Web Masters Episode 3: Chris Heivly

Below is a transcription of  Web Masters Episode 3: Chris Heivly. To learn more about Web Masters and subscribe, check out the Web Masters podcast page.



Mapquest Logos

Chris Heivly:

To give you some perspective, we had to keep buying T1 lines to handle the bandwidth. We’re in Lancaster. Pennsylvania, we’re tying into some university pod or node. By the way, there’s no data centers. So these servers are like in the last cubicle, back in the corner. They’re on power strips. There’s no load balancers, all this fancy stuff that happens today. We’re all but buying one of those $15,000 machines every other week. We’re maxing out like another 15 grand, so the costs are going up. They’re daisy chained. There’s some guy that looks like Doc Brown from Back to the Future, “More gigawatts,” and whatever. It’s crazy. As the internet takes off, we’re probably one of the first big breakout internet companies. People start to call you, and who’s calling you? Marriott. “Hey, I’m putting up a website. It’d be great to show people where all my hotels are.” Starbucks. “Hey, we got coffee shops all over.” I don’t even know all the companies. We weren’t super smart about this in the beginning. We’re like, “Yeah, we can do that.”

Aaron Dinin:

What exactly did this internet startup with daisy chain servers sitting in their back cubicle have to offer some of the biggest companies in the world? Well, they could help those companies give people directions to their businesses. Of course, I realize helping Starbucks give directions to their customers seems kind of silly today. After all, their customers can just pull out their phones, open their maps app of choice, type Starbucks, and the list of locations appears. Pretty easy, right? But remember, the first Google Maps app didn’t launch until 2008. Even though handheld and car based GPS units were available a few years before that, they were always niche and expensive products. For everyone else in the early days of the worldwide web, if you needed directions, whether it was to your closest Starbucks or for your cross country road trip, you went to one place. Mapquest.com.

Once you were on the website, you typed in your address, you typed in the address of where you wanted to go. And a few seconds later MapQuest gave you a pixilated map and turn by turn directions. Unfortunately, you couldn’t read those directions on your little flip phone. So you press the print button and got a physical copy of the directions along with a grainy, impossible to read image of a map. And you took it with you to your car, which was of course littered with all the previous MapQuests you’d already printed and hadn’t gotten around to throwing away. That was certainly true for my car. And it was true for just about everyone’s car I rode in in the late nineties and early 2000s. And in retrospect, it was actually an incredible form of viral marketing.

Chris Heivly:

I do this talk in versions of this talk all over the world and invariably 10, 15 people come up, they’re like, “You don’t understand. I used to print those directions.” I’m like, “We all did. I did.” You go a business trip, whatever, like wherever you’re going, right? Cross town, you printed a MapQuest. It’s like Xerox, right? You called it a MapQuest. Yeah. We killed a lot of trees, man.

Aaron Dinin:

One of the people responsible for killing all those trees was Chris Heivly, co-founder and former chief operating officer of the company that would become MapQuest. Ready to hear his story? Great. Let’s get dialed in.

[INTRO THEME]

Welcome back to Web masters. I’m your host, Aaron Dinin. I teach innovation and entrepreneurship at Duke University and I study the history of the internet. This podcast lets me combine those two interests because we get to explore the history of the internet and the world wide web by listening to stories from the entrepreneurs who built some of the world’s most important and impactful internet businesses. Let’s be honest, not too many businesses had a bigger reach than the one we’re going to learn about today. As our guest mentioned during the show’s intro, at one point, the word MapQuest became synonymous with driving directions in the same way Xerox became synonymous with photocopy.

But before we can hear about the stops along the journey toward MapQuest’s epic rise and ultimate fall, we’re going to take a quick detour to thank the people who help make this trip possible. See what I did there?

I want to thank the Latona’s, LLC for supporting this podcast. For those who don’t know, Latona’s is a boutique mergers and acquisitions company that specializes in the buying and selling of cashflow positive internet businesses. That means things like popular websites, SaaS apps, e-commerce stores, domain portfolios, basically anything online that can be a monetize-able work from home business, or really work from anywhere. Why not poolside or on a beach or maybe in a mountain cabin? That’s kind of the beauty of running an internet business. The internet is everywhere, which means internet businesses can be operated from anywhere. So if you’ve got an internet business you’re trying to sell or if you’re hoping to buy an internet business, head on over to latonas.com and let their incredible team help you out. That’s latonas.com. L-A-T-O-N-A-S.com.

