and Parnu (yearly). VIYP has recently begun printing a Lithuanian-language edition, and Klaipeda In Your Pocket is available in German and English owing to the city's historical Hanseatic connection and the resulting large numbers of German tourists.
Kamal Hassan is a Canadian, INSEAD-trained MBA and former management consultant who is now the general manager at In Your Pocket. He had already visited fifty countries before coming to Lithuania as a tourist. "I knew one of the Ortiz brothers from INSEAD. He always mentioned this little guide he published that he was all excited about, and all of us would laugh at him. When I came to Vilnius, I bought VIYP at a local kiosk and started walking around using it. I realized that I had never seen anything like it in any other city I had been to," said Hassan.
Instead of five days as a tourist he ended up spending half a day as a tourist and four-and-a-half days writing a business plan for In Your Pocket. "I was confident when I saw (the guidebook) that this was something very special," said Hassan. "I go to Paris, for instance, and I can get all the guide books I want, but there is nothing as accurate, current and as complete [as In Your Pocket]. Guides in Paris are often six months to two years old and can cost up to $10," he said. After his initial visit to Vilnius in June 1998, Hassan moved to Vilnius in August 1998.
San-Francisco-born Lara Belanogoff has been VIYP's editor for the last year. She visits sights and restaurants in Vilnius anonymously prior to reviewing them. "I don't like to make a big production about who I am because if you do that you can get different food from everyone else. There are never any complimentary meals," she said.
She emphasized that there is a clear line dividing editorial and advertising staff. "I'll warn our salespeople that I went to a restaurant and it was awful. It doesn't matter that they have an ad with us," she said. She works closely with a full-time researcher whose most important task is to check facts and phone numbers for every issue. Lietuvos Telekomas has recently been imposing telephone number changes on some of its subscribers making this job particularly important.
In Your Pocket is a privately held firm and does not release financial statements to the public. While kiosk sales of its products are not insubstantial, the bulk of its income is derived from advertising. The company has a designated advertising representative in every city it covers. A key to its success is the number of repeat advertisements.
Hassan stressed the initial challenge in getting advertisers to sign on. "It's a product that's hard to sell at first. You tell someone you have a guide that tells them everything about the city in which they live. The automatic response is to think 'I know everything about the city in which I live,' so it's hard to give a compelling argument. People say 'I know my restaurants, I know my clubs,'" he said.
Hassan said that what people often don't realize is that they only know their five or ten main hangouts. "Even Lietuvos Rytas ran a story saying that people are better off buying an In Your Pocket guide than asking their friends what's new and exciting in Vilnius," he said. Lietuvos Rytas is Lithuania's biggest daily newspaper.
In Your Pocket has also begun aggressively exploiting the Internet since January 2000. They had been offering the full content of their guides online since 1995 but never really promoted their Web site very much until now. "We don't worry at all about offering the full content of our guides online at all because it only costs you $1 to buy the guide and a lot more to print out over fifty pages," said Hassan. The main In Your Pocket site is now getting 20,000 unique visitors per week. They've also launched a separate site with Lithuanian content only in June 2000.
The $4.6 million the company recently raised through Societe Generale Groupe and its Baltic representative, Trigon Capital, will permit In Your Pocket to continue its expansion into other markets. Beachheads have already been established in Poland, the Czech Republic, Moldova, Hungary and Romania. "The obvious holes for us to fill right now are Prague and Warsaw. We want to expand into Western Europe as well. Our brand name is very well recognized in Scandinavia so that's an obvious market for us. Countries like Germany also make a lot of sense," said Hassan. They plan to expand to six to eight new countries if not more.
Vilnius will remain the company's headquarters. "We are a Lithuanian-based multinational company. I don't know how many there are but there are fairly few," said Hassan. With fifty full- and part-time employees spread around Eastern and Central Europe, he also stressed the need for leanness. "We only have five staff at our headquarters office. We have great local managers and when you have these, there's a lot less work at headquarters," he said. Employees with crossover skills are also an asset. "We have a lot of multitalented people. Our distribution manager in Budapest is a brilliant photographer, as is the one in Krakow," he said.