In this interview we’re going to find out how a tattooed do-gooder created an upstart map company that’s taking companies and customers away from Google.
Eric Gundersen, is co-founder and CEO of MapBox, which makes it easy for anyone to design and publish custom maps. I invited him here to talk about how he built his company
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About Eric Gundersen
Eric Gundersen is the CEO at MapBox which makes it easy for anyone to design and publish custom maps.
Andrew: Hey, there freedom fighters. My name is Andrew Warner. I am the founder of Mixergy.com, home of the ambitious upstart. Oh, and do I have an upstart for you today. In this interview we’re going to find out how a tattooed do-gooder created an upstart map company that’s taking companies and customers away from Google.
Eric Gundersen, is co-founder and CEO of MapBox, which makes it easy for anyone to design and publish custom maps. I invited him here to talk about how he built his company and my friend, Scott Edward Walker, of Walker Corporate Law is, basically, funding this interview because he is my sponsor. Later on in the interview I’ll tell you why if you’re looking for a lawyer and you’re in the tech space, you’re running a startup, you have to at least consider Walker Corporate Law, but first I have to welcome, Eric.
Eric, welcome buddy.
Eric: Hey, thank you. It’s great to be here on the show.
Andrew: I say take customers away. One of the famous ones is Foursquare. Do you remember what happened, how you ended up getting Foursquare as a client?
Eric: Yeah, no. It was 1:30 in the morning on Sunday. I start the week off a little early working late night before Monday. Yeah. Foursquare hit up on twitter. Hey, does anybody know anybody with a map box? I replied. I was, like, hey, I didn’t know he was on Foursquare at the time. I opened my email address. 10 minutes later, emails in, hey, I’m sure you’re getting a lot of these notes these days, but we would like to talk about what it looks like to add custom maps to our application. Within five weeks Foursquare had switched over.
Andrew: Wow. That’s one of the more famous cases. There was a reason why that was starting to happen. It had to do with Google. We’ll get to that later on in the story as we hit through the narrative. One of the things that I notice about you is you are tattooed. You are just a casual guy.
You can hold your beer. You can hang. I didn’t realize you were running a successful company at all until you were hiring, basically, everyone that I met when I was living in Washington D.C. At the time the company was still boot strap, right?
Eric: Yeah, no. We grew this from 50 bucks on the table to a team of 30 people. We didn’t take outside funding until October.
Andrew: October of 2013? Roughly, what size revenue did you get to before you decided to take some funding?
Eric: It was a little over four million.
Andrew: Four million dollars? I say that you’re a do-gooder and the reason I called you a do-gooder is I like to go back to the internet archive. I like to see who I’m talking to even though you guys develop beautiful designs. That’s what MapBox is about. That’s what you guys were about when you created your consulting company, developmentseed.org, which by the way .org.
Even though that’s what it’s about the first version of the site didn’t look that beautiful, didn’t have that much on it, but it did have a mission statement on there. It did have a purpose. We’re going to help who? What was the do-goodery about this consulting company that you launched?
Eric: The reason the site didn’t look good was because I was still the main designer at that point. No, seriously. My backgrounds all economics. Specifically, international development. We started Development Seed 10 years ago to help international development organizations better leverage data.
The company started in the hills of Peru. There you were. It was 10 years after the war had ended. There’s a lot of NGOs trying to help out, specifically, in the [??] sector. There we were looking over what, Howard Dean, was doing. Sure enough, Deans, developing open source offer. We were taking that open source offer and starting to customize it, put in Spanish, and let these NGOs better publish about the work that they were doing.
Andrew: What was the open source software?
Eric: Druple [sp].
Andrew: Druple. You saw that Druple was being developed and said, “Look, you guys need to publish data online and Druple is a platform.”
Andrew: Okay. That was what your focus was on do-gooder organizations on data and on Druple.
Eric: Yeah. While it started in the hills of Peru with these really small organizations, real quick we were building out tools for World Bank, UN. We built out data.worldbank. We opened out open.undps, by putting massive amounts of economic data. As you can imagine a lot of this data was Geo focused, right. [??]
Andrew: But before you get into the Geo focus, and I know that was the transition. That suddenly putting data on maps and making it digestible via beautiful maps made the data more accessible and that’s what led you into mapping, which is what MapBox is.
At the very beginning when you’re talking about working with non-profits they barely have any funding. They barely have any money. How do you make any money by creating sites for them on Druple?
Eric: Yeah. Well, at first you don’t.
Andrew: Just from the kindness of your heart you wanted to help them?
Eric: No. Well, at the time, yeah. We actually tried to start Development Seed as a non-profit. We couldn’t. It was such a pain from the IRS to get non-profit status. I didn’t want to be writing grants. I wanted to be building software. We scrapped the non-profit route and just started charging for sites.
You know, when you’re starting something, you’re just building up your portfolio. My background wasn’t coding so I had a lot to learn as I was finishing up school and right after school. Literally, I was making money during the days as a bike messenger, work four days a week and then on Wednesdays, Saturdays, Sundays and then every night, I was developing.
Andrew: That’s when you developed sites.
Eric: Yeah. Then we started gaining traction. I started having to have meetings during the week with certain customers, so I could drop the bike couriering and picked up the bartending job.
Andrew: Oh, that’s why you became a bartender at night and during the day you were able to meet clients.
Eric: We didn’t make any money. It took us two years to build up enough of a foundation where we could start making enough money to go “full-time” as opposed to full-time.
