How to expand your open data business into new markets

Two startups, CommoPrices and Sickly, explain the challenge and promises of rolling out an innovative open data company


For an open data company reliant on datasets being made available locally and internationally, the challenges of expansion are somewhat obvious. No open data, no business. Not all countries and industries are equal when it comes to open data sets and that can be a problem. So how does a company using open data stretch its wings into new territories?
“It’s one of the key challenges, the biggest obstacles,” says Victor Gross, co-founder of Paris-based CommoPrices, a portal to track commodity costs. But it’s not insurmountable.

Gross says that CommoPrices, a company he started with his brother Martin in 2014, solves a problem for businesses, particularly purchasers, by giving them access to commodity pricing in one place. By breaking down products into individual commodities, the portal can enable companies to understand how price fluctuations can impact their own product pricing.

But getting the datasets has not been easy. Gross admits that the company uses a mix of open, free and subscription data, but it is French customs data that has formed the backbone.

“Through our initial searches we discovered some very interesting data sets, one of them being customs data sets,” says Gross. “We are always trying to aggregate more data in our portal and this is one of the biggest challenges. Some price reference indexes are key to certain industries and they are controlled by large firms who charge a lot of money, so it’s hard to get space in this market.”

Despite this, CommoPrices is carving out its own space. It currently runs more than 1800 data indicators across 180 countries, over 10 commodity sectors, and while its strength is in the French market, through partnerships and data deals it has managed to break into new territories.

“You need bridges,” adds Gross. “To get business proof for a region you need relationships with suppliers and then try and create a waterfall effect using their relationships in other countries.”

Gross say this is essential as the company can be “constrained by which data sets are available locally.” And there is not always equivalent data in each country.

The company covers Western Europe with its current data sets but it is currently looking at expanding into Eastern Europe where Gross believes relationships and partnerships will be key to success.

It’s a view shared by Jeremy Mabbit, co-founder and MD of Sickly, a child illness data site and app for schools and parents. Although the company’s heartland is the South East of England, more specifically Brighton and Hove, it has designs on spreading nationally and ultimately internationally.

“We have partnered with a French epidemiology public health company,” says Mabbit. “It thinks Sickly has uses beyond the UK and is keen to help us expand in Europe, and also in the developing world.”

Sickly’s immediate challenge is to get critical mass in the UK. Mabbit didn’t want to divulge numbers yet but says the site now has “a fair spread across the country.”

He says schools get it, understanding that busy school offices can save time and money on admin. For parents, it’s about ensuring it’s as easy to use as possible to make it more convenient than the traditional pupil absence hotline.

“A big school can save several hours a day from running what is effectively a mini call centre, taking calls and typing data into a system,” he says, and it’s this data that is growing, open and rousing a degree of interest from public health organisations.

“We want to create a virtuous circle,” adds Mabbit. “We have the backing of the Open Data Institute, and we are pushing the data into public health bodies. Schools are not interested in open data but public health organisations are and we are looking to kick off several data projects across a number of regions.”

Mabbit says that Sickly is building an open data map of child illnesses and while this was not the primary function of the business it is certainly an aspect he is keen to develop. He is aware that relationships built on two fronts, an open data one and a schools one doubles the chances of breaking into new territories more quickly.

As a creator of open data, Sickly has different challenges to CommoPrices, which is essentially an aggregator of existing data sources. Yet both are taking similar routes to expansion, albeit slowly. Maximising their own local markets first has to be the priority and then building regional partnerships to open new doors and understand the nuances of regional variations in data consumption and data provision.

“It’s true that there are limitations when expanding,” says Gross but like Sickly, CommoPrices is not being deterred and shaped by what is not available in terms of data or competition. It’s about staying true to the idea and finding the data or creating the data to make it work. If the idea is good enough, it will grow.

(This article first appeared on The Guardian)