Jeremy Irish, the co-founder and CEO of Seattle-based Groundspeak, was our guest on a recent episode of the GeekWire radio show and podcast, talking about the rise of geocaching and Groundspeak’s role in the phenomenon as the company behind geocaching.com.
Continue reading for excerpts from our conversation.
For someone who’s never heard of geocaching before, what is it about?
Irish: The idea is that people around the world, they take a container and they put some toys in it, and a log book, they find a unique location in the world, they place it, hide it somewhere, mark it with coordinates and then list it on our website, and then other people can put those coordinates in and follow the arrow to locate this container.
It started as an outdoors activity, but it’s an urban thing now, too, and it’s grown into a worldwide phenomenon at this point. We just reported there are 1.5 million geocaches now that you guys have tracked and chronicled?
Irish: Not only are there 1.5 million geocaches in the world, but 500,000 of them were actually hidden in the last year.
What’s driving that? Is it just that the hobby is catching on? Or the rise of mobile devices that have GPS units in them?
Irish: I think there’s a combination of a few things. To get critical mass in a location-based game, it takes a long time. So it took about four years when we first started, in 2000, where it really became something where you could do a search and then find something within maybe 10 miles of you. Today you can probably find something within a mile, sometimes at the end of your street.
What do people put in the boxes? Can you think of the craziest things that people put in these caches?
Irish: I still go back to when I found this cache and it had a chain mail stress ball in it. It was this ball, and somebody knows how to make chain mail — some geocachers are very creative in doing crafts. They made it into a ball, and it still sits on my desk.
And how many marriage proposals have their been? Do they put the ring in there and make sure the person they want to marry gets it, and not someone else?
Irish: Yeah, the folks that do the rings, they don’t list them on the website first. Because we have people who have found caches within 15 minutes of them being listed on the website. So yeah, there’s a destination, and they’ll show the ring. Or they’ll create a fake cache page and go out and do this proposal. I’d say it’s in the teens at this point.
Wow, you’ve got to have a really geeky wife, or soon-to-be wife, to pull that off.
Irish: We actually had an employee who proposed with a reverse geocache.
Wait, explain that.
Irish: Yeah, somebody came up with the idea of putting a GPS inside of a cache. And the only way to open it is to find the right location, you press a button on the outside, and it would either tell you how far away you are from it, and give you so many chances to open it, or it would open if it’s at the location. So he actually took this out, put the ring in it, and drove with his wife to open the container.
From what I understand, there’s also a geocache on the International Space Station?
Irish: Yeah, Richard Garriott — he’s known as Lord British if you know the Ultima series of games — he actually travelled to the International Space Station and he placed a travel bug in one of the containers on the International Space Station. (Update: Looks like the cache was found and brought home by astronaut Greg Chamitoff on the last flight of the Space Shuttle Endeavour.)
Where are some of your favorite, personally, that you’ve tracked down over the years?
Irish: Well, I was in Finland, where there’s a lot of Santa Claus-themed caches. A lot of Christmas lights, you’ll come and open a cache and the entire tree will light up. Pretty amazing. I was inside of a small cave that when Vikings were invading, all of the women and children would hide in these caves, and they were really tiny. Basically you’d have to crawl into the cave and you’d have to back out of it.
I keep coming back to why people would do this, and it sounds like it’s making a game — creating an object, both literally and figuratively — for outdoors activities, travel, hiking. Is that the gist of it?
Irish: I think we all have this nature to explore. It’s something that’s in all of us. And because we’ve pretty much explored the planet, there’s only the extremes you can do these days to really see something new. People want to have that sense of exploration. It’s like finding these adventures in your own backyard.
For somebody who just wants to get started on this, what are your tips and your advice? Where do they go to get started.
Irish: These days it’s easy to take a mobile phone and get a geocaching application. We have applications on Android and Windows Phone 7 and the iPhone. You just look up geocaching and you can get the application and get going. Otherwise you need a handheld GPS unit, and they’re under $100 to get one. You go onto our website, geocaching.com, and you can put your postal code in, and it will give you a list of caches in your area. Choose one with a low difficulty and terrain to get you started.
Tell us more about Groundspeak, and how you guys got started and built your business around this idea.
Irish: Groundspeak started in 2000, right after I started the website, and there was a point where there was an article about geocaching on CNN and we started getting a lot of hits, and it was in my spare bedroom, and I said, OK, we’ve got to do something very quickly to get this out of my bedroom and into an environment that can take the hits.
Irish: Well, it was really a hobby to begin with. I went out on my first hunt — at that time it was called the Great American GPS Stash Hunt — and I had a really bad experience going out, because I was totally unprepared for the situation. So when I came back, I thought, well, there’s a lot of ways that I could educate people and get involved. There was also a little selfishness of trying to get more people to go out and place these things, so I could go out and find them.
What was it about it that you liked?
Irish: When I lived on the East Coast, there was an entire summer that I went from one parking garage to another parking garage. I really wasn’t outside. Before that I was a Life Scout and I was always hiking. I started getting into IT and I got more involved in Xbox, playing inside. All the technology was driving us inside, and the idea of going outside with the technology, and getting geeks outside, that was one of the things that motivated me to start the site.
So you’ve built a company around this, called Groundspeak. How many employees do you have?
Irish: We have about 62 employees right now (based in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood).
How do you make money on this stuff?
In the early days of geocaching, it was a hobby, but I was also working full-time. The two co-founders, Bryan Roth and Elias Alvord, we decided to come up with this freemium model, where everything is free but if you wanted to add additional features in you could subscribe, and it was $30 a year or $3 a month. That first month, we had about $20,000 that people invested in us. And basically there were no features at that point, it was just to become a charter member. And from there we’ve built features so that people would be enticed to become members.
Irish: There’s something called pocket queries, a way for you to do a custom file that gets sent to you and you can put on your GPS unit that can have up to 1,000 caches on it. People can really customize their experience. It’s kind of a power user feature.
Another thing people can do, I think, is sort the geocaches by different parameters. So you can say, I want this type of cache, within this location, within this radius of me and customize your experience.
Irish: Yeah, and we add favorite points. Out of every 10 caches people find, they can add a point to the best one, so people can sort by favorite points and find out the most popular caches.
In mountain climbing, you’ve got people like Ed Viesters who would go up onto Mt. Everest without any supplemental oxygen. Are there any people out there who actually refuse to use GPS to find these caches and are just out there with a compass and a map? Is that even possible?
Irish: It is, yeah, and absolutely, a lot of people do that. They actually can use Google Maps.
No, that’s cheating, in this scenario. Could you do it with a paper map and a compass?
Irish: Absolutely, yeah.
How hard would that be, though, without GPS?
You’ve got to be pretty nerdy to do it, converting datums — see, I’m getting nerdy already. … The old maps use a different coordinate method than today’s maps.
So what has the rise of mobile phones done? So many people now have a smartphone with GPS built in. When you started out, that wasn’t the case. How has that changed your business, and the type of person that’s participating in geocaching?
Irish: In the beginning, people would take their GPS unit, go outside, have their experience for the day and then come back. Now today with smartphones people are actually logging in real time, and it’s a more social experience. We’re seeing a lot more activity during the day on our website than we are in the evening.
Listen to the full show below (interview starts after the news segment) or directly via this MP3 file. You can get every episode of the GeekWire show using this RSS feed, or subscribe in iTunes or Zune.
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