Mashups for fun--and profit?

Many are combining online maps and data. But can anyone make money off these things?

Mashup Web sites, from celebrity stalking sites to an online pedometer for running enthusiasts, are certainly all the rage. Now comes the hard part: making money off these things.

Though a handful of mashups have received venture capital backing, many investors are leery of putting money into the sites, which typically use application programming interfaces (APIs) from online map providers such as Google, Yahoo and Microsoft to display information on an easy-to-use online map.

The main reason for caution is the very thing that makes mashups so popular--they're fairly easy to create, and it's not that difficult for someone to duplicate the more successful ones. On top of that, it's not clear yet how much money can be made with these sites. Are they the next big thing on the Web, or just a nifty niche for small companies and hobbyists?

"I think mapping is a commodity," said Peter Rip, a managing director at Leap Frog Ventures. "It's simply combining two things but not (adding) a lot of intellectual property on top of it. The problem is the people giving you the content want to be compensated. You are in fact a reseller of that content."

That's not to say there isn't a business to be had. Map technology providers such as Google and Microsoft are expected to eventually put ads on maps that are geographically relevant to consumers and therefore more likely to generate revenue. And mashup sites such as Platial and Trulia already appear unusual enough to pull in interest among investors.

Trulia, a real estate search engine, raised just less than $8 million from angel, or first-round, investors and Accel Partners, said Trulia Chief Executive Pete Flint.

"We are a real estate technology media company first, and the mashup is how we display that information," Flint said. "That was very attractive from an investor's perspective."

Platial, which bills itself as "The People's Atlas," lets people create personalized maps where they can tell stories and show where events happened. The company received an undisclosed amount of angel funding from individuals; venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers; and the Omidyar Network investment group. "I think it was an experiment on all sides," Platial co-founder Di-Ann Eisnor said in an interview.

"I don't think there is an emerging economy of mash-ups. In fact, imho (in my humble opinion) the term 'mash-up' is overused to reference the fact that personal geography is important to people around the world," she wrote in an e-mail.

Platial is planning to launch local advertising on its site within a few weeks, but in a manner that is different from traditional online advertising, Eisnor said.

Real estate prime for mashups
Most likely to get venture backing are companies like, which blends a mashup with several other services and home-property valuations and data from different sources. It recently landed a $32 million investment from Benchmark Capital.

Rip argued that visualizing houses or jobs on an online map is merely a feature. But if a Web site shows home values in low-crime areas within a certain price range and with high-scoring elementary schools within 30 minutes of a workplace, then that is an application that could conceivably be monetized, he said.

"A lot of these sites are going to have a very small population of users. How many people are really interested in beer places in some small town in Indiana?" said Adena Schutzberg, executive editor of Directions Magazine. "Real estate has a much broader appeal. Those are the ones, I suspect, that will make money first or figure out how to use this model to their advantage."

Featured Video