All right. With that quick but important detour out of the way, I got a million of these, let’s hit the road with Chris Heivly as he explains what might be one of the geekiest startup origin stories we’re going to hear on Webmasters. And I don’t mean that to be an insult. I’ve known Chris for a lot of years and I’m pretty sure he would agree.

Chris Heivly:

As an undergraduate in college, I was actually a geography major. So yeah, it was one of the most disappointing days in my father’s life when I told him I was going to be a geography major. He’s like, “What the hell are you going to do with that?” I guess it played out okay at the end. But I love maps and I love geography. The interesting part is that I’m in college in the early eighties, ’80, ’81, I stumbled upon a computer class. I was one of the only non-computer science majors. I ended up in my undergraduate degree taking 12 or 15 hours of computer science, almost the equivalent of a minor today. 1979, ’80, ’81, nobody but computer science majors take a computer science class. There’s no desktop, right? The IBM desktop doesn’t come out until the summer of ’81 I believe. There was no desktop computers. Everything’s kind of mainframes and mini computers.

But I just loved the logic and the idea of computers. There was a computer mapping class that just blew my head apart. What’s interesting is that those were like really bad maps on dot matrix printers, right? I mean, it’s so coarse you wouldn’t even believe it. But it was the start of something. That professor who taught that class knew big computers, but he and I were figuring out how to apply computers and mapping together at the same time. There probably had to be less than 50 people in the country kind of noodling around on this stuff.

Aaron Dinin:

So here we’ve got Chris following a pattern that’s pretty common among the world’s most successful entrepreneurs. He wasn’t jumping on a bandwagon and he wasn’t running around Silicon Valley trying to convince investors to give his mapping startup money because computer mapping was a really hot industry. Instead he saw a technology that was incredibly primitive, but despite its limitations, he was able to imagine how the technology was going to improve in the coming years and what the implications would be as those improvements happened.

When I talk about this concept with my entrepreneurship students, I describe it as “seeing the future.” In other words, things that are popular now are rarely good entrepreneurial opportunities because the market is already flooded. Otherwise you probably wouldn’t have heard about whatever it is. So instead of focusing on what’s popular now, trying to find technologies and trends that aren’t widely known but have the potential to become popular in the not too distant future. That’s what Chris did. He found a technology that had the potential to become something much bigger, even though only a handful of people were talking about it. And he focused his efforts on that.

Chris Heivly:

I later went and got a master’s degree in geography. One of only two universities in the country that had a computer geography class. Some of you may know this as GIS today, geographic information systems. But what I tell people is I was in the GIS before we named it GIS. When I arrived at the University of South Carolina in January of 1983, having graduated as an undergrad nine days earlier, I went to this lab where I was going to have my research assistantship and the professor, who was a geography guy, really into computer mapping, handed me an Apple Lisa and handed me an IBM PC and said, “I heard you know how to write code. Why don’t you make them draw maps on the screens?”

Aaron Dinin:

FYI, the Apple Lisa and the IBM PC were launched in the early eighties and were two of the first desktop sized computers to have graphical user interfaces, otherwise known as GUIs or GUIs.

Chris Heivly:

At the earliest stages, I was a computer mapping guy. I like to say maybe I might’ve been one of the first computer geeks because I knew how to write code and I was a geography major. Map geeks. I mean, one of the first map geeks. I blew the whole joke there.

Aaron Dinin:

See what I mean about Chris? He’s such a geek, he thought the reason that joke wasn’t funny, it was because he didn’t deliver it properly. Lucky for all of us, great comedy skills weren’t necessary for building a company like MapQuest. Instead, what we needed was Chris’s keen entrepreneurial ability to recognize the importance of the shift that was occurring in the mapping industry as computers began getting graphical user interfaces.

