We're Jonny, Dean and Dorothy, co-founders at Maptia. AUA

Hey everyone!

We’re Jonny, Dean and Dorothy – the three co-founders of Maptia – a place to explore and create remarkable photo stories from all over the world.

Maptia is a growing global community of photographers, writers, photojournalists, and nomads from all over the world, who believe that thoughtful storytelling can have a tangible and positive impact in the world, and can also inspire us to get out there and make the most of our time on planet Earth!

Over the past 1,000 days we’ve been on a nomadic startup (mis)adventure whilst working from four continents:

  • After graduating from university in England, we joined the Startup Chile incubator program in Santiago (knowing nothing whatsoever about startups, coding, design or marketing) .

  • This was followed by an intense few months of learning while we took part in the Techstars Seattle accelerator program.

  • We then relocated to a small fishing village in Morocco to give ourselves the focused time and perspective we needed to build version one of Maptia (which launched about a year ago with our wonderful group of founding storytellers).

  • We are currently based in Switzerland and just a few days ago we launched the all-new Maptia 2.0 platform!

Since we began our quest to build Maptia a few years ago, Dean taught himself to code our full stack (having never written a line of code before 2012), Dorothy became our CEO and designer, and Jonny now works on all of our community and marketing.

Along the way we’ve had our fair share of highs and lows, have learned more than we would have ever thought possible in such a short space of time, and have met some incredibly inspiring and generous people… and we feel like our journey building Maptia is still only just beginning.


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Thanks for doing this AMA, guys/girls!

  1. What has been the most challenging aspect of doing a startup remotely vs. when you would’ve done it from your home countries?

  2. What has been the most fulfilling aspect of doing it remotely as a startup? Except the obvious cost saving of being in countries with a lower cost of living, what can a startup get out of building something while (slow) traveling you think?

…and most importantly :smiley:

  1. Is this the future?

Congratulations on launching 2.0, its beautiful!

Has the whole team been together in a single location while working or have you had any points where you’ve had to manage your remote team from separate locations, if so what advise would you give others for managing remote teams/workers?

Whats next for Maptia?

Thanks a lot for sharing your experience for the #nomads community.

Great story guys.

  1. How did you decide which one will do which part of the startup ? (Design, Code, Marketing)

  2. How did you choose your next destination ?

  3. What was your feeling to be in an incubator with a nomad lifestyle ? How they support you ?

Thanks Pieter – it’s a pleasure to be here!

When the three of us graduated from the University of Durham in England a few years ago, we didn’t even know what the term ‘startup’ meant – it was thanks to a chance couchsurfing encounter (with a Haitian prince, but that’s another story) while backpacking in Buenos Aires that we heard about the Start Up Chile accelerator program (and their generous equity-free grant of USD $40k). Being accepted into this program was a wonderful (and somewhat unbelievable at the time) head start – and without this opportunity to learn from the community of global entrepreneurs in Santiago we’re not sure where we would be today… certainly not stuck on the corporate conveyor belt, but who knows where our adventures would have taken us – serendipity certainly has a big part to play in how our journey to build Maptia began.

So in a way we were thrown into nomadic startup life on day one, and we have loved the freedom and diversity moving around has given us so far.

Part of the motivation behind relocating to Taghazout (the small coastal village in Morocco where we were based for 10 months in 2013) was to deliberately remove all unnecessary distractions that we had while in Seattle and to focus solely on building the first version of Maptia – and this worked out really well in the end.

However, although we were able to keep in touch with our mentors via Skype, we did miss being involved with an offline creative entrepreneurial community and the inspiration and the energy and input that can be drawn from this. We’re now planning to spend six months in the UK (in the creative city of Bristol) to make the most of being part of a big offline community again, and are then planning to head to somewhere in SE Asia for another six months later in 2015 to spend more time in another somewhat more remote and unusual location – this will be HQ #5 and #6 for Maptia!

Hey James – thanks for the kind words!

