How Placebase Survived Google Maps

Three years ago, when Google launched Google Maps for free, the whole world was agog with what you could find. One man who wasn’t thrilled: Jaron Waldman, founder of Los Angeles-based startup Placebase. He was contemplating starting a white-label mapping business when Google went and made the value proposition of his idea disappear. After all, it’s hard to compete with free. Or so you would think.

Waldman thought differently. He decided to compete with Google and other free mapping services by doing two things: One, by offering customizations and tons of features that integrated private and public data sets in many diverse ways. (He knew it would be a while before Google would get around to offering customization). His other twist was to offer a way to layer commercial and other data sets (such as demographics and crime data) onto the maps using an easy-to-use application programming interface (API). The product is called PushPin.

Two years on, his strategy seems to be paying off — the company, which is completely bootstrapped (read again: no VC dollars), is doing a few million dollars in revenues and is profitable. In this age of perpetual hype, it’s refreshing to see a company building business the old-fashioned (read: hard) way. “Google Maps is great for consumer usage, but we are making it easy for large companies to take our Maps API, customize it and then use it,” Waldman said. Users of its Maps API include Cyberhomes and Dash. “We are being used for real estate, fleet tracking and traffic.”

I wish I had more time to chat with Waldman, but he wanted to pitch me a new product from one of his clients. It’s called PolicyMap, and is based on Placebase’s PushPin technology. It aggregates all sorts of interesting data from various commercial and public datasets — home sales, crime, current year and five-year projected demographics, school performance, mortgage lending, employment and more — and puts them at the disposal of researchers, policymakers, real estate developers, investors and just everyday users. You should check it out.