To survive in a world of Google Maps, smartphones and GPS, Russell Mussio, founder and president of Mussio Ventures Ltd., which operates as Backroad Mapbooks, had to take his printed books and maps into the digital age.
As a publisher for the past 20 years of up-to-date topographic maps and recreation guidebooks on the Canadian outdoors, Mr. Mussio began a few years ago to see a gradual but growing decline in sales of the Coquitlam, B.C.-based company's printed products. At the same time, more and more customers were asking for digital versions of them.
Between 2008 and 2009, sales fell to $1.2-million from $1.3-million. During, 2010, they declined a further 20 per cent to about $1-million.
At that point, Mr. Mussio realized that he needed to meet customer demands to go digital, or the business was in serious jeopardy.
The company has been a leading publisher of outdoor recreation books and maps since 1993, when Mr. Mussio started it from his spare bedroom in Burnaby, B.C.
It began as a university project while he was studying business at the University of British Columbia. "My profs helped me develop a really concrete business plan for my thesis. When I crunched the numbers, it seemed too good an opportunity to pass up," he says.
With his family lending the initial finances, Mr. Mussio produced his first book, Southwestern BC, in 1993, and, over the next few years, the company became an industry-leading provider of topographic maps that display more roads, trails and recreational opportunities than most other other map sources in Canada.
"I wasn't a mapper by trade when I started this company, but just wanted to read back-country maps more easily. I wanted to quickly spot a trailhead, recreational site or point of interest, such as waterfalls," Mr. Mussio says. He and his team carefully researched the areas they mapped and added such details in the form of labels and symbols.
Beginning in 2009, Mr. Mussio found that, whenever he connected with customers at trade shows or via e-mail, they persistently asked him when his products would be coming out on GPS or online. "With the advent of smartphones, this demand was just growing," Mr. Mussio says. "We knew it was time to change and adapt."
In 2010, Mr. Mussio took a big risk by putting the brakes on his traditional source of revenue growth: He pulled away all of his research and production resources, including his full-time mapping staff of three cartographers, from product development of new titles, and instead instructed them to begin the long process of converting all of Backroad Mapbooks'data into digital formats.
It was a formidable challenge: That meant converting more than 1,250 different topographic maps that included more than two million kilometres of roads, 200,000 kilometres of trails and 30,000 unique recreational points of interest into digital formats compatible with devices such as GPS units, computers, PDF readers and smartphones.
" Each delivery method for various digital platfrorms required us to adapt the data to ensure it displayed properly, and this was no easy task," Mr. Mussio says."Although most of the work was done manually by our staff, we also tried using specialized mapping software and hired a couple of GIS [geographical information ystems] specialists to help with this. But outsourcing to other companies to expedite the process did not always work out favourably. Automation would not scale to the leel we wanted or include details, such as that rainbow trout can be found in one specific lake."
It's the customized details that set Backroad Mapbooks apart from competitors. To maintain this key differentiator, its team had to manually review, pinpoint and reclassify the location of all the trails, logging roads and recreational points of interest.
"Virtually all of the previous 20 years of work on our mapbooks had to be redone from scratch in a digital format," Mr. Mussio says.
The first few attempts at the Backroad GPS Map and Backroad Mapbook Naviator were met enthusiastically but not without criticism by customers. Fortunately, digital maps can be updated more quickly than a printed map, so modifications were made.
"By 2012, we had digital versions of all of our mapbooks and individual topographic maps, and we began selling the seamless website maps as each product was finished," Mr. Mussio says.
Backroad Mapbook has seen favourable results from its digital redirection. Digital products accounted for about 43 per cent of total revenues of $1.8-million in 2012. Mr. Mussio expects digital products to grow to 75 per cent of all annual revenue by next spring.
This success has enabled the company to double in size to 12 full-time employees from six, as well as employ the services of half a dozen contract writers and researchers.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Jeff Kroeker is a lecturer in the accounting division at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia.
This is the latest in a regular series of case studies by a rotating group of business professors from across the country. They appear every Friday on the Report on Small Business website.