Ed chats with Andy Allan, long-time London OSMer and Geomobster, maker of OpenCycleMap, and founder of Thunderforest. We discuss building a bootstrapped geo business generally, and specifically the challenges of creating a business around OpenStreetMap.
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The Geomob podcast is hosted by Ed Freyfogle, co-founder of OpenCage, and Steven Feldman, of KnowWhere Consulting.

Every week we discuss themes from the geo industry, interview Geomob speakers, and provide regular updates about our own projects.

Autogenerated Transcript:

Ed 00:01 Welcome to the geomob podcast where we discuss geoinnovation in any and all forms get for fun or profits.
Ed 00:11 Welcome back everyone to episode nine of the geomob podcast. I am looking forward to today's conversation because we have a very long time geomobster, Andy Allen who was based in London and now lives in Poland. He's one of the early members of the open street map community in London and also he's the founder of an online mapping service called thunder forest, so lots of things to talk about. Andy, welcome to the podcast. Hi, thanks for having me. Our pleasure. Our pleasure man. So let's dive right in. What is thunderforest? What do you do there?
Andy 00:44 I own and run that provides map services for small businesses. If you want maps on your website or in your application, you're a developer, you're looking for some great maps, then you come to funder forest and we specialize particularly in activity maps. So instead of like generic cranes, maps or you come to us when you're looking for maps for cyclists or for hiking or public transport or some kind of specialist map like that. That's really what we focus on. And the maps are made using open street map, correct? That's the, yeah, we use a couple of minor sources, but 90% of what you see on our maps all comes from open street map and it's really open street map that allows our business to exist. Um, if it wasn't for open street map, if it wasn't for all the interesting details that are there, we wouldn't be able to make interesting maps.
Andy 01:35 So if we decided to try and use a different supplier like Tom Tom or TeleAtlas, they'll have roads. Maybe they've got a few foot paths, but that's it. And it would be really limiting on the kind of thing that we can make. It was open street map. Yeah, the water would generally start, there's all kinds of really interesting niche things that you can pull out of the data and display on the mouse. So it's really key that it comes from from open street map and I was involved in open street map along before I started making maps long before thunder forest appeared. So it was really project and a company that's grown out of a hobby rather than a business idea that was looking for data.
Ed 02:17 Well nevertheless it's, it seems to be a thriving business. You've been doing it for quite a few years now and I've seen the maps in lots of places so congratulations to you.
Andy 02:25 Yeah, thanks. It's been going for more than 10 years now, so it's growing rapidly still, which is great. And yeah, there's all kinds of different places that you find sun, the forest mops cropping up. It's really pleasing when you spot someone down the, on the trauma or on the, on the grind using it often you see over their shoulder you can, you can recognize the mouse. And they even had recently where we were watching a TV show, Polish language TV show and I had to pause and point to my wife, look, that's my map up on the screen.
Ed 02:58 That's man, congratulations. That's the message in a at like deja VU type moment. That's cool. Yeah, it's really weird. But it's kinda awesome when you, when you can recognize something and I mean if you're a big enough map geek, even if it's just like blurry in the background, you can be like, no, I recognize this because of that moment as someone who also has a business that's based on open street map, primarily open cage, our geocoding servers. We get asked a lot about maps because customers will come to us and they'll say, Oh, do you also do maps or not? And we we very often recommend under forest because you have so many great designs. I mean as, as you say, some of the activity maps like open cycle map, but you also have some really just wacky ones like spinal map, the heavy metal style, which is a lot of fun to look at. So what is the process? How do you create these styles? How do you get the ideas for them? How much work is it to create a style? How does that happen?
Andy 03:51 So there's a few different places that the ideas come from. The most important one is existing customers. Even when they're asking for something, like, you know, they, they like our maps but it doesn't quite fit what they're needing for their new application. So those ideas come in and they pile up and eventually when enough people have asked for one of them, then we can develop that. So we've got a couple of styles on the go at the moment, which are under development but really based on what customers are looking for. And then of course there's just having fun. The technology that I've been working on in order to make it easy for me to host different map styles means we can just do things for fun. And it's not like there's a big infrastructure costs or anything like, so I've worked with Richard fair horse too, you know.
