Ed Freyfogle: “Every startup is vulnerable, that’s what makes it exciting”

Ed Freyfogle
Ed Freyfogle

Ed Freyfogle is a German/American entrepreneur living in London. He is one of the founders of Lokku, makers of the OpenCage Geocoder.

Ed was interviewed for GeoHipster by Atanas Entchev.

Q: You are the only geo person I know with an MBA from MIT. By contrast, I know people who wish they had an MBA from an Ivy League school so they could get out of geo. So what is your story? How did you get into geo?

A: It’s a bit of a long story, so bear with me.

I guess like most people “in the industry” I’ve always liked maps, as a kid was drawing maps, all that kind of stuff. Before MIT I had worked  as a software developer at Yahoo Germany during the first internet wave of the late nineties. It was a great case of being in the right place at the right time. I learned an immense amount. After five years there, with all its amazing ups and then the downs of the crash in 2001, it was time for something new. Also, while I really enjoyed programming I also wanted to learn the business side. So I got an MBA at MIT and thought a lot about what I wanted to do, and where I wanted to do it (I mainly grew up in the US). My conclusion was that I had really enjoyed Yahoo when it was small and had the startup feel; when I joined the Munich office was 15 people and I got to work on pretty much every system. I also concluded I had really enjoyed living in Europe. So in 2005 I moved to London in the hopes of finding a startup to join. Back then the scene was microscopic compared to today, I couldn’t find a startup where I liked the people, the idea, my role, etc. So in the end I started my own company, Lokku, along with another ex-Yahoo, and we’re still thriving today.

Those that know their geo history will recall that 2005 was the year Google Maps came out, shortly followed by Housing Maps, the first “mash-up” to put pins on a map. Heady times! Lokku’s first product, and still our biggest, was a real estate search engine called Nestoria. Initially we were just for London, today we’re in nine countries. A friend of mine from Yahoo, Mikel Maron (who later went on to start Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team), knew about maps, and was advising us, and that’s how I got into the London OpenStreetMap scene, going to a few of the pub meet-ups. I’m proud to say we sponsored the very first State of the Map conference back in 2006 (and have sponsored many more since). In 2006 there was a mapping party on the Isle of Wight, and afterwards we made tiles and started using them on Nestoria if someone searched for a home on the Isle of Wight. I’m pretty sure this was the first ever commercial use of OSM in a consumer service.

A few years later we launched Nestoria India and Nestoria Brazil. To do that we needed geodata for those countries. I have the sense most readers of this blog focus on the US or Canada, and I have no doubt there are impressive technical and licensing challenges around getting US geodata, but if you want to experience some grade-A bureaucracy I invite you, dear reader, to try to purchase Indian geodata. It was impossible, at least for a tiny start-up like ours. So basically we had to launch using only OpenStreetMap as our geodata source. I can not pretend OSM in India is perfect, it still lacks coverage. But then of course so does any other geo datasource given how rapidly things are changing in India. Anyway, OSM was good enough, and now Nestoria India is one of our fastest growing markets. This is classic “Innovator’s Dilemma” stuff, the new technology is “good enough” for experimentation, and then all of a sudden it’s good enough for day to day stuff, and then all of a sudden it’s the norm, and the existing models with their old cost structure can’t compete.

So we thought about that and thought about whether there is a way we could help make that happen, and the result was last year we launched our brand OpenCage Data. Our hypothesis was that companies want to use OSM, but right now it’s too chaotic for them – the documentation isn’t always great, the way to learn is to get on mailing lists, the toolset around OSM is evolving very rapidly — and that all of this puts off companies who are used to more stability. We talked with lots of people, anyone who might have any possible use case for geodata, but especially people outside of the existing market. Companies put off by the cost, or not even really aware of how using geodata would help them. We learned a lot: OSM is not on most people’s radar yet. The thing that came up again and again was geocoding. So this summer we launched the OpenCage geocoder. We try to differentiate on simplicity/ease of use, by aggregating many different open geodata sources, and by then annotating our results with things developers would find useful. It’s early days, but we’re learning a lot and getting good feedback.