Chris Heivly:

If you think about the transformation in kind of the late seventies, early eighties, from everything being on big mainframe computers, which only existed in fixed places with big computer centers. Take that arc all the way to today where you and I have the ability to do mapping in our hand at a moment’s notice. That’s the arc that I was involved in for about 25 years. That arc slowly but surely took control of mapping out of big fixed facilities. One of the stopping points is put it on a desktop computer. So you had computer monitors, right? You don’t have old mainframes. You basically did everything on a dot matrix printer. Now you have a monitor that’s usually one color or four. So make them draw maps on the screen. Now I know this sounds really barbaric, but it’s 1983. The idea of actually being able to manipulate a map in real time and change colors, change coding, change boundaries, sometimes layer on a river, sometimes put county boundaries, whatever. This is really cutting edge stuff. And it just took off from there.

Aaron Dinin:

Now you say it took off from there, but it’s not like we didn’t have maps before computers. I mean, people were sailing the oceans hundreds of years earlier using maps, right? So can you remind us a bit what it was like to live in a world where maps were the dominant tool for navigation rather than GPS? Because I mean, it kind of seems like that was really the big shift MapQuest was ushering in. Wasn’t it kind of like the stop gap during the global shit from map based navigation to GPS navigation?

Chris Heivly:

Sure. How we would navigate prior is we’d have a road atlas or a street map. I always tell kids like, “All right, next time you’re home, get in the backseat of your father’s car and sit behind the driver. And there’ll be a pouch behind that seat and reach your hand in there. I bet nine times out of 10, you’re going to find a folded paper map or a road atlas in there. That’s what we used before we had the web and mobile mapping.” So paper or funky mainframe machines that were only used by researchers and geeks like us.

Aaron Dinin:

I can see that, but of course those mainframes and even the much smaller desktop computers from the kind of early eighties, it’s not like they fit in our cars. At the time, what made you think these digital mapping services that you were working on could be useful for the average commercial consumer on a daily basis?

Chris Heivly:

All of that computer mapping technology was mostly going into what we know as geographic information systems, which are mostly for people managing land and government and all of those kinds of things. There’s a small group of us that took it more on the consumer track. How do we apply these computer technologies to help you and I as consumers? The next thing we looked at is that for our parents and some of their parents, when you went on a road trip, you went to AAA. And you went to AAA and you went to that office or you called them up and you were a member. And you said, “I need directions to go from Philadelphia to Orlando to go to Disney World.” And they would produce a little four inch by nine inch spiral bound little thing called a triptych. And that triptych was a custom map and showed you the directions.

And then they’d give you a bunch of books for every state, or here are the hotels in all of North Carolina as you drive through. And that was your kind of road trip planning stuff. The first thing we did at a company that we call GeoSystems is we went and took that PC, loaded it up with a network of all the highways and state routes. And we replicated those triptychs. We sold that to every one of the 14 auto clubs in the US. Montgomery Ward and Sears had auto clubs to compete with AAA. And together, they were generating about 15 million triptychs a year. We went to all 14 of those and we sold them this PC that we rolled into their back office, preloaded with all the map stuff at a really ugly black on white laser printer. By the way, Aaron, their laser printer was a brand new device. It cost us about 10 grand and it did 40 pages a minute. And it only printed one color right? Black on white paper.

But all of those auto clubs can now customize that trip from city to city. They weren’t pre-canned routes like you got at AAA at the time. That was our next stop. And now you and I as consumers could get a more customized, so you didn’t have to get it from Philly. You could get it from Lancaster or Newtown Square. You didn’t have to do it from the major cities. You could actually do it from your little town and you could go to another little town, right? You didn’t have to just go to the big centers like the fixed maps that AAA were doing. So that started to open up the door a little bit. And that was circa kind of ’89, ’90.

Aaron Dinin:

Why didn’t you want to go the government route? I mean, isn’t that kind of where all the money was?

Chris Heivly:

The government stuff was just fricking boring. I just had no interest, none whatsoever. I always liked to trek paths that were full of leaves and twists and turns and weren’t paved. So that was the unpaved path. I mean, doesn’t that sound like an entrepreneur? It just sounded sexier and more interesting.

