Community-based mapping can make your morning commute a lot easier.
That’s the vision of Waze, a startup recently acquired by Google that relies on real-time information from millions of drivers to share information about construction, traffic, or police cars coming up on your route. “It’s like a personal heads-up from a few million of your friends on the road,” says the website.
Waze began in Israel when Ehud Shabtai got a GPS and was frustrated with how poorly the maps were designed. He collaborated with some friends who were engineers to improve the maps, fixing inaccuracies and making other helpful improvements.
But their efforts were not appreciated by the map company, and Shabtai soon found himself on the receiving end of a cease-and-desist letter. That’s when Shabtai realized that he should just start his own company.
Waze officially launched in 2009 and has over 50 million users worldwide. This allows the app to maintain real-time updated information on roads everywhere.
The biggest problem with social apps like Waze is that they are often unable to attain a critical mass of users. It’s an obstacle that brings down many community-based startups – it’s hard to attract those first downloads when your app only becomes useful with many users.
Waze found an innovative way to solve that problem. “At the very beginning, before we had users, you could drive with Waze and you would actually see yourself creating the roads,” said Di-Ann Eisnor, the Vice President of Platform and Partnerships at Waze.
This idea attracted a small community of “road builders,” and Waze soon became a small, well-loved app with maps that looked good. After the roads were “built,” Waze needed to validate traffic patterns, so it offered points to users who drove certain routes (their car appeared as a small Pac-Man figure as it traveled along the routes).
Soon, Waze was featured on the App Store, and then many people started downloading the app. Eisnor said being good at something small was the key to attracting new users. Today, there are so many users that Waze doesn’t need to rely on games anymore – the community-based traffic aspect is now incredibly valuable.
Apparently Google thought so too, acquiring Waze for close to $1 billion in June 2013. Eisnor said the original Waze team is still together, so the company maintains autonomy and the close-knit company culture despite the new ownership.
Recently, Waze has faced criticism about the feature that allows users to share the locations of police. Critics argue that it creates a safety risk for officers. But Waze has tried to ease fears about this feature by citing the involvement of local governments and police departments in the app. Even the NYPD is part of the company’s Connected Citizens Program, which helps to share information about construction projects and the location of police officers on the road.
“Safety of everyone on the road is clearly something that we care a lot about,” said Eisnor.
Her best advice to other entrepreneurs is to focus on the idea first. “Make sure you’re challenging yourself to have as big and unique an idea as possible – that you’re trying to solve a real problem,” said Eisnor. But once you have a good idea, make sure you work hard at putting it into action.
“You’re going to face competition, you’re going to face all kinds of ups and downs, but if you focus on executing well on your product and really understanding your user, that’s the best you can do,” said Eisnor. She recalled that when Apple Maps first came out, it was a failure – so much so that Apple CEO Tim Cook recommended that iOS users turn to Waze as a possible alternative.