Can you remember what you were doing, exactly 1,000 days ago?
Take a look at the grid of little squares above.
Yep, that’s 1,000 days. Doesn’t look all that long, right?
It probably represents 1/30th of your life. *gulp*
1,000 days ago we were embarking on the first steps of our journey to build Maptia. Since then, we have lived and worked on four continents while pursuing our quest to bring our vision for Maptia to life.
Today, on (approximately) the 1,000th day of this particular journey, we are launching Maptia 2.0 out into the world.
We explain what’s new about Maptia 2.0 in another post, but this milestone seemed like an appropriate moment to pause and reflect on our journey so far. We hope that the ten beliefs we share below will resonate, and will be cheerfully challenged and discussed by those of you who, like us, have jumped in at the deep end to pursue a more unconventional path.
1. Don’t Let Inexperience Hold You Back
We didn’t have a clue what we were doing when we founded Maptia.
Seriously. Not a clue.
We were 22-years-old, fresh from backpacking and hitchhiking around South America and Southeast Asia, and we thought that travel was quite probably the solution to most of the world’s problems.
Well, not exactly — we had just graduated in geography, economics and philosophy, so we knew it wasn’t that simple — but we definitely thought that the world would be a happier and more understanding place if more people got out there and experienced it.
So we decided to build a map with everything a traveller could possibly need. Photographs, blogs, stories, flights, hostels, a way to talk to other travellers, volunteering opportunities, hiking paths, surf spots… you name it, we wanted to put it on the map. (This was actually how we came up with the name for Maptia — a map with lots of layers or tiers. ‘Tia’ seemed more friendly than ‘tier’, and boom, we had maptia.com.)
There was only one small problem. None of us had ever written a line of code. Nor had we studied at business school or had a formal job, and nor did we have any experience in design or marketing (heck, we barely knew what the term ‘startup’ meant). Our collective entrepreneurial experience was limited to a student travel magazine and a village recycling scheme that Dorothy insisted on organising when she was eight. Not sounding so promising, right?
And then, out of nowhere, while couchsurfing with a Haitian prince in Buenos Aires (that’s another story), we heard about an experimental new business incubator run by the Chilean government. Once back in England we spent days on the floors of our parents’ living rooms, sketching out ideas on large sheets of paper, and frantically trying to educate ourselves on what a startup was. Four weeks later, Dorothy had taught herself how to make an animated video, and we had cobbled together our best shot at the application video and pitch. We figured we had nothing to lose.
Luckily Start-up Chile at least matched us when it came to blind optimism, and we got in. A far-flung government was indeed giving us $40,000 dollars (yes, that really was a no-strings-attached grant and we got 1-year work visas to boot). Santiago, here we come.
So a little less than 1,000 days ago — along with Jianshi, an enthusiastic developer whom we had somehow convinced to join our team all the way from Japan — we landed in the middle of the Chilean entrepreneurial ecosystem, with over 200 other teams from more than 60 countries around the world. And when you put that many optimistic people in an office everything is exciting. Even accounting is exciting. Imagine the pandemonium when they started handing out free croissants.
So apart from gaining a few pounds, we also gained a lot of knowledge from an incredible peer-to-peer mentoring network. And let’s face it, we needed it. Dean wrote his first lines of code (he is now a full-stack developer and has so far written Maptia 2.0 in its entirety), Jonny started to learn the ropes of marketing and growing a community, and Dorothy started to close the gap between how we imagined Maptia and what it might actually look like.
It was a humble beginning.
Today, the honest truth is that most of the time, we still feel like we don’t quite know what we’re doing. Often it feels like we’re making it all up as we go along. But most of the time, this doesn’t actually seem to matter. Instead, we know that we are constantly challenging ourselves to learn new skills and to propel Maptia forwards into uncharted waters.
Inexperience and naivety have been two of our greatest assets. Had we known how challenging the road ahead would be, or how many times we would be forcing ourselves to plunge into deep water without a life raft to stay afloat, perhaps we would have been too daunted to even begin.
Combined with a hefty dose of determination, our naivety and inexperience had propelled us into an extremely powerful position where we were surrounded by opportunities and learning faster than we ever had before.
