MapmyIndia’s Rakesh and Rohan Verma talk to Rrishi Raote about making money from maps and mapping.
Before setting out for the MapmyIndia office in South Delhi, I must find out where it is. Where better to look than on MapmyIndia.com? However: enter the street number and address in the search box, and the right answer does not pop up.
Why? “Something is free, something is paid,” explains founder and MD Rakesh Verma. He means that although MapmyIndia is the first mapping company in India to have put actual house number data for many cities and towns onto its maps, only a paying customer can actually search by street number. If I had entered “MapmyIndia, Delhi” into the search box, he says, the correct location would have appeared.
The distinction, says his son Rohan, 24, a director of the company, is between a “point of interest” and an “address”. The first can move around (company office, restaurant, brand outlet), the latter stays put. MapmyIndia’s customers are interested in both kinds of locations, and want the information at hand — literally at hand, on their smartphones, or on GPS and in-car navigation screens.
But MapmyIndia started in 1992, when technology was just beginning to catch up with opportunities in mapping. Verma went to a computer expo where he found mapping software. Excited, he came back to India determined to map India digitally — “I mean every nook and corner of India.” He and his wife Rashmi set up CE Info Systems, the parent of MapmyIndia, to do that job.
It was laborious work. Verma had 200 surveyors moving along streets recording and measuring, marking all data on paper. Back in the office, the data fed a digital system. Such a map could be constantly updated rather than periodically redone.
This slowly growing map of India was not as yet a product for ordinary consumers. The first big customer was Coca-Cola which returned to India in 1995 and found itself saddled with 5,000 outlets and an archaic distribution network. Every bottler “had a legal guy describe the territory in words — district, subdistrict, you know, the typical language that comes up in any government document,” says Verma. Company officials were looking helplessly at lines on paper. “Why don’t you do it on the computer,” came the order from headquarters.
Putting the data onto a digital map meant that Coca-Cola could see what territories overlapped or got left out, match outlets to population, plan a distribution network, and so on. Some 500 organisations have since used MapmyIndia’s services. “Realigning territories is a continuous exercise in the distribution business,” says Rohan smugly.
The next step was satellite imagery, from the late 1990s. Then came GPS, the satellite-based tracking system. “My father and mother would travel in cars [with GPS] and drive down stretches of the North-east or wherever else,” says Rohan. “The impact on the digital map was a huge change in accuracy.”
Accuracy led to more business applications, like logistics and navigation. And this took MapmyIndia from its B2B focus to look into B2B2C (business-to-business-to-consumer) and B2C. Now the market leader is best known for its maps in smartphones and tablets and GPS-based navigation products which go into cars from luxury sedans to hatchbacks. They are widely used, though some tech-savvy users point out in online fora that the maps are not always perfect (and indeed, the online version is littered with minor spelling mistakes and the like) and that some of MapmyIndia’s map-equipped hardware is overpriced.
Verma and Rohan are looking further ahead. In June they anounced that Zenrin, a Japanese mapping company, had bought 17 per cent of MapmyIndia. “With Zenrin we’ve secured access to technology which is five years ahead of the market,” says Rohan — including putting 3D objects (for visual cues) onto maps. Another alliance is with US-based Nuance, to improve text-to-speech for its navigator, and bring in other languages like Hindi. They want to help improve railway ticketing, transparency in distribution, universal ID delivery, fleet management and more. It’s all being mapped out.