Finally, over the years we’ve been approached by a lot of different people asking for advice, help. We never had a good framework to channel that so we usually said no. But over the last year we’ve started seed investing in some of these ideas. We provide a bit of money, but also advice, connections, etc. It has to be in a category we have expertise in and one of those is geo, so now we’re involved in a few different geo startups.

Q: You are involved with several startups, and you run the #geomob London event. How do you manage to juggle so many different things?

A: Well some of the things I’m a driver, others it’s just as an investor / advisor, but yeah, there is plenty to keep me busy — also I have two small children, so there’s not a lot of down time.

#geomob is a regular event we run. It’s a lot of fun. It is amazing how many cool things are happening in geo and location-based services in London (the city where OpenStreetMap was invented). We try to create a forum to show off that innovation. Every few months we have an evening event where five or six different speakers get 15 minutes each to talk about their project. And it’s not all startups — we usually have a good mix of startups, hobbyists, academics, and the occasional megacorp. Afterwards we all go to the pub and have a few beers. We see lots of wacky ideas and experiments. And some of those crazy ideas turn into great things. Some of the speakers are polished, some aren’t. It’s a healthy mix from all across the geo spectrum.

Our next event is November 4th, if you’re in London, join us.

Q: I am intrigued by the business side of a geo startup. I watched your APICon 2014 presentation where you talk about OpenCage Geocoder — your latest startup. Your MBA background comes through strongly in that presentation. You are also very open about your business strategy. Doesn’t that make the business vulnerable?

A: Every startup is vulnerable, that’s what makes it exciting. No risk, no fun.

Lots of people who work in big companies or organizations perhaps don’t appreciate that with a startup the main challenge is creating momentum from a standing start. You start with literally nothing. And then you have to make it happen. No one comes to you. You have to create the momentum.

In general it is clear there is massive societal benefit to open data. But it’s not yet clear if all of that benefit goes to the end consumer and is just a cost society needs to shoulder (i.e., through taxes so that government services release all their data), or if there is role for private companies. Our bet is that there is. Anyone who has feedback on what we’re up to we’d love to hear from.

BTW, I’m choosing to take your “You MBA background comes through strongly in that presentation” as a compliment.

Q: In the same talk you refer to “Berlin, Berlin” as an error of redundancy. But do you know that there is a Berlin in New Jersey, another in Maryland, and yet another in Connecticut? Maybe “Berlin, Berlin” does make sense after all? Or perhaps addressing cannot — or should not — be standardized globally?

A: For those who aren’t familiar with the problem here’s a brief description. I was in Berlin, Germany, I tweeted, and Twitter showed my location as “Berlin, Berlin” (i.e., Berlin the city, in Berlin the state). Of course there are multiple Berlins, but Twitter has the coordinates from my phone. There is no ambiguity. They know I am in Berlin, capital city of Germany, yet they choose to show the location in a way that makes no sense to a local.

Absolutely addressing can not be standardized globally. It’s too late, there are almost as many formats as there are countries. That’s part of the rich tapestry of the human experience. Software should be able to solve the problem and present the location in the way a local considers normal.  I blogged about this and how we’re solving it on the OpenCage geocoder. Our solution is open source and we’d love everyone’s help. Pull requests here please.

Q: On addressing: I like What3Words and what they do, but how realistic is it to expect the whole world (including non-English speaking regions) to embrace an entirely new spatial reference system? Do you think this will happen before or after the US adopts the metric system?

A: Many industries and contexts in the US have adopted the metric system, as you’ll know if you buy a 2-liter of Coke. But I take your point that it isn’t the norm in most consumers’ heads. But so what? That doesn’t stop the rest of the world from using it to get their tasks done.

And it’s the same with a solution like What3Words. It is not an immediately compelling solution in a place like London, which is well addressed and has highly accurate postcodes. But if you’ve ever been to a meeting in India you will concede that there are parts of the world where addressing can only be described as a disaster. There are no addresses. You are navigating by landmark and frankly it is hugely painful. Not just for me the tourist, but for the locals as well. Those parts of the world need a better solution, and it needs to be one that is simple enough for the average person. That solution is not long/lat. I think it might be What3Words.

