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The Business of Web Maps

Overcoming Barriers to Building a Web Mapping Business

The guest on this episode is Jonathan Wagner, the CEO and co-founder of ScribbleMaps. What originally started as a hobby project, grew into a business. Scribble Maps is a web mapping GIS solution that has made it easier for non-geospatial professionals to create and share maps. It is quite difficult to build a business around web mapping, especially if you are seeking to build an alternative to established competitors like ESRI and QGIS, but Scribble Maps did it – and Jonathan shares some useful insights on.

What is Scribble Maps?

The initial version of Scribble Maps did basic map annotations. Users could create lines and place markers on a map. While these features could be found in other web apps as well, Scribble Maps spent time on a lot of optimization to make them work better than the others. Scribble Maps offers a mapping solution for non-geospatial professionals, without sacrificing quality or functionality. 

Barriers to Entry in Web Mapping

One of the hardest parts of web mapping applications is getting people in the door to use it; and then return to make maps on a regular basis. It is relatively easy to get people to make a map one time, but it is harder to get them to come back, making your product more difficult to monetize.

If there are barriers to getting visitors started with the solution, then it is less likely that they will begin to, or continue to use it.

Having a requirement for people to create some relationship with you before using your solution may reduce your audience. For instance, asking users to create an account before using an application may drive people away as they don’t want to commit to sharing their information, or simply spending the extra time setting up an account. Reducing these barriers promotes greater use of the app, and helps with retention.

Giving away free stuff also helps to bring a lot of traction to ultimately reach the 1% of users that would pay for features.

It may be useful to identify what the 1% are using already.

You can then try to give away some features for free but place limits on storage or on a certain number of products i.e. after 5 maps then a user has to pay to create more maps. Another option is using tiers for upgraded functionalities. Letting users view and share maps in your web app may be free, but allowing them to store the map offline, or encrypting data would require an upgrade.

Risk Of Alienating the Non-Professional Mapper

Many companies are emerging today with one goal in mind – to make it easier and simpler for users with no map training to be able to make maps.

One of the biggest pains for these companies is that in mapping tech, so much has been given away for free for too long to the point that its an expectation. If companies start charging for previously free features, people may not be willing to pay for them.

Some DIY users would rather spend hours trying to wrangle something using open source tools than paying for a single tool and saving time. This is another barrier to monetization.

A lot of these companies decide to add more features to bring professional mappers on board, who may be more willing to pay for tools. In this process, their solutions become too sophisticated, and their initial non-professional userbase is alienated.

Why is Abstraction Important in Web Mapping Businesses?

One of the biggest problems that start-ups face is deciding how much functionality they should expose to people. Non-professional mappers need to be able to make maps, but they don’t understand the language that the professional map makers use.

“Raster, shapefile, geoedatabase”, and even “Clip” or “Buffer” are all foreign words to them.

There is a lot of opportunity for start-ups that can abstract the mapping complexities away, while at the same time providing the tools and functionality needed to actually make a good map.

Google Maps is the most successful popular custom map maker on the planet, but no one that uses it considers themselves a cartographer.

The whole process has been so abstracted and simplified that the person does not even realise that they are, in fact, a map maker creating something with purpose. Google Maps has totally abstracted away all the complexity, and makes the process feel far more casual.

Hyper Contextual Ads

Wedding maps are one of the best examples of niche specific products for non-professional mappers. A niche specific product such as this has the ability to advertise in a way that other products can’t.

As a user designates where they will hold certain activities for their wedding, it provides information that can be used to show ads for location specific vendors. Having more effective targeted ads can mean fewer ads are necessary overall to cover costs, and gives the company more space to grow.  

Which Way – Web Map Product or Custom Services?

There is certainly a lot of value in custom services over a broader mapping product. As opposed to building a single service, building a product can be difficult, and it may take longer to get traction since there is uncertainty over things like which functionalities to include, and who to appeal to.

Building a custom service, the consumer participates in building the product, outlining their specific needs, and how they want to use the data.

In order to create a product, a company needs to really build up a critical mass of subscribers before they can have a sustainable flow of income. Compared to custom solutions, a company can always charge significantly more money on a contract basis than they could by trying to wrangle and keep subscribers.

Avoiding Convergence

The challenge of going up against companies that have been around for so long like ESRI and QGIS is that they have a had a lot of time to perfect the game. That is not to say that there are no other alternatives to these big names; there are, but most of them are quite similar.

The major providers are selling to the same market, and have evolved to solve a lot of the same problems in the same way. 

For new players entering this space, it would help to create an alternative that is different; maybe a more interesting, simpler way of doing something in fewer clicks. If something is done differently and better, there will always be people that prefer the alternative.

The Role of User Feedback

Many successful companies are driven by user feedback. Analysing user feedback can provide useful insights that steer a company towards success. Ideas for new features to be added to a product can be obtained from user feedback.

When deciding which features to add, a company should decide about its value, whether it will benefit a vast majority of users, and more importantly, whether they can make money from it.