Pava & Kevin

Reflections on 5 Years of EcoMap

As EcoMap reaches a bittersweet 5 year milestone, let our founder Pava tell you the Honest History of where we came from and where we will go.

On November 18, 2018, Pava LaPere incorporated the venture that would become her life’s work.

I had met Pava about a year earlier when she was still a junior at Johns Hopkins University (JHU). I recently took a position as the Student Venture Coordinator for FastForward U (FFU) – Johns Hopkins’ first official student entrepreneurship center which the university unveiled Fall 2017.

I feel obligated to say official because Pava was the de facto resource for student entrepreneurs at JHU before FFU rolled out. Along with her co-founders Anthony Garay and Brooke Stephanian, Pava started TCO Labs – named after the famous Steve Jobs “Here’s To The Crazy Ones” quote – in order to provide grassroots entrepreneurial support to students and the first ecosystem building efforts within the university.

During her Senior Fall, our office gave Pava a $800 grant to formally incorporate EcoMap and the rest is history that’s still being written.

History is a funny little thing, especially in startup world. When I sat down to write this reflection on what turning 5 means to us at EcoMap, it felt impossible to sum up that history in a couple of paragraphs. All the early mornings and late nights … the triumphs and failures … the mundane and the extraordinary moments … it felt overwhelming to even get started, especially in the face of a future without Pava, the beloved protagonist of this EcoMap tale.

Then I remembered a moment from the blur of COVID.

In the midst of all the chaos juggling our co-living venture Emergence Baltimore (a story for another time) and EcoMap’s rapid growth – Pava sat down to write her own reflection on EcoMap after nearly two years in titled The Honest History of EcoMap.

This was meant to be an internal document for new team members that would eventually be joining the fray, catching them up to speed while giving them a glimpse of the radical transparency that was a Pava hallmark.

A screenshot of The Honest History of EcoMap from our team Notion page

She cared deeply about EcoMap making it past 5 years. In fact, she had a running joke (that wasn’t a joke) about getting a tattoo of the logo of the first venture she founded that made it past that Year 5 mark. I’m confident she would have gotten some red & yellow EcoMap ink by the end of the year.

Here’s what she wrote about the significance of this milestone:

Between 60-90% of businesses don’t make it past Year 5. I’m confident that we’re in the minority that will.

Why? Because we have a product that our customers love. We have a business model that’s well-suited to the pandemic. We have a product that does good in the world, and helps the people who build the fabric of our society: entrepreneurs. We’re also profitable, which is more than many tech companies can say.

But most importantly, we have a talented, passionate team behind it all.

Yes we will face challenges, but if we all believe in what we are trying to do, we’ll overcome them.

There are some founders who would rather gloss over their rocky, mistake-filled, and difficult history when bringing on new team members. After all, the past is the past. But if I’m asking you on this journey, you deserve to know where we came from, so that you can make the decision about where we will go.

For those of you who knew Pava, this will be her unmistaken voice. Full of savvy, resilience, and vulnerability. I promise you’ll be able to hear her loud and clear in your head while reading along.

So instead of me trying to wax poetic about where we’ve been and where we’re going – allow Pava to tell that tale. She is still guiding our team each and every day through the foundation she laid, and it’s only right that she is the one who gives you a glimpse into what the past half decade of EcoMap involved.

Below is a slightly edited/abbreviated version of that Honest History of EcoMap.

