History of Groovy Map

The Growth Years

What started out as an attempt to make money "while I slept," soon turned into a real business, and making and selling maps became a full time job.  The first map was printed just in time for Christmas 1996, and the last map probably in 2017.

In total, Groovy Map produced 27 City and Country guides, mostly to Asian destinations, but we attempted San Francisco, London, Paris, and Sydney too (all commercial failures but a great excuse to travel, and eat up profits that otherwise would have gone to tax, so who's complaining!?).

The company also had a domestic Thai motoring map brand, called “Roadway” and produced custom maps for many industries, helping to produce the Official BTS SkyTrain Map, the Official Suvarnabhumi Airport Map, an Asian Games map, and many others. 

Aaron Frankel, a long time expat raised in Bangkok, is the founder of Groovy Map Company Ltd., and while he launched the first map in 1996 as a trial product (it was all he could afford^), he founded Groovy Map in September 1999, essentially abondoning the advertising company L.I.T.E.H.A.R.T Ltd., founded when he was 27, and "young, dumb, and full of cum."

^Briefly employed and working with esteemed companies like Colgate-Palmolive, Hilton Bangkok, Hard Rock Cafe, young Frankel dreamed of products that would "make money while I slept."  Having saved almost nothing, and still living at home, whatever product he "manufactured" had to cost less than $1000, which was essentially one print run of 20x36" paper and 1000 copies (the minimum).  He briefly considered postcards (too expensive for pictures), greeting cards (too many to design), so a map it would have to be.

Aaron loved maps and the ideals of travel. Experience?  Overrated.  He trained his former Thai maid (well, his parents’ former maid, someone whose family couldn’t afford to send her to school after age 11), how to use a mouse and computer, and together, they put out the first map, Groovy Bangkok by Night (no one else did a nightlife map at the time).  The pith helmet was chosen as a symbol after Aaron read several Somerset Maughm novels, and laughing at the ridiculous number of servants required to cut down and construct a “rest station” so these landed gentry “on an adventure” could have their tea at precisely 3pm (in the middle of the forest), Aaron thought that hat could symbolize the opposite.   Travel is for everyone to experience, and it does not require an army of servants.  A good hat to protect from the sun, a map, and one’s own savings will do, thank you. 

The first edition, Groovy Bangkok by Night landed to great fanfare in December 1996, for sale at 50 Baht (USD 2), and was quickly followed by Groovy Bangkok by Day, then Phuket, Pattaya, and Chiang Mai editions, available only in Thailand.  Demand soon outpaced supply, and doubling the price apparently did not slow it down at the famous Oriental Hotel Gift shop (100 Baht), so Aaron got the bright idea to ignore the backpackers it was originally aimed at (who were too cheap to buy one, and anyway, Lonely Planet was their god), and moved the Groovy Map up market for business and middle-aged travelers (it also had the benefit of new research budgets for good restaurants not dives!).  

As reviews and user suggestions poured in, the maps acquired a smaller, more convenient size, got laminated ("Water Resistant, Rip-Proof, Battery Free"), and doubled again in pricing to 200 Baht (~USD 6).  

Aaron regularly visited the Frankfurt Book Messe (the world's largest publishing conference at the time), trying to convince bigger publishers to fund an expansion when map companies still occupied 1 and a half rows of one floor in one building (there are 10 buildings), and one met all the major and minor map-makers in the world for drinks after the hall emptied.  

When Aaron sadly ignored Penguin publishing's interest as they had "dared to request 20 new titles in 6 months" and Aaron preferred to windsurf most weekends, Groovy Map had no choice but to expand organically (use the profits of one title to pay for the research, development, and printing of the next).  Oh, the regrets…

Many happy years and scouting missions to various cities across Asia took place every year. With the goal to update Groovy Maps at a minimum every two years, a number of travel writers had to be hired to fill in for the founder, who was already taking 2-3 trips per month, making payroll, editing, and trying to raise a family at the same time (plus still going to the beach most weekends). 

Sadly, after thousands of years of cartography by hand, the formerly cottage industry in each hamlet, township or country, went all to one major player, Google Maps.   Even Nokia, the world’s largest mobile phone manufacturer at the time, which had spent 8.4 billion dollars in 2008 acquiring a rival digital map company, was forced to abandon its subscription model when Google Maps offered their product for the better price of free.

The End of Groovy Map'n'Guide

The last new title was Groovy Map'n'Guide Seoul in March 2013, before the availability of inexpensive smart phones and cheap roaming (and free Google Maps) wiped away any market for printed maps.  Worldwide.  Within a few years.  

Indeed, map sales kept climbing until they didn't, and within just 3 years, from 2015 to 2017, Groovy printed map sales declined 95%, and we jumped into souvenirs to save our skin.  Covid was even more unkind to us, as having expanded to 70 airport outlets with our Groovy Gear line of souvenir products, the government response to covid in March 2020 shuttered airports globally, and within 6 months we had to let all 26 staff go and abandon our office.  A business that was booming was literally closed out of fear (covid), and this despite the WHO saying it “does not recommend any travel or trade restrictions.”  Oh well, who was listening? US President Trump threatened to stop paying them unless they changed their tune, and China had already shut their doors. 

Aaron Frankel, then facing divorce and the death of his father, moved hundreds of boxes into a 5-story shophouse, and literally slept above the goods, waiting to restart the business.   At time of writing this (February 2022), he was still watering his plants on the roof terrace and boiling coffee in a Bialetti, waiting for countries to open borders without stupid restrictions. 

Write your own groovy.guide

The original maps promised "Fun Mapped Out!™" and that's still something to shoot for. 

Have a favorite hangout to share? 

This is your opportunity to shine, develop appreciative fans, and maybe even some moola (at a later stage)! 

To make a groovy.guide, all you need are 20-30 places, so spend a weekend creating and contributing your masterpiece, and help fellow travelers find the fun! 

Learn more