Last week I attended the Geospatial World Forum 2019 in beautiful Amsterdam, the annual gathering of geospatial professionals and leaders representing the entire geospatial industry. On Day 3 of the conference, there was a Startup Day – an opportunity for location-based startups to mingle with policymakers, corporations, incubators and experts in the startup ecosystem.

The opening panel session was facilitated by Harsha Vardhan Madiraju from Geomedia with a panel comprising: Ed Parsons, Geospatial Technologist, Google; Berend Van Hemel, Founder, Market Extension; and Will Cadell, Chief Executive Officer, Sparkgeo. Main focus of the panel was Location-based innovations: does the industry need more startups?

Many challenges face a startup, you have to do everything at the same time whilst convincing people that you are capable of building a solution. “Your customers need to believe in you, and many entrepreneurs struggle with selling themselves”, was a key challenge described by Ed, and “it was hard for a service company to bring a product to market”.

Ideas are cheap, but bringing an idea to market is hard. “Have early conversations with customers and sculpt around the present user experience” was the advice from Will, said it was important to talk to a lot of people and listen carefully to the critics to get the idea right. Ed cautioned that when developing an MVP, often a key missing aspect is the product management part, and it is better not to develop radically new technologies, but rather to package existing technologies to address a new domain. Starting a new business is a human problem, and you must use whatever works for you to connect with the right people and get the idea off the ground. And, Will’s experience was that “It is not an MVP unless you are testing the business model.”

When it came to validating your business model, Berend’s advice was clear and simple “Make a profit, be flexible and test if people are willing to pay”, supported by Ed who said “You need to be cash positive in your growth strategy and that the business model does not penalise success”, and “The simpler the business model the easier it will be to sell”. Will advised to grow your startup off revenue if you possibly can, and Ed agreed saying that it was best to find an approach that allows you to have organic growth with a confirmed customer base.

When looking for opportunity, Ed’s recommendation was to look within other sectors and to find existing problems where geospatial might be part of the broader solution. Discussion turned to the topic of GDPR and privacy, Berend suggested that we often overdo it, and Will imagined a future where we will own our data, possibly on the blockchain and we are put back in charge.

A question was raised regarding developing products and services and if we are past the point of disruption. Berend’s perspective was that “Building a product is harder, but it is a lot more scalable – conceivably infinitely scalable”, and Ed closing thought was, “Why don’t we call ourselves the Geospatial Services Industry like the financial sector?”. Perhaps we have a lot to learn?

As a founder of a geospatial startup, the session gave me much food for thought. As an industry, we have waited so long for geospatial to enter the mainstream. Now we are there and geospatial technology is underpinning so much of our digital economy, we are still inward facing and seem unable to grasp the real opportunity. Building a geospatial startup is hard, but the potential impact is unbounded – truly, we are living through interesting times.