LISBON — As an engineering and computer science graduate from the University of Oxford, Mark Cummins fancied his chances of landing a job at Google.
Oxford is one of the most prestigious universities in the world and ranks highly on global league tables for computer science. Cummins had graduated top of his year from Balliol College and, as he put it, “thought I had a pretty good CV.”
Cummins filed his application and, like any Oxbridge graduate with a top-tier degree, expected the offers to roll in.
“I didn’t even get a phone call,” he told Business Insider during an interview at the Web Summit conference in Lisbon. “I had a back and forth with a recruiter, but I never really understood it.”
Cummins had the last laugh. Five years later, Google would go on to buy his first startup. And a few years after that, Google would also be integral to the success of his second.
After several more job rejections, Cummins opted to stay at university and do a PhD in the then-unfashionable area of robotics and machine learning. This was before breakthroughs like DeepMind’s AlphaGo made AI sexy again, and the entire field of learning was still emerging from a second “AI winter.”
The interest in robotics provided the germ of a startup idea. Cummins was working on place recognition for robots for his thesis, specifically around how they process images to determine their location.
“My PhD work was on a robot [that] would collect images as it drove along to determine: ‘Have I come back to a place I’ve been before?'” Cummins explained. “The first iPhone had just come out, the first Androids were just coming out, and mobile was just starting to take off. I thought, this seems interesting, maybe we can do something with photo matching, so we launched a company around that.”
The company, Plink, was a kind of Shazam for art. Users would photograph a piece of artwork, and the app would identify it. The app garnered 50,000 users in its first six weeks and Cummins and his cofounder, James Philbin, won $100,000 during an Android Developer Challenge. That brought the app to the attention of Google, Cummins’ one-time dream employer.
Google began courting the startup and the young Oxford founders ended up meeting senior execs at the time, such as Android product spokesman Hugo Barra and Google+ architect Vic Gundotra. They impressed the top brass enough to field an offer.
The pair accepted what Cummins described as a life-changing amount of money, and took jobs within Google. While Plink’s consumer app shut down, its technology ended up being used in several Google image recognition services, such as Google Lens and Google Photos.
Three years later, Cummins had moved to Australia and was still working for Google. He had an inkling for his second startup when he realised there were still elementary questions the search engine couldn’t answer for users.
Specifically, he was drinking craft beer at a party one night, and then wasn’t able to find a nearby shop that sold the same brand. “Where’s the nearest store that has this product available? It seemed like a basic question,” Cummins told Business Insider.
The problem is that most small local retailers don’t bother to log all the inventory they have. Their cash registry, as Cummins put it, can “look like it’s from a Western.” There’s no way for consumers to know for sure whether a local shop is selling an item they need — and so they turn to Amazon and deprive the smaller retailer of valuable footfall.
Cummins began nosing around small retailers in Australia, asking what it would take for them to upload their inventory and make it searchable online. He concluded that some hardware would be required and set about looking for another technical cofounder.
Philbin, his Plink cofounder, had a young family and was not available. Cummins rang up another old friend from his Oxford days, Charles Bibby, a sailing expert who was in the middle of a yearlong sailing trip around the Mediterranean.
Bibby found the vision so compelling that he cut the trip short after three months and sailed home to start Pointy.
The end result is the Pointy box, a small device that looks a little like a 9-volt battery.
It plugs into a retailer’s barcode scanner and logs items as they’re being scanned for purchase. Eventually, Pointy’s software logs what a retailer is selling and can take a good guess as to when it’s out of stock.
That information is then listed online on a dedicated page hosted by Pointy, so anyone trying to find a local shop that sells, for example scotch tape, can click on a Pointy link and see whether it’s available nearby.
While it’s easy to see on Google when your local hardware store is open, it’s currently quite difficult to check what it might have in stock. “It’s not ecommerce, it’s more about driving footfall,” said Cummins.
The box costs $499 for US retailers. Pointy also offers to place local ads for retailers on Google, and takes a slice of the ad revenue.
It feels like a strange decision to focus on bricks-and-mortar stores in the age of Amazon, but Cummins argues that online shopping only accounts for 10% of US commerce. The majority of the population still prefers to a trip to a local store when they need something.
Cummins says that Pointy “ranks very well” on Google. And over the summer, the startup announced a partnership with search firm that means product information appears on the “knowledge panel” in search and Google Maps.
To date, the firm has raised $19 million from Vulcan Capital, Polaris, Boston Ventures, LocalGlobe, Seedcamp and well-known angels such as Google Maps founder Lars Rasmussen, TransferWise cofounder Taavet Hinrikus, and WordPress founder Matt Mullenweg. It is headquartered in Dublin — Cummins is Irish — and manufactures the Pointy box in Ireland.
For now, Pointy is focused on persuading retailers to adopt its technology. Cummins says that 1% of all US retailers are on board, citing US Census Bureau statistics. That amounts to around 10,000 US retailers. It also has some pickup in its home market and across the UK.
On the consumer side, it looks like the startup is pretty reliant on Google — which is fine, as long as the firm plays ball and integrates Pointy’s data into its search results. The current partnership is a blessing, but the startup might need to branch out to defend its turf. Cummins says Pointy plans to build out its offering so that retailers can do more than just have a store page online, but he wouldn’t give any further detail at this point.
And could another Google acquisition be in the offing? Cummins said his former employer came sniffing around to be involved with Pointy early in its development, but gives a firm denial that there might be a buyout. “There’s nothing on the cards,” he says.
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