Yamap: Japan’s online vertical community for mountaineers that looks to the top



See the original story in Japanese.

Over the new year’s period, five start-up teams selected for the initial batch of “IBM BlueHub” – the incubation program launched by IBM Japan for the first time – were announced. As befits a program run by a technology-driven company like IBM, the majority of services from those five are tech-driven.

Lately, with so many services featuring UI/UX on the startup scene now, the author being a systems engineer on the side cannot but help feel excited upon seeing such services offering exceptional technologies. For this story, let us focus on one of the five firms called Sefuri, the developer of Yamap.

User Experience aimed for by Yamap

Yamap is a mapping app for mountain climbers, which allows users ascertain their current location even in mountains outside of mobile telephony range, relying solely on GPS signals sent from global positioning satellites. Conventionally mountain climbers in the past would often carry a dedicated GPS device, but almost the same functions are offered now via a generally available smartphone.

The system enables a user disclosing his or her climb logging data over Yamap, after regaining internet accessibility, to share with other users in what outfit he or she climbed, what kinds of attraction were found on the mountain, etc. In short, it has evolved into a social network for mountain climbers, beyond the domain of mapping application.

What is the user experience aimed for by Yamap? I interviewed Yoshihio Haruyama, founder and CEO of Sefuri, who once edited a travel magazine at an agency specializing in individual trips.

Sefuri CEO Yoshihiko Haruyama

Let’s say, someone takes a trip to Yufuin (sightseeing spot in Kyushu best known for hot springs). We would like the traveler to experience fun not only in center town of the hot-springs resort, but also the overall experience in the area including the neighboring mountains. We would like to support tourism during a resort stay.

If one wishes to record and share a travel itinerary, apps like Korea’s Travelog that let international travelers to ascertain their current location are available. This is done by downloading the map of one’s place of stay in advance, no 3G or 4G roaming service needed.

Technically speaking, while what they’ve developed is the same as other such startups, Haruyama emphasized that Yamap mainly focuses on creating a community around mountain climbing. As the climber’s stories are posted / shared per mountain with photos of the outfits worn, it serves as an extremely supportive source of information for mountain climbers to see the required gear for conquering a mountain for the first time, plus what attractions are available.

He continued:

We would like to establish a service by combining a map and GPS with the tracking data of mountain climbs, similar to that of Trip Advisor. Because we aim to offer services widely accepted by mountain climbers, monetization is not considered part of the mapping apps function.

Community operations and monetization

It is nearly a year since Yamap’s launch last year, but its current membership numbers 75,000. Its monthly page per view is 2.11 million; MAU (monthly active users) in November totaled at 20,000. Although he is not thinking about monetization until the membership volume attains a certain figure between 500,000 and a million, Haruyama shared with me a possible business model.

We’d like to come up with a price comparison website/apps covering products related to mountain climbing/outdoors. Since life and limb depend on mountain-climbing/outdoor goods, everybody wishes to purchase a better product for less. On the other hand, those outdoor brands like Patagonia, The North Face, MontBell and the like are no longer niche. An affiliate that sends customers to such product sales sites will provide them profit.

Haruyama explained:

Corporate advertising is another. There are only a few online communities where users such as mountaineers and outdoor fans gather; Yamap in this field is likely to become an epic platform. If we can develop tourism-related business in the future, such advertisements could be gained as well. However, as far as the tourism business is concerned, I think collaborating with local governing bodies and others would be better rather than going it alone.

Besides Haruyama, Sefuri comprises 3 engineers. Although the number of mobile apps download is 90,000, with the IBM BlueHub program, by improving UI/UX with the mentoring offered by Takayuki Fukatsu the designer and the like, they aim to achieve 150,000 downloads upon program completion.

CC-licenced picture:  A line of mountaineers heading toward Mt Blanc (via Flickr by ashokboghani)
CC-licenced picture: A line of mountaineers heading toward Mt Blanc (via Flickr by ashokboghani)

Funding and global expansion

So far, this company has fundraised 5 million yen (about $41,800) from Samurai Incubate in a seed round and 1.5 million yen ($12,500) from Japan Finance Corporation. Furthermore, it is exploring a series A round funding for next summer. To launch Android apps development, it is actively hiring Android apps development engineers based out of Sefuri office in Fukuoka.

The “mountain climbing demand” can be found worldwide, so we’d like to carry out overseas development actively. We will offer English services by next Spring. We’d like to do the same as to Korean and Chinese, too. We will first reinforce our (inbound) services for those mountain climbers coming to Japan, followed by (outbound) services for those going abroad

Haruyama elaborated:

Incorporating a mapping company’s map data will force users to pay for the service, so instead we use data from Geospatial Information Authority of Japan (GSI). Upon overseas development, it will likely incorporate Open Street Map. There are some apps for maintain climbers in the US, but the quality isn’t so good. I thus think there is a major business opportunity available.

Yamap has won the Samurai Award at “Zenkoku Startup Day (literally meaning “All-Japan Startup Day” held in Fukuoka city recently, and was nominated for the Good Design Award Best 100 in 2014 to receive the Good Design Award of Small and Medium Enterprises.

For those who do not climb mountains on a regular basis, there may be some anxiety about climbing without a guide. But with Yamap, such fear for the climb may be allayed. As this year can expect a mountain-climbing boom hitherto unseen, generated by mountain-climbing visitors from inside Japan and abroad, we look forward to Yamap serving as a “must-have” for mountain climbers around the globe.

Translated by “Tex” Pomeroy
Edited by Masaru Ikeda