Andrew: Can you tilt the camera up just a bit? I think we’re cutting off the top of your head. There you go. Then, you work your way towards the World Bank and other big organizations. How do you get them? Can you give me an example of one of the toughest clients that you got, and walk me through how you turn them from a stranger to a client?
Eric: Again, this is 2004, 2005. People were just starting to talk about open source. The stuff I had to write into contracts at the time to make people feel OK about it was absolutely insane. It was also interesting how you get on procurement. That stuff really takes a while. People would look at our work, and see how we were developing code in the open and were just like, “This stuff is so much better than the old-school proprietary systems.” Bit by bit we started getting small contracts. You take your chances. You do what the equivalent is of a month’s worth of work for a $5,000 project and get a logo.
Andrew: It was the open source aspect, the fact that you showed publicly what you were building that helped lure in the bigger clients.
Eric: Absolutely. We were able to outrun legacy enterprise systems, just because of how stodgy that was. At the time, Drupal was more of a framework. Since then it’s turned into more of a fat content management system, yada, yada, yada.
Andrew: Before we started, I mentioned the word Drupal and you said, “Ugh.” What was the “ugh” about? This is what you built your business on in the early days, but it became what?
Eric: We largely got out of the Drupal space because of software development philosophy. Drupal started becoming a lot less of a framework and a better modular framework and going into a much more heavy platform for developing CMSE stuff. CMS websites suck. I wanted to be able to build out an election monitoring platform and put in a lot of data into something that makes sense. Very early on, a lot of our work took a heavy data focus. Drupal ended up being the wrong tool for the job to be able to scale like that.
Andrew: What do you mean when you’re talking about election work that you’re doing? I know that you told our pre-interviewer that you were working on ballot stuffing. This was in Afghanistan, 2009. How does working on Drupal connect at all to being in Afghanistan and helping with the election?
Eric: People knew us some for Drupal work, but people really knew us for doing data visualization and telling stories with data and helping these organizations put that data out there in a more consumable way. At the time in 2009, we happened to be working on a project in Pakistan, another international development project. In the election, big presidential election in Afghanistan, at the time, I just started going south. About a week after the election, the results started coming back and they start looking weird.
We got a call-up from some of the folks that we just know in the space and they were like, “Hey, could you come in and take a look at this?” So I was only an hour and a half south at Cabo. I hopped a one way flight and there was this stack of 2,500 page PDF of data. And nobody could really see what was going on in that data. So what we did was we ripped it out of the PDF and published it in a way that allowed in country experts, election experts, to start drilling in and messing with the data. Let me see who voted for Karzai versus who voted for Abdullah [???] ethnic underlay there. And this actually had context the way [???] things were, I mean a lot of the more traditional, proprietary map companies they had, I mean Kabul was a crossroads of a highway. That was it.
There was no other context to the country, let alone official international boundaries. So I went over there to help use the concept around visualizing the election data, but real quickly you needed other data to add context to that. What are the official boundaries? Where are the polling stations and what not? So a lot of my work in country over two elections, it was drinking a lot of Diet Coke and tea and getting USB drives slid across the table with certain sets of data that we would then clean. The data expertise at [?] during the consulting days was huge, and then the product expertise was too.
Andrew: I’m sorry, I want to make sure to understand it and sometimes just seeing an example helps me really visualize what you’ve been working on. So, if you’ve got this 2,500 page PDF and you needed to put it into some structure that would make sense for people. Could you give me an example of what you did? Maybe, since we’re talking about mapping, how putting it on a map made the data more meaningful and useful?
Eric: [??] So we had the results and then we got the geo-locations for the polling centers.
Eric: And very quickly we’re able to start running queries once we got the data out of the PDF and freed up. For example, what polling centers got 95% votes to a single candidate? Or, what polling centers had 600 ballets? 600 ballets is an interesting number, it’s 100% ballet submission. So you think about a ballet box, what are the odds that that single ballet box has 95% of all votes for one candidate or is 100% full?
Eric: These are potential fraud criteria. Now in a place where you saw major ethnic voting trends happen, it really is just a criteria. It’s not necessarily showing fraud, but you would literally walk into certain, you would be able to zoom down into certain areas and see these huge glowing red dots. And you click on one of those dots and it will pull up a listing of all ballet boxes in that polling center, in that actual building, and you’re looking at 600 votes, 600 votes, 600 votes, I mean they’re all to one guy.
Andrew: I see. Every single person is voting, and every single person is voting for one guy. Either he is THE most popular person on the planet, or maybe we got a situation here where there is ballot stuffing and that’s what you were doing. Who pays you for that?
Eric: State Department, U.S.A.
Andrew: You know at the top of the interview I said that you were a tattooed do-gooder. And I did it to add some texture to the interview. You really do though have tattoos. When you, did you have them at the time or when you have this look of yours that doesn’t really come across on camera at this moment, but when you do and you’re in Afghanistan, what does that look like to the average person there? How do they react to you?
Eric: Most of the time in Afghanistan, I was not rolling around with a T- shirt on and people weren’t actually seeing my sleeve out. But it was, I mean, from the courier days it wasn’t anything big. I was always intimidated by some of the bike messengers when I was growing up.
Andrew: Because they did… but when you were in Afghanistan, so I actually had some friends when I lived in Argentina who were Indian, people would come and talk to them about Gandhi all the time, like Gandhi is there best friend or I don’t know what. Olivia was really blonde, my wife, and people would come talk to her because it stood out. When she lived in Micronesia she stood out. You get a different experience when you’re in a country and you’re looking drastically different from the locals. Did you have any of that?
