Mike Welling and the story behind Wejugo
Meet Mike Welling – a passionate adventurer, biologist and environmental advocate with a strong belief that the most valued things in life are the ones we have a close personal connection to. Mike’s passion for sustainable and safe adventuring is the inspiration behind Wejugo. This is his story and the impact the hopes to create in the Australian and global adventure community.
What was the inspiration behind Wejugo?
I was previously working in the natural resources sector as a biologist before moving into the technology industry, where I spent about 20 years. I decided that I needed a bit of headspace and took some time out from the technology industry to explore working in the outdoor industry as a professional guide. I attended a professional guiding course for canyoning and that made me realized that even though I enjoyed canyoning, I didn’t necessarily enjoy guiding people through canyons.
However, I really enjoyed the outdoor rescue aspect of the industry, so I went for a sabbatical training course on vertical rescue in addition to a voluntary course with Search and Rescue Blue Mountains and Bush Wilderness Rescue Squad, and retrained as a canyoning rescue guide. On one of my canyoning trips, I had to conduct a rescue as the scout leader had taken a fall . This was a real eye opener for me regarding safety practises, and sometimes lack-thereof in the outdoors, as when the leader takes a fall, there’s no backup in the team of scouts and it’s actually quite dangerous.
This was the light bulb moment for me.
At that point there was a lot of people in the outdoor industry, and outdoor recreations were getting more popular. With a lot of pressure on search and rescue, I thought it was necessary to further educate people around safe and responsible travel. Hence the name Wejugo (Where’d you go) came about, which combines itinerary planning, safety management and tracking travellers in a single platform.
How did you go about creating Wejugo?
When reviewing the current practises, we found that there were a number of different paper-based trip intent forms that varied between states and national parks. These would be physically dropped off or faxed to police stations, which presented their own set of problems with regards to handling and filing. Quite simply, there was no consistency between information captured, method of capturing information, or storing of information.
As with most start-up businesses, the best practice is to keep it simple. We started off initially by creating a digital trip notification form to make the process consistent between national parks and states. The challenge then became: how do we get people to become aware of it, and give a reason for them to use it.
To change behaviour in the adventure community, we needed to build awareness and consideration on the importance of responsibly planning remote adventure trips, and encourage users to be diligent, careful and interested in their itinerary planning and execution. We saw a huge opportunity emerge, as we found careful planning was typically done across many different platforms – route planning on physical maps, gear planning with excel spreadsheets, paper based trip intent forms, and emailing or social media sharing with friends and other travellers. No platform existed which combined each of these trip planning facets.
We couldn’t ignore this opportunity to create a single platform which combined each of these elements, and so the direction of Wejugo became more focussed on creating an easy to use platform which provided a safer and more reliable trip planning solution.
While you were building Wejugo, did you run into any roadblocks? How did you overcome them?
Our first primary roadblock that we discovered was off-grid navigation. As Wejugo is a safety platform, we have a responsibility to our end users to ensure that the platform works in all locations – particularly when out in the wilderness.
This was rather tricky to do so technology-wise. A lot of the mapping tools were not designed for off-grid navigation as they were mostly for urban or street map navigation. So that presented us with a challenge on how to make a safety platform work in wilderness areas.
Another roadblock we encountered, and are still overcoming, is user adoption and how to get our app noticed in a cluttered marketplace.
There are lots of different adventure apps out there, with a lot of them focused on planning trips. Some of them use curated content and social sharing photos, while other apps focus mostly on base maps and the actual physical presentation of the map layers. The gap in the market we discovered was that there wasn’t a single platform that had the curated content and social sharing elements brought together with intuitive and clever map software into a single platform.
Our product does exactly that, and our next step is to bring awareness into the adventure community of the benefits of using a single app for their trip planning, management and sharing, as opposed to using many different apps.
With international travel hindered by the Coronavirus restrictions, how will the app launch be affected in Australia?
2020 has been a challenging year due to isolation requirements to curb the spread of the virus. Now that restrictions have relaxed a little, people want to go outside and are sick of being indoors. Our app opens the door to the outdoors in a way that no other app is able to do.
Two years ago, it was all about mass international tourism – now it’s all domestic based nature tourism. The mindset is very different and people are receptive to that. There’s pressure on being safe and having trip planning capabilities to make it easier for people to get outdoors and have a great experience.
What is it about the technology behind Wejugo that excites you?
It’s not just the technology in the Wejugo app that excites me. Where it gets really exciting though is when we start to look at the new forms of communication available.
As you know, telcos, radios and personal location beacons don’t work in all instances and it’s hard for travellers to carry all of them in their pack. There are new forms of technology that are coming out – particularly in off-grid communication, new long wave radio messages and services, machine to machine protocols, and a whole bunch of other new next generation communication. What really excites me is how we can keep travellers in remote areas connected using an easy-to-use planning tool.
In addition to that, the opportunity to make a positive difference with the data collected is exciting. We are not interested in collecting data to sell for marketing – which is typically what most apps do with their data. I believe that people have a responsibility to make other people who are impacted by their actions aware of what they’re doing. With that, we intend to share the data we have to national parks, land resource managers and the government to make better-informed policies around responsible outdoor recreation, and land management practises.
A good example of this would be what is currently happening in the Grampians. Over 38% of climbing areas have been shut down as there is a perception that climbers have not been acting culturally responsibly. In reality, the outdoor community is supportive of protecting cultural heritage sites within the national park, and feel they are victim to a series of legally unverifiable, anti-climbing claims. Thus, by sharing data about where adventurers are really exploring in an open and transparent way means that outdoor recreation is going to be more accessible to more people, and governing bodies will have information and data behind their decision making as opposed to speculation.
Last but not least, where do you see Wejugo in the near future?
From a company point of view, I’d love for it to be a global brand name, and when you think of planning an outdoor trip, Wejugo be the first thing you think of. Not only that, we are a technology enabler and we do add value in terms of our technology stack – but we want to be the application that the outdoor industry adapts to or goes to as its first point of call. Meanwhile, from a social responsibility; I would like for us to be a heavy influencer in Australia, New Zealand and global policy around land management, best practices, sustainability and ethical use of data for policy-making.
Lastly from a personal point of view, I just want to build a company with a great team to have fun.