Mark Johnson and his twin brother, Paul, began designing and developing websites when they were only 13 years old. In 2011, the duo decided to merge their coding experience to create Pathwright, a simple content management system that allows educators to create, distribute, and sell online education courses. Their team has since grown to 14 employees, and Pathwright is used by more than 200,000 people globally.
Last year, however, Mark Johnson decided to launch a new startup — TiltMaps. The online design tool allows people to create custom map posters to commemorate their “favorite city, birthplace, first kiss, or any important place in time.” We recently sat down with Johnson to discuss his passion for design and how he’s using technology to commercialize mapmaking.
The following transcript has been edited and condensed for brevity and clarity.
What inspired you to create TiltMaps?
In January of 2017, I set a goal for myself to learn something new every month by coding a small side project around a topic I wanted to learn more about. In June of 2017, my goal was to create a product that people would want to buy. Marketing and sales have never come naturally for me, so I wanted to challenge myself to create something with sales as a primary goal. I’ve always loved maps and thought making a tool to create custom map posters would be a fun challenge.
What is unique about your business?
There are quite a few other build-your-own-map services out there but none that I know of that put the map at an angle. To me, adding in the perspective tilt gives a sense of atmosphere and place to the locations that you wouldn’t get from a more conventional top-down view of a map.
What advantage does a map have over a photograph of a location?
Maps can be a representation of a place that’s closer to an abstract piece of art than a literal snapshot of reality. I think there’s a romantic appeal to maps that is more sophisticated than just a photo of a place.
How do you create the maps?
The maps are 100 percent created with code magic. More specifically, after an order is placed, there’s a script that generates a high-resolution version of the poster and then sends that file, along with the shipping address information, to an online fulfillment and printing service called Printful. Printful can print and fulfill a ton of different high-quality products on demand and has an API (application programming interface) that can be used to completely automate this process. A poster order is typically generated and sent off for fulfillment within 18 seconds, and all I have to do is hit a button.
What kind of requests can you accommodate for customization?
There’s a lot you can customize about your TiltMap. Obviously, the location is the big one. But you can zoom in or out and pan the map circle to anywhere you want. You can choose from two layouts, text around a larger map circle, or text above the circle. The text can be a serif or sans-serif and be customized to say anything you want while automatically adjusting its size to fit the poster layout. After this, you can pick an icon to pin on the location if you like, change the background and foreground colors. … There’s some nice pre-defined themes, but you can choose any background or foreground color you like. I have to say my favorite combo is a black background poster with a light foreground color. The printed version turns out beautiful.
What were some of the challenges you faced when launching TiltMaps?
MJ: Figuring out a way to generate a high-resolution version of the maps that people create in a browser was challenging. It took weeks of research and trial and error before I finally found the solution to this one. I’m really pleased with the print quality of the posters and still a little surprised that this type of high-quality artwork can be created in a web browser. The other challenge has just been getting it in front of people. Whenever I drive traffic to the site, I sell posters. I’m still working on finding a sustainable way to do that.
🚀 After six months of nights and weekends, my side project TiltMaps is now live on @producthunt: Create and order beautiful map posters of your favorite places and memories.
👉 https://t.co/GdBm2p00E6 pic.twitter.com/94TWNy6dn8
— Mark Johnson (@wmdmark) December 7, 2017
What do you like most about TiltMaps?
MJ: I like that it produces a tangible, real-world product that someone can hang on their wall. A lot of my work is purely digital, so it’s nice to make something that is out in the real world. It’s also a nice, self-contained project that lets me experiment and learn more about marketing and advertising.
How much does a TiltMap cost?
MJ: TiltMaps are reasonably priced at $35. Comparable high-quality map posters are typically in the $65 range, so I’m pleased to price lower than those while maintaining around a 50 percent profit margin.
What do you hope to have achieved in 12 months with TiltMaps?
MJ: My modest goal for this year is to grow the sales to around $500/month. This is just a side project for me, and it’s incredibly cheap to run, so I don’t need to turn a huge profit on this.
What is the most important thing you’ve learned from the tech and design community?
MJ: I think there’s a tremendous amount of, sometimes world-changing, power when great design is coupled with great tech. I feel privileged to be able to work and learn in this period of human history where we can solve problems with design and code and then put that out in the world so easily. It’s a tremendous amount of fun, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
For more information, visit tiltmaps.com.