Andy 04:32 Well, and many of your listeners will know, um, gave him free reign and said, come up with some styles that I haven't thought of. And that's where spinal map came from us. We had our pioneer map, which is a sort of 1800 seams railway map came from Israel. Those are great ideas from Richards that worked really well with our infrastructure and so when it means that when other customers come to us, we've got these kind of use your imagination styles, so I had a games development company who came, they were looking for a medieval theme map and they could really see you from the spinal map and from pioneer that it's not just CVS maps that you can make, you can, you can really push the limits with our infrastructure.
Ed 05:16 Yeah, this is really a case where the medium of a podcast doesn't do it justice, so I strongly recommend all the listeners take 10 minutes and go browse the site and we'll make sure we get links in the show notes that people can check it out. There are some that are really, really fun, but also some that are very beautiful. I like your topographic maps. How much fine tuning has to go on or is the map ever done? Are you continually finding new things to tweak and add and isn't that a risk that you just endlessly fine tuning? Yeah, so there's two aspects of this thing.
Andy 05:44 One is it doesn't take that long to make a new map style and to get the kind of broad brush strokes. So that's, it shows the features you want to show gets that kind of use case. But then there's all kinds of minor cause what was a big and complicated place. There's so many different things. Cable car stations are one. The other is working last week on for door's mop. We've had cable cars for ages. Actually when you're using them up you realize some things that cable car stations need to be shown. And so that kind of endlessly adding more details or finding new places on the map where it's not clear. Or I look at one of my maps and think I could do this better if I tweak this a little bit, use a different icon, move things around a bit. It's not processes endless.
Andy 06:31 And then there's the seconds challenge, which is the big challenge with open street map and that open street map is always changing the way that mappers wants to map features and enter that data, the tags that they want to use. Sure. Some of the main ones stick around, but when you start getting into the more interesting tanks and interesting features, all of a sudden they can choose to say, Hey, this is a new tech for this or we're going to map it in a different way. And so you do need to keep on top of those changes as well. And that's a key value add that businesses can make on, on top of open street map is keeping up with those kinds of changes. Well I, this is for us,
Ed 07:09 one of the, and it must be similar in your business, one of the big challenges that many people underestimate is they think, Oh, I just need to set it up. But actually open street map is kind of a living beast, right? And the data is changing at such a rapid rate and new things are constantly coming out and it can be a real operational challenge just to keep everything running.
Andy 07:28 It's a challenge. It's okay when this is what you're concentrating on. Where I see it as other businesses who aren't really focused on open street maps, they may be sent something once, um, they expect it to remain the same for a long time and you can see their maps start to degrade or they just make ms thanks. Simple mistakes like assuming that the highway tank is for, it's for roads, but it's also includes loads of other stuff as well. So sometimes you can see a company that has set up the road and open street map stuff and it's like, yeah, I can see where you were going with that, but you didn't really know the details. But for full care, I'm running businesses that are based on open street map, um, like we're immersed in this kind of stuff. So when the changes happen, we just roll in and move on.
Ed 08:12 Yeah. Well, let's continue on the scene because as someone who's been in the overdraft community for a long time, over the last couple of years we've seen more and more big players kind of entered the community in different ways. I mean the great example is Facebook is not doing a lot in open street map, not always with the smoothest relationship with the existing community. As someone who operates a small business. And how do you, how do you see that dynamic and is that an opportunity for OpenStreetMap, a threat? Is it both? What's your perspective?
Andy 08:39 Well from the small business perspective then it's all, it's all good news because these big companies that are coming in like a Facebook, so I know the Apple uses open stream updates as well. They're not competing against my business. They're off the road and saying well they do bring some expertise and to open street map some conflict as well. As you say, the more the open street map gets used. Some more places in the worlds get maps. It's a better as for everybody who's using open street map, cause it's one of the things I've noticed in the last four or five years is the most common question from prospective customers has just changed. When I started this business it was always where is open street map complete open street map ever going to be complete. What about Germany? How does it work in this country or that country? So those questions have ended now. Like people just know open street map, they know that it's big, it's used by big companies, it's fine. Um, and that's been a real boost to small businesses working with open street map. So some of that is just time passes and open street map continues to be successful. Sometimes some of it's boost, it's by these big player coming in and helping out with some of the mapping.
Ed 09:53 Yeah. What's your perspective on a lot of these big players? Again, Facebook being an example, a lot of the mapping now is let's say assisted by technology, be that image analysis of satellite images or whatever. How do you view that as someone who got started in the very, very early days? I mean, I think you were one of the first handful of OpenStreetMap contributors short. You like riding around on your bike and with your GPS device.