Aaron Dinin:

No. It’s actually the opposite of what I’m always trying to tell entrepreneurs. They always want to imagine entrepreneurship just like you described it. It requires some sort of innate ability to spot great opportunities and just build, build, build. But I kind of want you to tell everyone there’s a specific repeatable model that can be learned because I mean, remember I teach entrepreneurship for a living, so I have to be able to sell that it’s a teachable skill, which means I need you to be a bit more responsible with your answer.

Chris Heivly:

You’re using the word entrepreneur and responsible in the same sentence. I think I’m going to push back a little bit on that, right? Some of it’s a leap of faith. Some of it’s just following your interests. Some of it’s just doing for you. You didn’t know that you uncovered some nascent need among a whole tribe of people. Sometimes we stumble into these things.

Aaron Dinin:

But there was some process in it, right? I mean, it’s not like you just built one of the world’s most popular websites by accident. It’s not something that was a complete stumble, right?

Chris Heivly:

Well, I think it’s half process, at best half lucky. I think when we’re done telling this MapQuest story, I think you’re going to see that we were very diligent and we were following stuff and we were fast followers and sometimes leaders. We were applying things without fear or inhibition. That’s I think a huge part of being an entrepreneur. Not just being smart. Smart only gets you part of the way, right? You’ve got to be diligent. You’ve got to uncover stuff. You’ve got to do customer discovery. You’ve got to figure out what your customers want. You’ve got to try things, experiment. Anyway, back to our regularly scheduled program.

Aaron Dinin:

To be fair, Chris is making an important point here. Success in entrepreneurship isn’t 100% skill and it’s also not 100% luck. It’s more a combination of factors. For me, that’s a big part of what makes a story like his and pretty much everyone else we meet here on the podcast so incredibly interesting. On one hand, you got someone like Chris with the ability to recognize the huge potential of a new technology like computer mapping. On the other hand, Chris had to be lucky enough to be exposed to that technology. So it’s also a right place, right time kind of thing. But then skill becomes a factor again because someone like Chris, who’s lucky enough to get exposed to revolutionary technologies has to also be able to take the right actions in response to what he’s seeing.

Chris Heivly:

By the early nineties, people were starting to put computers in their home. So now remember, we’re taking this mainframe in Sears and the Montgomery Wards and the AAA offices, and now we’re going into the home. The biggest thing for us, specifically for map people, was the advent of the CD-ROM. Before that it was floppy disc drives. So you could probably get away with sending some software and some data, whatever your cool little product was. You could probably get away with about 10, maybe 12 floppy discs, right? To install all this (beep). But for mapping data, that wasn’t even nearly enough, but the CD-ROM, and I think they were like 1.4 megabyte floppy discs. Now we’re talking about 650 megabytes. By today’s standards, you’re still laughing, but that was a big deal. Now we could put all that mapping data on a CD-ROM, and now you didn’t have to go to Sears. Now you could do it at home.

That first consumer product we came out with was called the AAA Trip Planner. Because I had a relationship with AAA, I went and licensed their brand and their name, obviously well-known. We did this together. By did this together, I mean they gave me their brand and I did all the hard work. We developed the product. Now you can do this at home and you got a printer and now you can print out directions from Philly to Orlando or Newtown Square to Orlando. By now, we also have lots of hotel information. So now you didn’t have to get all the hotels were North Carolina, just the ones that were around your route. We’re actually now improving the product. I like to say that technology first replicates and then it innovates. We replicated when we put all those PCs in the back office, we just made a better triptych, but now we’re actually starting to innovate. Now I could start to add hotels and make stops along the way and get some more customized directions. So that was a really big stop on the arc of this story.

Aaron Dinin:

And just to help us understand the story a bit better, who else is involved at this point? I mean, it’s obviously not just you. Of course, you never claimed it was somehow your brilliant brain child. Can you talk a bit about the environment in which all this is happening? Because I feel like a lot of people picture entrepreneurs as these unique kinds of people who just come up with brilliant ideas in their heads and then take charge and execute them as solo leaders or founders. But of course, that’s never really the case, right? And it’s not what’s going on here either.

Chris Heivly:

That’s a great question because what I kind of skipped over is that we did all this in a mapping company that had been around from the sixties.

Aaron Dinin:

That company, by the way, was RR Donnelley & Sons, which is still a Fortune 500 company. So again, it’s not like the MapQuest team is sitting in a garage somewhere.

