15 Years of Gapyear.com

From napkin to social network

It's July 13th 2013 and gapyear.com has just turned 15. In internet terms, that is an incredibly long time, putting the the site at almost twice the age of Facebook. In that time it has seen many social media giants like Friends Reunited and Tagged.com come and go. It has watched Myspace go through a seemingly ever-repeating cyle of cool, to uncool, to cool again, and it has remained the first port of call for gappers researching and discussing gap years throughout.

In that time countless travel companions have met through the site, lifelong friendships have been forged on the message boards and there have even been a few gapyear.com marriages and babies.

In short, it is fair to say that gapyear.com has been a special part of a great many people's lives, over a long period of time.

For all of these reasons and more, I'd like to indulge in a little nostalgia for a few moments, to look back at the history of our site and celebrate our legacy. 

Launching a gap year website

The story of gapyear.com actually started a little over 15 years ago, when an ambitious young travel writer named Tom Griffiths met an equally young and entrepreneurial IT consultant named Peter Pedrick in a coffee shop in central London. A mutual friend had introduced them as Peter was considering travelling the world on a gap year and Tom had just written Before You Go, the book on how to do it.

As I understand it, the conversion quickly moved away from discussing Peter’s own potential gap year, and onto the fact that the gap year (as a concept) had no independent home on the internet. Between the two of them, Peter and Tom saw a ‘gap’ and realised that they might have the combined knowledge and acumen to fill it.

Tom’s book Before You Go had been highly successful, winning him Youth Travel Writer of the year in 1997, and creating websites and small IT-focused businesses was second nature to Peter.

A few hours later the pair emerged from that coffee shop with a bloodstream laden with caffeine and a business plan written on a napkin.

15 years ago today -- on July 13th 1998 -- the napkin-based concept became tangible and gapyear.com came kicking and screaming into the world (to paraphase Tom).

After launching and running the site on their own for over a year, the pair worked hard to raise the funds to grow their business and develop the site for it’s growing user-base.

In a flurry of activity, they raised the funds, upgraded the site, published another book, launched a magazine and an email service, and the site started to really take off.

Luke Plastow is one of a longest-running active members of gapyear.com. He joined the site in 2001 and has fond memories of the early days of the website.

He said: "I joined the site because at the time it embodied everything I wanted to do once I finished sixth form. It had advice, expertise and companions all in one place.

"Over the last 12 years the base of knowledge among the users and staff has grown exponentially. The main thing is that it has changed with the times and is as useful to me now at 29 as it was at 17."

My favourite moment from my time with gapyear.com is that it hosted my Europe Interrailing blog in 2006. That put me in touch with a lot of fellow users and convinced me to take writing and photographing seriously. Even today I am still writing and photographing for gapyear.com, so for that I thank you.Luke Plastow

My introduction to gapyear.com

When I met Tom and Peter almost a decade ago, I was a long-haired socially-awkward metalhead, who’d never left Europe, and hardly knew what a gap year was. I say that with only the tiniest amount of ironic self-deprecation; the truth is that I felt I was a odd choice to be working for a travel company, but I loved what the business stood for and when Peter offered me an opportunity to show off my web design skills on an internship, I jumped at the chance!

In those first few weeks I remember finding it strange how much Tom actually valued my travel ignorance. In retrospect I realise that it made me a good test subject for his many ideas. Fortunately, having no idea where Lesotho was didn't really affect my ability to design the site, and the guys seemed very happy with everything I'd done.

Six months later I'd finished my digital media degree and ditched my part time warehouse job at Currys in favour of a full time position as the Head of Design of gapyear.com.

In my time off, I was (am still am) a photography fanatic! I had signed up to the photography website Flickr within a couple months of it’s beta launch and become a heavily active member of it’s community from the start. Social media (or web 2.0 as it was called back in the day) was exciting and addictive, and this was something Peter and Tom had also recognised. We were all very keen to bring more of it to gapyear.com. 

Building a social network

In 2005 we set about laying the foundations of the community functions as you see them today and launched the first prototypes within a few months. The community was buzzing, the boards were growing quickly and the blogs and photos were rapidly gaining traction too. We were a young and ambitious team getting a kick out of enabling our audience to connect and share their travels.

With so few sites embracing social media in those early days, it's probably fair to say we did a good bit of learning on the job, but it felt exciting and innovative.

Sometimes we simply built systems we would want to use, commissioned content we wanted to read and very much took a 'build it and they will come' approach (fortunately they usually did)! At other times, we watched things grow naturally and built around them; in many ways the gapyear.com writer's academy evolved on it's own and we simply put the tools in place to manage it later.

How gapyear.com has changed over the years

Just for fun I thought it would be good to take a look back at how the site has changed over the last decade or so.

Sadly, some of the earliest visual designs of gapyear.com have been lost to obscurity, and many of the earlier versions we do have saved are missing images.

With those caveats in mind, I present to you, the evolution of gapyear.com:

1999:

gapyear.com in 1999

2001:

gapyear.com in 2001

2002:

gapyear.com in 2002

2003:

gapyear.com in 2003

2004:

gapyear.com in 2004

2005:

gapyear.com in 2005

2006:

gapyear.com in 2006

2007:

gapyear.com in 2007

2011:

gapyear.com in 2011

2013:

gapyear.com in 2011

Gapyear.com today, tomorrow, and next year

15 years on and our business is understandably more structured, but those early ideals and small business mentality are still central to everything we do.

I still get excited every time a great new piece of content gets added to the site, or when we help to enable a potential gapper to take the trip of lifetime. That's ultimately what gapyear.com has always been about. And though I’ve now travelled a fair bit myself, I still get that same buzz out of visiting places vicariously through the eyes, cameras and keyboards of our members. 

From the very start, Peter and Tom set out to create a holistic, youth-focused travel site, based on great content, with a community at its core. That’s very much the vision I bought into 9 years ago, and the reason I’m still here today, holding the torch as COO. In that regard nothing has changed, nor will it.

We've been working closely with some of our most passionate members over the last 6 months though and we do have some really big and exciting changes in the pipeline. I look foward to looking back again and reflecting upon them when gapyear.com reaches it's 'Sweet 16'.

For now, happy birthday community. Happy birthday past and present employees. And happy birthday gapyear.com.

Cormac Scanlan
COO at gapyear.com


What are your memories of gapyear.com?

We'd love to hear about your fondest memories of the site throughout the ages in the comments section below.

Have you ever made friends or found travel mates through the site? Has gapyear.com had a positive influence on your life?

What are your favourite moments from the history of gapyear.com?