Eric: In Afghanistan, absolutely not. I mean, I was in international land there.
Andrew: I see.
Eric: You’re sitting in, half the time you’re in an armorized car traveling between [??] and U.N. buildings, or going into government buildings. You know you hear, [??], I mean, the first time I was in country there was like the most violent week since the end of the war. So it was always a high degree of security and you’re always hanging out with internationals working with locals that were very westernized. So I did not get to enjoy the culture like I did in a lot of other places. Which was very unfortunate. I think that’s a problem, not just in a conflict zone like Afghanistan, but in a lot of other international development places. Too often you’re segmented from what’s really going on.
But then again, in the case of Afghanistan our job was really straight forward. It was to help out election observers better leverage data. You know, you change on a place by place. If we’re mapping [??] in Africa or starting to source certain GO data in prep for this day on election. We would hop into some pretty interesting places. And most of the time we were able to work very closely with folks on the ground. And a lot of the time with aide that’s putting on a suit. Nice thing now is that I don’t wear a suit anymore. I’ll tell you that.
Andrew: You wear the NASA t-shirt a lot.
Eric: Yeah, I do actually.
Eric: Rocking it today. Space is awesome. Now what NASA’s doing is amazing. I mean, I’m talking a little bit about what we’re doing in Afghanistan, opening up data. But just in general the larger open data play that the US Government does is spectacular. And what NASA does. And we take a considerable amount of satellite imagery.
Andrew: From the government?
Eric: Yeah, satellite imagery, airplane imagery. U.S. Government is amazing. They’re open data policy is do whatever you want with it. And so we take the raw data and process that into imagery and made Cloudless Atlas and just really processed some gorgeous base maps from that.
Andrew: Let’s just be clear about this. I often say, “You guys make open street maps more accessible.” But it’s not just that. Open Street Map is like Wikipedia is to Encyclopedias. It’s not complete yet and it’s not yet on the level of competing with Google. You correct me when I’m wrong, but I want to make sure I’m understanding it. You take that and you add layers of government data and then you talked about earlier, Cloudless Atlas. Which is you’re looking at satellite data that comes with nothing but clouds and you’re able to go through the clouds using your technology and see what’s underground underneath it and that’s more data that goes into your maps in addition to what I over simplified by saying is open street map. Am I right? Or correct me actually. I’d rather be [??].
Eric: Pulling up a little here. What MapBox does is we are a platform for designers and developers to make custom maps. And that means having a set of data to your point. And one of our main data sources is Open Street Map. Open Street Map is almost like a bad name for the project. It should almost be called open street data. Because the map in Open Street Map is really designed to help people go in and edit the data. What we do is we take that raw data and then combine it with other data sets, process it, clean it and put it up in a format. They can start using our platform and out tools to then design totally custom.
So then in the case of Foursquare.com, you can go in there and look for a coffee. That’s their exact color palate. Their exact icons, certain label placement for neighborhoods. That works really well for Foursquare. Go to Pinterest. Pinterest they want a strong font. They want a really clean map. So they were able to design something totally different. Financial Times, they wanted our satellite map, our Cloudless Atlas, to be able to pinpoint where the nuke plants were in Iran and then have the labels all in their font.
So it’s a combination of brand and then also just strategy. Brand starts to become a strategy. Github was able to switch over their ten plus million repos to less than a hundred lines of code. And what does their map look like? It’s clean so that when you throw away the [??] to Github, you initialize it on top of it. So people are using us for all different kinds of maps.
Andrew: You know, all this stuff just feels so overly, not overly, very complicated and techy. You told me your background was economics. How do you then once you have this vision for taking data, turning it into maps that people can customize, and easily add to their sites? How do you do it? How do you turn it into a product?
Eric: Yeah. That’s a good question. Companies like Apple showed that it’s hard. Being able to one source data but then bring it in in a way that you can conflate it in a smart way and then have tools to design it and publish it. This stuff has to be fast. We have to be as fast as Google everywhere in the world on any device. That’s an incredibly tall…
Andrew: So how do you do it? You’re not a developer yourself. Who on the team became your developer to lead the other developers in the other work?
Eric: Very quickly, we’re all engineer-driven. We got a sales guy in December, but that was…
Andrew: Before that, you were the sales guy?
Eric: Yeah, I obviously still get to do a little of that, which is a lot of fun, but yeah, no, it was all swipe a card and go. We’re totally developer- focused and that level-
Andrew: So then how did you hire your first developer as a real developer?
Eric: I was a fake developer obviously.
Andrew: What do you mean?
Eric: Well, I was building sites. I was designing sites, working on the front-end and we were standing this stuff up. People saw our work and saw how we were taking this open-source project that they like to work on and leverage it for NGOs, and they were just like, “Hey, I would like to have a little more purpose in my work.” Very quickly, we just started hiring up a pretty hard-core tech team on that. We’ve just always had this insanely technical team. Then MapBox basically spun out of the consulting. Now Development Seed is all on its own now and it’s just crushing it under awesome new leadership of the Insure [sp] team, but a lot of us went on to continue to focus on low-level platform work.
Andrew: Well, here’s what I heard about when you were at Development Seed. You’re a hard-driving person. If you’re making money, you’re driving it right back in the business. You keep re-investing and hiring people as opposed to pocketing the profits. And that meant, and we talked before the interview started about whether you felt comfortable talking about this publicly and you said sure. What it meant is there were times where you couldn’t pay salaries, right?
Eric: Technically, we never missed payroll.
Andrew: But how close?
Eric: Two hours.