Chris Heivly:

From an internal point of view, when I first showed up, my job was to help automate a manual map making business that had about 50 cartographers. We made maps for National Geographic and the park service and textbooks and history books and all those things. When I arrived, we started to automate that as more of a cost efficient tool. But we also started to see these other opportunities starting with the triptych and then the CD-ROM. So we had now created a second division. All of this, our company name was called GeoSystems. I know it was very smart and so far reaching.

We’re still called GeoSystems at the time. By the way, headquarters is in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, home to 55,000 Amish people. The story of MapQuest is not a Silicon Valley or a Boston or New York venture funded thing. We were part of a larger company. Here we have this map division, but the key was around ’94, very smart guy inside this big company said, “This thing’s really getting hot. These guys are doing some special things. We’re inhibiting them. We need to break them out of the company as a self-contained standalone company.” So in ’94, ’95, we went out and raised money and split the company out of this big $6 billion printing company that we were part of and split GeoSystems out complete with still the old 50 cartographers making maps, the AAA kind of back office, and now the CD-ROM. We split that off, raised some venture funding and started to operate on our own, which we’re now really like that late stage startup.

Aaron Dinin:

I think I actually vaguely remember those CD-ROM trip planner softwares. I wasn’t driving, but I would have been maybe like 11 or 12 and I was probably trying to hide computer games, but those trip planners were like the next aisle over from the computer games. But that’s also right around when I was starting to be able to kind of sort of maybe get online a little too. So obviously that’s the next transition, right? The MapQuest team must have started putting content online. Can you tell us a bit about how that happened?

Chris Heivly:

The internet. Yeah. It’s ’95 ish. Internet in 1995 is mostly in colleges. The internet connections are between colleges, not between individuals or companies. We had a California venture capital group that were certainly seeing things before we could in Lancaster. So they were kind of opening our eyes. We might be 100 people at the time, 50 cartographers, 20 or 30 digital people on that GeoSystems side, a bunch of admin, because you got 100 people. Probably doing somewhere between five and six, maybe $7 million a year in revenue, probably operating at around breakeven ish, depending on how much we were investing in the digital side at the time.

We start hearing about this thing called the internet. And we reach out to our local university, which is called Millersville State University. No one’s ever heard of it, but they were at our local university. We were able to kind of get a tie in to their node on this thing called the internet through a little T1 line, really super slow by today’s standards. We called it MapQuest. The URL was MapQuest, the company still called GeoSystems, and let’s try it out. Let’s see how we do this.

Aaron Dinin:

So it’s 1995. The GeoSystems team is just tying into the internet and launching a version of their product online called MapQuest. And here’s where things get interesting. When Chris was talking about the CD-ROM version of the product that would eventually become MapQuest, he forgot to mention an important part of the story.

Chris Heivly:

I jumped over something. Let me stop for a second. Our second CD-ROM product, instead of going city, we now had enough data and had enough knowledge on the digital side to compress data. Now we could go address to address. The key here is that we did not have to build our own data set for address to address. By this time, there was two big data companies that had spent, at the end of the day, close to a billion dollars to build data sets for in-car navigation. They’d been building these data sets, but in-car navigation, remember this is still kind of mid nineties, really didn’t start to hit until 2000 and maybe even later, but they were building the datasets. So from a entrepreneurial point of view, we did not have to go build that data because that would have taken, you heard me say, it took both of them close to a billion dollars to build these for the car companies.

We just showed up one day. We knew them, and we said, “Listen, I know you’re doing this, what’s going to be for in car navigation, we got this data. How about you license it to us for this thing called the internet? We’re going to put it on a CD-ROM, we’re going to do some stuff for consumers.” They’re like, “All right.” And they gave us this deal that you would never do today because they just thought like, “Hey, they can generate a couple extra hundred thousand, like, woo hoo.” Right? So we got a sweetheart deal. We did not have to do the hardest part, which is finding the data. We just had to use the data smarter than everyone else. People in New York and Boston, like non map people didn’t even know these companies existed, but this was our jam, right? We were map geeks. Total map geeks.

