Maptia, nomadic startup
June 8, 2014

What are the coolest startup culture hacks you’ve heard of? When I discovered Jonny’s answer to this question on Quora, I was totally amazed. He described how his startup Maptia moved to Morocco to explore new culture, cut living costs and focus on building the product.

Please tell us more about yourself and your startup Maptia.

I’m Jonny, a cofounder and my two cofounders are Dorothy and Dean. When the three of us were at Durham University in the UK, we struggled to find a beautiful and simple way to share stories from our travels.

Whilst collecting articles for our student travel magazine we thought, wouldn’t this look better on a map? It wasn’t long before the somewhat crazy idea of building a giant, interactive collection of stories from every single place in the world was born.

Then a few months back Daniel bowled us over with his talent for storytelling enthusiasm for Maptia’s vision and is our fourth team member based in the USA.

You moved your startup to Morocco. What is your experience with running a global startup from small village in Morocco?

We were very fortunate in many ways I think, once we made the commitment to move everything else seemed to fall into place.

We found a simple apartment right by the ocean – to improve our shared office space we have built a couple of DIY standing desks using breeze blocks we found lying around – one for inside the house and one up on the rooftop terrace.

We also obtained a few old school tables and chairs from the crazy scrapyard in Agadir – these were promptly scrubbed clean, sanded down, and the Maptia logo was painted on the back.

Once a week we took our giant backpack and stock up on mountains of fresh food from the local market a few miles south – in the aptly named ‘Banana Village’. This of kept our living costs incredibly low, our weekly food shop equates to roughly $10 per person per week, which means we have some funds leftover for the occasional team BBQ or pizza out in the village.

Removing all unnecessary distractions did wonders for our team productivity – whilst taking part in both the Start-Up Chile incubator, and in the TechStars program, we found that although the constant stream of meetups and coffee meetings were great for intensive learning and networking, we struggled to focus on building the product as much as we would have liked. Giving ourselves the opportunity to focus exclusively on this (plus community building) was fantastic, and appropriate for the stage were are at.

What did you learn during your stay in Taghazout?

In 11 months we learnt a lot! We took turns to cook each evening and have been experimenting in the kitchen with some of the more colourful Moroccan flavours and everyone’s culinary skills benefited immensely!

We also attempted to learn the local Berbere languages and made plenty of great friends with the locals – most of whom worked in the surf shops or restaurants in the village (Dean actually wrote a short story on Maptia here that nicely summed up our experience) but I would say that most of all we learnt the value of being able to focus and build something distraction free.

It also seems that there are a lot of other entrepreneurs in Europe and the US who also realize that they would be able to work from anywhere with an internet connection and I think that over the next few years we’ll start to see a rise in the nomadic startups and entrepreneurial communities.

Do all team members practice surfing?

Daniel and I have both surfed for a few years and Dorothy and Dean got pretty good (standing up on their first day!) considering that they had never been before (but their passion lies more with the mountains!)

In terms of surf spots, personally I like variety and there’s something extremely satisfying about going off the beaten track to find a spot in the middle of nowhere, whether its driving 8 hours to surf in the freezing cold Scottish waters in 6mm of neoprene or travelling overland in Sumatra for 2 days to get the ferry to the Mentawai islands in Indonesia, usually the harder you struggle to get there the bigger the payoff!

Maptia team moved to Switzerland few month ago, why?

Luckily for us, Dean happens to be Swiss and his family have generously offered us a place to live and work in Locarno for the time being – so although the Swiss Franc isn’t exactly known for its low purchasing power parity – we manage to not spend much money apart from a weekly food shop at the budget supermarket.

It’s also beautiful here and although I do miss the ocean a little it’s hard to beat the views of the mountains from our office window and there are lots of opportunities for hiking or standup paddle boarding on the lake at weekends.

Your first  “nomadic startup lifestyle” experience was probably Startup Chile, wasn’t it? What is the story behind?

The journey began after Dean and Dorothy had a chance couchsurfing encounter with a Haitian prince in Buenos Aires. That’s where we heard about the Start Up Chile accelerator program; it offered 40k USD prize money equity-free, an awesome community of entrepreneurs from all over the world and a chance for us to travel. Sounding too good to be true, we applied and against the odds were accepted. Straight out of university and with zero prior experience, we were definitely in at the deep end.

At the time, the term “startup” was foreign to us. None of us had ever designed an interface, and we certainly hadn’t shared content that reached over a million people. Dean, who is now building both the back- and front-end of Maptia, had never written a line of code.

What we did have was an idea we believed in, a tenacious desire to learn and a hefty streak of determination. It wasn’t ever difficult for us to choose between seeking a city graduate desk job that paid well and pursuing our passions by building something of our own.

What are your 3 favorite Maptia’s stories? Have they inspired you towards your  “next destination”?

Wow, that’s tough to choose – I have genuinely been inspired by so many. As a surfer myself I’d have to mention Sam Bleakley’s surf-exploration stories, and more recently James Morgan’s ‘Last of the Sea Nomads‘ and Gabriele Galimberti’s ‘Delicatessen with Love’ were also incredible – in terms of the next destination, a lot depends on how things go with the release of Maptia 2.0 but we’d certainly like to complete the seven summits startup challenge one day and work from every continent in the world 😉