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In Episode 4 of Outliers, meet the Vermas — Rakesh, Rashmi, and Rohan — who brought digital maps to India well before Google found its way here.
Rakesh and Rashmi Verma created quite a stir in their family and friends circle when they announced they planned to return to India to “do something for our own country”. This was in the early 1990s, more than a decade before Bollywood glorified such ambitions; Swades, the Hindi movie that made returning cool, was released only in 2004. Back then, the Vermas were met with puzzlement. Why would they leave the comforts of the US for the chaos of India?
“We had a burning desire to come back and do something in India,” says Rashmi Verma. And so they returned. Their first venture was a software development company (on IBM mainframe), which was very lucrative. “From Rs 1 lakh of investment, we created Rs 2-3 crore of capital,” recalls Rakesh Verma. “But that didn’t satisfy us.”
In an interesting change of pace, the couple decided to start the process of “digitally mapping India” in 1995. “We were considered a bit crazy,” says Rakesh. “When we discovered mapping technology…. We got excited. This is what a developing country like India needs,” adds Rashmi. “People in India were not aware of the possibilities with digital maps, but we were convinced about it,” she says.
It’s not just that the idea was unusual; there was “not much technology available for maps, so we were doing foot surveys and field surveys to collect data,” adds Rashmi. But why maps? “We had the conviction that one day, all data would have a location component,” explains Rakesh. That conviction bore fruit, as MapMyIndia became the early mover in the digital maps space, introducing consumers to this new phenomenon. Rashmi says their success is not so much because they were an early mover or because they had a fancy product; “we were solving different pain points”.
Throughout the conversation, it’s clear that the Vermas share a passion for technology and for making a difference. While Rakesh is still wide-eyed at the various possibilities and advances in technology, Rashmi is fired up about the intersection of technology and people. For her, training and mentoring, and finding out what customers want (even before customers know what they want, in some cases) is the foundation of MapMyIndia.
In 2004, the couple launched the MapMyIndia portal; “that’s the time when we felt that our map data was productised,” says Rakesh. “When we conceived of mapmyindia.com as an internet portal, that was the real tipping point for us. We felt that now we can take our maps to the users directly.” But that satisfaction was short-lived, because the behemoth of digital maps was taking shape at Google, and would enter India.
How would a niche, homegrown mapping company take on the might of the Google empire? Quite simply by changing the game. Google began preloading Maps on Android phones, so “we took a slight deviation and moved to the automotive OEMs where we could pre-load our maps into their entertainment devices” says Rakesh. MapMyIndia had an existing relationship with the automotive industry, as the company had entered the handheld devices space in around 2004. Those devices were often seen on dashboards of cars, so contracting with original equipment manufacturers was almost a natural progression.
All three Vermas are clear that while Google’s entry was threatening, it also opened up new opportunities for MapMyIndia. Rohan says: “It’s irritating and annoying for me to have this big monopolistic rival. But when you start imagining and exploring what all you can do, what all is in your control, it is so exciting.”
Excitement and passion seems to be at the core of everything MapMyIndia does. It’s also something Rashmi insists is in the DNA of the company, and is a crucial part of every person who works there. Another fact that the Vermas emphasise over and over again is that digital maps are way more than just navigation. Sure, we love maps because they take us exactly where we want to go, but why else do maps exist? Rakesh says they are used by “corporates for their logistics or supply chain or for their marketing activities… it’s unlimited”. All three of them talk about the various ways in which maps and GIS and location-tracking can help companies manage their activities. “The use and application of maps are unlimited. You have to just imagine and move on with that,” says Rakesh. Rohan echoes that when he asks: “What could be the future? Can we invent it?” He too speaks of offering a suite of solutions to businesses based on maps, geospatial and location enabling. In fact, the Vermas are looking beyond corporates.
“How do we help in digital governance?” asks Rohan. They’ve made a start, with MapMyIndia being “the first to do real-time mapping of Covid information, testing centres, treatment centres, vaccine centres, containment zones.” Rohan adds that they are looking to create “dashboards, logistics planning tools, and share it with the consumers or citizens at large.”
Even as they look at the various ways in which mapping can help consumers, the Vermas reiterate that digital maps is just the user interface of the company. At heart, they are all about technology. Rohan shares a little story about the company his parents registered and which owns the MapMyIndia brand -- CE Infosystems. CE stands for “computer eyes”, says Rohan, adding that this is exactly what the Vermas want to do -- computerise everything.