Aaron Dinin:

Remember at the beginning of this podcast when I called Chris a geek and promised it wasn’t an insult? This is why. Being map geeks is what allowed the MapQuest team to recognize the enormous value of putting an expensive resource onto the web before anyone else. And it was the proverbial secret sauce behind MapQuest product, or to put it into business school terms, for those of you who like those kinds of things, licensing the address data set for incredibly cheap was MapQuest’s sustainable, competitive advantage. And the competitor would have to spend a billion dollars creating their own data, which of course, Google would eventually do, but it took more than a decade.

In the meantime, MapQuest was the default source for navigation online. Nobody could do it better. In a lot of ways, it reminds me of the Netflix story. Although Netflix is currently focused on transitioning into being a content creator. As many of you probably recall, the original online Netflix catalog came entirely from studio licensing deals. The studios agreed to give Netflix the rights to stream their content online for incredibly cheap because they didn’t think it had any value. Of course, fast forward a decade, and every studio is desperately trying to launch its own service to compete with Netflix. Unfortunately for the MapQuest team, their company didn’t follow the same trajectory as Netflix. Instead, its leaders ultimately took the company in a different. To be clear, by this point, Chris wasn’t involved in the day-to-day, but he’s still able to tell us a bit about what happened. That begins by talking about how the MapQuest team tried to monetize on its enormous success.

Chris Heivly:

Initially, our business model grown out of what we knew, was to charge people a fee. Then as people realized that the internet was an advertising vehicle, we added advertising. It started with banner ads and skyscrapers, if you remember all those things, and started populating the pages with advertising. The business model was access fees and then eventually advertising, and then it was just all advertising.

Aaron Dinin:

Okay. So yeah. Made money off advertising because you had tons of users and that makes sense. But how did those users find you? What was your user acquisition process?

Chris Heivly:

Dude, I have no idea. I mean, we did no advertising. We did no promotion. You’re not going to go to conferences for this. This is a word of mouth classic, which I don’t think exists much any day if at all, first mover advantage. We were the first ones out there. People like you. Let me return the question to you. How did you find out about it? Do you even remember?

Aaron Dinin:

Not even a little. I actually have no idea how I started using MapQuest.

Chris Heivly:

Yep. Do you remember how you discovered kayak or TripAdvisor or anything, right? Just people talk about it. “Dude, you got to see this site.” Or someone gets in your car and goes, “What the (beep) are all these pieces of paper laying around? What is this stuff?”

Aaron Dinin:

In general, I think this is one of the big differences between the early web and the modern web. The marketing processes have become significantly more sophisticated. Don’t get me wrong. For the most part, consumers don’t understand the marketing funnels they’re in, but these days companies spend millions of dollars thinking about customer and user acquisition. And if you spoke with a founder or early employee at big old successful startup, they’d surely be able to tell you lots about the user acquisition process. That’s not so much the case in the early days of the web. It makes it seem like people just got lucky. And I suppose in some respects they did. But in other respects, nobody had to think much about user acquisition because users of the early web tended to be more exploratory. Remember people on the web in the mid to late nineties were early adopters, and that’s a cohort of users that’s inherently more willing to both experiment and tolerate what we might call the technology’s rougher edges. However, as web users became more sophisticated, their expectations got higher and this is where ultimately MapQuest couldn’t or maybe wouldn’t keep up.

Chris Heivly:

Google Maps didn’t come out until 2005, nine years after MapQuest launched. MapQuest, we took it public in ’99 and AOL bought it off the public markets in 2000 ish, somewhere in there, for a reported $1.2 billion. AOL was the bomb. Remember they were CD-ROMs. They were a little bit old school, needing to embrace the internet. AOL had all the content. Now they needed to kind of keep getting more and more content. They were all about eyeballs, completely ad models. Every page that they could serve was an opportunity to sell ads. We had now renamed the company MapQuest over that beautiful intellectually stimulating GeoSystems name. Obviously MapQuest was the brand, so we renamed it. We split off the old mapping company that stayed out on its own, took it public, great things happened. AOL bought it. Eventually ended up splitting off that old map making business in Lancaster.

