The Geospatial Product Trap

green and pink flower bud

I am a lucky person. My job has evolved to one where I primarily get to talk about geospatial technology all day. I could be scoping out internal or external projects or evaluating technologies. Increasingly, I provide advice on product ideas. This final situation has forced me to consider the nature of our community-of-practice. The common assumption that geospatial is somehow an independent industry is bait for the geospatial trap.

Geospatial is a deeply horizontal activity. I can get on board with the notion that GIS is a separate vertical. The colours and noise of GIS obscure a much bigger geospatial horizontal (in many ways, this reminds me of the fallacy of obviousness, but I digress.) Geospatial activities are embedded deeply in so many verticals that we find ourselves beset with brainstorming sessions to determine new and alluring “use-cases.” Indeed, companies like Sparkgeo need only to have an exciting idea, and we can chase it down; that is the nature of a boutique service business. But products are different, demanding more strategic focus, and the nature of geospatial is a trap for the unwary: there are too many shiny objects.

Let me describe a scenario. An entrepreneur or technologist finds me on Twitter or LinkedIn. They are very excited to hear my opinion on their product. I am probably too open with my advice, so I agree to listen. I listen. Their technology sounds terrific. I ask what problem their technology solves, and they reply that customers could use it to study ports or agriculture. I repeat my question, and they suggest finance or defence would be possible markets. This entrepreneur has fallen for the geospatial product trap.

Don’t think that this trap is the sole territory of small startups or new technology. There are some substantial and established companies that are deeply and firmly trapped. I can think of three off the top of my head. Companies big enough to think they should own every vertical where their product might be useful; big enough to know better and old enough to have learned this lesson. Big enough that they should have been able to calculate the opportunity cost of their myopia.

The trap is multi-faceted.

1) The fact is, the product in question might be relevant to multiple markets. That’s the bait.

If you start to think of your product as a horizontal, you need to know a lot about a lot. Knowing that much is expensive and corporately complicated.

Your sales team needs to empathize with the intricate details of every vertical you want. Instantly, you have multiplied your business development and sales cost by that many verticals. Additionally, without question, each of those verticals will need a slightly different product. Yes, you have multiplied your product development costs as well. Finally, it is hard to achieve a real sense of corporate alignment if you chase the next shiny object.

Are you a space company? What are you doing in Ag? Why are you also in logistics? And you have a forestry business? Weird, do you even know what you do?

2) A company falling in love with the problem is closer to their customers.

Loving the problem is critical because your technology will age and become obsolete. If you love the problem, you will happily change how you solve that problem to do it better. If you love the technology, you will care more about your method than the result, putting you out of alignment with your customers. Whatever serendipitous commercial tryst you shared could fall apart with a change in the business environment. Think about Netflix falling in love with providing content to people, switching from DVDs to streaming. With its commitment to iconic real-estate and physical media, Blockbuster missed that the customer’s problem was being solved better by others. Blockbuster committed to how not what.

3) But the markets ARE there. Why leave money on the table? Why leave space for a competitor?

We are circling the trap here. It is so tempting. A strategy is more about saying no than yes. It is easy to say yes in business; it is much harder to say no. But if you insist on being horizontally oriented, then the best way to grow is through deeply aligned, opinionated partnerships. You should still own a problem because feeling a customer’s pain helps sculpt your product and ensures alignment. But for the other verticals, find partners who have domain expertise and invest in them.

The question of partners is crucial for data companies. Providers of data are most at risk from the geospatial product trap.

I cannot tell you how many discussions I have had with companies about use-cases for their new sensor. The company focuses entirely on the sensor and the fact that there are no other sensors of its type in space. Not the problem it is supposed to solve, because the company has no idea what problems it can solve! In many ways, the problem is an excuse for them to seek funding or blast a proof of concept into the sky. Technology can be transformational, but not in and of itself. The transformation is of a business process, a problem.

If you want to focus on the technology, you must find partners, and you better hope they don’t discover a streaming alternative to your DVD.