As a product person, What3Words is great in its attempt to make something complicated simple. I recently watched this excellent talk by Vladimir Agafonkin, maker of the mapping library Leaflet, on simplicity, and how it is needed in geo. It’s too early to say if What3Words will succeed, but I love that they are innovating by being simple. As an investor What3Words falls squarely in that category of most people dismiss it as crazy, but it just might not be, and if it succeeds it will be on a massive scale.

But if some parts of the world want to keep doing things the hard way or say measuring temperature in Fahrenheit, that’s cool. It’s a big world and there’s usually more than one way to do it.

Q: SplashMaps is another one of your business ventures, and the most hipstery one, IMHO. How did you come up with the idea? How is the business doing? Are the maps selling?

A: We’re just investors in SplashMaps, full credit goes to David and the team. But I agree with you, it is hip. It’s an amazing product, a customisable fabric map, perfect for all sorts of outdoor uses where you’ll get wet, muddy, sweaty, etc. So yes, in 2014 I’ve invested in a company that makes physical maps, which I guess is a little contrarian. I wrote about all our reasons for investing on our blog.

Good news for all the hipsters out there who can’t wait to get their hands on one (did I mention Christmas is coming?); in the very near future SplashMaps will be available globally, to date they’ve only been in Great Britian. If you know a geohipster who needs a gift, you’re going to have a tough time beating a SplashMap.

For me, SplashMaps is exciting because it’s a great example of the kind of innovation that’s possible when the barriers around access to and cost of geodata go away. I’m also more intrigued lately by taking digital products and bringing them back to analog as a way to create value. You can go on a tough hike using your digital map. But people want tangible artifacts they can hang memories and stories on. Everyone in the geo industry can remember the pleasure of gathering around an atlas, looking at far away tropical islands, sliding your finger along a journey you took. This tangible experience is a basic human urge that digital doesn’t meet, and one that SplashMaps taps into.

Q: I understand you moved out of Shoreditch, which is London’s counterpart to Williamsburg in Brooklyn. What’s up with that?

A: Don’t worry, I now live in the Barbican in central London. Shoreditch’s not far, but it’s gone a bit too upmarket. Anyway, I think of myself not so much as a hipster as a digital brutalist, so the Barbican’s a better match for me, my wife, and our two kids. All that said, these days the cool kids are all in Moabit and Wedding, so I’m working on convincing my wife it’s her idea that we move to Berlin. Let’s see.

Q: We haven’t talked about humor on GeoHipster, which I realize is a serious lapse. Let’s fix that. You were a humor columnist for the MIT student newspaper. Do you have a joke I haven’t heard?

A: Wow, you’ve done your research. Yeah, I used to write an anonymous advice column for the school newspaper called “Ask Alfred” in which I pretended to be a greedy and lecherous version of Alfred P. Sloan, the business school’s namesake (CEO of GM, often credited with inventing the modern corporation). In hindsight it was an attempt to poke fun at the divergence between the high-minded ideals espoused by the school and the profit-driven reality (greed, if you will) of the industries most MBAs go into. On the other hand though, I do think in the open geo world, particularly here in Europe, there’s a tendency to err too far in the other direction — thinking everything should be free all the time, all code needs to open source, we all need to be motivated by altruism all the time. As anyone trying to pay rent in central London will tell you, goodwill alone will not get you far.

I’m not sure what the joke is here. These days my comedy is more situational and slapstick.

Q: Thank you so much for the interview. Any parting words for the GeoHipster readers?

A: In the geo industry (if I can say so as an outsider) we all get that something major has changed with the rise of the smartphone; all of a sudden we all carry around a supercomputer that knows exactly where we are at all times. But I don’t think anyone grasps how radically this will change everything. For everyone, but particularly for the geo industry. We are at the start of an amazing ride. Anyone who’s up for the trip I would love to meet with. So if you’re London come say hello, we’ll go grab a pint. If that makes me a geohipster, so be it.

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