Interview: Why Platial Shut Down and What That Means for Geo

Today the news came out that Platial, a first-generation map mashup startup, was throwing in the towel on its product and encouraging users to export their data. The company actually ran out of money 18 months ago, said co-founder and former CEO Di-Ann Eisnor in an interview today. Since leaving Platial in July, she joined the crowdsourced mapping service Waze as Community Geographer, and other key employees have joined Motorola (s MOT) to work on the Droid (s goog) and Nokia (s NOK) to work on Ovi Maps. Portland, Ore.-based Platial, which was founded in 2005, had raised something like $3.4 million from investors including Kleiner Perkins, Keynote Ventures, the Omidyar Network, Ram Shriram, Georges Harik, Jack Dangermon and Ron Conway. An edited transcript of our conversation with Eisnor follows:
GigaOM: What is your current involvement in Platial?
Di-Ann Eisner: Since I left Platial as CEO in July I’ve been chairman, so I’m involved with the wind-down of the site and the porting of all the info to GeoCommons and Google (s GOOG). We’re not shutting down the company but we really have zero resources. It’s been really a hard road for the last year and a half, with no staff on salary. The hosting and bandwidth is about $7,000 a month because we serve over 10 million widgets a month with heavy Flash and it’s still quite expensive. We were carrying that out of pocket.
GigaOM: What have you been trying to do with the company for the last 18 months?

Eisnor: We had a series of deals fall through related to acquisitions, one of them that I can disclose, with National Geographic.
GigaOM: What were the assets you were trying to sell?
Eisnor: Mostly the data. We have a thriving user community, with over 5 million maps created. If we started today we wouldn’t have the legacy overhead that we had starting in 2005. We spent a lot of time building web infrastructure, making all the widgets in JavaScript and Flash, and working out all the distribution. If we were starting today we’d focus much more on mobile, we’d use other APIs, and we could jumpstart it.
GigaOM: So are you saying that the main reason the company failed is it was too early for the market?
I’m not saying we didn’t have our own executional issues, but we were pretty well in front. We all assumed that the location-based advertising market would heat up a lot faster than it has. We’ve worked with all of them over the years: ReachLocal, AT&T/Ingenio (s T). Advertisers are still thinking that within a city means location-targeted, so all of the benefits we were providing around a specific location were not very real.
Sixty percent of our widgets are Flash, and there remains no location targeting on the ad side for Flash. Google has one coming, I’m certain, but that wasn’t there. Another 26 percent were sidebar widgets from blogs that we would never clutter up with advertising.
GigaOM: What does that mean for other startups in the location space?
Eisnor: I’m still bullish. Even if no dollars are made till 2011, people raising money now will be able to get over the gap.
GigaOM: Were there any companies from your generation that succeeded?
Eisnor: Google! Obviously they have done a tremendous amount of innovation, and if it weren’t for them that movement that we started wouldn’t have. OpenStreetMap isn’t making money, but they’re a foundation, so they have been able to get money through grants. I think if you look at amount of users we have today, if anyone would have been out in front it would have been us.
There’s two kinds of companies: One where you see new behavior is possible, but it’s risky because you don’t know if there’s a market. The other is you know a huge market is there and you are disrupting something that exists. This is the Waze side. Until the location-based marketing nut is cracked there are service companies, but those are not venture-backed opportunities, and there are premium services, but I think maps are something that need to be accessible to everyone.
GigaOM: What was the role of your investors in decisions about the end of Platial?
Eisnor: Everybody is still supportive in a friendly kind of way, but no one’s giving us more money. They were very helpful in creating opportunities over the last 18 months, and everyone has really made an honest effort.
GigaOM: Since you’ve moved to Waze, would you be able to help revive Platial if that were possible?
Eisnor: I’ve stayed on as chairman, but in an advisory capacity for sure. My husband, Jason, is still working on it and will lead the charge. I don’t think we’re going to be raising money, but trying to [make] do with the assets we have. We’re finished with the mourning stage. We’re trying to really give ourselves some credit for our role in the ecosystem and when this blows over see how we can further the movement.
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Photo by Flickr user tracy the astonishing