2. Ignore Plan B, It Distracts from Plan A
Fast forward six surreal months in Santiago, and our freshly acquired startup savvy was just enough to hustle our way into the distinguished US-based accelerator program Techstars.
We have no idea what on earth made us think that we could possibly get into a program where many of the founders are ex-Amazon, Google, or Apple employees, and where the odds of getting in are statistically lower than those at Harvard or Yale. But while our fellow graduates from university were pursuing successful careers in London, we found ourselves on the other side of the world, without a salary, and our pennies were running out. We knew that we needed more mentorship and guidance if we were going to give Maptia the chance we believed it deserved… and where better to get it than one of the best accelerator programs in the world?
So we said, screw it, we’ll give this our best damn shot. And when we were invited to the pre-selection Techstars Open Day we flew the 10,000 km from Santiago to Seattle with our remaining funds. We secretly slept on their office floor to save money, sent hundreds of emails, set up more than ten meetings with Techstars mentors in less than three days, made personalised postcards for the program directors, and did our utmost to show tangible progress during the six week application period.
Dean even wrote a song for our application video, which included the lyrics, “Situation prototype, nearly made it overnight. Still, it’s looking pretty tight. Just ask my mum, she likes it.”
As with Start-up Chile, and even more crucially this time, we gave our application everything we had. Even when our chances seemed slim to none and the mentors remained skeptical, we didn’t give up.
This tenacious and creative mindset — combined with Dean’s musical genius and our beguiling British accents — must have eventually done the trick to convince Techstars that we were a strong (albeit very raw) team and that we would commit ourselves to everything the program had to offer. They were willing to put their faith in our team, and again, unbelievably, we were accepted.
3. Being a Startup Founder is Not for the Faint-Hearted
During the first few weeks of the Techstars program, the tornado of advice from experienced mentors caused us to question almost everything we were doing. This process is affectionately known among the Techstars founders as ‘mentor whiplash’.
We found that despite working irrationally long hours and pushing ourselves to ‘do more faster’ (the Techstars mantra) we ended up losing focus on what we wanted to build, especially since we lacked the experience to have much confidence in our own ideas.
As the underdogs of the group, we often felt that perhaps we didn’t deserve to be here, and became acutely aware of our own ignorance. This led to some significant sleep deprivation and a near perpetual state of anxiety, coming to a head ten weeks into the program when Dorothy broke down sobbing in the middle of a pitch practice, in front of all our mentors and fellow Techstars teams.
It took a lot of determination and grit to weather the storm of feedback and advice, to bounce back from the constant challenges of what we thought we wanted to build, and to push ourselves to improve and evolve our product and idea enough to be ready for Demo Day — the culmination of the Techstars program, when each company gets to pitch their startup to a roomful of hundreds of investors.
From cycling home as dawn rose over Seattle’s iconic Space Needle, to sleeping on the sofas in the basement of the co-working space, we pushed ourselves harder than ever before — swinging wildly between elation and despair many times during the three-month program.
Most of the time we felt like this. And a lot of the time we still do. As a founder, the feelings of responsibility and pressure can sometimes be overwhelming.
During the three-month long Techstars program we learned more than we could have ever thought possible, and were incredibly grateful for the world-class and thoughtful mentorship offered by the generous Techstars family. It was undoubtedly a pivotal time for us, and made a significant contribution to where our team is today.
In the end though, our experience at Techstars helped to confirm and solidify certain core beliefs that we had held all along, but that perhaps weren’t quite in sync with the typical Silicon Valley mindset.
Firstly, we knew that we had no desire to build a flashy, short-lived product lacking in substance or meaning, only to be swallowed up by a bigger company in a couple of years time. And secondly, that we weren’t motivated by making a lot of money — instead we wanted to build a company from its mission outwards, starting first with its heart and purpose, and with the impact that we wanted to make in the world.
We needed more time, the space to gain perspective, and the chance to really dig into the philosophies behind what we were building. Our short-term ‘foreign alien’ visa status in the U.S. was about to expire and spending six or even twelve months in a long, uphill battle to secure seed investment, especially while we were still at such an early stage with the product, didn’t seem like a smart move.
So yet again, we took a deep breath, and spun the globe.