In interviews, when we pitch clients, and when we talk to the world, we share an honest- but highly polished – version of EcoMap’s history. It goes something like this:

“I founded the Accelerators at Johns Hopkins…”

establish authority of the founder, so now you trust anything that I say more than if I hadn’t come from an elite institution

“… and as I was working with students, I realized it was hard to help them navigate resources within the city of Baltimore”

we introduce a problem statement that the customer will immediately understand

“…and this was concerning, because it means that entrepreneurship is inaccessible unless you know someone who can direct you to the correct resources”

we tell the customer why this problem matters, to get them thinking of the implications if they don’t use our product

“...it got us interested in the problem of Resource Databases for entrepreneurs, and why they don’t exist at scale”

in reality, it took us 2 years to figure out this was actually the problem we solved

“…we did a research project of hundreds of ecosystems, and realized that it was a Data issue: it’s hard and expensive to manage this data at scale”

we did do research, but it took us another year before we understood why these things didn’t exist. Our original takeaway was existing platforms were… ugly

“…and so we designed AI to help us manage the data, and built a platform meant for entrepreneurs and ecosystem builders”

it only took us 3 years, multiple pivots, almost shutting down twice, and more than 500 meetings to get here

This story is not untrue, but it’s not true either. It glosses over nearly 3 years of ideas, mistakes, iterations, false-starts, failures, and finally some wins. As I bring you into this journey, I feel like you have a right to know the full, unpolished story behind our company, if you care to hear it. There’s nothing scandalous, just a good old-fashioned story of starting a tech company when you have no clue what you’re doing. Read on for a brief history of the brief history of EcoMap Technologies.

The Idea

The idea for EcoMap occurred nearly 3 years ago, in the summer between my sophomore and junior years of college. That year I had started an incubator for students at Hopkins, and I was trying to find a list of resources in Baltimore to share with them. There wasn’t one, so as I spent my summer nights researching different resources in the city, I threw them into a MindMeister map.

The EcoMap MindMeister Map

Looking back, it wasn’t a great way to collect large amounts of Data, but it was still a pretty cool resource. I didn’t think it would go beyond much of a simple, internal tool that I could use with students to show them what existed within the city.

But the more I thought about it, the more consumed I became with the question of why this didn’t exist already. When I got back to campus my junior year, I pulled together a team within my first nonprofit to study what we coined “Ecosystem Mapping”. The shortened name of our Google Drive folder was EcoMap. Yep.

Early EcoMap presentation to TCO Labs team members

We did a research project and looked at how a ton of different universities, cities, states, countries, etc mapped out the resources in their communities. At the start, our goal was just to learn about different approaches so that we could build something really cool for Baltimore.

But as we did this research, we realized no one did Resource Databases well. No matter where we looked, the databases didn’t have correct and updated information, and they were horrible ugly and hard to navigate. We realized that if we built a beautiful platform, there might be ecosystems willing to pay us for it. The idea of EcoMap as a company was born – half out of legitimate business opportunity, and half because I wanted to start a for-profit venture after having two nonprofits.

The Breakthrough

As a group of 18,19,&20 year olds, we really had no idea what we were doing. Despite the fact that my literal other job was to teach students how to launch ventures, it’s much easier said than done.

We had this idea, but we didn’t understand what our problem statement was, what our solution would fully be, who we were selling it to, and most importantly, how to build it. I had studied computer science my first three years at Hopkins, but I hated it & I knew I wouldn’t be the one to learn how to code to build out this product. But I also didn’t have a technical cofounder, so it seemed like there was only one option… get funded.

We tried to raise funding with just an idea and a team of students, which I now know is not how things work. I couldn’t tap into the Hopkins resources for student entrepreneurs, since I either built them or played a role in choosing who got them, so I looked to Baltimore. We decided to pitch TEDCO, the state economic development agency, either as a customer or to get funding, we weren’t sure.

The original EcoMap mockups , all built over the course of a 36-hour sprint for the sake of this meeting. Feel free to click through the project. I have to say, they are remarkable similar to where we ended up today.

All I knew was that I met Stephen Auvil, the then VP of Technology Transfer and Communications, at an event, and he was willing to chat. He came to Hopkins one Friday night and very nicely listened to our whole pitch, which pretty much was “fund us to build a pretty platform that entrepreneurs can use to navigate local resources”. After we finished, he had one question…

That looks very nice, but the issue with these platforms is keeping it all updated. How will you solve that?

