Can Duruk is thinking out loud

The Felt CTO and Margins coauthor talks about building company culture, democratizing mapmaking, and writing about it all

June 13, 2023

Can Duruk, the cofounder and CTO of the mapmaking startup Felt, is perhaps best known as the coauthor of The Margins, a funny and clear-eyed tech and business newsletter he writes with Ranjan Roy. Before starting Felt in 2021, Duruk worked as a software engineer at Uber and Digg, among other places. I’ve been a fan of his writing since I first subscribed to The Margins, in 2019, and I was very pleased when I learned he had started a map-related company—all the better to interview him for Roadmap.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What does work mean to you? How has that answer changed since you first began working?

Work used to be for someone else. Now it’s what I do. My work is getting this company that I started with my friend [Sam Hashemi] off the ground. Most of what that involves is making sure it’s a good place to work, a pleasant place to work, for other people.

Do you have ideals or goals for your career, or for the kind of work you do? And have those goals changed over time?

There are multiple ways to look at it. Different zoom levels. I work at a mapping company, so I might overuse some of those terms.

I’m all about it.

What I kind of love at work right now is that we’re building a tool that’s supposed to be used by other people. There’s a lot of satisfaction in that. If we’re successful in our mission, we’ll have made maps a medium that common people are able to use, so they can do what was once only done by cartographers. We’re trying to democratize it for people who don’t have the expensive degrees or the expensive software. There’s a little bit of cheesiness to putting it this way, but, at the same time, I fundamentally believe that’s what I’m doing. 

Obviously, it’s a venture capital–backed business, and so there’s an expected path: growth. But we’re also trying to build something that’s just kind of fun. And there are other stakeholders, right? There are potential customers. There are employees. That’s the lens that I’ve been using to look at the world in the last year or so. This company wouldn’t exist without the people that work here. We’ve got this incredible congregation of mapping talents right now. Any of these people could get a job somewhere else. It’s my actual fiduciary duty to keep these people happy, satisfied, and challenged. Yeah, I work for myself, but, at the same time, this company wouldn’t exist without the people that work here or without people giving us feedback.

What made you decide to start a company?

After I left my previous job, I wanted to do something a bit more meaningful. I was excited by the idea of working on a creative medium, like building something that other people use to get their job done. Building a tool for other people. 

Why maps?

The origin story is, Sam had founded the company Remix, which is sort of the de facto transit-planning tool, then he left. [Editor’s note: Via acquired Remix in 2021, for $100 million.] In late 2020, I had come back to the States and was doing a bit of soul-searching. Sam and I wanted to work on something together, and climate change was the larger question we were looking at. We were trying to find something that we were excited by and that we could do right.

Like everyone else living in the Bay Area, we were looking at COVID maps, wildfire maps, just looking at maps every single day: a purple-coded air-quality map from the Los Angeles Times, a fire map from the New York Times.

At the same time, in the fall of 2020, more wildfires were happening in California—the orange skies. Like everyone else living in the Bay Area, we were looking at COVID maps, wildfire maps, just looking at maps every single day: a purple-coded air-quality map from the Los Angeles Times, a fire map from the New York Times. We were like, “Why do these maps suck so much?” Both him and I had worked with mappy sorts of technologies at our previous workplaces. It’s easy to internalize [the idea that] “Oh, like, maps are just hard to make, unless you have a lot of money or unless you have a lot of people on staff in your company.” But there’s no reason for it to be this hard. You just need to build the tools for mere mortals. We had both worked on making maps better internally at Uber [for me] and Remix [for Sam]. Let’s build what we built before, but at a bigger scale.

Have you used the product to make any maps for yourself?

One of the maps that I use heavily is—our designer made this map of Southern California when he was traveling there. He put in all the places he was going to visit. For me, looking at this map, I thought, “This is what I’m going to be using every time I go to Southern California.” It’s proven useful. I’ve already sent it to multiple people. 

A map is already an abstraction.

One map I’ve made that I’ve returned to a lot—I’m from a part of Turkey called Konya, and there’s a big lake called Salt Lake. It’s become much smaller over the years, and I wanted to see how much smaller it’s gotten. And, honestly, the easiest way to measure that is using Felt. A map just gets at this visceral sense of understanding. I shared it with my parents. They work with agriculture people in Turkey, and they shared it with other people in their industry. It almost becomes like a part of your productivity suite, once you start using it. We just use maps all the time.

One thing I love thinking about with maps is that the whole point is to represent one thing, or a handful of things, correctly, and everything else incorrectly. You’ve talked about having to make these kinds of decisions in designing Felt’s mapmaking software. For instance, opting to use Web Mercator—which is standard, and the most popular projection, but is also based on a 16th century system designed for marine navigation. It’s for boats. How do you balance these trade-offs when you are designing mapping software?

