You Are Here: The 'Australians' Who Built Google Maps, And Changed The World Forever

A big clock is ticking before his eyes. A wave of awkward yet supportive laughter washes over the crowd. It's the final dose of calming energy Lars Rasmussen needed to settle into his groove up there on the stage. He's looking down at his slide remote now, with that big TEDx logo beaming back at him from the illuminated floor. Lars just told everyone that he’s imagining them naked to try and relax about speaking, and with the chuckles he's ready. Like a bright red 'You Are Here' marker on the map of his life, Lars is centred, and ready to tell his story. He built the future once, with the help of his brother and a small company called Google. The future of Maps came from right here in Australia, and with the help of Lars, it served to shine a light down the road at the next 10 years of navigation innovation for mere mortals like you and me. This is the journey.

"I'm a geek," Lars professes proudly to the TEDxAthens crowd. It's 2012, and life is how it should be for Lars Rasmussen. He's not fending off the critics telling him that his product has failed at Google. He's not being grilled about what's next for Maps. He's standing on a stage at a TED conference delivering a simple message. A message of hope. He never wants you to give up on what you're building, and he's the perfect messenger.

Nobody is better at preaching about the unpredictability of life and its challenges than Lars Rasmussen.

Lars was born in Denmark and actually grew up wanting to be a veterinarian. He spent his holidays on his Aunt's farm riding horses and eventually, at the tender age of around 13, he spent a week of work experience with a local vet. The harsh reality of sick and unwanted animals needing to be put down and turned him off the profession.

In a complete turn-around, Lars and his brother Jens started taking programming lessons after school and has been building ever since.

The Wreckage Of Silicon Valley

Lars moved to the US, where all the action was for the start-up scene prior to the dot-com bust of March, 2000. He graduated college in 1998 with a PhD in Theoretical Computing, and worked with his brother towards the goal everyone had back then: to become millionaires thanks to their ones-and-zeroes.

Credit: Lars Rasmussen/Facebook

They burned through $45 million in start-up capital with the rest of the Silicon Valley crowd, and by the time the bubble burst, they had nothing to show for it, and got their marching orders from the company they then worked for.

As Lars tells it, the two had no savings and just $16 between them, so Jens sat down and decided that the two of them needed to invent something. They settled on the already crowded space of mapping and navigation for their future empire, and set to work on building something that nobody was using at the time. A small company called Where 2 Technologies was born as a result, and the two started development on what would some day become the most widely used mapping platform in the world.

After six months of Lars living in a share-house in San Francisco and Jens having to move back in with his mother in Denmark, they finally had a shakey prototype to show off.

Jens flew back to California to meet up with his brother, and the two barged their way into a meeting of powerful executives to meet with the very man that had fired them half a year ago. A man by the name of Frank Marshall.

These days, Marshall is a private investor, and consults for early stage tech start-ups. Even back then, Frank knew everyone who was everyone in Silicon Valley.

Lars says to this day that every meeting he ever had in the early days with powerful people, right up to Google co-founder, Larry Page, came from Frank.

Amazingly, Frank remembered the two Danes as they stormed his meeting, and agreed after looking at the early version of Maps that they should meet with venture capitalists who could fund them.

The year was still 2001, however, and the rivers of gold that had once flooded the mythical Silicon Valley had run dry, leaving many to die of cash flow dehydration. That included the zeal, drive and prospects of Where 2. Nobody was picking up what the guys were putting down.

"F**k, That Hurt"

"I wanted to give up," Lars recounts. This is when he decided that he wouldn't be that guy. He decided it was time for the pair to double-down on Maps and their new company, Where 2.

The brothers Rasmussen needed to build Maps out further and make it something that people would actually use, but more importantly, it needed to be something people would invest in.

Two developers in Sydney who were friends of the brothers invited them to Sydney to work, and they flew down on the cheapest ticket they could find.

Sydney was where they'd stay for the next six months, and that's where Maps really started to take shape. It was but an embryo when it was brought here, but with the help of Australian minds it was nurtured and rebuilt.

The brothers were back in front of Frank Marshall within the year, and were sent back out to meet with venture capitalists. One of the five meetings they took was with a massive company called Sequoia Capital: a company that has been instrumental in investments for companies like Microsoft, Apple and Cisco.

At the time, Sequoia was willing to give the brothers $US2 million for 40 per cent of the company. Lars describes it as a terrible deal by today's standards, but in the years after the dot-com boom when nobody was buying anything, it was like striking oil.

They left the meeting flying high, but when they read the news the next day, the good feelings evaporated, and a cold, hard reality hit them like the very pavement they were mapping:

Yahoo had announced a big update to its mapping product at the time, and while it wasn't what the Rasmussen brothers were working on, it was enough for Sequoia, and the five other VCs they had brought with them, to get cold feet.

