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Mapping the future

By The Drum | Administrator

July 29, 2005 | 7 min read

Ever been lost, trying to find your way to a destination that frankly is not very clear. In this day of wireless technology the answer comes in the form of the internet. By putting your postcode and the destination to which you are travellin into the boxes at the start of the search, the directions instantly appear. Hey presto.

This nifty little device has been used by a variety of websites including Multimap – Europe’s leading online mapping provider – the brainchild of, founder and chairman, Sean Phelan. The website, which now attracts 8.6 million unique users and registers over 160 million page impressions monthly is one of the top ten most visited sites in the UK.

Phelan founded the company is 1996, having completed an MA in engineering science, along with a further MBA.

“I am a lifelong sailor and through that the brainchild of the business really came about. I knew that GSM phones were getting smaller, and so to was GPS, and at the time Netscape was still really in its infancy, and I thought (rightly so) that if we could bring this together then there was the opportunity for a great business venture,” Phelan explains.

Indeed it was, and from a backroom in his house the phenomenon that is Multimap.com was started. At first the company was small, outsourcing all the work possible from the server to the staff managing the advertising sales. However in time, and on the precipice of the dot.com boom, the company went through a ‘fundraising’ drive.

“What is really special about the company is that it was the classic sort of bootstrap set up. We didn’t set up with a load of venture capitalists behind us – it was self-funded. It was only in 1997 that we decided to go out to the market to look for investment, raising £1.75million, which really spearheaded the rapid growth of the company. Prior to this we had been outsourcing everything, so it gave us the freedom to bring things, such as client services, back into the business.”

However, when the dot.com bubble burst, the company was not hugely affected maintains Phelan. “I have to say it is one of the things that I am most proud of – we have never had to lay off staff in the bad times. The company was rapidly expanding, but when the bust came we simply tightened our belts, recruited far less people and got on with the job at hand.”

And indeed they have. The company has now been a profitable business for the past three years, having in excess of 750 business clients ranging from Ford, in both Europe and North America, to Vodafone, lastminute.com, Hilton, Sainsburys and Argos. One of the main routes to business for the company is the map locator that is found in the majority of high street retailer’s websites. The map locator uses Multimap’s capabilities to pinpoint directions to the nearest store, locating the one closest to the area that the consumer wants to shop in.

“When we started the company we only did the public website, however we found that estate agents were early adopters of the locaters facility that we have. When people are looking for the house and need directions then they could click on us and find directions to get them there. From the estate agents came enquiries from other areas, and from that we knew that we could make this viable as part of the offering of Multimap. And, since the early days it really has grown and grown.”

In addition to this, the company also sells advertising space on the website. Aware that consumers are savvier than in the past, Multimap has ensured that the ads are not as intrusive as a pop-up on the site. Instead, the firm has joined up with the travel industry to sell around a tourists need. “As people get more and more immune to banners and pop-ups, we began to focus on contextual marketing and advertising, which is becoming increasingly more acceptable to the consumer. But, at the same time we are being used far more by many industries as they realise the importance and the return on investment that can be achieved from internet advertising. So, that in turn really has added benefits to the business,” comments Phelan.

While Multimap is aware of the importance of advertising, Phelan, it would appear, does not practice what he preaches. In fact the last time the company advertised its wares was in 2000, as part of an awareness campaign. Now, however the company chooses to focus on PR as a means to encouraging more users to the site. Phelan comments: “We had a brand building year in 2000 where we put together an awareness campaign on the London Underground, along with magazines, but we have done little since then in terms of mainstream advertising. We find that most people come to the site through links from other sites. We have tens of thousands of these links on different sites, and from that we can attract more and more people to the site.

“We also have a reasonable presence when it comes to search engine advertising.”

The site is used worldwide – translated into 20 languages in 26 different countries – and the aim for the future for Phelan is to take the brand even further worldwide. However, does the site naturally translate easily? Apparently so. “We use the same kind of mapping and the same search in all the countries we represent. There are different approaches to cartography and that really is our main challenge. Users want consistent cartography and that is what we have to give them. We work with a variety of cartography providers, around 20 to 30, who we trust to give us the most up-to-date information on either new roads or new elements of someone’s journey that have to be factored in. We also get information from local authorities on new builds in their area.”

So, what are the challenges that Multimap will face in the future? “Well,” comments Phelan, “I think in a few years time we could get to the position that someone will sit in a country road and will see a car marked Tele Atlas on it. They will then be able to go on to their mobile phone and hit the button marked ‘map’ and from that they will be able to see all the new roads that have been added in their area. I really think that the technology is there for that to happen, it simply depends on the amount of time it will take to happen – be it five years, or ten. But, I can safely say that it will happen and we are making sure that we are part of that future.”

So, with the whole world at his fingertips it must be fair to say that Phelan must rarely get lost? Apparently not. “I get lost all the time. I have to say that that is one of the biggest challenges for me, and it is something that I am working on, considering that I like to sail a lot.”

So, Multimap it appears doesn’t work miracles. However, if you are looking to get from A to B, while avoiding C, then it might just do the trick.

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