Andrew: Two hours. So how did you, when you had two hours to go to make payroll, where do you get money quickly?
Eric: In 2007 and 8, not to the banks.
Andrew: So what did you do?
Eric: The financial crisis was bad. We made it.
Eric: The check cleared.
Andrew: Oh it was another client’s check?
Eric: A $35,000 check cleared two hours before payroll needed to be processed.
Andrew: And then you were able to do it. And the reason you felt comfortable taking it to that level is I feel you have swagger. You believe that if you needed to, you can go out into the world and find a client and bring in revenue.
Eric: Yeah, I mean, we never took a dollar, we never pocketed a dollar from DevelopmentSeed. The entire project was designed-
Andrew: No, but what do you do to get a client if you need it?
Eric: Our goal was to build a great platform to create impact. And real quickly, you realize that going through more of the traditional NGO space, that’s not how you do it through the consulting. So we quickly started building out our core product and open-sourcing a lot of our key components to have greater impact as a team. And then, we tried [??] pricing so it made sense for us to create more efficiency by taking a product-driven approach to this stuff. So literally every project we’d get, we’d try to get as many similar projects as possible, so we’d make massive margin. I was just really good at spending that margin on team. So every time we had extra cash in the bank, we had…
Andrew: What do you do if you needed to get a client within seven days because you were close to not making payroll? What would you have done back then to get a client? And then I’ll get back to MapBox. I want to know where the swagger comes from.
Eric: I don’t know. You just hustle.
Andrew: What does that mean? You must have a process for hustling. I know, in my space, it would be, “You know what? I’ll just send an email out for something and sell it.”
Eric: We would never respond to request for proposals. Our entire approach was aggressive communications by showing off what we actually did. Personally, I’d be blogging a lot about…
Andrew: So if you need to bring in a client, you’d go and blog quickly about something.
Eric: We’d take a certain angle. If we wanted a client or if we wanted a sector, rather than go hot and heavy on them, you put out a couple blog posts and real quickly they start looking at you.
Andrew: What’s a good example of a blog post that got people to start looking at you?
Eric: I’ll tell you, after Tim Berners-Lee presented our Afghanistan election mapping at TED, that got a lot of people to look at us.
Andrew: I see. Okay.
Eric: That totally changed the space for us.
Andrew: The Afghanistan data was shown on open street map, right?
Eric: Open Street Map, combination of various…
Andrew: Okay, and that starts getting you into the idea of mapping and helps you start creating this product so you’re no longer on an hourly basis with your clients. You’re creating a product, am I right?
Andrew: So then it’s time to start getting clients. What’s the first version of that product look like that, the one became a standalone product away from the development consulting company?
Eric: Yeah, we pushed it into the product space in the past. We built an Internet app called OpenAtrium. That just helped us better communicate as a centralized team. We built a news aggregation map called ManagingNews. We sold both of them, and then it help drive more future investment into [??] where ultimately it became MapBox. Yeah, the very first incarnation of the MapBox product was a design studio called ]??]. And together thanks to [??] News Foundation they kicked in, I think it was something like $74,000 and our team put out this tool that allowed you to design a gorgeous custom map. And we had no way to monetize it. Yeah, and it was great for us. It helped out our designers. We were able to go in and start making custom maps and that’s where we made money.
Andrew: Using your tool.
Andrew: Okay. And who paid for it? What was his name?
Eric: The News Foundation. So the [??] News Foundation is an amazing outfit. They’re kind of like grant-based [??] in that they take equity and they, man, they invest in the non-sexy part of sexy projects. They saw a potential in the mapping space early on. They very quickly see major potential in history maps. They would give us $575,000 18 months after our first product went out to just go in and build a new editing interface for history maps.
Andrew: They would just give you the money. They’re not taking a share in your business. They’re not asking for it back with interest.
Andrew: They’re just giving it to you because this needs to be seen in the world.
Eric: They did both. In our case how we were pushing it along was less about the custom business.
Andrew: Okay. All right. So you put that out and it’s not yet a product that you . . .
Eric: We couldn’t monetize it.
Andrew: You could not?
Eric: No, but you see you can make maps with it. And there very quickly became a need to host maps at scale, right? Because everybody’s expectation is that the stuff is always going to be online [??]. You need the same sort of architecture for that. So we were heads down at building up our cloud format that allowed YouTube to take the maps that were designed for our software and upload them into the cloud. And then build an API around that. Very quickly we started building around services so that people don’t have to think about this. They don’t have to think about going to get over like a half a terabyte of data from a local street map. That’s like, I want to go to Home Depot. That doesn’t work. I know you want a solution.
And so we’ve built up a product where it’s like, “Hey, you go here and you get quick access” or you can go right there and start designing. Then click save and click upload. It shows up here. You’ve got a URL and like I said, again, it was hundreds of lines of code.
Andrew: How long did it take you to create that version?
Eric: So it was four months after we launched the open source design studio. We announced paid hosting. It was very expensive because we didn’t really have our cloud architecture to a scalable point. But by the end of year one, we had a couple hundred paid subscribers on small accounts.
Andrew: How small? What were you guys charging at the time?
Eric: Right now accounts go anywhere from $5 a month to $500 a month.
Andrew: Or you plan to, but back then?
Eric: Yeah, we couldn’t. It costs us money for every account. We couldn’t turn it down. Our first pricing was . . . We could only charge $500 a month because it was costing us $250 a month to run the infrastructure per customer regardless of whether they used it or not. You’ve got to get out of the gates first. You’ve got to be scrappy. You’ve got to know . . . We know that the architecture is good, the way we need to be architected to be efficient. But we know it’s going to take another four months to do that. Let’s get out there and start selling something that is scalable and fast. But just because it’s not profitable you can engineer yourself out of that. That’s what we did.