Any map you look at, there’s information loss. We’re not Borgesian on this—a map is already an abstraction. For every single zoom level, we have to decide, do we show this location or do we show that location? Do we show this detail or that detail? There are graphical constraints, user-experience constraints, technical constraints—what a browser can even render. Every map you see is full of decisions like these that have been made by a cartographer. And we’ve made hundreds of these decisions since we started the company. As for the Web Mercator projection, there’s value in starting with what people are used to. The product they see is approachable, and they’re familiar with how to use it. We bet on the fact that most people trying to work on a map are trying to run businesses or work on personal projects, and are operating on the street, city, sometimes state level, right? At that zoom level, Web Mercator works really well. At some point, maybe in several months or years, you might be able to press a button in Felt and change the projection system. That’s one of the nice things about owning our stack end to end.

Did you feel there was a certain inevitability to you founding a company someday? Or did the decision to start Felt feel more momentous or out of character?

There’s this belief that everyone has to start a company. I don’t think that’s true. There are certain things about starting a company that are not fun in any way. If you look at potential financial outcomes, getting a cushy job at a big tech firm is probably the most financially safe thing people can do. 

What made it somewhat possible is that I had a financial cushion from my previous workplaces—I’ve worked for quite a long time in tech. That made it easier for me. And starting this company with Sam—who I’ve known since 2010 and is a known figure in the Bay Area—that made it much easier.

What is your relationship with your cofounder like? How important was it for you to have a cofounder? Would you ever have founded a company by yourself?

I definitely recommend everyone starting a new business to have a cofounder, and especially if they can find someone like Sam. It’s difficult to find any one person who has all the skills required to start a company, especially when, you know, some of it is less exciting than other parts. You need to be able to grab talent. You need to be able to build stuff. You need to be able to fundraise. That’s a lot of different skill sets. And in the tech industry you need to be able to manage people who write code and make technical decisions. It’s very hard to have all those things in a single person. That just seems like an unrealistic expectation. 

Because Sam did start a company, grew it to like 85 people, and built a business on top of it all—he already learned all the little painful lessons the hard way. And he can just tell me the war stories. I got lucky. I’m sure it’s doable, doing this alone. But I wanted to set myself up for success, and having a cofounder just increases the likelihood by like 10 times.

What has surprised you the most since you began?

It’s not fun. It’s not glamorous. What is surprising to me is how much work goes into the company part of the company. At previous jobs, I was around when people were building the products, but the structure was already there. You don’t notice it—going into an office, opening up your computer, responding to emails, responding to Slack—but all that stuff has to be built so people can do their work.

What is tougher to get right: the product or the company?

I think the company is much harder. With the product, we make it, we ship it to customers, customers tell us what’s wrong, we fix it. But with company stuff there’s a lot of surprises.

Humans are fundamentally hard.

There are obviously principles you can apply: you need to approach issues from a place of good heart. But every single person that joins the company brings their own world to it. Every single person changes the entire company in some way or form. And what works for one person doesn’t work for another person. People change: their lives, partners, kids, apartments. There are a lot more surprises in that realm than in the product side. I’m not trying to downplay how hard the product is. But there’s a predictability in the product side. With the people stuff, every day is something new. 

You spent time at Uber, which had an infamously hostile company culture. Do you think that tech has a harder time getting company culture right?

I think humans are fundamentally hard. Put a lot of people in one room—it’s very hard. What I’ve experienced, you see these organizations that appear successful from outside. Everything feels right. Then you open up the hood or talk to people working there, and everyone says—pardon my French—it’s a shit show. There is an inside and outside view to any “successful” organization.

What are you doing that feels like it works?

Obviously, on the product side of things, we are hitting our goals. Features by this date, et cetera. Those are easy to check.

As for company culture, there are both things that I want to avoid and things that I want to bring back from my past experiences. Probably everybody at Felt has heard “cadence” a hundred times from my mouth. I fundamentally believe one of the most important things in a company culture is shipping every day. I want to make sure there’s no lull. I might have picked that up at Digg, and Will Larson has talked about this, too, but I really internalized it at Uber. There was a quality to the cadence there. You could just keep shipping. It was kind of fun. Where that becomes a problem is when it becomes toxic. You’re redlining all day.

Sam and I talk to every single person in the company multiple times a week. Just being able to have, like, a grief chain. If you have a complaint, you will have someone hear your complaint. And either we’ll tell you why you’re wrong or we’ll fix the thing you’re talking about. There was no grief chain at Uber. It was like you were a part of a big machine. I’m being kind of hand-wavy, but, talking to people over and over again, being more hands-on with people, that’s worked well for us. That’s part of our secret sauce for success. 

As a fan of your writing, I have to ask: What role does it have in your professional life? Basically, why write for free for public consumption?

It’s paid dividends professionally. We actually found (found is a generous way to put it) some of our Series A investors through The Margins.

I want to think out loud in my rambly voice.

I always thought of The Margins as [answering the question] “Technology is good?” I think it is, but not unadulterated good by virtue of being good. You know that famous bit [from That Mitchell and Webb Look], “Are We the Baddies?” I don’t think we’re doing bad, but I want to explore that mentally. What will being bad look like? What will being good look like? I don’t know if there’s a bigger reason than that. I want to think out loud in my rambly voice.

This is the end mark. You have reached the end!

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