Tom MacWright


Someone asked over email about why I stopped building Placemark as a SaaS and made it an open source project. I have no qualms with sharing the answers publicly, so here they are:

I stopped Placemark because it didn’t generate enough revenue and I lost faith that there was a product that could be implemented simply enough, for enough people, who wanted to pay enough money, for it to be worthwhile. There are many mapping applications out there and I think that collectively there are some big problems in that field:

  1. The high end is captured by Esri, whose customers dislike the tool but tolerate it and are locked into it, and Esri is actually very good at what it does.
  2. The low end is captured by free tools that are subsidized by big companies like Google, or run by open source communities like QGIS, which causes users to generally expect similar software to be super cheap. VC-funded startups are able to underprice their software for a few years and spend tens of millions building it. Placemark was fully bootstrapped, self-funded, and built just by me.
  3. There are vast differences in user expectations that make it very hard to make a software product in the middle, between the complexity of QGIS and the simplicity of Google Maps - people want some combination of analytics, editing, social features, etc that are all hard to combine into anything simple.
  4. It is very hard to build a general-purpose piece of software like Placemark. If I were to do it again, I’d do something in a niche, targeting one specific kind of customer in one specific industry.

I do want to emphasize that I knew most of this stuff going into it, and it’s, like good that geo has a lot of open source projects, and I don’t have any ill feelings toward really any of the players in the field. It’s a hard field!

As I’ve said a bunch of times, the biggest problem with competition in the world of geospatial companies is that there aren’t many big winners. We would all have a way different perspective on geospatial startups if even one of them had a successful IPO in the last decade or two, or even if a geospatial startup entered the mainstream in the same way as a startup like Notion or Figma did. Esri being a private company is definitely part of this - they’re enormous, but nobody outside of the industry talks about them because there’s no stock and little transparency into their business.

Also, frankly, it was a nerve-wracking experience building a bootstrapped startup, in an expensive city, with no real in-person community of people doing similar kinds of stuff. The emotional ups and downs were really, really hard: every time that someone signed up and cancelled, or found a bug, or the servers went down as I was on vacation and I had to plug back in.

You have to be really, really motivated to run a startup, and you have to have a very specific attitude. I’ve learned a lot about that attitude - about trying to get positivity and resilience, after ending Placemark. It comes naturally to some people, who are just inherently optimistic, but not all of us are like that.