A little personal news… I’m joining the team behind Maptia. Actually, I’ve been working with them for a bit over six months but I suppose I’ve convinced them to keep me around at this point. This post is mostly about the why part of the story and it’s fairly personal. If you mostly want to hear the more concrete stuff about what we’ll be doing and when it’ll be over on Maptia where I’ll be writing a lot more often shortly (you can subscribe here).
So taking a step back; about a year and a half ago I started to realize that Storemapper, the SaaS business I had bootstrapped, was on its way to some degree of success. I’d just crossed $100,000 in annual revenue, so running the business by myself would yield a healthy income with all the perks of a location independent, recurring revenue, lifestyle business. I started thinking then about what I wanted to do next. Did I want to stay a one-person business? Try to grow Storemapper into a really big company? Start another software business and manage a portfolio of products? Or did I want to change course entirely?
I found the process of building a useful software product for happy customers to be a rewarding one. But it wasn’t the kind of thing I wanted to be my life’s work 1. I didn’t want to be the King of Store Locators or run an e-commerce app empire. I have always wanted to devote my energy to humanity’s most pressing problems and for much of my career that has been fighting climate change and accelerating the transition to clean energy. I knew I wanted to refocus on that.
As Storemapper continued to grow, I built an awesome small team who manage much of the day to day work, giving me more and more free time. So I spent most that year traveling and looking for something that was a uniquely good fit for me. Uniquely is the operative word. Kevin Kelly has this amazing quote in an interview where he talks about how there is another layer on top of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. There’s work that is valuable that people pay you for. There’s work that gives you meaning and fulfillment (the usual top of the pyramid). But there is the final layer, which is work that literally only you are uniquely able to do. It’s a ridiculously high bar but it’s what I set out looking for. Something to work on that would be valuable, meaningful, fulfilling, and at least potentially ( because you never really know) something I was uniquely the right person to tackle. It sounds pretty arrogant when I say it out loud. Of course, there’s never going to be one that you and only you can accomplish. But it’s a goal to strive for that leads you in different directions than just looking for meaningful work.
Many friends were very indulgent with me as I plied them with idea after idea. I carved out hours to compose long emails to old friends and people I’d never met, looking for something to really resonate. With a fairly passive income, for the first time in my life, I had an excess of time and the capacity to be very patient in looking for opportunities. I leaned into that, not jumping at the first idea, actively turning down opportunities that looked pretty decent but didn’t clear the high hurdle.
I had discovered Maptia the year before and instantly loved everything about it. The site was gorgeous. The stories were compelling and meaningful. The photography and contributors were world-class. It felt like something on a mission to do far more than accumulate page views.
I sent them a cold email in December of 2014 asking if there was anything I could do pro bono to help. I didn’t get a reply (sorry to throw you under the bus guys, it’s all love). Six weeks later I got a tweet apologizing for not getting back to me, and that was basically the end. Like so many other in that situation, the founders were working overtime just to keep up with their own work and constantly had to triage offers to volunteer, work together, grab a coffee, etc. I’m not surprised an out of the blue email was mostly ignored. In fact, I probably would have encouraged them to do just that.
All the while I kept thinking and looking for what was next.
I kept coming back to a central idea. I wanted to find a way to make an impact on climate change. My last big effort had been SolarList, a software startup aiming to make it much easier to sign up online for solar energy in your home. This was basically attacking the really horrible user experience for switching to solar. It was a good idea, but not one that I was uniquely, or maybe even particularly, equipped to build. We (my co-founder and I) did a great job building the product, launching it on a shoestring budget and getting excellent participation data. But the economics of the idea mandated we raise millions in venture capital and it turns out I was either not very good at pitching VCs or very unlucky. Probably the former. Either way, it was an instructive experience.
Rather than think about what was the way to have the biggest possible impact on climate change, I started working backward from things that would have an impact but also other people would not likely be already trying to do. I often arrived at the idea that we already had a lot of smart people working on the hard tech side of clean energy. We already had very capable people working on the policy side of things. The big obstacle that remained was obvious, public opinion was still far from united that climate change was both real and a thing that we should make our top priority. We had already seen the most epic attempt at conveying scientific certainty — a huge global multinational convention of scientists had all agreed by a huge margin that climate change was happening and would have very real consequences — fail to meaningfully convince a large portion of people. More scientific certainty wasn’t likely to change hearts and minds that weren’t already convinced.