Andrew: Why didn’t you say, “Hey you know what, Google’s got this. They own the space. No one needs another map.
Eric: Because it wasn’t true. The way we were working, traditional mapping providers just weren’t motivated to invest.
Andrew: What did you see that Google was missing?
Eric: In a lot of the places we were working to help engineer the data, entire cities were just crossroads of highways.
Andrew: I see. But then you could still Google to get to them.
Eric: It’s great. I had a business to run and it helped out.
Andrew: And you can just do it right now, and if you could do it right now there was pay.
Eric: I had an amazing set of data in places nobody cared about very early on.
Andrew: I see.
Eric: And it wasn’t the setup that we had that was most important, it was that you can add it. You know, again, the value of the street map is the fact that it’s a living data set and the value is really the community around it. Last month there were over 20,000 people that added data to the street map. So think about what commercial the provider could be able to pay for that. That’s crazy. So we really start investing and working with that community.
Andrew: The FCC . . .
Eric: And the design didn’t matter. That’s the other thing like, what Google has built is absolutely gorgeous. Their data quality is gorgeous. The map premise is gorgeous. The API is great. And they’re going to continue to invest in it. Their team is awesome. I have a ton of respect for their team. The map is designed for Google, right? Google needs the maps, needs that map as a chemist needs all the different services. The pressure isn’t so much on Geo. They don’t spend over a million and a half dollars, over a billion and a half dollars a year on a mapping division that isn’t a key critical asset.
And when you say every other company needs to own a map just like Google owns a map, and that means owning it no matter what data shows up, owning the style. You know, hey, you’re a pretty good runner, right?
Eric: All right. When was the last time you said, this morning I’m going to go for a jog on the highway.
Andrew: [laughs] Yeah.
Eric: I mean, I’ve never gone jogging on the highway. Why does the mapping application highlight the highway?
Eric: Oh, I see. You’re right. I use Run Keeper which uses the map that’s built into the iPhone. Why do I even need to see the highway? I see. I know I need to see it.
Eric: Do you want to see a train map to see hills and elevation data? Why are you looking at where there’s gas stations?
Andrew: I see.
Eric: Do you know where the water fountain is? Is you’re running or biking, do you want to see the trail if it was highlighted differently? Design isn’t just about brand. Design is strategy. We were in it early on back in the consulting days making some of these maps. We’d book the platform that put that degree of design control in the hands of designers and developers.
Andrew: All right.
Eric: So it’s not like it’s head to head competition. It’s more about having a base map. It’s conceptually a really different product than Google was offering.
Andrew: So FCC was one of your first clients.
Andrew: What did they want from you?
Eric: They had a tone of data that their chief geography officer, Mike Byrne, was crazy obsessed. You know what we do over at FCC? We auction off the lot of different things. So every time there’s going to be an auction, guess what? They start putting out a map on that. And you’re talking massive amounts of money. One of my favorite maps put out by FCC was their 3G dead zone area.
So all of us pay a tax each month to our cell phone providers. That goes to a fund to then help subsidize the certain areas of the country that are less connected.
Eric: It’s billions of dollars and then that money is all held by the FCC. And then the cable companies come and like get to bid on getting access to that free money to build out infrastructure. So the FCC started putting out these amazing maps. What’s the actual blog capacity? The dead zone capacity? This map is all the way down to these census blocks. We started seeing this shaded map of the U.S. all the way down to 8.2 million little census blocks showing who’s connected and who’s not. That degree of data visualization for such a large set of data covered the whole country. Tools haven’t been able to do that.
Andrew: I see it now, yes.
Eric: The FCC pushes that out there. People started tweeting about it in little details because RPI, you can do that little plugin that lets you hash to a specific spot on the map. People can zoom into an area and see on their ride home where they’re hitting a dead zone and start tweeting about that. When has anybody felt a connection to the FCC and what they do on a day to day basis? That reality of so much of what people are doing on the data side as a Geo component. We’re seeing that everywhere.
Andrew: I see. Actually I see it on your site. It’s on tiles.mapbox.com/FCC. Is that what you’re talking about?
Eric: Yeah, that our main account, right? So they built out, I think it’s FCC.gov/maps. Their entire mapping showcase is all powered by API. The same with DOE. Lighthouse for visualizing excess properties. During the famine in the heart of Africa two years ago at the UN General Assembly the head of U.S. aid was standing up with the big backdrop showing where there was less rain, where there’s militants occupying spaces, where there’s a limited amount of teachers because of that.
It’s crazy. People are telling stories with their data and that makes the data more actionable.
Andrew: So you get data from lots of different places. One of the places is U.S.G.S.
Andrew: How are you able to find . . . Actually do they just give it to you? Do just call them up and say, “Hey, I want some images. Can you send them over?”
Eric: Yeah, so the U.S. government in general has gotten a lot better about putting out APIs, and we’re able to download the data. The reality is some data is really, really big and imagery is huge. And so for U.S.G.S. that basically does the operational side of a lot of these satellites, and the U.S.D.A. which is the operational side of flying planes over the country. Every three years the U.S. government has a fresh snapshot of the entire country. They fly monitoring agricultural systems.
Andrew: They fly what?
Eric: They fly the entire country. The U.S.D.A flies all over.
