We have a very low-ego culture, it’s very co-operative. But you need to make a space for conflict. Most people make peace and compromise with each other to get along. This feels comfortable, but it’s often a recipe for mediocre outcomes. Robust disagreement is the best way to test ideas and produce great outcomes. To be great, you need to be uncompromising sometimes. Doing it in the right way is a subtle art.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Cummins who is the CEO & co-founder of Pointy, a retail tech company that has raised over $7 million in funding to date from investors such as Paul Allen founder of Microsoft, the founders of Google Maps & Matt Mullenweg who founded Wordpress. After selling his first startup company to Google, Mark founded Pointy, a service that to help local retailers be found online so that they can sell more in-store.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I originally worked in robotics. I did my undergrad in engineering and computer science at Oxford, and then went on to do a PhD in robotics at Oxford. After my PhD, I co-founded a company called Plink, which developed computer vision based search engines. It was a bit like Shazam with a picture. Google acquired the company in 2010.
I joined Google as part of the Plink deal and then worked at Google for three years, focusing on computer vision. I had a great time at Google, it’s an excellent place to work. After a while I felt like I wanted to start another company though. I’d played with many ideas for startups over the years, and one of them just rose to the top and wouldn’t go away.
That was the idea of Pointy — a simple way to get local retailers online. It all started by talking with a friend who had been drinking a nice craft beer at a party. He loved the beer, but after the party he couldn’t find anywhere that sold it.
It seemed so strange to me that you can search the entire internet in half a second, but there’s no easy way to find something that is for sale probably within 500 metres of you. So I started thinking about ways to solve that. The result was our little Pointy device.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Once I’d decided on the idea for Pointy, I needed a good hardware engineer to help me build the device. I contacted Charles Bibby, a fellow Oxford PhD graduate. Charles is an interesting guy — at the time he was on a 2 year sailing trip around the Mediterranean while still working from his laptop on some consulting projects. I knew Charles would be an amazing co-founder, but I also knew he wasn’t available.
I emailed him just to get his advice on someone I could hire as a hardware engineer. Charles got really excited about the idea and wanted to join the company as co-founder. But first he wanted to check that the idea was actually technically feasible.
He was on a boat, so had no equipment. At the time he was anchored off Ibiza island. He got his father-in-law to fly down to to the island with a suitcase full of soldering irons and oscilloscopes. Charles made the first version of the Pointy box on a chart table in his boat, while bobbing around at anchor! It worked, so he turned the boat around and sailed to Ireland, where we started the company. He still lives on his boat.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
For many local retailers, keeping up with technology can feel like too much. They have full time jobs to do already, they don’t have the time or expertise to create digital stores as well. But consumers increasingly expect to find everything on their smartphones. If someone takes out their phone to search for a product they want to buy, they’re likely to see a result from Amazon, even if a local shop 50 feet away has the product in stock. It’s a frustrating for retailers and consumers alike. Pointy is solving that problem in a way that’s effortless for retailers
The big difference with Pointy is that we do absolutely everything for the retailer. Retailers are always amazed when they plug in the device and it just works. It’s inexpensive, takes five minutes to install, and doesn’t require any integration with existing POS systems. After the Pointy box is plugged in we do all the work of sourcing product information and optimizing the retailer websites for search engines.
It’s hard to pick just one story — we have retailers calling and emailing us after they’ve installed the Pointy device to tell us about the customer who drove 50 miles to their store to buy a product they found on their Pointy Page or the customer who spent $100 in the store after finding them through Pointy. If feels great to be helping to level the online playing field for local retailers.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
Work on something that matters, something that people really believe in. Hire great people and give them huge goals to chase. Get the culture right. Do all of that, and that’s almost everything.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
For me, it’s the closest relationships that I get the most help from. So that’s my family, and also my co-founder.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We believe Pointy’s goal of helping local retailers thrive is a good thing for the world. On a personal level, I also try to help out other entrepreneurs who are just starting off. The start-up community is very generous, I got a lot of help and advice when I was getting started. So it’s nice to pay it forward.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
1) Hiring the best people is almost everything
I thought I knew this at the start, but it was even more true than I knew. There is a vast difference between someone who is merely very good, and someone who is truly great. To build a great company, you need a collection of truly great people. They’re not easy to find, but the effort is worth it.
2) Foster conflict
Pointy has a very low-ego culture, it’s very co-operative. But you need to make a space for conflict. Most people make peace and compromise with each other to get along. This feels comfortable, but it’s often a recipe for mediocre outcomes. Robust disagreement is the best way to test ideas and produce great outcomes. To be great, you need to be uncompromising sometimes. Doing it in the right way is a subtle art.
3) Find the right level of not managing people
Like great design, the best management is 99% invisible. It’s about enabling people to do great work, and making sure the overall organization is coordinated, without sticking your oar in too much. It should almost feel like nothing is happening.
4) Do things that don’t scale
This is another piece of classic advice, one that I thought I understood but didn’t. I probably repeated this advice quite often in the early days, but still fell into the trap of worrying about how we could efficiently scale our customer service. Really, it’s the wrong thing to worry about for so much longer than you might expect.
5) Have plants in the office
One of our staff fought a one-woman campaign to fill the office with plants. She just went out and got them, and still waters them all herself. It’s awesome, they’re lovely to have around. We have another staff member who is campaigning for an office dog. We haven’t crossed that bridge yet, but maybe we will one day :-)
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
To paraphrase Reid Hoffman: “Being an entrepreneur is like jumping off a cliff and building a plane on the way down.”
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this :-)
I’ve always looked up to Larry Page. I met him once briefly at Google, but he’s someone I’d love to meet again if the chance came up.
If you would like to see the entire “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me” Series In Huffpost, ThriveGlobal, and Buzzfeed, click HERE.