Former PSU student hits it big on the internet

When trying to catch up with Jacob Olsen, one will quickly discover that it is best to leave the place up to him. This is because knowing where to go is Olsen’s business. He is a co-founder and chief technology officer of Platial, an online collaborative atlas that Olsen says enables people to document experience through geography.

Olsen graduated from Portland State in 1995 with a bachelor’s degree in marketing and management. Like a lot of recent graduates, he remembers going through a period of “not knowing what I wanted to do.” He spent three months as a product merchandiser that he jokingly describes as three months of “facing jars of pig’s feet outward.”

Despite the fact that his mom “loved the free dishwashing detergent,” Olsen quickly ascertained that being a “marketing monkey” was not for him, he says. He decided to make a risky move. He took a big pay cut and an entry-level position with the Association for Portland Progress (now the Portland Business Alliance).

Eventually Olsen became a network administrator at Portland Progress where he built a database that tracked graffiti that was “basically being used to charge kids with felonies,” he says. This project put Olsen at odds with his personal beliefs. Performing in his spare time as DJ Koala and a self-professed “hip hop kid,” Olsen appreciates the art of graffiti.

“Graffiti gives the city life,” he says. “It shows people live here.”

When a graffiti artist called Huge tagged a sign on the back of a sign where I-5 and I-84 meet, Olsen remembers being amazed. “First of all, how did he even get up there?”

Huge was eventually caught and prosecuted for tagging throughout the city from 1997-99. Olsen believes his graffiti-tracking database was probably used to help apprehend the artist he once admired. It was around this time that Olsen started thinking about founding his own company.

Olsen started a development company, Urbanverb, which specialized in “geographically aware data systems,” in April 2000. Urbanverb allowed him to continue working with databases and mapping systems. His work at there laid a “foundation for dynamic online maps for the cities of Portland and Seattle.”

As he worked on various consulting projects, Olsen always had something bigger in mind. He describes his new company, Platial, as “putting the human stain on the world,” and likens the Platial experience to the blog world, but instead of postings centered on people, Platial is a forum for information on places.

Similar to sites like Facebook, Friendster and MySpace, Platial allows users to create a profile and then add their favorite places, which are then displayed on custom maps. Platial users can form lists of favorite restaurants, bookstores, hiking spots or places to skate. Users can also utilize tags or keywords to describe an entry. Other users can then search for tags like “fair-trade” or “cheap” to find new places that cater to their specific interests.

When Jacob Olsen met up with Di-Ann Eisnor and Jason Wilson in May 2005, he discovered that they were all interested in the idea of tying “people, places and events together using a map.” The trio founded Platial in June 2005, coinciding with the release of Google Maps, but also partnering with ESRI, the leader in GIS mapping.

Olsen is the first to admit that some people may be reluctant to want to share their favorite places. “We try to weigh the privacy aspects,” he says. In the near future, he hopes that Platial will have a privacy feature that will allow users to restrict certain information to just a designated group of friends. Another possibility that Olsen and other Platial staff members are considering is sharing a portion of advertising revenue with users. Olsen thinks that this might provide a little incentive for people to list their favorite underground haunts.

Although Platial is still a young site, it has already garnered a lot of attention from investors, including William R. Hearst III; and Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers, who were also investors in Friendster, have put their money into Platial.

Despite the founders spending “a lot of time in Silicon Valley,” Platial has remained connected to the local community. The company is currently sponsoring an intern from PSU through the business department.