Talking Small Biz: He's putting data on the map

Posted: February 08, 2013

R OBERT CHEETHAM, 44, of Spring Garden, is founder and president of Azavea. The 10-year-old company, based at 12th and Callowhill streets, has about 30 employees creating Web and mobile applications for clients to analyze data geographically. Azavea's geospatial analysis is used in natural-resource planning, neighborhood revitalization, sustainable growth, economic development, crime analysis, real-estate analysis and redistricting.

Q: What does Azavea do?

A: We build custom Web and mobile software that uses geography and maps mostly for local governments, nonprofits, federal agencies and academic-research projects. We also have packaged software tools. One example is a crime-forecasting tool called HunchLab that lets us develop early-warning systems and forecasts. Think of it as a weather map of crime risks.

Q: Who are your clients?

A: Most are local governments, federal agencies, and nonprofits. The city's Water Department is one of our biggest clients. We do law-enforcement and urban-forestry work in cities across the country and in the United Kingdom and Canada, all organized around civic work in the public interest.

Q: How big a market is this?

A: The custom geographic-data-processing software is probably about a $5 [billion]-to-$6-billion business in the U.S. and $10 [billion]-to-$15-billion internationally.

Q: How big a business is Azavea?

A: About $3 million.

Q: So what differentiates you from your competitors?

A: What separates us is we have a design team that helps us come up with slick, easy-to-use, attractive applications like HunchLab that allow for fast data-processing on the Web.

Q: I understand you're a B Corp, or benefit corporation.

A: Part of what makes us a B Corp is that we run the company not just for the sake of shareholders (which is me and my wife) but also for employees and customers. We give away a portion of our profits each year for staff bonuses and a portion to nonprofits in the Philadelphia region, such as the Free Library Foundation and Natural Lands Trust.

Q: What's the biggest challenge you've faced in the business?

A: During the recession in 2009 and 2010, we were close to being a nonprofit. The scariest moments were when some of our biggest clients didn't pay us for several months. We also didn't have much of a line of credit. The upshot was my wife and I had to cash out most of our savings to make payroll for a couple months.

Q: Where do you see the company in three to five years?

A: We'd like to be bigger, maybe 75 to 100 employees, working all over the world. We've been making a push internationally the last year and a half, in the Middle East, in the Gulf area, in the U.K. and the rest of Europe.

On Twitter: @MHinkelman

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