Felt raised $4.5 million to get you to ‘think in maps’

From vaccine distribution plans to fire trackers to bar crawls for your best friend’s birthday, maps help people visualize space and express impact. And Felt, a new Oakland-based startup co-founded by Sam Hashemi and Can Duruk, is on a mission to make the medium more mainstream.

Felt is a collaborative software company that wants to make it easier for people to build maps on the internet. It announced today that it has raised $4.5 million led by Bain Capital Ventures, with participation from Designer Fund, Allison Pickens, Akshay Kothari (COO of Notion), Dylan Field (CEO of Figma) John Lily (former CEO of Firefox), Julia and Kevin Hartz, and Keval Desai.

The millions will be used to help Felt grow its fully distributed six-person team to bring on more front-end, back-end and product engineers, as well as product and brand designers. Along with the financing, the company announced it is launching a private beta to better understand what early adopters it attracts, and how those users engage with the platform.

Felt allows users to build a map with data sets integrated into it. A user can open a map of California, for example, and then turn to Felt’s data library to add information about bits like wildfires and smoke patterns. The map’s power grows as more integrations are used to build out its background; using the prior anecdote, for example, the wildfire map integrated with census data could allow decision makers to see how many businesses could be impacted by incoming smoke.

Over time, Felt users will be able to see other user-generated maps and team projects on the interface — which they can then copy to add their own flair, or leave comments to support the community.

While consumers will eventually be able to access a free tier, the big test for Felt is if it can find a customer base that is willing to pay, and consistently use mapping software in meaningful ways. The company is in a unique spot. It’s not a GPS service, so it won’t serve the consumer who only turns to maps for directions. Instead, its build-a-map service is better suited for companies that already use it in their day-to-day.

Felt is meant to be a continuation of the collaborative software movement underscored by everyday tools like Google Docs and top companies like Notion and Figma, as well as a sequel to Hashemi’s previous company, Remix. Recently bought by Via for $100 million, Remix is a city transportation planning startup born out of Code for America Hackathon. As Hashemi spent nearly seven years building Remix, he was introduced to the inadequacies of map-making, namely that there are many use cases for maps but not many people who have the skill set to create a professional product. He hopes Felt will take mapping beyond city planning and into a variety of industries, from education to science to media.

“We really want to be much more aspirational in what we’re trying to accomplish and go much more broader [so it] results in a totally different kind of company,” Hashemi said. Perhaps its biggest competitor is ESRI’s GIS, a mapping software tool founded in 1969 and still used by hundreds of thousands of companies today.

Climate change could be a catalyst that brings more customers into the collaborative mapping space. Duruk, who built products at Uber and VGS, spoke about the importance of crisis response after last year’s wildfires and the resulting eerie orange sky in the Bay Area.

“Everyone in the Bay Area would wake up, go to the air quality map, weather map and the fire map,” Duruk said. “Everyone was trying to do something with maps, but only a few companies in the world had the resources to build something….it was broken.” Felt wants to go broad in its integrations, but did confirm that climate data will be a priority.

The challenge with building a powerful, creative tool is that there is a chance for people to misuse maps for abuse or targeting, Duruk said. Felt is thinking about ways to build in accountability and systematic processes to limit bad actors from using mapping information in the wrong way.

In the meantime, though, the early-stage startup is focusing on expression as a key way to understand its own product’s bounds. With millions more, Felt is aiming at increasing the capability of people by growing the map-ability of the world.