Blue Marble Geographics: After 10 Years, Still ‘Knuckling Down’ to Business

By Nora Parker

Blue Marble Geographics turns ten this month, and as founder Jeff Cole says, considering they're a software company founded in the early 90's with a .com strategy, some might be surprised they've experienced as much success as they have.Cole took time out on the eve of a major new release of their flagship product, GeoCalc, to speak with Senior Editor, Nora Parker, about where they've been, where they're hoping to go and what challenges they see in the future.

Nora Parker (NP): As you celebrate the 10th anniversary of the company, can you reflect on where you thought you'd be versus where you actually are as a company? What were your hopes, dreams and aspirations in starting the company, and to what extent have you hit the mark?
Jeff Cole (JC): Considering the fact that we are a software company that started in the 90's, that we primarily used the ".com" model (web-based sales and order processing), that we are based in Maine, and despite all of that we are successful, profitable, and a well known, reputable company I would say that I am very pleased with where the company is today. The only thing we didn't do that most ".coms" did was take outside investment. As we made money we put it back into the company and then grew as our customer base grew. Simple business logic really, but it is a source of pride for us.

Blue Marble started out in an office over my barn, as myself and my wife Eva. Our hopes were to make something of the Geographic Calculator, our first product, but we had no idea how far it would go. I guess it was the morning I woke up to a credit card order for the calculator faxed from Tibet, that's when I thought wow we might be on to something. That was three months into it. Today we are now in over 90 countries and it's still amazing to hear of a new country or location that is using the calculator such as the Ivory Coast or Western Samoa.

So regarding "hitting the mark." We've created a great product and product suite. We developed a great company around that offering. I would say that we have hit the mark and are on track, but we are still hungry. We are now preparing to implement a growth plan that will help us to double the company's revenues and employees. It is a very exciting time for us and there is definitely new ground out there to cover. Hopefully we will be just as pleased after 20 years.

NP: What have been the biggest disappointments?
JC: Disappointments, I can't say I have too many disappointments.

NP: What challenges have you addressed in terms of rolling out a partners program? Has it achieved the level of success you would have hoped for?
JC: Our partner program is really just getting going in some ways. We have almost 200 resellers and Geopartners (strictly web based resellers), but we have not leveraged them to the extent we should. We are in the process of revamping that program. We are going country by country and looking at our resellers and partners in that country to decide, what do we need in that country, what do our partners need and how can we help them to sell Blue Marble better. We are also on the look out for strategic partners to help with those goals and to help us be a better GIS company. Partnering is certainly part of the growth plan.

NP: Given that many software companies are adopting .NET for application development, how do you see your product suite evolving to support this technology?

JC: We think .NET is certainly becoming more common, though not as common as some would have you believe. Some of our customers are asking for .NET capabilities for some of our products and as we always do we listen to our customers. With respect to the role of .NET in web services we feel it is crucial.

NP: Now that there is much hype about web services and the delivery of niche software modules via the web, how will your business model change, if at all, to facilitate a customer base that wants to pull applications as a web service? What licensing challenges do you foresee?

JC: Web Services is very interesting. It has become a buzzword and Industry analysts say it, and write about it, a lot more then the typical GIS developer or user ever does. However, the concept has proven itself on functionality levels for things like travel reservations and tracking shipping of packages.

Vendors talk a mean game, but have not really embraced it. That said, we are looking very closely at it because we like to stay ahead of the curve. There are a few options; we could offer up SDK (software developer tool) technology as a web service or we could offer up application technology. The SDK tools might not really change how we do business with our customers from a financial standpoint, however, selling what was a stand-alone application as a subscription or pay per use service could cut into our customer base. It requires a delicate balance. Again there is the issue of adoption. Basically it is in the early adoption stage and the question is will it become adopted more widely and if so where is the sweet spot as a vendor. Licensing models would probably have to be pay-per-use and that would require a more labor intensive accounts payable/receivable as well as the fact that the model could hurt sales numbers because instead of buying the application out right for a few conversions, the user would just pay the lesser charge of pay as you go. Then there is the question of tangible product offering. GIS professionals are not necessarily web focused enough yet. They may have a hard time buying into the Web Services concept.

NP: Have you seen the market for object components (such as GeoObjects or GeoCalc) decrease with the interest in .NET?
JC: No we have not seen a drop off in either of those products. That is in some part proof of "don't believe the hype" about .NET. In fact both of those products have been growing in sales.However, this is not to say that .NET is not an important part of the future. Users just adopt technology a little slower then we might like to think.

NP: Can you share any product development plan for release in the near future?
JC: Well we are releasing Version 6.0 of our Geographic Calculator tomorrow, Tuesday August 26, 2003. Our marketing folks are calling this version our Anniversary edition.It has some great functionality for new support for custom local coordinate systems using a polynomial Best-Fit method that links a local system to a geodetic coordinate system. Accuracy can be checked by using the new Display Registration Errors dialog, displayed via an SVG error graph viewer A convenient new view window dialog for vector file display has also been added among other new features and datum's that have been added. It also has a new XP look and feel.

Published Friday, August 29th, 2003

Written by Nora Parker

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