Sean Phelan: Mobile maps showed me the road to success

When Sean Phelan wanted to create maps for mobile phones, he was years ahead of his time. But then Microsoft got interested.

When the business he worked for was bought by a firm with a 31-year-old boss, Sean Phelan decided he was in the wrong job. "I was 30 and still a software engineer he was only a year older and head of the whole company." Although Phelan had a successful career by any standard travelling the world building computer networks he decided it was time for a radical shift.

He quit his job and completed an MBA course in technology and innovation. "It gave me a wider understanding of business." He spent four years working for a consultancy, "gaining insight into different firms", then launched his own business in 1995. It was inspired by three emerging technologies: the internet, rapidly improving mobile phones and cheaper global positioning system (GPS) devices. "I could see the potential of them and wanted to bring them together."

His plan was to enable people to access maps on their mobile phones. He gave up his job, retaining "some contract work to keep some money coming in", and ploughed tens of thousands of his savings into the new firm - Multimedia Mapping.

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But he was too far ahead of his time. None of the large phone manufacturers were interested. "Nowadays smartphones offer [maps] but back then the phones couldn't handle it." Undeterred, he developed other facets of the business, building, which allowed users to search for online maps.

He also developed a business service using his technology to build branch finders' for retailers' websites. With internet usage growing rapidly, revenues for both units soared. In 1997, total sales hit £100,000; a year later they were £300,000.

But Phelan knew he couldn't rest on his laurels. "Running a company from a bedroom was great for a few years but things were starting to get serious. There were some big players in America who had a lot of money."

In 1999 he secured £1.8m in backing from a TV company, which he spent on staff and new offices. "In 2000 we went from having three staff to 23." By the year-end sales hit £1.1m. Another "smaller" fundraising in 2001 was spent on expanding abroad.

New sales teams targeted France and Australia, while success with car manufacturer Ford in Europe helped win business in America. By 2006, the firm was making £10m a year and had almost 100 staff.

But Phelan was considering moving on. "Google and Microsoft began to offer a rival service for free, while Nokia and TomTom had bought the companies that provided mapping services. Also it was clear that tough economic times were around the corner."

Another push to sell came when Virgin Media, who bought the original backers, wanted to sell its 25% stake. When Phelan hired advisers to help with a sale, he received three bids, eventually selling to Microsoft for £30m in 2007. "It wasn't the biggest offer but it was clear they had put a lot more effort into their bid and understood our business."

Multimap merged into Microsoft's Bing mapping service, while Phelan, now 54, became an angel investor. It's a risky business, he acknowledges: he's invested in 11 new companies, five of which "have already gone under". But he is "confident" in the six remaining firms.

James McKeigue

James graduated from Keele University with a BA (Hons) in English literature and history, and has a certificate in journalism from the NCTJ. James has worked as a freelance journalist in various Latin American countries.He also had a spell at ITV, as welll as wring for Television Business International and covering the European equity markets for the London bureau. James has travelled extensively in emerging markets, reporting for international energy magazines such as Oil and Gas Investor, and institutional publications such as the Commonwealth Business Environment Report. He is currently the managing editor of LatAm INVESTOR, the UK's only Latin American finance magazine.