Andy 10:18 Yeah, it was more within a hundred foot when I was there, but yeah, certainly that's how it starts. It's riding range with the GPS. We didn't have aerial imagery, all that kind of stuff. So my view on getting the external help is so long as it's providing tools to help regular mappers, I'm all for it. If you're trying to bypass regular mappers and stuff, data straightened to open street map and no, I don't like that approach. And actually yesterday some of the links to blog posts I had written 11 years ago on this topic, I looked back slightly carefully going, you know, what were my views like back then? I actually turns out they haven't changed much in 11 years and I was still on that same track. So if you build a to the integrates with ID or Joseph or any of the other open street map editors and it suggests changes or helps with another bactrain layer or some kind of way to enable mappers and to make individual contributor is more powerful. Yeah. I'm, I'm all for that.
Ed 11:25 Let's switch tacks a little bit Andy. Cause I, you know, since you left the UK, it's been a while since we've had you at a geomob. But when you were a regular attendee, one of your, you know, we would often have startups come or people come with their ideas and you would often kind of lead the questioning around the business model and how will this ever become a business. So tell us a little bit of that, but more the business side of your business, right. What's your pricing model? How does it, how does that work?
Andy 11:48 Yeah. So I always have fun at your mob with that question. But it's a, it's a question that I reserve only for the right opportunities cause there's loads of stuff that we see at geomob, which is like, Hey, I'm having fun, I've done this cool thing, look at my cool thing. And I never asked them -inaudible- what's the business model? Cause if it's, if it's a cool thing, if it doesn't need a business model, that's fine. But when people come in and they haven't really thought through what their business model is and it's like, Hey, we've got a team of people, we're doing this professionally, we're planning and making a business. I have a, we're just going to give everything away for free. What the business model is later. And that always rings a little alarm bells for me cause I've been there, I've done that.
Andy 12:29 I've worked for a big VC. All right, so I'll talk where we just give stuff away for free and hope to all work to an end and it didn't all work out. And then, yeah, I don't, I don't want to see people making those same mistakes unless they, that's the key bit about my business model. So I run a small business. I don't run a startup. I don't know how funding is all bootstrapped. Um, which means I need real customers who are going to pay money every month to my company. So I solve a problem. They pay me money, fairly straight forwards, business model, no kind of crazy advertising nickels on the dollar or ends and like that just provide a good service and they pay and their specific business model is request based model. So we've go multiple different API APIs or the developers or customers who use the rapists.
Andy 13:22 Whenever they make request of service, we count them up. And that's how much you pay every month. So we have a few tiers to keep the billing nice and straight forwards. And yeah, that's what, that's what people sign up to. But do you ever get pushed back on that? Because sometimes people say, Oh well, you know, I heard open street map was free. Why should I have to pay? We occasionally do get people with that type of attitude and that, you know, I tried to explain, Oh well we're providing a service and yes the data is free, but you know, we still have to keep the servers running. Do you ever get that and how have you seen that change over time? I don't get that much. I have a free tier available and so a lot of people use the free tier. I don't know, maybe there's just something around the wording on the website that that means people expect that they're going to have to pay for it.
Andy 14:07 I do have people who quite often question the pricing because perhaps they, they don't feel it's value for money. And every case when you take into, it turns out that their budget is about 10 or maybe $20 a month on those customers for a small business, those customers are just not worth chasing. Like it's great if somebody wants to come in and spend some money. Um, you know, that's no problem. But for small businesses, you have to aim for customers who are going to pay a decent amount of money because you don't have an unlimited support. You can answer a thousand support requests a day. So you don't want a thousand customers each are only giving you $5 a month. Well, yeah, it's perverse. It's almost the less they pay, the more support they require. Yeah, I know. And that's, that's my experience with people as well who are, who questions.
Andy 15:03 Uh, the value is they tend to then have lots of other questions and one, lots of help. The customers who come in and go love your pricing model. It seems very reasonable for what you're offering. Um, I signed up yesterday then those are, those are the customers you want. Like they're, they're happy. They can see the value and support and things like that. And there are no trading off on the, Hey, maybe I could do it myself or I find these runs and guys who set up shop six months ago and they were offering I stuff free. So there's, there's two sides to it. And you as a small business, you want to focus on the people who are or seeing the value in what you do. Yeah. Are you typically getting people who are coming to you because of the aesthetics of the map or because of, because it's open street map cause I know you're quite well known in the industry map community.