He was right – that was a problem we uncovered in our early research, but didn’t have a solution for. Not willing to be caught empty-handed in the middle of a pitch, I responded:

Easy, we use AI to monitor websites and keep it updated automatically

To be clear – we did not use AI. I hadn’t even considered AI before. But I wondered if we could use it. I asked my good friend Jordan, a brilliant mind in AI/ML/generally everything, if it was even feasible to use AI to do what I described. Lucky us – it was. So EcoMap became an AI company.

Suddenly our pitch became…

👩🏫 EcoMap uses Artificial Intelligence in order to map out all of the Resources and Ventures within an entrepreneurial ecosystem, and analyze the relationships between them in order to uncover deep insights into the health and efficiency of innovation communities.

Our goal was to use AI to locate, extract information about, and analyze all of the different players within the ecosystem. The data that we would collect about resources and organizations would help entrepreneurs find resources, and economic developers understand how well different programs were working. We could map every single interaction in the ecosystem with AI, which would keep our costs down and make this possible at scale.

Feasibility of it aside, it seemed sexier than Resource Databases, so that’s what we ran with. We focused less on trying to build a product and more on trying to pitch investors to fund this breakthrough AI megatool that we hadn’t even developed (but thought we could). I took hundreds of meetings with people in Baltimore, talking about this idea to anyone who would listen. Everyone seemed very excited about it, but…

1. No one would fund it

2. No one would buy it

Still, I was convinced that we had it figured out. I incorporated EcoMap in November 2018 as a Delaware Corporation, still thinking we were going to raise venture capital very soon thereafter. I added “Technologies” onto our name to sound sexy. EcoMap Technologies was (legally) born.

The Breakdown

The next year of EcoMap was, to be honest, rough. I was still a student, at that time managing a full course load, a part time job, two nonprofits, and an incubator. I couldn’t understand why people weren’t lining up to purchase or fund our AI megatool, even though everyone talked about the idea favorably.

And then, in a stroke of obviousness, I realized it was because it didn’t exist. No one would buy something they couldn’t see, use, or understand.

Our attention turned back to showing what this platform would actually look like in a city. I still had that initial list of organizations within Baltimore, so with the help of a $800 grant from Hopkins (applied for under another student, the only ‘outside capital’ we have taken to date), I hired two interns (Emily being one of them) to extract information about all of the organizations and their resources. At the end of this, we had an Airtable database of all the resources in Baltimore. We embedded it into a shitty WordPress site, and we had EcoMap 2.0

EcoMap 2.0
Early EcoMap resource directory … an Airtable embedded into a WordPress site

We launched this site into Baltimore, and it was amazingly well-received. People sent entrepreneurs to it, and if we hadn’t forgotten to enable form submissions on that first website, we might have gotten a great email list from the launch. It was an awesome tool, and entrepreneurs and ecosystem builders alike raved about it in Baltimore

But still, no one would pay us for it.

After a ton of false starts – with customers, with funders, with new team members – I realized two things:

  1. No one will pay for an Airtable embedded into a wordpress site
  2. The AI Megatool was the wrong approach. A good Resource Database was what people wanted.

Back to square one. We scrapped the fancy pitch about mapping assets, and instead went with the idea that we would use AI to help us reduce the costs of data management at scale. But even with this clarity on what the solution would be, we still didn’t have a legit product to show customers, which meant we couldn’t get the real traction needed to raise funding.

As these transformations were happening, I struggled trying to lead a team without knowing what to assign them to, and without being able to pay them for their time. The entire early team turned over as the students moved on to other opportunities, and I refused to bring anyone else onboard until I could pay them.

But no one would fund an idea without customers or a real product, and I couldn’t build it. I spent 6 months agonizing over what to do. Graduation was fast approaching, and I had to make a decision. I almost gave up the entire venture and took a full-time job with Hopkins

The Breakthrough, Round 2

Then one day I discovered Webflow.

