Start-up companies face enough obstacles without encountering the headwinds of the current European recession. So, how do geospatial technology entrepreneurs succeed in this environment? Spanish GIS consultant Alberto Santos Estévez talked with the co-founders of Vizzuality, a young Spanish firm that is securing international clients with its unique software solutions.
After reading several references in social networks, blog entries and mainstream business publications such as Forbes, I decided to contact Javier La Torre to understand for myself the work that his start-up company, Vizzuality, performs. Based in Spain and the U.S., Vizzuality is evaluating the opportunities that the geospatial technological revolution provides within and outside this technology sector.
I met La Torre and Vizzuality co-founder, Sergio Alvarez, in their office located just outside Madrid in the high-tech business park called Chambery Valley.
Alvarez and La Torre provided details about the origins of the company and how it came to offer a solution in the geospatial technology sector, and discussed the difference between the U.S. markets and those of Europe, and Spain in particular.
From humble beginnings
Vizzuality is a young company, just two years old, that began by chance. “We began as bloggers specializing in biodiversity, data visualization and processing of large datasets," said La Torre. That expertise helped the company secure clients such as NASA, the United Nations and the Wall Street Journal.
Alvarez said that their company was publicly funded by Plan Avanza and European projects. They were not interested in growing disproportionately or seeking funding streams beyond their current sources and their own capacity. Vizzuality currently has 16 employees: two designers, a data scientist, a journalist; the remaining employees are IT experts.
Internationalizing operations … “a given”
One of the key success factors of Vizzuality was to think “internationally” from the start. “We worked globally from the start. Our customers were worldwide so there was no strategy in this regard; we were born internationalized,” said La Torre. “If you're starting, it should be a natural assumption to go international.”
Vizzuality produces CartoDB, is currently launching CartoDB 2.0, as well as CartoSet and VisualRaster. While the name of each product appears to target the geospatial technology sector, Alvarez and La Torre are quick to point out that this is not the company’s particular focus. Geospatial technology programmers comprise just a small percentage of their clients and they strive to offer solutions to the 99.9% of programmers who want easy-to-use tools. CartoDB uses standards like SQL for geographic analysis and consolidated style sheets (CSS) for mapping layouts, technologies available to anyone who is aware of the Web development world. “We saw that, although the open source technology is very mature, there is a lack of elements that make it even easier to use," said La Torre." Another issue that is important to this company is software design and making interfaces attractive and easy-to-use, and more unique than what is found in more traditional GIS toolsets. “We believe that these viewers don'texploit all the information behind the data,” said La Torre. “The real power behind geospatial data has yet to be fully exploited.”
The Wall Street Journal chose CartoDB to track real-time polling data on Election Day in the U.S. CartoDB exploits Amazon cloud services to tile the data extremely fast with a high rate of confidence.
What’s next for Vizzuality?
“We’ve finished the first evolution of CartoDB. The product works well and in the second evolution we will continue to work on the utility of the product,” said La Torre. And what’s next? “HTML5 and CSS3 are certainly the future, but we will continue to support browsers like Internet Explorer," said Alvarez. “In terms of looking at our future strategy we want to grow organically for the time being. Data visualization is a growing trend and what we want is to make it accessible to everybody.”
What’s the state of the geospatial technology sector from the entrepreneur’s viewpoint?
According to La Torre, “This is a sector in full expansion and other technology sectors not directly linked to geospatial are realizing the huge potential of geoinformation. However, geospatial technology must be introduced with simple, attractive and low-cost solutions. From our standpoint, we do not intend to compete with Esri or Google. We sell technology for IT professionals who do not need to understand what a projection or datum is.”
Spain / Europe vs. USA
Another topic the Vizzuality principals discussed was the difference between the European and North American IT sectors. “The differences are striking, especially regarding the Spanish hang-ups and the bad habits of selling things that are misrepresented," said Alvarez. "In Spain there are huge, talented technology companies that are dying because of the inefficient exporting policies.” In addition, some of the larger European companies are reluctant to adopt innovations unless they solve an immediate problem, thus stifling some potentially useful products.
From a geospatial technology point of view, Vizzuality has found a way to expand the geospatial tools and data outside the sector, which opens many sales and partnering possibilities. The company offers very competitive prices and develops software designs beyond the traditional GIS approach.
From a personal point of view, after nearly two hours of speaking with Alvarez and La Torre, I had the enthusiastic feeling that, with an open mind, and without prejudice, Spanish entrepreneurs can succeed despite the thick atmosphere of pessimism that surrounds us.