The concept is simple: Your smartphone can – and does – communicate constantly with satellites in space, so all you need is a digital map on that phone to tell you exactly where you are in relation to your environment and what your surroundings look like, even when you are nowhere near a cell tower. Your phone can tell where you are on the planet, but only a more complex map could tell you an 8,000-foot mountain pass is 1.2 miles to the north. In places with remote and alluring destinations like Montana, a piece of software like that is appealing as heck.
That's the reason a Missoula mapping technology company, onXmaps, has been experiencing explosive growth over the past two years. They’ve added dozens of employees and are now bursting at the seams of their office space on Brooks Street and looking for more real estate in Missoula.
Roughly half a million customers have purchased the company’s products, called Hunt, Roam and Viewer. They started out by creating public/private land ownership maps of vast swaths of land all over the U.S., which went into chips for GPS units, and they’ve recently launched mobile apps for both Apple iOS and Android mobile phones and devices.
Andrew Burrington, the new Roam product manager, estimated that the company has 65 employees and is aggressively seeking to hire more.
“I started a year and a half ago and there were 22 employees,” he said. “It’s crazy how much it’s grown. We’re at the point now where we’re full.”
It’s their engineering department that will need to find a bigger physical space to accommodate all the new hires.
“We’ve had a lot of growth, (three times as much growth) year after year, and last year the Hunt app just killed it,” Burrington explained. “So we just want to attack it. There’s a lot of opportunity right now. Folks across the country are aware of the app. So we might as well push on it. It’s all kind of in the air. But we want to keep it in Montana.”
Company president Eric Siegfried, a native of eastern Montana, said he never expected the company to grow to the size it has when he started in 2009. He didn’t even own a smartphone back then.
“I never thought it would be this big,” he said. “I knew the chip product for hunters was revolutionary and thought that would be pretty significant, but didn’t know we’d get to this growth level and have an app coming out and be going into different markets. It’s pretty crazy. The timing is right and we’re blowing up.”
Back in the early days of onXmaps, Siegfried said not many people realized smartphones had global positioning system devices. In fact, the first three versions of the iPhone didn’t have dedicated GPS receivers. Now that they’re standard in most new phones, software from companies like onXmaps is increasingly in demand to utilize that technology.
“We’re still trying to educate people that your phone has a GPS unit and you can use it anywhere in the world,” he said.
Siegfried knows that demand for his company’s products and services will only continue to grow as more people become aware of what they do. In four or five years, he estimates they’ll have 200 employees.
“People will have all kinds of data at their fingertips and will be able to make more informed decisions about where they’re heading into the field and what the right time of day is for them and everything to help them be more successful,” he said.
The Roam venture, which the company will celebrate with an “initial launch” on June 14, is especially exciting. Basically, onXmaps has figured out that because almost everyone these days is carrying the aforementioned mobile GPS units in their pocket in the form of a smartphone, a downloadable map can allow people to navigate in the backcountry or anytime they are out of cellphone range. It’s a product that allows hikers, bikers, paddlers and explorers to have a powerful digital map – and therefore a safety measure – when they are in the country’s most remote corners.
“We’ve got data on over 380,000 miles of different trails in the United States,” Burrington explained. “The cool thing is our team overlayed it all and you get like the trail numbers, which I love. You always walk to an intersection and it’s like ‘22.3 or 22.4,' I don’t know. But it’s got that kind of granularity to it. It’s still kind of in the first phase, it’s like a minimum viable product of an app, but we’ve been kind of reaching out all across the country to a lot of different folks to see what they’d want out of a hiking product.”
Customers can download and save maps to their phone beforehand, which means it will still work out in the backcountry in "airplane mode."
“But then the second level is a lot of folks want to be able to comment on trails,” Burrington said. “It’s that social piece. ‘Well, I want to hear what other people have to say about the trail.’ So we’re not there yet, but we know that’s definitely where we want to be.”
Burrington said there are competitors out there like AllTrails, which has an app, but he called its maps “horrible.” He said onXmaps has separated itself by amassing tons of data to create extremely complex and accurate maps, and going back and fixing any errors over time and as things change.
“The Roam product has the same data essentially, slightly different nuances than our Hunt product, but tailored towards hikers, backpackers, bikers,” he said. “We want to move down the road for having different features specifically for bikers or specifically for backpackers.”
He said that just from the initial outreach they’ve done with Roam, people all over the country have liked it so far.
“At this point it’s a catch-all, handheld GPS,” he explained. “Our main value proposition is our data, by far. We’ve always had really good data. Our hunting GPS chip was made by our GIS (geographical information system) team, and that’s driven by data.”
Burrington said people are becoming more familiar with how to use external battery life devices for cellphones to make them last longer in the backcountry. Customers can also use a “save map” mode on their phones, which turns off everything else but still lets them use a GPS. A lot of people don’t realize they have to save the maps for offline use before they go out into the woods.
“It’s all education at this point,” Burrington said. “It’s definitely new. We saw a need in the market. We did lots of competitive analysis. We want to make it easy for a person who is not tech-savvy, but they just want to know where they are.”