Archive for December, 2015

Pointy

Two and a half years ago I left Google and set out to build a new kind of search engine. This may sound a little crazy, but all the best things are like that :-)

We’ve been avoiding the tech press and trying to build things quietly, but this week we’re launched our user-facing app. I’m really proud of what the team has built, so it’s exciting to finally be able to say a bit more about it.

The problem we’ve been working on is finding specific items locally. For example, a light bulb just broke and it’s a strange fitting, where’s the nearest place you can get a new one?  Or you’re half way through a recipe and realise you’re missing an ingredient – where do you get it?

Existing search engines do a really bad job of answering questions like this. The reason is that, in order to provide a good answer, you need to know what products are stocked in all the local shops. It turns out that nobody has this data – not even the shops themselves in many cases. It’s kind of strange to think that you can search the entire internet in a fraction of a second, but the contents of the shop around the corner remains a mystery unless you go there in person. But that’s the state of the world in 2015. At Pointy we’ve been working on solving that problem.

So let us introduce the Pointy box:

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The Pointy box is a piece of hardware we designed, which essentially connects a shop’s barcode scanner to their Pointy web page. When the shop scans a product, it gets listed on the web page instantly. How it all works is illustrated on our retailer signup page.

The Pointy box looks simple, but we had to solve some very hard technical problems to make it a “just works” experience for every store in the world.  We can support basically any piece of equipment we find in the wild1, everything from ancient cash registers that look like they belong in a Western, right up to iPad based systems. A lot of creativity went into making that possible.

Pointy box

From the retailers’ point of view, it’s extremely simple. They just plug in the box and within a few minutes they have a nice website for their shop, which automatically lists everything they sell. They’re also part of the Pointy local search app. There’s no extra work and no configuration, it just fits in with their existing systems.

app_overview

Happily, retailers seem to love this. We started to roll it out widely in June this year, and by December roughly 1 in 8 of all shops in our launch city (Dublin, Ireland) are using the system.

map

There’s a vast variety of shops now on the platform, basically the whole range of local shops: bike stores, pharmacies, hardware, convenience, pet shops, delis, supermarketswine stores, toy shops, book stores, garden centres, even horse supply shops. There’s a huge data challenge in identifying the right name and picture to go with a barcode, and that actually occupies a big chunk of our engineering team, but that’s a topic for another post.

app_product

Infrastructure

Our system is built on Google Cloud Platform, which has let us scale quickly without having to spend time on non-core problems. I built my last startup on AWS, so it was a little bit of a change to use Google Cloud this time around. However, it’s been a really great choice. It gives us a beautiful combination of scale and agility. We deploy to production often multiple times per day, which is extremely easy with the GCP tools. This lets us iterate rapidly, and focus on our product rather than system administration.  I suppose when you’re building a search engine, using Google’s infrastructure seems like an obvious choice :-)

What’s Next

It’s been a great experience so far, but we’re not close to the end. There’s still a long way to go to connect every shop on the planet, after all. We’re getting there, and having fun along the way. If you’re interested, we’re always looking for good people.

Footnotes
  1. There’s always a few exotic ones that aren’t worth the trouble, but for practical purposes it might as well be 100% coverage.

Startups

Imagine you’re a road engineer and you’re designing an access road for a new town. The town will soon be built in a previously uninhabited area. You’ve managing the construction project, but unfortunately no one can tell you what the population of the town will be.

Taking your job seriously, you sit down to design the best road that you can build. You settle on constructing a seven lane highway with regular flyovers to minimize traffic. The road will be fully lit with a state-of-the-art LED lighting system. You add crash barriers and regularly spaced emergency telephones. After much consideration you decide to also include a rest area with parking and toilets. This involves designing a self-contained water and sewerage system, but it’s obviously worth it.

With three months to go until launch day, you discover problems with road drainage. After the panic subsides, the construction team agrees to work around the clock to refit a completely new system for surface water management. By a minor miracle, the work is completed on time.

Opening day finally arrives and the excitement is intense. Everyone agrees the finished product is an engineering marvel. The new town will have the best road in the world.

Unfortunately, it turns out that the town is a remote settlement with a population of 57. The road is mainly used by an old man and a donkey.

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The next year, you are again given a road construction project for another new town. Having learned your lesson, you build a modest single lane road. It’s well constructed but nothing special.

Opening day comes again, and it’s revealed that this time the “town” is in fact a major city with a population of 14 million. There are 50 mile tailbacks for six years before a larger road can be built. Your face appears on wanted posters throughout the nation, and you flee the country in disgrace.

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Twitter, I forgive you the Fail Whale. And I hope to always walk the middle *ahem* road.