"Fuck," Lars thought to himself.

"That hurt."

Lars called his mother in tears, and she told him something he still carries with him to this day.

"There's something better waiting for you," she promised.

She was right.

The very fact that Sequoia passed on the gold mine that became Maps made Where 2 Technologies attractive to Google. At the time, Google was locked in a bitter row for internet supremacy with Yahoo, and the two were looking towards any product that would add value to users.

Less than a week after Sequoia dropped out of the negotiations, Lars and Jens were in front of Google co-founder Larry Page pitching the idea.

Google bought the company soon after that and kept the brothers working on the project in the new Google Australia offices.

Looking Back

Where 2 Technologies was founded by the Rasmussens back in 2001, and it only took three years of hard work before it was acquired for a considerable but undisclosed sum.

When it was acquired by Google, Maps was just used as a crude platform for getting from A-to-B, but it was the distribution method that changed everything.

Rather than have a bespoke application that needed to be built and re-built over and over again for the myriad of feature phones on the market at the time (the iPhone wouldn't be introduced until 2007), Google decided to make it an online platform for anyone to use.

A 2008 explainer on how to get directions on Google Maps

An index of building images taken at street level, public transit directions, cycling routes, live traffic information and event info were all added to Maps between 2004 and 2010. These features are all now accessible on the platform at the click of a button, changing the way the world finds its way home.

An awful explainer on the introduction of Street View

Next year will be the 10th anniversary of Maps at Google, and it now looks like a completely different animal. Gone is the idea of one fixed map for everyone.

These days, Google is building a custom map for every single one of its billion Maps users.

Everything users search, everywhere they visit, everywhere they research and everywhere they live and have lived is now dumped onto a custom map for each user, meaning that no two Maps experiences are exactly the same.

Trillions of streets are now indexed on Google Maps around the globe, including places that you can't drive to like the Great Barrier Reef, giant rainforests and massive caves.

Google hasn't stopped with simply mapping the Earth, either. The search giant mapped the Moon, the sky and is currently mapping the red planet Mars. It likely won't rest until the universe is indexed on its platform.

This is what Google Maps became in 2014:

Map Wars

Google knew that mobile would become a battleground for maps. Smartphones were rising in popularity, and 2006 saw the invention of the first Google Maps application capable of directions for your phone.

Maps became so popular on phones that Apple decided to include it on the very first iPhone in 2007, which increased uptake once again.

The world never knew how much it appreciated Google Maps until Apple, caught in a bitter war with the search giant to this day, decided to bring out its own mapping product.

Google Maps for Mobile introduces My Location

In a bid to keep a tighter hold on its user base, Apple booted Google and its Maps program off its iOS device platform in 2012 and released Apple Maps instead, to a disastrous response.

Apple Maps wasn't just bad or a bit of a laugh. It was dangerous. It sent Aussies deep into the forest under the guise of routing them to a regional capital, and sent them to random houses when they searched for hospitals.

It eventually cost a senior Apple exec in charge of the project his job, and forced CEO Tim Cook to apologise for the debacle.

"Maps are hard," he would be remembered as saying.

In the apology letter, Apple linked to a variety of other, more mature mapping services for users to download until the product could be fixed, and at the top of the list was Google Maps; returning to iOS with much fanfare.

Apple Maps versus Google Maps for iOS

A small war had broken out over a product developed by two broke brothers out of shared accommodation in Sydney. But even the best can stumble. The journey of the brothers Rasmussen, the most successful navigators in the history of software, has also been peppered by failure.

The Road Less Travelled

Flash back to brightly lit stage in 2012, where Lars is still imagining the crowd naked as a coping mechanism for his anxiety. He doesn't perspire under the lights, however. He's feeling something more powerful than fear that this point: Lars is hopeful again.

He has just gotten over what was probably the biggest flop of his career. He tried to replace email with a system called Wave.

The Wave project was actually an idea the Rasmussens had before they invented Maps out of Where 2 Technologies, and with the resources at their disposal within Google, the pair knew they could produce something great.

Lars (left) and Jens (right) at Google Images: Google


They contracted 60 developers in the Sydney offices of Google, and along with another senior product manager by the name of Stephanie Hannon, a $25 million failure got underway.

The senior engineers under the Rasmussens were taken straight out of university to build the project, and beamed about what they were building.

Wave was a tough birth. The warning signs were evident to everyone but Google that the project was in trouble. Just reading the Google-approved roundtable interview with developers on the project produces warning signs.