Andrew: It sends planes to fly over the entire country so it can get images of the whole country, and that’s just available, and that’s how you get it without having to fly your own planes.
Andrew: Why doesn’t Apple use that, by the way? Apple has their own planes. Why are they . . .
Eric: You’re seeing certain companies starting to push more into buying some of their own fleet so they can do faster refresh times.
Andrew: I see.
Eric: And we’ve done this same thing. We’re mixing data just like everybody else is. Using the satellite, in this case, is a great example. We use a lot of U.S.G.S. and NASA data. At the same time we partner with Digital Globe, the largest satellite company in the world. So it’s all about being smart, about mixing data, and conflating data. And getting data is a full- time job. We literally send hard drives, these buffalo hard drives, these 16 terabyte drives, out to South Dakota and they come back. This is the ethernet. That’s how you move data around, so. You’re talking about terabytes and terabytes of data.
The eight data set which is the U.S.D.A.s aerial data set for the U.S. is, you know, 48 terabytes.
Andrew: Let me do a quick plug here for Scott Edward Walker. In fact, instead of me saying, “Scott’s the guy to go to” maybe we can give some legal advice coming straight from an entrepreneur. What advice do you, Eric, have for entrepreneurs who are trying to protect themselves legally, whether it’s to find the right lawyer to start off with? What to do to prepare for later on? What do you think?
Eric I think you need to find somebody that actually you can talk to. Honestly, having somebody on the relationship side has been the most important for us. We’ve gone to some of the bigger firms, and its, yeah, we have not been terribly impressed. You’ve got to find somebody that gets the strategy that wants to understand that.
Andrew: So now can you pick up your phone and call up your lawyer just to have a conversation and say, “Here’s what I’m thinking. Here’s what’s going on. Give me some feedback.”
Eric: Absolutely. I mean, the lawyer has to be smart about business, like the law is a transaction model. It’s the same thing. It’s like you don’t hire a designer to just design something pretty. You actually have to understand how the user wants to move through the app. Don’t go hire a lawyer that just knows law, that can write something that nobody can understand. You want somebody to be able to transactionally help you.
Andrew: And that’s exactly why I recommend that you, at least, if you’re l=out there listening to me, you’re running a tech company or a startup. I think you should, at least, call Scott Edward Walker of Walker Corporate Law and consider working with him. I think you’re going to find after one conversation that he is one of the best and he is the person to work with. But I want you to decide that for yourself.
And, Eric, based on what you’ve said I say that Neil Patel, right on WalkerCorporateLaw.com says, “That’s one of the reasons why he likes . . . You can just pick up the phone, have a conversation with him, and he doesn’t have that ticker, that clock running every minute trying to see how much money he’s going to make from a phone call with you.
Sometimes you just want advice, just here’s where I’m going. What do you think? You know where I’m . . . You know the way I operate. What do you think of this decision I’m wrestling with? That’s the kind of lawyer I recommend. That’s why I recommend that you work with or at least contact Scott. Here’s his website: walkercorporatelaw.com. Do your research guys. I think you’ll find that he’s one of the best out there.
At the top of the interview, Eric, I said that Google did something that changed and brought more customers to you. That’s when they started to charge. That’s one of the reasons why Foursquare said, “Hey, let’s reconsider what we were doing,” right?
Eric: Yeah. Very early on, Google saw the value in the market and charging for their great product. Honestly, they came out a little high in their pricing and that gave us a price umbrella.
Andrew: So for a lot you were able to undercut them and also give a much more flexible product that’s easy to use and you got customers. Then, summer 2012, Google did what?
Eric: They cut their prices 88 percent in parity and let us [??]. Right now, there’s no price difference between using us and using Google. Quite the opposite, I may. Our numbers are that where 90 percent of our paying subscribers could be getting maps from Google for free.
Andrew: So why are they working with you?
Eric: Because they’re designing totally custom maps.
Andrew: I see. So Google’s other things that we talked about that are drawing them to you. You did though have a client who just before Google dropped their prices, you were starting to talk to. What happened there?
Eric: Big Data dropped their prices. We were just a couple of hours away from signing almost a million dollar mapping deal.
Andrew: And that goes away.
Eric: It didn’t go away. They kept using Google for a lot of their platform and just used us for a lot less. It turned into a much smaller contract.
Andrew: You’re smiling as you talk about that. I don’t want to give people the impression that you’re a guy that everything just comes naturally and easily for it. These are major blows. What do you do to recover from the blow?
Eric: Personally, I’ve been incredibly fortunate to be working with such a tight team for a long time. As painful as the bootstrapping process is personally, what’s been incredible is that we’re all still together, literally. Ian Wood, the guy that co-founded Development Seed with me in the hills of Peru 10 years ago, he’s now on the MapBox team helping probe out the core [??].
Andrew: In addition to running Development Seed?
Eric: No, he no longer runs Development Seed. Another gentleman does now.
Andrew: Ian Schuler.
Eric: Yeah, Ian Schuyler runs Development Seed now. What’s crazy about this is it’s employee number one, two, three, five, six, nine, we’re all still here, being able to push through projects together. Back in the consulting days, consulting’s horrible. Clients are horrible. You push through that together, you start getting a really tight bond together.
We faced some really hard times and would be able to get energized by each other. We continuously fed off each other’s energy and creativity when stuff gets hard. There’s a reason why our closest mapping rivals are several billion dollar companies. This is an expensive market to get into and it’s really hard.
