Missoula Company Aims to Dominate Backcountry Navigation

A small mapping technology company attracted a Montana record-breaking $20.3 million in venture capital

By David Erickson, Missoulian

MISSOULA — How did a small mapping technology company in Missoula with roughly 70 employees manage to attract a Montana record-breaking $20.3 million in venture capital from a host of well-known investment firms from New York to Silicon Valley? After all, an eye-poppingly big number like that is usually reserved for well-known tech startups or fast-rising cyrptocurrency outfits in coastal cities like San Francisco and Seattle, not for a small firm in the middle of the mountains and surrounded by wilderness.

But it’s those wild areas, and people’s desire to explore them, that form the core of onXmaps’ business model. The company doesn’t say this, but it appears that it wants to be the Google Maps of the backcountry by giving customers detailed, location-based software that provides a real-time look at where they are in relation to their surroundings, even if they’re out of cell service.

By using a mobile phone’s built-in Global Positioning System that relies on satellites, onXmaps aims to give users a detailed map, including public and private ownership boundaries, of where they are anywhere in the U.S. That’s something not even the largest tech companies like Apple and Google have done, as they’ve focused mainly on urban areas. But there’s a huge market for better GPS-based maps in America’s vast uninhabited public lands.

“We always say there’s no reason to get lost in the backcountry anymore,” said onXmaps founder and president Eric Siegfried. “Where the pavement ends, onXmaps begins.”

Siegfried said he and his team have been working on raising capital for the last year to hire more staff in Missoula, where they just completed the construction of a new building to house their growing ranks. They also have offices in Bozeman, where some of the hiring will occur. Siegfried said they plan to hire more than 30 positions by the end of this year.

Venture capital investment groups have actually been calling onXmaps for the last couple years, Siegfried said, wanting to get on board with a company that’s gained a reputation for having expertise in a desirable market.

“There were actually a lot of venture capital firms reaching out to us a lot, over the past three years really, to see if they can invest,” he said. “They’re looking at the App Store data and trying to get in. But we found the right partner in Summit Partners (an international growth equity firm based in Menlo Park, California). It was the right time for us. We wanted to get our subscription revenue business going a little bit better and get a retention rate going. So it was about two years in the making.”

OnXmaps has a governing board, with Siegfried holding one of the seats. A Miles City native, Siegfried formed the company in 2009 with a chip product that could be inserted into a GPS device to show hunters statewide property boundaries, including landowner names, hunting districts, roads and access points.

But it was the expansion into mobile apps that work on smartphones, which exploded in popularity right as the company was developing the technology, that really took onXmaps to the next level.

“Most people don’t realize their smartphone is a GPS device,” Siegfried explained. “It works perfectly offline (out of cell coverage).”

Now the Hunt App, which the company touts as maps made for hunting by hunters, is downloadable to any smartphone and shows aerial topographic overlays of 985 million acres of public land and boundaries for private land.

“OnX has literally changed the way we hunt,” said Jana Waller of Florence, a hunter who co-produces Skull Bound TV for the Sportsman Channel. “From exposing incredible public land hunting opportunities to giving us private landowners names, the confidence in knowing exactly where you stand in respects to boundaries and units is priceless.”

In the future, Siegfried hopes to expand the company’s reach to recreational users like backcountry skiers, mountain bikers, snowmobilers, ATV riders and backpackers. He envisions an app that shows trails and access points when someone lands in an unfamiliar city and connects them with like-minded recreationalists.

Customers can either use a free version or subscribe for more in-depth access. OnXmaps has hundreds of thousands of subscribers, and Siegfried said that last year their revenue from the smartphone app broke even with their chip customers for the first time. He expects the mobile app market to be the biggest focus in the coming years.

The new investment will also allow the company to hire more University of Montana graduates, such as digital marketing strategist Ryan Watson. He said many of his classmates had to move out of Montana, but now companies like onXmaps are attracting people like him and keeping their salaries in state.

“To get this kind of mobile experience, I’d have to be in Seattle or San Francisco,” he said. “It’s great. I’d rather go fly-fishing after work than sit in traffic for an hour and a half.”