Andy 15:55 What's the dynamic there? More or less and there's a mixture of things and I don't have the most sophisticated kind of funnel tracking to figure out where people are coming from. A lot of it is the reputation of the maps that we've got already. We've been around for many years so people have heard of open cycle maps, have heard of our transport map, the hearts of doors. And so they know who to come to for that. Also because our maps are often quite a big part of what they see on other apps. So if they're setting up a new business and they say look at other right terms are similar fields, they can see these maps and they go right, where does this come from? So that makes it easier for me than for people like you because it's not so obvious when who's powering the geocoding or who's patterning the rooting for the maps.
Andy 16:45 It's, it's such a distinctive visual element that you can be like, Oh, that's an interesting looking map. Where does this come from? Yeah, you're absolutely right. That is on challenge we face and I guess, yeah, your product does advertise itself in that regard. So any, any advice for anyone out there thinking of starting a business based on open street map? Yeah, definitely. This is something I can stand in the pub for hours and chef event or the key thing is you first need to know who your customer is and focus on customer. Who's going to pay you money for this cause. There's a million interesting things I can think of doing for open street map, especially things that would be really useful for mapping and the mapping community, but with the best will in the world, they're not going to pay you £100 a month or $100 a month to do this.
Andy 17:33 I read an article many years ago which was really clear in this and it's something I always recommend people to look up. It's an analogy about what size of customer you want to aim for and the analogy is are you hunting rabbits, deer or elephants and elephants are big companies like Fitzy one hundreds or companies, so basically they're too big for a small business to aim for, especially for your first few customers. Rabbits are like end users, individual users, like people who sign up for Facebook or consumer services and there's millions of them but they're small and their hearts catch and they escape really easily and then deer are perfect for hunting. You got reasonable night foods, a reasonably easy to catch. You don't need any specialist tools to get them and that's definitely my advice for businesses is to go for primary customers are other small businesses that have so many advantages.
Andy 18:32 The best one is if you're talking to somebody in a small business about your product and you're trying to get them to convince them. If you talking to the person who owns that company from scratch, has all the decision making authority, then you're done. When when they say, yeah, I'm going to say no, then they just sign up. They put their cards information and not stand of it. We are going after big enterprises, you can spend months going through their procurement division or especially one of my customers has separate company that screens their suppliers for them and that's just a whole lot of hassle.
Ed 19:10 Yeah, yeah. I can attest precisely to what you're saying. Yeah, we have the challenge, and maybe it's similar for you, is that very often we get kind of discovered by the software developers at a company and they start using it and they like it and then they say, okay, now now the projects going forward, like it's time to, you know, we need to increase the volume, we want to become a customer. And then did you know at that point you've got to deal with the person who can actually make the decision and pay the money and Oh man, it can be a pain.
Andy 19:36 Definitely. So that's a key bet of building a business in front of open street map instead of just doing something cool with open street map. So if you're, if you're clear on your customer and it also helps to find what you want your product to be as well. It needs to be like, like you said, we're both in the same industry. We've got something that's useful for developers, but then sometimes they're not people who choose to spend the money. And if you've got that clear in your head, then it really helps with things like website design and the messaging and it's a different audience that you're talking to in different parts of the website. So like API documentation, it can be written quite distinctly from the, Hey, sign up, we're a -inaudible-, you know, answering the questions. Is that the purchasing manager house?
Ed 20:23 Yeah. Yeah. There's a real art to it, to navigating that and getting the right tone on the right page to in front of the right audience.
Andy 20:30 Oh yeah. And this is again where being clear on what kind of company you are chasing can help. Because I've, I've come across places where developers are using our services. Payment teams are coming in and starting to cause too much trouble and sometimes just like, it's fine to walk away from that and say like, I'm not betting my business on needing this one customer deal to succeed. And it takes a lot of pressure off. If I only had three large businesses as my customers, then a whole lot is invested and trying to navigate their internal bureaucracy and that can be a complete nightmare. I agree. I agree. You're preaching to the choir as someone who has had to navigate that very path. It can be. All right. So what's next for thunder for us? What does the future hold for you? Well, there's a whole lot of interesting technical things, but uh, leave that um, offline I've got or map styles and some more API is coming up.