Andrew: Let’s look at the big one. I was talking to Antonio from Silica Labs. “Help me understand.” He said, “Look, Andrew. You’re thinking just about Google.” But there are all these big companies out there that I realized from talking to him I’d never even heard of, like SRI, ESRI, right? That’s a giant company. You guys are competing with them for enterprise clients it turns out.
Eric: Correct. They’re privately held but they did around a billion dollars in revenue last year.
Andrew: A billion in revenue last year.
Andrew: When they talk to clients, how are their clients different from yours?
Eric: Again, it’s interesting. The geospaces had such a high barrier to entry that only the well-to-do enterprise folks have worked in it. What that means is, traditionally, enterprise has meant big. Big starts moving slowly. That’s just the way the world works. Now, you’ve got big enterprise folks that design certain key functionality of working with data. I mean [??] they do a lot of data analysis work, data collection work. But, you know where we complement that global process is we do a lot of design work and publishing work.
You look at making a map it’s really these four phases. You got to get data, and be able to clean up and work with it. Then you’ve got to be able to design with it, and publish it. You know we don’t walk around to people and be like, hey let’s talk about GIS, that’s the big term that everybody uses now. I want to talk about maps and mobile.
And we’re just going after a totally different market. I mean, I want our stuff to be inside of absolutely everything. I think a lot of some of the bigger companies have had such a lucrative sweet spots, that I think certain folks have missed out on actually larger markets.
Andrew: What do you mean? It sounds like what you’re saying is I want to focus on just being in all these apps. And as many as possible. But, you’re also thinking about going after the bigger clients that ones who spend so much money that ESRI can make billions too, right?
Eric: Yeah, but a company like ESRI really makes core software that you can, you know, start work with and not be…well, you’ve never seen ESRI on a Website have you?
Andrew: No, never heard of them before. If not for Antonio I’d be clueless still.
Eric: And it’s a quick…these are the guys that invented GIS and arguably invented a lot of core mapping software concepts. But, you’re seeing in the space is that on the core publishing side we can do a lot more and developers need a high degree of flexibility. The same reasons that on the Google side. Google’s an amazing base map and you’ve got a lot of people that works out great for. But, you have a lot of developers that need to control the data experience.
I mean Apple had a great slide [??] was 680,000 apps have a location focus. That is insane. And that means like a lot of these apps have a core value add of location. Well, if you’re providing a certain focus and the maps important context, you better own and control that experience. If that actually gives you comparative advantage. And that’s what’s really -
Andrew: Do I own the map, if I’m using MapBox or does MapBox own the map?
Eric: So you own the map, you own your own customization stuff.
Andrew: So once I stop paying then it goes away also?
Eric: Yeah, that’s Cloud service actually.
Andrew: All right. You grow the company. You continue to hire more and more people. How do you manage so many people?
Eric: Great question. Not traditionally. We are incredible [??] like we don’t do the title thing we work in very small [??] teams. Everything is managed on Getup. We don’t’ have an internet we have Getup which we buy [??] there a repo for that. There’s an office repo, there’s a business repo, there’s a sales repo. We don’t use email we use [??] to communicate about everything. And that degree of openness allows a lot of people on the team to have such good insight into the whole picture of the push. And that’s allowed us to scale culturally. We built up in size since taking funding in October.
Andrew: Because of funding?
Eric: Right absolutely. Yeah I mean that’s why we took it.
Andrew: Where did you hid…so actually I talked to I think it was Clay Collins from Lead Pages also took funding from a founder group.
Andrew: I think he used any of his money he was just growing. You did it specifically invest in the company and where?
Eric: Oh, team, the team.
Andrew: So, we used to hire more people.
Eric: Yeah, absolutely. As of right now the immediate modernization is not of interest. This is about building core platform. There is no question that maps and GO are going to be critical ball barring and polish absolutely everything.
Andrew: Heck yeah.
Eric: Right now we doubled our team size and that has been almost exclusively on the engineering side. This is never about hiring more sales guys to help us push on this. This is us building up…
Andrew: How owns the company? Its Founder group now and you and…
Eric: Other people on the team, I mean almost everybody on the team has an equality stake.
Andrew: Equity, not options but the actually own a share of the business.
Eric: Its options.
Andrew: Its options.
Andrew: Do you own more than 50% still? You personally?
Eric: I’m not going to actually talk about that.
Andrew: You’re not going to talk about that?
Eric: Any ownership structure, any valuation.
Andrew: Why not? I actually say you get a little frustrated there. I’m watching you because we have Skype I can see. That’s one of the questions where I feel like you felt like no, this feels too much.
Eric: Oh, definitely. No, no valuation like no we’re that’s something that has no need to be communicated. It never has been. We’re not running around the Bay Area talking about what our valuation is and stuff like this. What we’re doing is we’re building up a core, a core team and making sure making sure that when we win, we win together
Andrew: You had a buy-out offer, but you didn’t accept it. Did you feel at any point, I should have taken it?
Eric: God, no.
Andrew: Never? You could have been a millionaire. Cash millionaire.
Eric: The buy-out offers we’ve had have been from much more traditional companies. It’s just boring stuff. There is no reason to be short-sighted right now. We want to be inside of absolutely everything. I have no desire to be contained to a single platform or be a component to a single company. We really want to be the platform for all data to be able to roam through. The traction we’re getting in the drone market right now is amazing. Micro- satellite market’s exploding. The traditional satellite market’s actually trying to increase revenue. It’s an entire push. That’s just that data set. The mapping of Twitter data that we’ve done is phenomenal. The fact that we’re getting HD video down from space right now. We’re the glue layer that unites all these different sets of data. That’s a super-exciting spot to be in. Any decent company quickly stops getting acquisition offers. We’ve never seriously humored those.