4. Be like a Cockroach (But Don’t Eat Them)
The decision that followed was probably one of the most reckless, but ultimately one of the most rewarding and worthwhile, choices we have made to date. Before the fog of mentor whiplash had cleared, we had packed up our essentials into three backpacks and boarded a flight to Morocco.
Time and time again the universe conspired in our favour as we swiftly settled into our wayward home between cultures, in the tiny Moroccan village of Taghazout, just a few metres from the Atlantic ocean.
Needing to stretch our remaining funds for as long as possible, our office chairs and standing desks were haggled from a nearby scrap-yard and every Wednesday we took a big backpack to the aptly-named ‘Banana Village’, where we filled it with fresh fruit and vegetables from the local market. This kept our food bill down to $10 per person per week. We got creative in the kitchen, and one of the, erm, highlights was Jonny’s accidental masterpiece, ‘Noodles à la Cockroach’ (don’t ask).
As anyone who has lived in a country where cockroaches are a part of daily life will know, they are incredibly hard to kill, and more than once they have been used to describe startup founders who simply won’t give up (Airbnb’s founders were famously described as cockroaches by Paul Graham because they resorted to selling novelty cereal to keep the lights on.)
During the 10 months in Morocco we were determined to do whatever it took to keep Maptia afloat, even if that meant actually eating the cockroaches… Ok, ok, we’ll admit that was actually a truly terrible mistake and Jonny is yet to be forgiven, but being resourceful and getting creative when things get tough is often critical for a young startup to succeed.
Most importantly, Morocco also allowed us to step outside the startup echo chamber and find a sense of perspective and clarity.
Like many young founders, we have a tendency to burn the candle at both ends. Taghazout surrounded us with ways to keep our perspective and to take time off — from hiking, to rooftop yoga, to surfing. We were moderately successful at achieving this balance, because as anyone who has been a startup founder will know, it can be incredibly difficult to switch off when there is an endless list of things you should be doing to move your company or product forwards, and reach that next milestone.
5. Build a Company You Wouldn’t Ever Want to Sell
When we left Techstars, we knew exactly what our ‘why’ was not. It did not involve growing as quickly as possible, with the ultimate goal of making a financially lucrative exit through an acquisition or IPO.
Whilst we can appreciate this approach may be compelling for others, the thought of pouring every iota of our time and energy into Maptia, only to sell out at the end for a load of cash, was not one that resonated with us. Founder Zach Klein suffered from post-acquisition regret after handing over the reins to Vimeo, and just as he advocates, we want to build a company that we wouldn’t ever want to sell.
A few months after arriving in Morocco, following a lot of rooftop brainstorming and soul-searching, we realised that the essence of our mission was storytelling.
We believe that powerfully told stories can foster empathy between cultures and across continents. Stories like these encourage us to care more for the people and the environment around us, and inspire us to make the most of our time here on this planet.
It was with this newfound purpose, and a lot of late night designing and coding, that the three of us — along with our lovely illustrating intern Ella Frances Sanders and the generous assistance of our good friend Ken Keiter with the back-end development—launched the first version of Maptia at the end of last year.
6. Let Your Community Share Your Mission
Beyond defining and discussing our purpose or mission internally and as a team, one of the most profound things we did whilst in Morocco was to start sharing our mission and philosophies with our community.
We distilled our approach to travel into an eight line manifesto and took a picture of it while leaning out of the window in our HQ in Taghazout. By leaving a blank space for our founding storytellers and wider community to sign the manifesto, we gave them the opportunity to make it their own.
Since then it has been humbling to see our manifesto shared hundreds of thousands of times across the Internet. To this day it remains a pleasure to open our inboxes and find photos of printed and signed manifestos, sent by our community from far flung corners of the globe.
We feel very fortunate to have found our purpose and mission — it’s what keeps us going when things get tough — and we continue to evolve its nuances and the way we are putting it into practice on a daily basis.
7. Lean into Uncertainty
A month or so after launching the first version of Maptia, we returned to England to spend Christmas with our families, and on New Year’s Day we woke up with a serious hangover. Unfortunately this wasn’t the type of hangover that could be fixed by a fry up breakfast and a smoothie — it was more of an emotional, existential hangover.
