Interview with Marianne Wartoft, Founder of Seterra

Can you tell us a little bit about your background?

As a girl, I had nerdy interests. My favorite toy was my dad's old typewriter, and I loved solving Rubik’s cube and drawing huge mazes by hand. In the early '80s, when I was about 12 years old, I got my first computer, a Commodore VIC-20. I taught myself BASIC programming and, fascinated by the creative aspects of programming, I began coding simple games.

Later, I studied computer science and then started my own business as a freelance database programmer.

How did you get the idea to create Seterra?

Although I enjoyed database programming and it paid the bills, I wanted to go back to the more fun and creative aspects of programming. I love maps, so a map quiz game seemed like a perfect project to unleash all my creativity.

Also, I have an entrepreneurial mindset and was thrilled to start a branch of business that, unlike my consulting business, actually had the potential to scale!

Was Seterra an instant success?

Far from it! The shareware version for Windows that I launched in 1997 was somewhat successful here in Sweden, but international sales were close to zero. Also, there was no easy way to monetize games in those days — no AppStore and no advertising networks — so much of the initial fun was eventually lost in boring administration tasks. After a few years, I let go of the Seterra project and went back to consulting full time.

What made you give the Seterra project a second chance?

New monetization options! Around 2005, I discovered how easy it had become to monetize website traffic using advertising networks. This sparked an idea to build an ad-financed web version of Seterra. But at the same time, I was busy starting a family. It was not until 2011-2012 that I found the time to develop and launch the Seterra website.

However, the web version was not an instant success, either. By the end of 2012, the site had 50 000 visitors per month, which is not a lot when it comes to earning advertising revenue.

When did the turning point come?

There has never really been any turning point or sudden increase in traffic, just constant growth. Since the launch in early 2012, starting from a very low level, the website traffic has been increasing by about 30-70% per year. Today, the site is visited by 3.5 million people from all around the world each month!

Have you ever secured venture capital for your business?

No. My consulting business provided me with enough income until the Seterra project finally, in 2017, made enough revenue so that I could work full time on it.

What is your role in the Seterra project today?

I still do pretty much everything, from developing new features, fixing bugs, and answering support questions, to creating new maps and handling the servers. I even do the accounting! The only things that I outsource are translation and article writing.

Since I am still the only developer on this project, the programming is done in a very agile manner. I can come up with a great new feature idea in the morning and publish it on the site just a few hours later!

Another motivating aspect of the job is communicating with the users. Running such a large website in more than 40 languages would not have been possible without the constant support from users all around the world who report bugs, help me with translations, point out factual errors, or suggest new content. To each and every one of you, thank you!

What aspects of your work are you most passionate about?

When I first created Seterra, the main motivating factors were the fun of programming and building a business that could scale. Those two factors are still very much alive today, but a third factor has been added: giving back to society. I know that Seterra is useful and important to many people around the world; both geography fans who use it for fun, and students who study for their next geography test. I truly want to do everything I can to create the best possible website for them.

Published April 13, 2021