We have been fortunate that the three of us have lived and worked together since day 1 and we haven’t had to manage our team from separate locations. However, this year we’ve had a couple of new team members working with us remotely from the US and from this experience, the #1 most important thing is effective communication between team members, having regular check-ins and making sure that everyone is on the same page and moving forward towards the same goals. There are a ton of great tools out there to help with this, Slack, Skype, Gdocs and these tools for remote teams on Product Hunt are worth checking out too.

For us, it’s really important to focus on continuing to evolve and improve both the reading and the storytelling experience on Maptia.

Over the next few months, in addition to working on expanding our current world map where readers can discover stories from all over the globe, we will also be building a fully interactive story map, which will beautifully visualise the places or locations that a storyteller writes about (we call these ‘place mentions’) within their story.

Other features we plan to build in the near future for our storytellers include photo grids, multiple header layouts, the ability to present your story in distinct sections using chapters or moments, beautiful typographical quotes, and also stats to see how many people their stories are reaching and impacting.

We have just launched our first Place Pages on Maptia and over the coming months we will start running special storytelling events to launch country and city pages – gathering together hundreds of different perspectives and stories from each unique place for readers to explore.

Another feature that will be coming soon for our readers, and for our storytellers too, is the ability to follow or subscribe to a storyteller on Maptia – so that you will receive updates when they publish a new story. Oh, and we also have plans for an exciting reading movement on Maptia called ‘A Story A Day’ – so stay tuned for that one!

Traveling slowly, and experiencing foreign cultures affords you a real sense of perspective.

In Morocco, life and work beat to a very different tempo from the often hectic startup culture in the States. This was especially true for the locals, many of whom often spent the afternoon drinking mint tea and simply observing the ocean or sitting around in the sun. Everything went at a much slower pace.

Like many young founders, we have a tendency to burn the candle at both ends, but Taghazout surrounded us with ways to keep our perspective and encouraged us to take time off — from hiking, to rooftop yoga, to surfing. We were moderately successful at achieving this balance, because as anyone who has been a startup founder will know, it can be incredibly difficult to switch off when there is an endless list of things you should be doing to move your company or product forwards, and reach that tantalising next milestone.

Perhaps most importantly, and we think the most fulfilling aspect of being in Morocco was that it allowed us to gain a sense of clarity as we stepped away from the intense US startup ecosystem. Our time there really enabled us to really focus on defining our mission and vision for Maptia in the long-term.

It certainly feels like we are moving into a post-geography world! Geo-arbitrage is a powerful incentive – if you can earn money in dollars and spend in pesos, rupees or dirhams then your basic living costs can be met much more easily. We’re excited to be part of what feels like somewhat of a remote-working revolution and it will be fascinating to see how the trend evolves.

Hey guys! The site is truly beautiful, amazing that you guys put this together all from self-learned experience.

Have you guys taken on any capital?

Have you guys created your own Maptia story board for the teams adventures together?

Also, moving as a group, has the decision making process been pretty smooth, about where and when to pick up and move, or has there been challenges along the way of differences of preferences and styles of lifestyle?

One last question, was your application to the Start Up Chile Accelerator program for the same idea as Maptia, and how do you think you were able to win that application process with out having coding experience yet and being pretty unexperienced in that world. I think that’s my most important question for you guys :smile:

Thanks!! @nomadicpad – we joke that we’ve done things ‘the long hard stupid way’ – but we launched in the end!

Currently we are self-funding Maptia ourselves, although we did previously receive modest amounts of funding from the TechStars accelerator (the standard $18k for 6% equity plus a $100k convertible debt note) and the Start Up Chile incubator program ($40k equity free grant).

We believe in Maptia’s long-term vision and have strong values and philosophies (like don’t screw up a site with advertisement or sell out to investors) and early on we made the decision not to rush the business side of Maptia at the cost of authenticity or functionality. We have felt comfortable supporting Maptia ourselves for now. However, it is our long-term aim to grow Maptia into a sustainable organisation whose primary aim is to re-invest in its community to directly fund and support talented photographers and writers to tell impact-driven stories.