Casey Whitelaw, a developer plucked from the University of Sydney, said of the projects challenges:

People sometimes use the analogy of replacing the engines of a 747 while it's in flight to describe major endeavors on a project ... we certainly had a moment like that during the project, where we engaged in a major rewrite of the core of the system. It had to be done, and it was worth doing, but it was painful at the time. Also, people have been using existing communications tools and the web for so long that it can be hard to see beyond what's currently possible - that was one big challenge that we had. Given the scope of Google Wave, we've had to work hard to find the right balance between a product people will love and a new communication platform.

Another developer, Rob Schonberger of the University Of New South Wales, wrote that the team spent months in a dark room banging together the prototype. Another tells of how, at one point, nobody on the Wave team really knew if other Googlers in Sydney and around the world believed in the product.

This was no new Google Maps. It was a disaster just waiting to very publicly unravel.

The project was kept under wraps, and was developed in secret for two years before it was finally unveiled to a lackluster reception from the Google-loving public.

Googlers who worked near or with the project will now say it was more of an experiment than a real product. Whatever it was called, though, it was put out to the proverbial pasture on 31 January, 2012. It had flashes of life after that when Google engineers decided to create "Wave In A Box" for anyone who wanted to deploy their own private Wave platform, but it was like trying to grab smoke. It never worked, and the ripples of success from the brother's Rasmussen faded away.

Lars left Google shortly after that. His legacy still lives on at Google, with the Wave platform now forming the backbone of the Google Hangouts platform used by millions.

Lars is back on the horse at Facebook at this point — a job he holds onto today.

Around The Corner And Into The Woods

His entry into Facebook came at a time when the company was mounting the wave of success that would eventually see it valued at billions-upon-billions of dollars. Rasmussen tells the story of how he was taken on one of Mark Zuckerberg's famous walks through the woods around Palo Alto. That's where Facebook was based back in 2011. It now lives in a sprawling campus in Menlo Park, seven minutes down the road by car according to Lars Rasmussen's Google Maps platform.

Image: Business Insider

Zuck has taken Lars on three different walks through the woods so far during his time at the social network and on their first, the billionaire-to-be explained the job he'd be taking on in a way that the Dane didn't expect:

"Zuck's pitch for me to work at Facebook was compelling (obviously: I took the job after all)," he wrote in a Reddit Ask-Me-Anything last year.

"It was distinctly not a 'here is why Facebook is the best place to work, period"-style pitch. Rather, Zuck made I thought a very insightful analysis of what sort of person would be best served working at a more mature company like Microsoft/Apple/Google, what sort of person would be better served starting their own company, who should work at a VC, and of course what type of person should pick Facebook.

"Felt much more like life advice than bragging of Facebook's incredible achievements. It was all about risk vs. reward, and an individual's ability to impact the world. I try use the same style of reasoning when talking to others considering working here. Or anywhere for that matter.

"When our walk was about working on search, Zuck had a very strong vision for what he wanted, and how compelling a structured search product over the content people have shared on Facebook could be. He knew this was the sort of thing I liked to take on: hugely ambitious, technically challenging, something I had never worked on before, lots of unanswered product questions.

"I was sold about 10 steps into the walk," he reveals with a smile.

Mapping The Future

Lars has now gone on to build awesome products like Graph Search: a product which change the way people look for each other in the largest online community the world has ever known. He lives in London now, just a short hop from his birthplace in Denmark. He still keeps tabs on life in Sydney, adding just recently that he felt homesick when pop star Kylie Minogue visited the Facebook London offices.

He said once he could be lured back to Sydney by a compelling start-up one day, but the world is now his oyster. He advises other start-ups outside of the Silicon Valley echo chamber these days, two of them Australian companies.

His best advice is to build a company during the tough times, because it makes you innovate that much more.

"Try and solve a problem that you have yourself. Your solution has to be something nobody has tried before. I got into mapping because I have no sense of direction. I need a map to find the bathroom in my house, and it isn't a big one."

"It doesn't matter who you are. What matters is what idea you have."

Regardless of where he is in the world, Lars is still building cool stuff in the same vein as Google Maps, Facebook Graph Search and even Wave to this day as Facebook's Director of Engineering. He doesn't know where you are in the world, but he always wants you to know where you're going and to find what you're looking for.

"Never give up," his words echo.


Comments

    Wave was a pretty cool product, kind of like a live forum. Great for planning etc with all the different threads and playing it back in the order stuff was added was really neat.

    I just think it was too different at the time.

    It is funny how everyone is considered an useless immigrant, unless they make the news and achieve something, then they are Australians... and everyone is proud of them.

      Yup - if you're any sort of underdog who comes good - you're Australian. It's the 'Aussie Battler' mentality that we need more of. If 'real' Australians strove as hard as many of the imports Australia would be the 'lucky country' we keep telling the world we are.

    The phrase, "lucky country," makes a lot more sense, when you consider Australia in the context of being a third-world country. Too many people could not work out the gross volume of a fridge for themselves, even if this is printed on the appliance.

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