Creating A Startup in Bari at the Dawn of the Digital Age

What was it like to found an online company at a time when Google and Facebook didn’t yet exist? This is how Edilportale made a success of it.

In 2000, four construction engineers left their jobs to create Edilportale, a digital platform for the construction world. “There were 56k modems and the business plan was unpolished, but Gianfranco Dioguardi had faith in us.” 15 years later, there are now four platforms. And the main objective is now Europe.

Story by Maurizio Di Lucchio

What was it like to found a digital startup before Google and Facebook existed? One person who could spend hours talking about it is Enzo Maiorano, 43, co-founder of four web portals that have become a reference point in Italy for the community of professionals in the construction and design sector: EdilportaleArchiportaleArchiproducts, and Archilovers.

The story begins in Bari. The headquarters of the online platforms created by Enzo and his partners – Ferdinando NapoliMarilde Longo, and Maurizio Alfieri – is located here, in a 1,500 square meter open space which overlooks the sea.

“We all graduated within the same year, in 1998. And from 1999 to 2000, while we were embarking on our first professional experiences, we noted that the construction world was missing a single reference point for technical information as well as news and updates on products and companies”, says Enzo.

At the time, the internet was starting to gain popularity everywhere. And the challenge – thought the four co-founders – was to create this project online. “There were 56k modems and our business plan was still a bit unpolished, but we quit our full-time jobs, and called upon a few other friends to form a team of 7/8 people. We started looking for financing all around Italy and the person who believed in us most was Gianfranco Dioguardi, ‘luminary’ building investor who, after having glanced over our business plan for 5 seconds said “I’m in” and gave us an office and a small sum to start with”,  Maiorano recalls

Edilportale was born thusly, as a platform meant to serve as a meeting point for all the players of the construction world: construction companies, designers, and material producers. The market responded well: many companies and professionals were willing to spend relatively low sums (“the first contract we signed with a company was of a mere 500,000 lire”, says the co-founder) to be present on the portal and to promote their respective products or services. “It’s the business of the lead generation: companies paid us then and now to obtain the qualified contacts of an ever-expanding community of professionals where information regarding products, news from the construction world, and various insights are shared”.

The site was in constant growth. Thus, in 2005, Enzo and his partners decided to found a second portal: Archiportale, which focuses on Architecture and Design and which extends the lead generation model to this sector, as well. 

The number of product and information sheets collected from companies became so broad that failing to ‘utilize’ the database in yet another way would have been a shame. Thus, in 2009, Archiproducts was formed, a virtual expo where producers and artists could display their works, from concrete to design objects, translated in 11 languages to ‘conquer’ international markets. In fact, at present, the portal serves 30% of its users in Italy and 70% around the world.

The last step, created in 2011, is Archilovers, a social network with architectural and design projects where “instead of tagging friends, as you would on Facebook, you can tag products: a mechanism which is attractive to producers and which prompts many to become advertisers on our platform because only those who are part of the network can have their products tagged”.

The network created by the founders of Edilportale, who employ approximately 80 people in a headquarters which would fit in perfectly with those of Silicon Valley (some even use a scooter as the transit option of choice inside the structure), boasts 1.5 million registered users, 2.5 million followers on social channels, 46 million readers per year, and 3,500 client companies. With numbers like these, the company has become a top player in Italy, boasting a revenue of 6.5 million euro, with additional growth anticipated for the coming years especially since the launch of its new e-commerce in late 2015, as it begins to sell a number of products from the network’s companies.  Heavyweights like the American brand, Houzz, which represents one of its main competitors, today appear less distant than they were a few years ago. 

The first goal of 2016 is that of becoming even more international. The company wants to open a cluster in Berlin, and after in Paris and London. For financing, the idea could be that of a stock market listing, but without haste. “We’ve always worked with our own strengths, and have a 30% EBITDA: a healthy company, in short. “We’ll take these steps with leaden feet”.

To keep up on the innovation front, the company has considered experimenting with crowdsourcing formulas (“we’ve contacted the guys from Cocontest to talk about a possible collaboration”), to bring in architect “ambassadors” who recommend products to final customers and accelerate virtual and 3D augmented reality projects. “We’ve acquired a Finnish company, Sayduck, which has developed systems to make products virtual and to allow clients to visualize them in different spaces. Furthermore, we are working on the opportunities offered by tools like Oculus Rift to complete the buying experience for the user”, he explains. In other words, the team from Bari is working on a system in which, for example, a client could virtually visualize an armchair in his or her own living room and try out different sizes, colors, and characteristics. Then, should the user like the solution, it can easily be purchased…directly from the armchair upon which user is seated.