Lonely Planet maps the future: a conversation with CEO Matt Goldberg

Matt Goldberg joined Lonely Planet as CEO in March 2009. Before joining Lonely Planet, he was senior vice president of digital strategy and operations for Dow Jones & Company in New York, where his responsibilities included leading business operations for The Wall Street Journal Digital Network. I spoke with him in November.

DG: Why did you move to Lonely Planet?

MG: First of all, to be selected to lead a company that was so important to me personally in my own travels and that plays such an important and meaningful role in the world by encouraging and empowering people to go out and experience the world, was nothing short of humbling. When I pinched myself and realized that I received the offer, there was no question in my mind that I would sell my house in the worst economic climate in history, pull my children out of school, and move 12,000 miles away — because to my mind, there is no company more deserving of its reputation than Lonely Planet. It’s going through an incredible period, like any content company in any category, and I’m passionate about one question: How do esteemed media brands, products and services make the successful transition through this period of extraordinary technological innovation? I have spent my career thinking about that question, and I am putting all of my energy into helping Lonely Planet make that transition successfully.

DG: Has your sense of Lonely Planet’s challenges evolved very dramatically since you joined the company?MG: Well, certainly you don’t really know until you become operational on a day-to-day basis what the challenges and opportunities are going to be. I have to say that I’ve been impressed with the number of opportunities. Our core publishing business remains profitable. And while the guidebook market as a whole has decreased, Lonely Planet has continued to invest in new products and really tried to drive innovation and new ways of working so that not only can we remain number one in the world in that core business, but we can extend our lead and grow share, which is what we’ve done in 33 out of the last 34 months.

DG: What would you say are the major innovations that Lonely Planet has introduced since you’ve been there?

MG: Lonely Planet has long thought is there a way of changing the way we gather, manage, access, and distribute content so that we can be more platform agnostic. We’ve finally cracked the code on that one and made the investment over the last 18 months where we can send an author into the field, give them the tools through a mobile device to upload their work immediately onto a platform that’s totally dynamic and can immediately be useful, whether we’re producing a book or programming a web site or delivering a digital app through a mobile channel or a tablet PC. I knew this was real when we introduced what we were doing to our authors, and we had Tony Wheeler sitting in a café in Melbourne actually using this technology to show how we could change the product in real time.

We now have the opportunity to organize ourselves as a business around that technology and be totally product development focused and serving travelers in a way that they’re already signaling to us they’re going to want to leverage our content in the future.

DG: How does this impact the traditional guidebook? You have a print book that was published let’s say a year ago. You have a user who bought it last month and they’re in the destination now. Are they able to access updated restaurant and hotel information, for example? How do you integrate what they have in their hand as the print product and the new information that has become available since that book was published?

MG: We continue to believe in the future of the book as a technology. It’s over 5 centuries old and has features that continue to remain valuable and useful to users today. We know that the future of the book is all about emerging form factors, the way that that book integrates with digital platforms, and the way that we as publishers sit in the middle of the content production process and offer useful curation and services. We’re spending a lot of time thinking about the integration of physical and digital products. . I think there are opportunities in the future that Lonely Planet will be best positioned to deliver. You can imagine using your Smartphone and taking a snapshot of an image in a book and that triggers the download of the freshest content onto your mobile device, which enables you to then leave the book in the hotel and use that mobile device to create a mashup with maps to navigate your experience in the destination. That future is here now and we are experimenting on those kinds of things. We will bring products and services to market that we think consumers will pull through.

DG: To my mind there are two intersections of challenges in guidebook publishing. One is the chronological challenge of when the research is done, when the book is written, when the book is printed, and when it gets onto bookstore shelves, which you’ve just addressed. The second is the emerging challenge of the whole expert vs. crowd-sourcing issue. How is Lonely Planet navigating that second challenge?

MG: We still believe in the value of expertise and we are totally committed to the partnership we have with our freelance authors. We also recognize the value of our community, because you only have to go on Thorn Tree to see how rich the dialogue there is, even on a very early web platform. And there’s no doubt that crowd-sourcing also has its place. So I think the question is to identify when each of those sources is most useful. Expertise is really helpful when you’re trying to sift through the noise – when you’re trying to offer a curated experience, when you’re trying to make trusted editorial selections and informed judgments. A community is really useful when you’re trying to get up-to-date questions answered. Crowd sourcing may be really useful for commodity content which you don’t want to spend trouble and effort to get, like a phone number, opening and closing hours, or an address. I think it’s our job as a company that brings all this together to determine which is most useful when. What I say to our authors is that I don’t think there’s ever been a more exciting time to be a content producer, as long as you embrace the 21st-century technologies and tools that are available.

DG: That leads to my next question: There’s the iconic traditional LP author who ventured out into the middle of nowhere and wrote the first books and then rewrote those books, and then there’s this emerging 21st-century person who’s agile with a video camera and an iPhone and is very technologically savvy. How much overlap is there between those two schools of authors?

MG: We’re learning that now, in the moment. And I’d just say that I’ve been impressed with the author body as a whole and their desire to embrace new ways of working. We recognize that we need to find ways to leverage the strengths of all our authors that we rate highly, and different authors will bring different skills to the table. Our job is to understand that and to do a good job mapping skill sets, capabilities and desires with products of the future that we’ll need. We will continue to need guidebooks in the future, just as we’ll need really creative mobile apps and interactive products and services. So I think there’s more room than ever for lots of different people to be engaged with content production and development at Lonely Planet.

