ZoomAtlas—Helping You Reconnect With Friends from The Old Neighborhood
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go to Fort Hood on the map and discuss it at that specific location.” To help expose information added to the base map, every note is stored as a page that search engines can index, meaning they’ll turn up in the general search results any time anybody Googles a specific address.
ZoomAtlas is far from the first company to organize user-generated content by geography. Google lets users create personalized Google Maps with their own placemarks—We’ve made several here at Xconomy—and sites like Platial and Everyscape let users get more elaborate, weaving geotagged photos and essays into a form of place-based storytelling. There’s even a whole Wikipedia-like site, Wikimapia, with the tagline “Let’s describe the whole world!” Sites for reconnecting with friends, such as Classmates.com and of course Facebook, are also abundant.
But ZoomAtlas may be the first site that explicitly combines maps with friend-finding. “Nobody has succeeded yet in tying location to social networking,” Sherman says. “That is what we are—we bring together microlocation and social networking.”
The startup’s team of developers, artists, and consultants is 10-people strong, with the core team working from offices at the Cambridge Innovation Center. The business is funded so far mainly by Sherman himself, who is an authentic dot-com millionaire—he developed the early Web properties MortgageQuotes.com and MovingQuotes.com in the 1990s and sold MovingQuotes.com to Monster.com for $50 million in 2000.
After leaving Monster, Sherman says he spent a couple of years fishing and golfing in Florida, then running a hedge fund. He had the idea for ZoomAtlas in 2007. “The inspiring moment for me was a return visit to the neighborhood in New York where I grew up,” he says. “I go back there every year or two just to see how the neighborhood has changed. I was thinking of a friend that I was trying to get in touch with. I tried Googling him and he was nowhere to be found. I thought I should try going and stapling a note to the post in front of his old house, so that if he ever comes back he can reconnect with me. That wasn’t a very practical idea—but it was the seed of the idea for ZoomAtlas.”
Sherman has a three-part plan for turning ZoomAtlas into a money-maker. First is the obvious one—advertising. (The site is ad-free for now, but will start showing ads once traffic reaches critical mass, Sherman says.) Second, Sherman believes that the geotagged information users add to roads, property parcels, buildings, residences, and other points of interest will be of interest to other companies offering map-based information, so the data will be made available for licensing.
Third, and perhaps most unexpected, ZoomAtlas plans to introduce a premium friend-finding service—a more friendly and civilized version, Sherman says, of the people-search tools offered by companies like Intelius. “We will go out and find somebody based on the information you provide, and broker an introduction,” Sherman explains. “Only if both parties are aware of who they’re meeting and want to be involved will we make the introduction. I’ve used the current services, just to try them out, and they are creepy. But if a trusted third party is doing the introduction, we think the receiver will not be creeped out.”
As someone who follows the online mapping business closely, I have my doubts about whether a brand-new community for map-based, user-generated content can succeed as a stand-alone site, even with the friend-finding focus as an enticement. But Sherman says that in his long-term vision, people won’t have to spend lots of time on ZoomAtlas itself in order for the business to succeed. The geotagged information that the startup is collecting could easily be separated from ZoomAtlas itself and displayed as a layer of data on any digital mapping platform, such as Google Maps or Google Earth. So in the long run, Sherman will be happy if ZoomAtlas becomes one of the dominant sites where Web users go to enter this information.
Eventually, achieving a vision of that scope will require major venture funding, Sherman says. But for now, he says, “we are going to put in all the dollars we need to, to get to the critical mass so that we are the place for reconnecting.”
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