It had been brought on by the fact that no matter how many hours we put in, it never seemed to be enough. And despite having successfully launched the first version of Maptia with encouraging and positive feedback from our founding storytellers, our hard work still felt like a drop in the ocean. After all, it was only a closed Beta. We knew that we needed to find a way to fund ourselves whilst we built the next version and worked with our community of writers and photographers to improve our storytelling tools.
We felt torn between the urgent need to become sustainable and to grow Maptia into something with a tangible impact, whilst at the same time not compromising on our philosophies or the integrity of our company. And although we still believed wholeheartedly in our vision for Maptia, we found it difficult not to feel terribly inadequate when comparing ourselves to bigger, better-funded, and more experienced teams.
This train of uncertainty hit Dorothy particularly hard, leaving her feeling like a failure and a fraud: struggling desperately to see the positives and progress we had made, finding it tough to muster the courage to continue, and feeling that nothing she had created was good enough.
To be honest, during the past 1,000 days we have all experienced a constant oscillation between inspired, possibility-fuelled highs and intense, anxiety-filled lows that have sometimes got the better of us.
And could these uncomfortable, and often intense feelings of uncertainty have been be avoided? Perhaps. Perhaps if we had taken a safer and more conventional route out of university. Perhaps if we weren’t so concerned about doing anything that might compromise the philosophies of our company. But do we wish that things had been different? Absolutely not.
We have come to believe that the bumps are an essential, humanising, and humbling part of the ride. It is human nature to require a threshold of safety, and it is always easier to remain within the realms of what we know and not to venture out into Terra Incognita. But if we can muster up the courage to lean into uncertainty—to dare greatly, to expose ourselves to the risk of failure, and to embrace those feelings—then it becomes fuel for the fire and we will know that we have been living wholeheartedly.
So we revisited and renewed our core values and our mission, and spent time re-reading some of the wonderful stories that people had already published on Maptia.
We agreed that we were still absolutely committed to doing whatever it took to give Maptia the chance we believed it deserved—even if that meant moving again and working freelance a couple of days a week. (We had already committed to not rushing the business side of Maptia at the cost of authenticity or functionality, and we decided that we felt comfortable supporting it ourselves for now. You can read more about our plans and ideas for the future in our FAQs.)
8. Do Things the Long Hard Stupid Way
So although we were still wrestling with the demons of uncertainty and self-doubt, in February this year we relocated again, this time to Dean’s homeland: Switzerland.
With renewed vigour and energy we set out to build Maptia 2.0 to the best of our ability — a big step forward in terms of functionality and design — assisted by the generous feedback of our founding storytellers.
The brilliant designer Frank Chimero takes the uncommon approach of consciously ‘doing things the long, hard, stupid way’. He describes this extra labour and attention to detail as being like a ‘gift’ — comparable to ‘a carefully prepared dish or a well-phrased paragraph.’ And there is always a sacrifice entailed when you give a gift. Oftentimes, the bigger the sacrifice, the more value that is bestowed on that gift.
We try to think of building Maptia in these gift-giving terms, however in many ways this approach is the antithesis to the prevailing paradigm of the ‘lean startup’ rationale. We do, of course, believe that efficiency matters, and we are always trying our best to work in smarter ways, but we also believe that anything truly worthwhile takes time.
So after a somewhat emotional start to the year, the past three hundred days have actually been amazingly productive and creative. We found a great freelance partner who has been really supportive of our work at Maptia, and our philosophies and skills have matured, filtering down to the design and functionality of Maptia 2.0.
9. Give Back and Expect Nothing in Return
Many times over the past 1,000 days we have been immensely grateful for the advice and support given freely by our Techstars mentors, our fellow founders, and the wider startup community. We have also been on the receiving end of countless kind and encouraging gestures from our community of founding storytellers.
For example, earlier this year, one of our founding storytellers Daniel Perlaky introduced himself by contributing not one, but six moving stories about his experiences in Nepal. He then offered to dedicate his available time to helping us out however he could, without any expectations. We accepted his generous offer, and it quickly became evident that not only was Daniel a kindred spirit who believed in our mission, but that he would also be a talented and hard-working addition to our team. We feel incredibly fortunate to have had Daniel on board as our fourth member of our team for the past eight months.