The most insightful piece of commentary I have ever read on climate change comes from David Roberts, then at Grist and now at Vox.
We evolved to prioritize risks with faces and fangs, but climate change confronts us with error bars and probability distributions.
It’s true. It’s just hard for a certain kind of person to care about climate change when it’s all so probabilistic and science-y. What was missing was storytelling at the human scale. Stories of climates and habitats that are rapidly changing. Stories of migration and water issues as the harbinger of what could be our future on a far greater scale. Stories with faces and photos of those faces shot from eye level.
Three months, six months, nine months of spending most of my time reflecting on what was the most important thing I could work on and this was definitely it. I spent hundreds of hours reflecting, reading, learning, prototyping and pitching ideas. Should I build a way to fund journalists to tell these kinds of stories? Should I build an off-grid and edge-of-grid consultancy that would travel to areas where clean technology was already working and improving lives without any subsidies or government assistance? Should I just launch my own publication?
Meanwhile, Maptia kept publishing fantastic human-scale stories on clean energy like this one on rural solar electrification in Romania and this story of sustainable energy self-reliance in Scotland and this dispatch from Kiribati, an island nation that is almost guaranteed to be one of the first swallowed up by rising seas. I kept thinking “That! That is exactly what we need more of. Lots more of exactly that kind of thing.”
Just as I was getting ready to really move forward on one or more of my own ideas, the universe grabbed me by the shoulders, spun me around, and pointed me in a slightly different direction.
My girlfriend was on a year sabbatical and we were taking the year to travel. At the outset, she wanted to do a yoga teacher training somewhere and we settled on Ubud, Bali. We had been there before and I knew I could work from Hubud, an awesome co-working space that I’d spent a month working from the previous year. Six months later as we were heading to Bali I saw on Twitter that the entire Maptia team had also decamped to Bali. They were in Ubud, working from Hubud.
I introduced myself again. This time I wasn’t just a random cold email. We talked. Had a few dinners. Discussed the challenges they were facing. The site was amazing, the stories continue to amaze, but there were challenges.
After initially running through two startup accelerators (Startup Chile and Tech Stars) they decided that raising venture capital just wasn’t aligned with their goals. They didn’t want to sell ads or native ads or put stories behind a paywall. So they had no funding and no revenue and a huge workload. Nobody was getting paid. Everybody was freelancing on the side and living cheaply to pay their own costs and for the site’s servers. They wanted to build a team and to publish more stories. They wanted to actually pay decent rates to the photographers and writers who contributed stories. But everything required money that they did not have. They felt almost all the typical revenue models for a site like theirs would force them to either sacrifice the reader experience, betray the mission or just end up creating the kind of company they didn’t want to work in.
But holy hell were they talented. They had built from nothing — in a way that is still totally inexplicable to me — a roster of world-class photographers and storytellers who contributed stories to the site. They had taught themselves web design and built one of the most gorgeous sites on the web… one worthy of the photos and stories it contained. They’d taught themselves to code and built a powerful, scalable web platform. I was, and continue to be, blown away with what they had accomplished already and couldn’t ignore the obvious potential.
Doing my best to advise and help them met all of my criteria. I genuinely thought it had the potential to meaningfully make the world better by growing and telling more of their brand of stories to a wider audience. But I could also do so with zero financial motive. There wasn’t any prospect of getting paid or making some investment that would one day return 1,000x. That meant there likely wouldn’t be many folks with experience willing to genuinely dig into their challenges and give them honest unbiased advice. By that time my software business was earning far more than I was spending and I’d been able to pay off the last of the debt from my own startup fiasco. I was quite happy to just help, with zero financial incentive. So we had some productive discussions in Bali and got to know one another a bit. It wasn’t clear that there was a need for me to do much more than offer advice so I didn’t push for it. We parted ways in Bali and kept only briefly in touch over the next few months.
I continued to look at building something with a more specific focus on climate myself but every time concluded that Maptia was already a phenomenal version of what I could only hope to build after a few years of work.