Webflow is a no-code website design platform. It essentially lets you anything from beautiful websites to powerful webapps without needing to know code. At first I was going to use it to just build another prototype, but I realized you could actually build products on it. So I spent nearly 2 weeks straight building the first real version of EcoMap. Suddenly we I had a product. By that point, it was just me. So after ghosting her for nearly 5 months, I hit back up Emily and told her EcoMap was back.

Still, all we had was this platform for Baltimore. We reached out to a ton of ecosystems, and they were interested, but we lost them when we told them the price. I was quoting $100,000+ dollars for the platform, thinking that I would need to build it and the algorithms from scratch in order to expand it to each ecosystems. That’s when we realized a core trait of our target market:

Most Ecosystem Builders don’t have that much money

In late 2019, we finally convinced the Global Good Fund to pay us to collect data about Rural Virginia, and Greensboro to pay us to collect data about North Carolina – but neither wanted to pay for our frontend.

We had trouble selling EcoMaps without having other ecosystems already onboard, and I experienced first-hand the reason we tell entrepreneurs to not sell to governments off the bat: many conversations with customers would take 6 months and a dozen meetings to turn into a possible contract. We were also going up against an incumbent competitor, Sourcelink, who has been working with our potential customers for decades. We were a tiny company with a two-person team, an okay-looking platform, and no funding going up against long-formed relationships in a relationship-based industry.

We realize that in order to land a paying ecosystem, we needed a:

  1. Cheaper;
  2. More beautiful;
  3. More functional platform.

All I can say is thank the world’s technologists’ for coding no-code tools.

One year after we said we’d use AI to keep it all updated, we started building AI to keep it all updated.

The Present

In February, we launched EcoMap 3.0. Word started to spread about our platform, and ecosystems began hitting us up. Every customer we pitched was amazed at the data we could collect, the platforms we could build, and the price & speed we could do it at. (Another benefit of no-code – it’s so much quicker)

In March, we brought on Marcus, to help us design some projects we were just about to sign. Then the pandemic hit, and we lost the customers on the dotted line. Now that we were paying the team, we were quickly burning through the little money we had. We almost went bottom up, even though we were talking to many customers – as they say, cash flow kills.

In April, the city of Dallas signed our first full-EcoMap contract.

Then Kaiser Permanente did for the Resilience Compass.

Then the Aspen Institute did for the Republic of Ghana.

Then our partners in Birmingham, who we had been talking to for 14 months, finally signed.

Then Columbus hit us up, Alabama requested a proposal, Chattanooga is trying to break their contract with our competitor, and on and on we go.

And what happened with Mr. Stephen Auvil of TEDCO? One week from this writing, we will sign the final documents solidifying the TEDCO & the State of Maryland as our first state-sized client.

The Future

If you are reading this, it means that you are on the EcoMap team (Kevin edit: or reading this blog post 😊 ) at an incredibly important point in our lifecycle. We are entering Year 3, and how we perform in the next 12 months – how many deals we land, how high-quality our data collection and analysis is, how thrilled our customers are – will determine whether or not EcoMap gets to live through Year 4.

Between 60-90% of businesses don’t make it past Year 5. I’m confident that we’re in the minority that will.

Why? Because we have a product that our customers love. We have a business model that’s well-suited to the pandemic. We have a product that does good in the world, and helps the people who build the fabric of our society: entrepreneurs. We’re also profitable, which is more than many tech companies can say.

But most importantly, we have a talented, passionate team behind it all. Yes we will face challenges, but if we all believe in what we are trying to do, we’ll overcome them.

There are some founders who would rather gloss over their rocky, mistake-filled, and difficult history when bringing on new team members. After all, the past is the past. But if I’m asking you on this journey, you deserve to know where we came from, so that you can make the decision about where we will go.

~Pava 12th October 2020

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