Few would disagree that giving to others without expectation of something in return is something that we should all do in life, but when it comes to startups, it is often harder to put this into practice. When we’re knee deep in our task lists, or struggling to make as much progress as we would have liked, it is easy to brush aside a simple request for help.
And though it may be tricky to break out of this mindset, we’ve found that helping others makes us feel pretty good, and more often than not, giving back leads to serendipitous connections and benefits down the line — benefits that we never could have predicted.
We recently volunteered to help out Mark Tuschman, one of our founding storytellers, with the design and marketing for his Kickstarter campaign to publish a beautiful and moving photo book about the courage of women living on the edge. Mark went on to raise more than $60k for publishing his book and it was incredibly rewarding to be part of his journey.
Giving back without expectation, and paying-it-forward all the help and advice we have received, even when we think that we don’t have time, has become an important part of who we are as a team.
10. Life Should Be One Hell of a Story
The last 1,000 days have been a swirling, chaotic, and colourful ride for us — with some intense highs and lows. Somehow it doesn’t seem possible that those tiny squares represented 1,000 days.
Three years have gone by in a flash, and although individual days may have been challenging or stressful, when taken together they have taught us a great deal, and we are immensely grateful to be on this journey.
This might sound a little cliché (ok, it is a cliché), but it really is the journey, and not the destination, that matters the most. And perhaps we can take this even further and say that just setting out on a journey matters even more — because after that first step, some kind of journey or adventure is inevitable.
The year before we founded Maptia, Dorothy and Dean climbed Mount Aconcagua on the border of Argentina and Chile. It’s a fifteen day hike to a 6,962 m high peak. One beautiful evening they were barely half way to the summit, sat with a friend looking out over thousands of smaller peaks rolled out below them. They knew then, that the journey had already been a great success whether they made it to the summit or not. Just deciding to set foot on that mountain had already rewarded them with an experience they would never forget.
They were at the summit for just 30 minutes. And yes, being on the summit was incredible. But the journey there — all the training and preparations — took the better part of six months. It is these journeys that make up the stories of our lives. The brief moments of triumphant success are just another step on the path.
With Maptia, it is the way we build the company and the steps we take along the path that matter the most to us. Milestones come and go, as do successes and failures, but we will always try to make the journey worth it regardless.
Fostering appreciation, mindfulness, and a sense of gratitude for moments along the way isn’t always easy, but we do our best to give ourselves regular shots of perspective. Whether we are reminiscing about Jonny’s cockroach-related culinary misadventures, trading stories with members of our community who come and couchsurf with us, or celebrating small product milestones, we do our best to disconnect from our technological umbilical cords for short periods of creative renewal.
We are also quietly amazed by the fact that despite having lived and worked alongside each other pretty much 24/7 for more than 1,000 days, we are still great friends and have been there to support each other through the tougher times.
Shortly after we joined Techstars, the yellow-shoe-sporting and wonderfully kind Rand Fishkin shared a piece of mentor-ly wisdom that has stuck with us throughout both the highs and lows of our journey. With a cheeky grin, after we first shared our vision for Maptia, his eyes widened and he told us,
“Well, however it works out it’ll make for one hell of a story, and what is life if not shooting for one hell of a story!” — Rand Fishkin
Right now, we don’t know where the next chapter of this journey will take us or which direction our story will end up taking now that we’ve launched Maptia 2.0, but that’s all part of the excitement.
And who knows… perhaps next year we will end up on our fifth continent.
Dorothy, Dean, Jonny, Daniel, and Brian
— The Maptia Team
We would love to hear the lessons you learned during your last 1,000 days. Whether you have been working on a new project or a startup, have been travelling, or from any other area of your life. Either add a note to this paragraph, send us a tweet @Maptia, or better yet write your own post on Medium using the ‘post a response’ button below.
Do you have a story that you think belongs on Maptia? If so, then head over to Maptia 2.0 and join our community of writers and photographers.
And if you are looking for beautiful and thought-provoking stories that will expand your worldview and inspire you to get out there and see the world, then look no further, you can discover these stories on Maptia.
Here’s to the next 1,000 days!