In the beginning, there was an idea: Providing a web service for app developers who would let them get basic product information – like a title and category – for a product that they only have barcode for. I thought this could be the basis of a lot of niche programs, each with a different kind of niche: keep track of your books, CDs, games. Keep your inventory now, never again miss the expiration date for food.
I thought many app developers would have many users, and those users would then add products to the global database if they encounter one that can not be solved. Revenue generation would be done by app developers who had the most web API traffic and later to allow product manufacturers to analyze the feel of their products.
Since I could not do anything for myself ̵
Two others joined our team: Roland Moser as CEO and Werner Bayer who develops the latest Android app and also versed in the backend magic to give René a useful hand.
I would find and "evangelize" developers who would use our API in their own apps. But it soon became apparent that very few people would buy into my vision of a "common good" product database. But we pushed and worked to release the first versions of prod.ly, hoping that some users would feel the need to share opinions (we called them "opines", similar to "tweets") about specific products, and so case help grow database.
Unfortunately, our prod.ly user base has never come completely from the ground. My boyfriend and René mom where the most faithful users were in addition to ourselves.
Deus Ex Machina?
My second idea of growing the database was hiring machine learning for the problem. Could not you learn an AI what parts of the information are relevant to understanding what a product is? Along the lines, if in a bottle, it must be liquid. If there are certain words on the bottle – like "body lotion" – then it's probably not drinking water but cosmetics. In short, we spoke to a guy who could have been heading for this, but he and we could not agree on a compensation mode for him.
Then we started scrapping a number of affiliate feeds, and it got us a lot of products. Mostly consumer electronics gadgets because they are the ones sold the most over the internet. This grew our database to more than 6 million products today. This is nothing to look at. Although there is a small problem with this approach, occasionally one of the affiliated partners decided that they do not want us to have their data and we were therefore asked to remove their product images.
In the past, my partners were convinced that we will never be able to charge someone for API access if we do not have the most complete database possible. So, if app developers would not be our paying customers, who would?
We spoke with a few companies building box terminals and online store software. But they accepted that many of our product images were not "originals" from the manufacturer or did not have a white background. Those that you could only get from the manufacturers, but not from the audience, took "in action" snapshots of the products they tried.
Authentic, True and Guaranteed, Not
Another hitch of people who have the freedom to say something about products would be that bad products would carry bad comments and it would make it difficult to suck up to the manufacturer of the aforementioned product to provide more complete product lists and information to us.
Especially with food it became apparent that certain critical information (like ingredients or allergens) had to come from the manufacturers of the products themselves because they were legally responsible for it being true and true. I only know about a company trying to do it: GS1 International is working on a cloud / server-based solution that aggregates and distributes "originally retrieved" product information. But of course that comes with a cost, nothing is free.
There is another (kind of) competitor to us who had the unfair advantage of much funding: Semantics3 . So far, these guys have increased $ 2.2 million – and they do just two of the things I mentioned above: Scraping of affiliate feeds (and web pages) and the use of machine learning to clean up the mess in coherent products. At the same time, they collect price information. They send out extremely annoying emails that are loaded with animated GIFs, which exploit the benefits of their services.
Well, I hate them because they more or less achieved the vision I had, minus a simple, free API for app developers. Oh, well, they go where the money is, online shopping.
An Amazon Killer?
About two years ago, when it occurred to us that our investment of time and money would not lead anywhere, we came up with an idea of a potential pivot. Everyone is mad at Amazon, but nobody does anything against it.
The idea of REGIZON (a regi onal Ama zone ) would be to let small local brick and mortar stores supply their products, prices and location in a very convenient way. Let's say you need a certain toner cartridge quickly so you can keep working today. You go to REGIZON's friendly user interface and find that the store down the street has just that in stock. So your feed makes Instant Delivery and you do not have to wait. You are enjoying it and doing the store.
Again, we put this idea into several big players in Austria, but we never came beyond any initial tension from potential investors. It seems that everyone agrees that "something must be done", but nobody actually does.
Why We Turned Off
These 4 years of ProductLayer, was not total waste of the time. Our three software boys agree that it certainly benefits our skills to keep up a favor like this. There are many things in the API / SDK design and iOS app that I personally proud of, and I'm sure René and Werner can say the same about their areas of expertise.
We had a hand full of actual developers making product questions through our API. But having 4 years to do it for 4 API users is a very sad statistics. In the months leading to the closure, we once had to turn one or two people hoping to use our API, one for research, one for an actual app.
But much we love ProductLayer, we can not keep it going. The main reason is that it costs time and money to maintain our redundant servers. We simply reached the end of our initial funding of 10k euros, and nobody is willing to continue to spend more money to keep the hobby alive and running. We were quite sparse, dare I say?
At the same time, this hard financial limit kept us from making a bigger mistake. If we had invested more, our loss would probably have been much bigger. As we see it now, there was no market that was receptive to our ideas. Let there be one who would pay us for them.
I want to say that my own personal lessons are:
- You must fail quickly and quickly to determine if an idea has the potential to pay clients.
- There is a very real danger that if you invest more than what is required of a minimum portable product, you will be switched to the low cost loss.
- Attempting to build a platform that requires extraordinary amounts of users to work is useless.
- You must afford to invest time and money in something that is likely to fail. It's better to do it on the page or as a hobby.
- You will see your own passion for an idea vaporizing when you have obligations.
We cloned our system into a virtual machine, so maybe someone might use the product data we collect. I was the former boss (and only) Evangelist for ProductLayer. You can contact me via email if you have any questions.
Also published on Medium.