We can look to the UK for a case study of how a government agency, after several tries, couldn’t build a user-friendly data product, creating a giant opportunity for a for-profit data company.

The story begins with a regulatory agency called the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) that among other duties, registers and regulates financial advisors and advisory firms. The FCA has a searchable database on its website, but like so many government websites, it is optimized for one purpose: checking the registration status of a known individual or firm. As a tool to assist you in identifying an advisor to help you with your investments, it’s pretty useless.

In recognition of this shortcoming, the FCA called on a quasi-governmental organization called the Money Advice Service (MAS) to help build a better adviser database, and MAS accepted the challenge. I took a look at this website when it first launched, and though I saw some design issues, it had potential.

But even though MAS nominally had the freedom to build a creative database with almost any business model behind it, its need to avoid controversy ultimately resulted in a very limited and timid product. And when, unsurprisingly, there wasn’t a lot of revenue to be had with such a product, MAS buried the database three levels down on its website and moved on to greener pastures.

With two free databases of financial advisers out there, you think there wouldn’t be much opportunity left for anyone. However, a company called Unbiased saw things differently, and said there was indeed an opportunity … for the right product.

Unbiased has been a big hit in the marketplace, and the way it differentiated itself from the free government services with the same basic listing data holds lessons for us all

  • Greater visibility – Unbiased wants to be found because its business model depends on driving lots of traffic to its participating advisers
  • Deeper data – ratings, discount offers and detailed profiles
  • Strong user interface – clean, inviting design and both parametric search and a custom matching service         

If you have ever wondered how you could compete against a free, government online database, Unbiased provides the answer: data presentation can be as valuable as the underlying data itself, particularly if you are serving a consumer market. And aggressive promotion of your online database will let you run circles around government agency databases, that are generally hard to find in addition to being hard to use.