We originally incorporated as a for-profit company (though we have never made a cent of revenue) and we are currently in the process of deciding whether to convert to a non-profit foundation or to another similar structure of organisation that is better suited to our long-term mission and our values. At the very least, over the next two years, we are committed to launching a non-profit sister organisation for Maptia, and are already working on a number of storytelling partnerships with non-profit organisations from all over the world.

Well it certainly has been a memorable journey so far, and we’ve actually just published a post over on Medium on ‘Ten Things We Believe After 1,000 Days of Building Maptia’ – in which we share stories and thoughts from each of the four ‘chapters’ in our startup (mis)adventures so far!

We have also each of course been contributing a few of our own stories from travelling and backpacking in South America and SE Asia on Maptia – you can find our storytelling homepages here: DorothyDeanJonny.

Great question. We first became friends at university because we shared a love for travel and exploring unfamiliar cultures – this means that we all share pretty similar worldviews and are all still happy to live frugal student-esque lifestyles with minimal outgoings if it gives us the opportunity to work on something we love and to explore new places!

Moving to Taghazout wasn’t quite a case of just spinning the globe as Jonny is a keen surfer and so being close to the ocean in Morocco was definitely a big bonus for him. Dean and Dorothy are both avid hikers, so this time around it only seemed fair to switch the oceans for snow-capped mountain peaks of Switzerland.

It’s true that back when we applied to Startup Chile we had little knowledge of the startup/design/coding/marketing skill-set we would need, however, we got creative at presenting our modest achievements so far… For instance, all three of us had achieved well in our university degrees (Dorothy came top of her class and gave a presentation at a UN conference on her thesis) and both Dorothy and Dean had done a good amount of work on GIS/mapping during their degrees (as we were pitching them with building a map this definitely helped with the application). Although those skills weren’t directly related in the end I think they definitely made a difference at the time. We had also worked on a student travel magazine at university, which perhaps also helped add to our credibility a little…

We were also really fortunate to apply to round two of Startup Chile, when the program was relatively unknown outside of Latin America, and so perhaps the level of experience they required from their successful applicants was somewhat less than it is today – as we were definitely extremely naive when it came to anything startup-related!

For the application itself we spent two weeks researching everything we could about “startups” (this newly acquired verb in our vocabulary). Dorothy (who had just a little experience with Photoshop from the magazine) decided to have a go at learning animation from scratch and at the end of a week’s solid work had managed to put together a quirky 2-minute video to pitch our idea for Maptia. Dean also wrote a soundtrack to accompany the video and played that on his ukulele…. looking back at our relative levels of inexperience it does still seem a little bit mad to us that we were accepted, but we are simply grateful for the wonderful opportunity.

Our best advice – give anything like this EVERYTHING you’ve got. Pour your heart into it, get creative, and if you don’t fulfill all the criteria go the extra mile in another area (as we did with our video). In our experience, we’ve found that even when the odds are stacked against you (they were more stacked against us when we applied to Techstars) you can still succeed!!

I really love your platform guys - personally I think this could replace most travel blogs (a good thing IMHO) the same way that medium.com has pretty much replaced tech/startup blogging.

Although it was briefly touched on in your answer to @nomadicpad, I was wondering whether you could expand on your monetisation strategy?

Pro-tip: Make friends with a Russian billionaire :smile:

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I really love the site! For people that learned how to do that by themselves from scratch over such a small amount of time, this is impressive. And the 404 page is nice too :wink:

What were you originally studying into? Were you all in the same program?
And, what made you want to create a startup? Were you all traveling together to find a ‘purpose’? You didn’t want to get back to study something or get a more ‘traditional’ job? What made you from traveling to hearing about a startup to actually doing it?

