Book of Odds, With Book Deal in Tow, Is Updating Website to Help Consumers Make Sense of Risks in Everyday Life

9/13/10Follow @xconomy

The Book of Odds isn’t betting its future on any one thing, and founder and president Amram Shapiro see that as one of its strengths.

“A lot of websites and startups are one-trick ponies,” Shapiro says. “Everything really has to work or pretty much they’re out of it. We think of ourselves as a 10- or 20-trick pony.”

Those tricks include a website, data service, gaming outlet, book franchise, and risk management tool (it’s just recently started working on the last three). Last year, the Boston-based startup came out of a roughly three-year stealth mode, to roll out its destination website. BookofOdds.com has close to half a million “odds” statements, based on data its staff has pulled from sources like government agencies and surveys. It frames each probability statement with the geography and time frame that the number refers to, the source of the data, and definitions of the terms within. A random example: The odds that a U.S. female 20 or older eats cheese at least once a day are 1 in 3.56.

Its content hinges on semantic technology, supplied by another Boston-area startup, Cambridge Semantics, which helps form relationships among a slew of facts and data. The Book of Odds then takes the information stored in the relational databases to populate its consumer-facing website with the odds statements. The semantic technology ascribes metadata—information about the data—to each statement, so the information within can be pulled apart and reworked for other statements.

Another fun factoid: The odds a female Internet user 18 or older will consider the person she is dating her boyfriend or girlfriend after three to five dates are 1 in 12.5.

As much fun as the random facts about subjects from food to death to dating can be, Shapiro sees his Web service ultimately as a source of measuring risk and a tool for connecting people with information to help improve their odds in areas of their lives like health, careers, and investing. So his team has been building a number of improvements to the site, in a closed beta version, designed to bring greater meaning to the numbers and sources it provides.

“It’s about taking our unique information, and making it very, very easy to find,” he says.

At present, the factoids are all accessible via a simple search bar on the company’s home page, where users plug in a key word (I used “cheese” and “boyfriend” for the statements above). They can filter their results pages through a number of relevant key words, the date of the odds statement, and the likelihood that an event will happen, but Shapiro hopes the impending improvements will give greater context and meaning to the often quirky statistics.

He gave me a sneak peek of the upcoming features, which he expects to go live on the site in a month or so. They frame the odds statements with more specifics, graphics, and comparison data. For example, under the healthcare umbrella, a user can search for the odds of a person getting diagnosed with cancer in a given year. Once they get that answer, they can drill down to find out how this number changes based on factors like gender and race. They can also adjust for specific types of cancers.

The odds statement will then appear in a visual, such as a bar graph, which the reader can use to contrast it against a different odds statement. For example, it can compare a white male’s odds of getting liver cancer to a black male’s odds of getting diagnosed with the same disease. The updated website will also connect users with content on how to lessen the risk, through things like user discussions.

Shapiro sees the company targeting several sectors where consumers are especially focused on mitigating risk and making smart decisions—namely healthcare, investing, careers, dating, and parenting. He says the company is first focusing its updates on these areas, and will be rolling them out through both the website and its specialized data sources for businesses.

The Book of Odds currently brings in some cash from ads on its consumer-facing site, but the majority of its revenue comes from business-to-business partnerships, where the company develops specialized content for customers in sectors like healthcare and technology. Shapiro says he’s hoping the site updates will improve both facets of the business, by building up the Book of Odds name and attracting greater website traffic. (The site’s traffic has been growing organically, from about 30,000 unique monthly visitors in January to 220,000 last month—which was not even a record month, Shapiro says). He’s also planning to work with businesses to license the content on their own corporate websites through widgets, polls, or even online quizzes and games, to take advantage of the increasingly massive social gaming trend. The company already has applications available on Yahoo and Google, and is working with the latter to develop an extension for its Chrome browser that could attach Book of Odds statements to content users read about on other sites.

Speaking of building up the Book of Odds brand, the company recently signed a $40,000 book deal with HarperCollins, to turn its Web-based content into hard copy, Shapiro says. The first book is designed to be a general look at its odds facts, with plenty of charts and colorful graphics, but future installments in the book franchise could look more closely at certain subjects like healthcare and relationships. The deal puts the Book of Odds in the category of blogs or websites- turned-books, like PostSecret, Waiter Rant, I Can Has Cheezburger?, and Stuff White People Like.

The startup has raised about $1 million over the last year from a number of individual angel investors, Shapiro says. It has not raised an institutional round of financing, but recently started working with the investment bank CVI Capital Holdings to explore financing models such as business partnerships, he says.

For Shapiro, the Book of Odds updates are very much about speaking to people in the language and concepts that they best understand. So, rather than just comparing the odds of getting one type of cancer to another, the site will be able to compare cancer stats with the similar odds of occurrences in all the other subject areas its statements cover. For example, the site can find that the odds of a white male getting a cancer diagnosis in a given year are roughly the same as the odds of someone getting murdered in the state of Georgia, a fact that would speak strongly to someone in law enforcement and help them better decide how to go about mitigating the risk or understand their chances of getting the disease.

“We want to teach people to think in a new way and get comfortable with these numbers,” Shapiro says.

The odds comparison data also can give businesses catchy and meaningful content to market their products and the need for it, Shapiro says. For example, the Book of Odds helped a software company find the odds that a consumer will experience the problem its technology is trying to solve. They took it a step further, by showing that these were roughly the same odds that a consumer will own an outdoor grill, to really emphasize the scope and likelihood. It’s a fact the software company uses often in its marketing strategy, Shapiro says.

“Numbers don’t mean anything to us inherently, so we help compare them to something we understand,” he says.

The Book of Odds website currently has articles and blog posts built around many of the odds statements and subjects, and the updated website is out to further engage users with forums that enable them to discuss how to improve, outsmart, or beat the odds. And ultimately, the more content that is added to the company database, through odds statements or user-generated content, will enhance the product.

“I think of us like a good stock option,” Shapiro says of the company. “An option is valuable the longer it can win and the bigger the upside. With us, we have many, many upsides.”

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