Andrew: Never gotten to the place where you said, “Maybe, it’s time.”
Eric: No. We were always incredibly fortunate. The fact that we were bootstrapped allowed us to just keep our heads down and build it for a really long time.
Andrew: You took 10 million from Foundry, right?
Andrew: Why then?
Eric: Because they actually understand how the Internet works. No, seriously, Foundry Group is amazing.
Andrew: What do you mean? What made you say that they got it?
Eric: You don’t have a lot of associates. You’ve got people that actually understand EPI companies, that understand the B2B play and the inherent value that’s being made as a business-to-business person. I’ll give you little details. Ryan McEntire, who’s on our board and who I work closest with, and all the guys over at Fountain Group have just been incredible for us. The fact that Brad Feld and Jason, they go out and they publish their term sheet in a book is incredible. That’s great, that kind of openness. I’m sure many of the folks that are listening have engaged with certain folks in the VC space and the two main takeaways are one, a lot of people actually don’t understand how tech works. And two, some folks [?]] aren’t really genuine. Foundry Group is making a bet on taking…
Andrew: What do you mean? Who felt ungenuine? Without saying names, what makes you think they’re ungenuine?
Eric: There’s a certain degree of micro-managing going on. Like real quick early on, I remember one conversation. A guy was like, “So hi, what are you going to do with more money?” Number one, we’re going to hire more team. Number two, we’re going to get health insurance and increase compensation for the existing team. There are some other server and construction and whatnot. But boom, this is all going to be about dropping team. He said, “Well, cool, I look forward to structuring their salaries.”
Andrew: Oh, I see.
Eric: Excuse me? I didn’t have a board until October. We get this stuff done as team. Foundry Group’s amazing. They believed in us as a team. It’s a super hands-off group.
Andrew: I just clicked over to the Night Foundation article about how they funded you, and the excited face you had back then in the video.
Eric: That was huge.
Andrew: Huge. I’m thinking about how far you’ve come since then. Let me ask you one final question, which is a little inside baseball which means that you can be very open about it. I’ve known you for a while, not super close friends but we’ve known each other. I asked you for an interview 1 year, 1 month and 7 days ago and I felt like you just weren’t into it for some reason. Why? Be open. Blunt.
Eric: We have traditionally been incredibly quiet as a company. We’re not a household name and we’re never going to be. We really want to be this kind of ball-bearing. We like to describe ourselves as a window company, where a developer can come grab these off-the-shelf pieces and snap it together. Understanding that reality requires us moving a lot more. I just want to keep my head down and really keep running. And I’ll tell you, the last year has been incredible.
Most importantly, again, it goes back to the team. We’re going to win this one [??]. Our culture, you’ve heard me mention multiple times how tight the team is and how far back we go, and the stuff that we push on together, from [??] to being not tourist spots of the world. Culture now is stronger than ever. That’s insane for me to be able to say after doubling since October that our culture is now better, that’s awesome.
Andrew: What you’re saying is that you wanted to focus on work but you were going out, you were barbecuing, you were hanging out with people. This was specifically something you didn’t want to do. Not because you didn’t have an extra hour. My sense was you were onto something. You were growing really well. You didn’t want people to know the business side of things because why bring on the competition. What’s the benefit here? It’s not like you’re going to get new developers from doing the Mixergy interview but you might get some people saying “ah-huh this is what he’s up to” and that’s what you didn’t want.
Eric: Again, we just want to keep our heads down. We have been pretty selective about who we talk to. This space is complicated you know. To your point here who are these other players. I haven’t really heard of them. This is the [??] space. On one hand it is incredibly main stream because everybody uses Google Maps. On the other hand, nobody really knows how this stuff works and it wasn’t actually that apparent recently of how hard this was until Apple tried to do it themselves.
Andrew: I’d be honest with you. I knew it. I saw your blog post on Hacker News. I read it. I couldn’t fricken’ follow it until I talked to Antonio from Silica Labs. I said “Antonio, look, I have all my research here. I’ve done my homework. What the hell am I looking at? What is this?” He had to spend some time walking me through it. I totally get it, and I hope I did a good job here in this interview making it make sense for the audience, and I hope this won’t be the last time you are on here and congratulations on all the success.
Eric: Wow, thank you very much. It was just a lot of fun talking. Hey, now we are up to almost 20 people here in the San Francisco office in addition to keeping DC going.
Andrew: I know, you know what, that’s the other thing that surprised me. I didn’t even know you were here even.
Eric: Yea, we have to start following each other on Strava.
Andrew: Strava, that’s the app. They use you guys?
Eric: I use it for some stuff.
Andrew: All right, usually, I end it by saying people should find a way to say thank you to you. I think the best way to do it is to go to a barbecue. That’s one of the ways how I met so many people in DC still here in San Francisco?
Eric: We are having a DC barbecue in August. I think it’s like August 18th or August 20th.
Andrew: How do people do it? I think it’s very important that if you’re going to go out anyway for a drink with some friends just go to one of these events. What is a good way for people to find out about them?
Eric: Follow MapBox and Twitter and if you have any interest in following the barbecue specifics you can follow myself. It’s Eric G.
Andrew: Eric G is your Twitter handle.
Eric: Yeah. If I’m not talking about work I’m probably talking about running or barbecuing.
Andrew: Congratulations on all the success. Thank you so much for doing this interview. Thank you all for being a part of it. If you go to a barbecue, send me a photo. Maybe I’ll see you there. Bye guys.
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