And, some technical questions:
What is it built on? What language / framework / etc.
Since you learned all by yourself, what kind of technical problems did you encounter? Did you have problems with deployments, testing on different device, etc.

Thanks! :smile:

Always contemplating the monetization! :slight_smile:

Hey @Atu – here are our answers :wink:

Great question, and it was a very organic process really – we found it most important to take account for people’s natural aptitude in certain areas, and then beyond that there was a lot of simply diving in and learning as much as we could! It was definitely a case of learning on the job for all of us, and we still feel very much like we are learning all the time today.

Dorothy has always had a natural flair for design and aesthetics (though she won’t claim that) and she had acquired some experience when designing our small travel magazine at university. It therefore seemed to be a good fit for her to take the lead with our design and branding. Right from the start, Dorothy also naturally did a good job of taking responsibility for the organisation and overall direction of our startup, and so we felt that she was best fit for Maptia’s CEO role as well.

Dean seemed armed with a naturally logical mindset and aptitude for learning code – and because it was absolutely essential for our product he dove headfirst into Codecademy and immersed himself. Since day one he was constantly asking more experienced developers for advice, reading books that mostly went over his head, Googling more than he thought humanly possible… he learnt that a good developer doesn’t know all the answers, but knows which answers to look for and where to find them.

This left the marketing and community side of things for Jonny to tackle, who is definitely someone always coming up with a lot of ideas! From in-depth conversations with experienced marketers he set about trying to find Maptia’s first ‘1,000 true fans’ though building mutually beneficial relationships and promoting others expecting nothing in return. This was achieved largely through the Maptia blog and social media in the early days before the first version of the Maptia platform was ready.

Seattle was chosen for us in a way – it just happened to be the location in which the Techstars program was based. Following our stint in Techstars, we did then consider several other locations including Eastern European cities, Thailand and Bali, but we ultimately opted for Taghazout in Morocco, partly since Jonny had worked there as a surf instructor a few years back and so we had a little inside knowledge to get us started.

Our nomadic lifestyle only really began after the Techstars incubator experience, but they have definitely been supportive of our decision to relocated away from the US (we were partly forced to relocate since our US visas were about to expire). We are extremely grateful to our mentors who continued to support us and give valuable feedback, despite the fact that we were living over 4,000 miles away!

Thanks for the tip @jonbstrong! Although travel and adventure is a huge part of Maptia, we are also focusing on gathering stories from photojournalists, documentary photographers, and nonprofits all over the world.

Charming Russian Billionaires aside, we have already partly shared our thoughts on this topic in response to the question from @nomadicpad, but here are a few more thoughts…

To be honest, we didn’t build Maptia to get rich, and money is no motivator to our team, other than as a resource to enable us to increase Maptia’s impact and the quality of our tools for storytellers. In the future, we hope that this will also include being able to pay talented and passionate people to be a part of the Maptia team, but we pledge to always be transparent about how our resources are allocated.

However, as a first step towards our goal of becoming sustainable, we are investigating a small number of partnerships with inspiring brands and organisations who share our values, who believe in the Maptia community and vision, and who will add value and engage with the storytelling process. (We’re also going to start selling beautiful letterpress posters of our manifesto soon and may investigate a pay-what-you-wish membership model.) Our primary aim is to be able to start compensating some of the talented storytellers on our site for their work, and to be able to cover the running costs of the Maptia platform.

We have pledged never to stick logos or other branding on (or anywhere near) our contributors stories unless they are being well compensated and are fully on-board with the idea, and furthermore, we will only partner with authentic organisations who believe in the power of storytelling as much as we do…even if all else fails (unlikely), then Dean (our CTO and also a talented musician) has promised to busk part time to cover our costs. In other words, we will do everything humanely possible to make sure that Maptia will be around for many years to come.

If you happen to have any connections with wealthy individuals who would consider writing Maptia a blank cheque – please do put us in touch :wink:

Hi @mogosselin – thanks for all the questions, we’ll take them one at a time below:

What were you originally studying into? Were you all traveling together to find a ‘purpose’? Were you all in the same program?

