Businesses, like residents, need to know when to batten down the hatches before a hurricane strikes. This may be easy enough for a single mom-and-pop shop. Turn on the news or track the storm online like everyone else and hope for the best. But for chains with many locations or, say, hospitals or oil-and-gas companies with sensitive operations, or a company like FedEx, the calculus gets much harder.
This is the idea behind Stormpulse, a mapping company that helps businesses track extreme weather and now, with its newest product Riskpulse, other kinds of risks, such as earthquakes, crime, and travel holdups. CEO Matt Wensing started Stormpulse nine years ago when, in the pre-Google Maps days, he realized there wasn’t a good way to see interactive graphics that track oncoming storms. Since that time, the company has pivoted to helping large businesses understand and visualize how extreme weather is going to affect each location, make decisions, and prioritize actions based on the storm intensity.
The product seems basic, but it has gotten Wensing into everywhere from the White House Situation Room to top New York financial firms. During Hurricane Sandy, he says, hospitals, manufacturing companies, suppliers, large retailers, and financial institutions turned to its platform to figure out what to do. The software does the mapping and also spits out a risk index for any given location, to help managers interpret the data and take action. Companies with sophisticated risk-planning and logistics operations, such as oil and gas firms, are using the software because it provides a platform for quick visualizations and helps them incorporate new data more quickly, Wensing says.
Of course, as weather gets unpredictable, it’s harder and harder to make judgments based on the past experience.
“People tend to think about risk as something that’s in the past and not in the future. They calibrate their risk experienced based on their past experience … a lot of our products are designed to communicate and get people’s attention when needed,” says Wensing. “The question is: how you quantify procrastination versus action?”
The struggle to build Stormpulse into a business itself is also instructive in a world in which people expect more and more information and tools online for free. First, the company experimented with advertising, but that, Wensing says, “went against the grain of our souls.” “We were trying to create this great user experience, and adding ads would just make us the Weather Channel.”
Next it tried a “freemium” model, in which people could upgrade to a paid product from the free version, but that only attracted a few hundred people. Wensing eventually decided he needed to bite the bullet and, in 2011, eliminated the free version.
“I put up a paywall on 6.5 million people. I got death threats. We were basically pure evil at this point,” he says. “But we went from 200 customers to almost 1,000 that year. We were able to get investor interest.”