DG: In my association with Lonely Planet there have always been two cultural challenges. On the one hand, there’s an Old LP mentality and a New LP mentality. And on the other hand, there’s an Australian mentality, an English mentality, and an American mentality. How do you as an American living in Australia, new to Lonely Planet but as someone who’s been using it for many years – how are you working with those challenges and bridging those cultural divides?

MG: Let me first say by way of context that it’s clear to me that Lonely Planet as an idea, and what it stands for at its heart, is bigger than any subculture or individual. It’s bigger than its founders. Lonely Planet is the way that we all connected to this thing that empowered us to have a remarkable individual experience. I had that first experience in 1994: I was in my mid-20s and I went away to Australia on my own. I didn’t know a single soul there and the first thing I did was to get that Lonely Planet guide. It was under my arm everywhere I went for that year and a half. It introduced me to places and people that I wouldn’t have otherwise had the idea to go meet. Ultimately it transformed me in some way. Everybody that connects with Lonely Planet – and we know there are hundreds of millions of them – has an experience like that one that they will never forget.

We stand for a broad idea that we can all believe in — travel. We can all connect to it very differently. Matt Goldberg who lived in New York and was working for the Wall Street Journal connects with it as deeply and meaningfully as Errol Hunt from New Zealand who has been an LP commissioning editor for many years and who has capabilities very different from my own on the editorial side. We both connect to travel just as deeply even though we come from two totally different worlds.

So I think if we stay true to that, you can bring this company together around a singular vision to produce amazing guides across all platforms – whether they be books, online, mobile devices — and in all geographies, whether in the English-speaking world or in any one of the other geographies that we’re excited about.

DG: What are your goals for the company in 2011?

MG: Our goals for the company are ambitious. We want to continue to support our core business and propel it forward through new product innovation and technology-enabled growth. We want to continue to experiment restlessly with new technologies and new platforms and serve new audiences that we know, when they find us, on whatever device, in whatever country, will love us because we share the same mindset. We want to focus on some new geographies, expand our relationships in China, enter the India market, and continue on our relentless pace expanding our share in the US; ultimately, we want to be the leader in the US. And finally, we want to work effectively with our shareholder, BBC Worldwide, to leverage their skill and expertise in areas where they can help us get going, like the magazine, which has been very successful, like television, where we’re making a real effort, like adjacencies that might take us into new spaces. They have shown their willingness to invest and their commitment to allow Lonely Planet to thrive based on its proud tradition. We need to continue to take advantage of that.

DG: What has been the greatest lesson that you’ve learned so far?

MG: Every media company in the world is playing in a landscape that’s as dynamic as we’ve ever seen. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that the pace of change is just increasing. The start-ups with easy access to capital, with open platforms where they can innovate rapidly and eat your lunch, with very few barriers to entry, have never been more dynamic. The lesson is that it’s hard to make this transition and follow consumers and be there where the innovators are. It’s going to take time and we need as leaders in these kinds of businesses to be bold, thoughtful, and patient. I’m only a year and a half in and of course I’d like to run really, really fast, and I think we need to be thoughtful about where we make our investments, how we mitigate risk, and how we ensure that we’re innovating and experimenting restlessly. I think that’s a lesson for not just Lonely Planet but anyone who’s working in this dynamic media space.

DG: Have the metrics of success changed in the time you’ve been at Lonely Planet because it’s such a dynamic industry?

MG: When you are innovating in your business, you can’t hold your innovation activity to the same standard of success or metrics as you hold your core business. You actually have to look at it differently. You need to give innovation more room to breathe, you need to allow failure to happen and develop that and kill ideas that aren’t getting pick-up. You have to seed early success, put additional resource into successful ventures and iterate rapidly, following the consumer or traveler along the way, because the consumer ultimately will tell you if you’ve been successful because they’ll be engaged with the product, which will ultimately yield revenue growth and profitability. But it is important to differentiate. So my answer is that in our core business, our success metrics haven’t changed that much. Where things have changed is how we think about the innovation, the emerging areas of our business. We’ve had both success and failure. But I’m very proud of our successes, including more than 5 million downloads of our mobile apps in the iPhone apps store. [Update: Lonely Planet just passed 7 million uploads as of early January 2011.]

We have been at the absolute forefront of technology as it relates to travel, starting with our app for the Beijing Olympics, when we introduced a Mandarin translation guide as a launch partner with Apple, continuing to our city guides, to being the first augmented reality travel app for the Android platform, to being the leader in the travel space for e-books across all platforms, from Kindle, where we were a global launch partner, through to iPad, where we were a launch partner for a completely new type of travel ebook for our Discover series that had touchscreen, color, and 3000 hyperlinks enabled, to most recently being a launch partner for NookColor. So we continue to invest in innovation.

And I have to say that I recognize that is the Lonely Planet DNA, going back to Tony Wheeler putting together a rudimentary desktop publishing system before it was recognized that that was the future, to that early web site and Thorn Tree and the way we engaged travelers to get user-generated information before anyone ever said UGC, to putting mobile apps out on the Palm Pilot in the 1990s. So I recognize that we are carrying on a proud tradition that really started with the people whose shoulders we stand on.