In May of last year the interlocking web of catch-22s and challenges, and the grind of working like crazy for no money for four years, started pulling Maptia at the seams. Jonny, one of the founders, posted a heartfelt piece announcing he was moving on. Dean and Dorothy were still trying to freelance to pay the bills, take on the full workload of keeping Maptia running and find some sustainable way forward. I didn’t think I could “save” Maptia, but I did feel like if I wanted to work with them it might be now or never. We were wrapping up our year of travel and moving back to DC. A short stop in London and then we had our flight home. Dean and Dorothy were living in Bath, about an hour and a half from London. I booked a train ticket to Bath and emailed them to get lunch (yes, in that order). I made my pitch. I wanted to really work with them on the day to day stuff, not just give advice. I wanted to help them hack through the big challenges and forge a way to a sustainable business that could help them grow Maptia, grow the team and work slightly saner hours. No, I still didn’t need money or even the prospect of money.
They agreed. I mean really at that point what choice did they have 🙂
From August to December of last year we worked on strategy. Paring back the ongoing workload to the essentials and exploring ways to make Maptia financially sustainable without completely selling out. It’s a big challenge almost no publisher, or publishing platform, or thing in between, has figured out a good way to reliably pay employees without raising capital. There was almost no successful organization we could point at and say we’d like to do roughly that but with our own twist on it. Even worse there was quite a graveyard of companies that had tried vaguely similar things and flamed out spectacularly or were currently a hot mess. If we were going to make this a growing, vibrant company we would need to blaze a new trail.
As we started working together I felt more and more confident that I had found a place where my individual experience and skills might be best put to use. The team behind Maptia are exceptional. They are practically drowning in opportunities and great ideas and have the skills to execute on all of them if given the time and space. I’m not like that. I’ve only ever learned enough to be dangerous in most of the skills I’ve worked on. But if I have anything that I’m truly great at, it’s hacking through innumerable opportunities, organizing them, prioritizing and editing them and finding the areas of focus that unlock the option to pursue the other ones. In a team of three, on an ambitious project, everybody wears all the hats at least some of the time. But working just this short time at Maptia has allowed me to do what I think I’m actually very good at: removing the obstacles for really talented folks to do their best work.
We made a lot of progress over those six months but eventually realized that we needed to take a complete break over the holidays; to stop all work and re-assess everything from the ground up. We’ve had to take a break from the grand vision to focus on the nuts and bolts of making the company sustainable, getting into a comfortable rhythm of putting out new stories and shipping new features and products. We just finished a week in Washington DC together laying out the plans for this year and I couldn’t be more excited for what’s coming next. We’re going to tackle some big challenges and we’ve got a good strategy.
I arrived here thinking about things through the lens of telling climate change stories, but clearly, the issue is much broader. There are a number of important topics where the scale, distance or nature of things makes it hard to grasp by just reading some statistics. Human scale, first person storytelling can make a huge impact in ocean and wildlife conservation, human migration and water access issues. It can also be a tool for generally widening our cultural perspective. Our goal with Maptia is to tell more of those stories to a bigger and bigger audience, to enable storytellers to focus on their craft and do more of what they love, to drive real world action from those stories and to keep Maptia as an organization completely aligned with the goals of our readers and contributors.
It’s a huge challenge. The broader media and “content” industry is going through immense turmoil. Business models are being upended, stalwarts are flailing. Authors and photographers are often barely scraping a living from their craft. We know we’re stepping into a minefield. Publishing things on the internet fields like a war zone right now. Everyone from old media, to startups to solo bloggers are battling and very few are thriving. But, I think we can succeed because there are a few things we are doing very differently.
- First, Maptia is not VC funded. After a small initial accelerator investment (long since spent) Maptia has been completely bootstrapped by Dorothy, Dean, and Jonny. The site, the quality of the content and the audience are all much further ahead than you would expect from a bootstrapped project. This means there is a ton more we can do and a huge amount of leverage from just a little revenue.
- We are not aspiring for growth, revenue, scale at all costs. All of us frankly have easier ways to make money. Because we’re not here for the money, we can make choices that media companies who have raised a lot of capital or are just generally controlled by investors, can’t make.
- We’re building a calm company, not a soul-crushing content sweat shop. So much of publishing online has become ultra high volume, low paying work. As we start to bring in revenue for Maptia, our goal is to focus on making Maptia a materially better place to work and publish.
- We’re building something we just believe needs to exist in the world. This isn’t a business plan responding to market conditions but a vision of something that is simply needed. We may have to feel around in the dark a bit to figure out how to make it exist and grow and thrive, but the core purpose is different from most everything else you’ll see on the internet.
So that’s the story. If you’d like to follow along for what comes next, the best way is to subscribe to email updates here.
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I also don’t want to denigrate people who do find this a rewarding life’s work. It’s just not for me.↩