It was way back in July 2005 that a group of friends came together to create PetrolWatch. It was hard to keep track of fuel prices back then, with different brands (as well as stations) offering different prices. Motorists would scamper around Singapore just so that they could enjoy special discounts at selected stations, sometimes causing massive traffic jams.
PetrolWatch aimed to provide motorists with accurate fuel price information of all 216 petrol stations around the island. It also provided free SMS alerts to its members on impending price fluctuations. And as quickly as the fuel prices were moving, more and more people signed up to become PetrolWatchers. At the height of its popularity, PetrolWatch was featured in international and local news (BBC, Associated Press, The New Paper).
Changing the business model…
Membership reached a staggering 70 000. As a free service, it was going to be tough sustaining PetrolWatch. Members were requesting for new services and features. After review and discussion, we decided to rebrand PetrolWatch as a subscription based service. The new website would be designed to have a more social networking and web 2.0 edge to it and would be launched during the Singapore Motorshow at Suntec City. We even produced some of our own PW merchandise and signup gifts for members.
By moving into a subscription-based service, we were hoping to be free and independent of pandering to advertisers. We would also be able to upgrade our hardware to provide better and more services to our members. However, as we found out, this route was going to be rocky, and eventually bleak! Looking back, the mistakes that we made were:
• Little or no experience in B2C business – We run a purely B2B type of business and never have to deal directly with consumers (the good, bad and the UGLY!). Also, our customer and technical support wasn’t entirely ready to effectively handle the large volume of member inquiries.
• Feature Overload – We threw a whole bunch of new features to members when what we should have done was to focus on 1 or 2 core features first. We should have let our users familiarize themselves with them and only released new features as and when members requested for them.
• Insufficient Contributors – One of the new key features was PoliceWatch. It provided a platform for members to share with one another sightings of police operations. However, for the model to work effectively, there had to be a substantial base of contributors. On the Internet, about 1% of your users will contribute, while the rest of the 99% are generally satisfied to just lurk around. Hence, the service would not work due to a fairly low contribution rate.
• Subscription Model – Let’s face it. The Internet is largely a FREE model. No one pays for a web-based service unless it is a B2B service or pornography. By imposing a fee (no matter how small) for users to use the site, it was akin to placing a giant fire-breathing dragon patrolling around the website, scaring them away. Some felt betrayed and didn’t return. Some signed up but was disappointed of the lack of activity and contributions.
• Sustainability – With dwindling signups and an almost non-existent marketing budget, it was going to be hard to sustain the business.