In between then, a few years after we launched in ’96, we moved the company, the MapQuest portion, to Denver. That was one of the first places also to start data centers. So at some point we moved all the data into a data center and out of the cubicle, which was progress, I guess, we’d call that. The company starts to mature. Obviously with AOL, what did they care about? More pages. More pages. They had an advertising sales force that was a behemoth. They were the Google before Google. My knowledge starts to wane kind of post AOL. But what my belief was is AOL wasn’t really interested in staying current, staying fresh. They were really interested in just monetizing the crap out of all those pages. With the amount of traffic they were getting, MapQuest was driving its own traffic, but also AOL could drive traffic to it. At one point, I think it was the second largest business unit inside AOL, after I think, maybe finance. I think they sat on the product laurels way too long.

Aaron Dinin:

As Google moved into maps and began innovating, AOL kept doing what was working so well. And to be fair from AOL’s perspective, it’s kind of hard to blame them because AOL made money off advertising. And in those days, that mainly came from page views. In that context, AOL didn’t have much incentive to give people something like real-time GPS guided navigation because real-time GPS guided navigation meant less unique page views on MapQuest and probably less revenue. Google, on the other hand, cared less about page views and more about having the data of where you started, where you were going and how you got there. For them, developing GPS guided navigation made tons of sense.

And of course for consumers, it was a no brainer deciding which service was more valuable. Google Maps with its instant navigation feature on your phone directly in the palm of your hand ultimately offered more value and more convenience for consumers than printing directions ahead of time. There was a brief moment in history as people changed from navigating using maps to navigating using their real time GPSs that printing directions before you left home was incredibly valuable. Sure, the maps weren’t beautiful, but they didn’t have to be. What mattered was the increased convenience.

Chris Heivly:

When you would look at those graphics today, you will just laugh your ass off. I mean, you would literally go, “Why would anybody look at this?” This is one of those entrepreneurial lessons that we forget that the value wasn’t in the quality of the map. The value was in the fact that I now could make directions for me when I needed it customized to me. The map was just a guide. The directions about take I-95 South, get off at 495, go around the beltway, right? Those were the value. So the fact that the graphics were coarse and ugly really had no bearing. When you think about product, as we think today, as a cartographer and we have people going, “Oh my God, how do we make this map better looking?” And we’re like, “No, no, no. Throw it out there.” You know the whole experiment in MVP thing? There really is a lesson in hindsight about the quality that you and I want as product people. If there’s value elsewhere, find where that value is and do that.

Don’t be so concerned about features and quality per se. The value was now I didn’t have to call up AAA and have them send this triptych to me. Now I can do it at my house the night before the road trip. And then you change the whole mindset, right? Why would anybody now go to someone else to generate a map? I mean, we’re so far past that it’s not even funny, but 30 years ago you had to go to somebody else to get directions.

Aaron Dinin:

Chris is right. Even if these days we can’t imagine printing off directions from home before hopping in our cars, there was a time not too long ago when that was the best option that only existed because MapQuest made it possible. You know what? It still got you where you wanted to go. Speaking of which, I hope this episode has taken you a little closer to where you want to go with your knowledge of the worldwide web. I hope you’ve enjoyed the trip as much as me. If you have, I’m going to ask you to take one more trip to your favorite podcasting app and subscribe to Webmasters. While you’re there, please, please go ahead and leave a five star review. Remember those reviews help us spread the word about the podcast, which in turn helps us get more incredible stories like the one you just heard from Chris Heivly. Of course, I owe a huge thanks to Chris for taking the time to talk with us.

If you want more from him, he has got a great book about entrepreneurship called Build the Fort. You can find it on Amazon. You can also follow him on Twitter. He’s @ChrisHeivly. That last name is spelled H-E-I-V-L-Y. Webmasters is on Twitter too. We’re @webmasterspod and I’m on Twitter @AaronDinin. That’s A-A-R-O-N D-I-N-I-N. Of course you can also get more content from me on medium.com where I regularly publish articles about startups and entrepreneurship. Just search my name over there. I also want to take another moment to thank our incredible sponsors, Latona’s. If you’re in the market to buy or sell an internet business, be sure to check out latonas.com. I want to thank our sound engineer, Ryan Higgs, for all his incredible work on this episode. And as always, I want to thank all of you for hanging around and listening. With that, we’ve reached the end of this episode’s journey, which means, well, it’s time for me to sign off.