We originally met at the University in Durham in the UK – although Dorothy and Dean were both studying Physical Geography whilst Jonny was studying Philosophy and Economics. We bonded over our passion for travel and created a small student travel magazine together. I’m not sure that we would say that we travelled to find a ‘purpose’ but we were certainly all extremely curious about the world and eager to step outside of our own comfort zones and explore new places and cultures at any opportunity we had!

And, what made you want to create a startup? You didn’t want to get back to study something or get a more ‘traditional’ job?

At the time we weren’t really sure exactly what a startup was! But we knew for sure that we didn’t want to follow a traditional career path and jump on the conveyor belt into an uninspiring 9-5 desk-bound job. Instead, we agreed that we would rather fail at trying something we believed in, as opposed to being trapped in a job that didn’t excite us or have the potential to make a tangible impact in the world, however small.

What made you from traveling to hearing about a startup to actually doing it?

Our journey began after Dorothy and Dean’s chance couchsurfing encounter with a Haitian prince in Buenos Aires. That’s where we heard about the USD $40K equity-free grant offered by the Start Up Chile accelerator program. They also had an awesome community of entrepreneurs from all over the world and it was another chance for us to travel – we applied and against the odds were accepted straight out of university and with zero prior experience (we were definitely in at the deep end!)

And, some technical questions: What is it built on? What language / framework / etc.

Hi, Dean here, I’m the CTO at Maptia. Here’s a really quick rundown of what I have used. The backend is built in Ruby using the brilliant Padrino framework (like Rails but much more lightweight) and Datamapper as the ORM. We use PostgreSQL as a database and PostGIS alongside Rgeo to handle the indexing of our geospatial data. This is all deployed using Heroku and the awesome Unicorn server which means we can run 4 instances on one dyno.

The frontend is gigantic and uses hundreds of tools. I use Spine as a framework which I have augmented considerably then there’s jQuery, D3 (for the maps), Underscore, Skrollr…the list goes on. I write this all in Coffeescript and the css in Scss – both invaluable.

Since you learned all by yourself, what kind of technical problems did you encounter?

I have learned to look at any technical hurdle as a challenge as opposed to a problem. Because this was the first thing I have ever built – my very first line of code was actually in the first Maptia prototype – every single step along the way was a challenge. It started with wrapping my head around variables and functions and then writing Javascript in TextEdit on my Mac – this seems completely ridiculous now. I progressed through various frontend frameworks to build large single-page apps, first Backbone and now Spine. Just when I thought I was slowly getting the hang of building web apps I would stumble upon a completely new field which I would have to learn to make Maptia a reality – databases, deployment, transitioning from frontend to backend.

I have to give a big shout out to Jianshi Huang and especially Ken Keiter who pitched in and wrote backend code before I even knew what Ruby was and pointed me in the direction of most of the best tools that I still use today.

Did you have problems with deployments, testing on different devices, etc.

Deployment has never been a problem because Heroku does all of the heavy lifting for me. Its just a case of keeping your git repo clean and then one line of code will deploy to production. This is awesome because it means that during times of rapid change, like now after launch, I can deploy two or three times a day with updates.

With only a single developer* and given the sheer size of Maptia, we have to make some sacrifices when it comes to device support. We really focused on getting it working with chrome and safari and responding for mobile screens. I could spend years making internet explorer or windows phone behave properly but Maptia would never get finished. In the long run we are looking forward to building native mobile apps and making the most of what these technologies have to offer, especially for location based storytelling and discovery.

*Although, I have to thank Brian Jones for doing an awesome job on our external services. Thanks to him we have our very own Open Street Map server giving us open source geographical data for the entire planet whenever we need it. And our own Sendy instance for sending all of our emails.

I’m closing the AMA now. Thanks @maptia for answering all the questions. Super awesome :smiley: and good luck with your new product!

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