Andy 21:27 The big thing for thunder forest is trying to maintain the edge on technology. So a lot of stuff is moving towards the fact that sales is not the solution for everything. But we have our vector tiles API is available. We're working on that. We've had two releases of new vector tile sets in the last 12 months. So before we go further, maybe just for the Venice audience, what are vector tiles like? Very quickly break this down just to make sure everyone's aware cause it's one of the key technological changes I think going on right now. Yeah, sure. So most people will be more familiar with Rast or titles or normal image titles, which is when you look at a ma will get sent to you over the internet is premade small square pictures and some things, especially if you're on a slow connection, you can see those pictures popping up on your screen.
Andy 22:20 Um, they're great safe, a whole load of use cases. But there's a few cases where having the images already made before you sign them over the wire isn't the best option. So vector tiles are a different way of achieving the same maps, but where you send the raw data over the internet and either your phone or your web drugs are coloring the maps for you. So that means you can do some interesting things involving having different map styles without having to fetch more data over the network. It can work well for offline use cases on slow connections where depending on your application, sometimes it's quicker to pull the raw data over and throw the maps locally then as defense, the -inaudible- maps. Okay. Excellent summary. So, so you say you're moving, everything's moving much more towards the sector. Yeah, so, so we've been using them behind the scenes for years. Now. All of our, all of the rust or mats that we provide are actually being -inaudible-. I created using vector tiles, bang the scenes. But the problem with the vector tiles are one of the main dine sites is the needs a lot more CPA power, a lot more processing power on the devices to draw. And it just wasn't feasible 10 years ago. It's to be doing this as everything gets more powerful, more and more people are seeing them online. So we're seeing more of our customers taking the veg photos from us. Uh,
Ed 23:46 I'm doing onboards rendering. So that's where we're, we're focusing all of our development effort on making this easier for people to get started with while still keeping our our edge on the custom map styles and all the interesting things we've done before. Well, sounds good. Okay. Congrats on how far you've come and I look forward to all the future map styles. I'm sure there'll be cool. Hopefully, obviously you're always welcome to come speak at a GM up anytime to tell us about your progress. What our traditional closing question as we kind of wrap up here. Looking back as a long time attendee, any favorite geomob talks that stood out for you? I mean, this is a really hard question because I've been doing gym up since the start, so I've missed the last a year or two, but there's hundreds. There must be hundreds of talks that I've been to.
Ed 24:31 The ones that immediately sticks out in my mind though was I won a few years ago from unapolo Smith who was talking land ownership and property ownership in the UK and using different data sets, different open data in order to investigate how much property lens was being ordained by offshore companies. I really liked that because immediately I think even whilst she was still talking, I was on the website that she was talking about and looking at my local area and finding how you see is within a few hundred meters of where I live that were wounds by shady offshore British Virgin islands companies. And I thought that was really interesting. Yeah, great. That was a great project and also a great presentation that she gave and she won the best speaker prize. But also, you know, I've seen it cited numerous times in, in media and things become a tool that a lot of people are using to try to understand this situation better.
Ed 25:25 So good choice. Yeah, and I think it's a great story. Writing open data and open government data as well, which I think is really important to have those stories. And to tell the story as well. It's interesting. You're, you're the second person actually to mention her. Steven Feldman also mentioned her talk and early upsets, so we'll have to get her on the podcast here and get her to talk about it in more detail. Okay, good. What's the best way for people to learn more about you and about thunder forest? How can they get in touch for thunder forests funder, forest.com has all the details. If you've got any questions, there's a link on that site. Just send us an email and we can answer your questions. For my personal stuff, I think Twitter is probably the best place to see what I'm looking at and what I'm thinking about it and I'm gravity storm on Twitter.
Ed 26:11 Excellent. Andy, thanks for coming on the podcast. Yeah, you're welcome. Thanks everyone for joining us today and listening to the geomob podcast. Hopefully you've enjoyed the discussion. Please don't hesitate if you have any feedback for us or any suggestions for topics that we should cover in the future. You can get the show notes over on the website, which [email protected] while you're there, if you're not yet on the mailing list, please do get on the mailing list where we once a month send out an email announcing future events, summarizing past events and just generally sharing events that you may find of. You can also of course follow us on Twitter where our handle is geomob. You can follow Steven at Stephen Veltman. You can follow me a fry Fogel. You can check out Mappery at -inaudible- dot org and of course if you need any geocoding, please check out my service, which is open cage data.com we look forward to you joining us skin at a future episode or end of course seeing you at a future geomob event. Hope to see you there soon. Bye.