Solving hard problems

One of my friends from Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) days is starting a company in pharmaceuticals/life sciences space. At a recent IIT conference, he buttonholed me to ask me about the right strategy for his startup.

“On the one hand, I need integration for a seamless deployment, usage and maintenance experience but on the other hand doing integration forces us to work with archaic vendors that don’t want to work with us. It opens up technology issues, business issues and it will slow down our go-live deployments.”

Since I was not sure about the specifics of the his product and customer systems, I shared my story about how we handled a similar challenge at Punchh. For those who don’t know about Punchh, Punchh is is a I founded that is a platform for building “Starbucks like” apps for chain restaurant/retail market.


In 2012, we had launched our first few pilots without a point of sale (POS) integration but while reviewing the results with one of the smarter, numbers oriented exec at one of the pilot chains, we saw that our engagement rates were not great and re-engagement rates, a key metric for “Starbucks like” apps that Punchh built were downright anemic. To investigate the issue, I decided to spend some time at the location to do some detective work. After a couple of days of painstaking and diligent observing, it became clear that our issue was lack of an integration with the POS system – typically the heart of a restaurant or retail operation. Our lack of integration was not only making it hard to engage the customers, it was also slowing down operations by introducing additional redemption processes.

When I brought this to the team there were a lot of question marks.

“We will never be able to integrate as the POS companies are based on old technology stack and hard to work with”.”We don’t have the resources”.”We don’t even know how many version are out there for each system”.”How will we ever scale this thing?”.”POS companies might view us as a threat and might not want to integrate with us”.”How do we build relationships with opaque and hard to reach POS companies?” etc.

Despite the skepticism, we persisted. I brought on a consultant who I had worked with before and who I though would be great at handling the complexity of the problem.

To get things going, we used one of the pilot customers to pressure one of the POS companies to provide us with a system. After some more skepticism and some upfront payment we finally had a license code and a DVD (but no support) to install a system and get an integration going.

It took us 4 weeks to get a working POS system installation – a system where we could do the basics like opening a check and placing an order.

It took another 8 weeks to get the first integration code working. It took so long because we had no support – the only help we could get was from an obscure bulletin board.

And since POS integration needed a whole new backend system, another 8 weeks went to design and build the server components to handle the data coming from the POS systems.

But by the end of 5 months we had something ready to go to a customer site.

Our first customer installation took 6 customer visits – each a 100 mile round trip drive to San Francisco where the customer was – spanning over 4 weeks. During this time we were apologizing constantly to the customer for crashing their systems. The customer still persisted with us – I am not quite sure why – despite all the problems.

Although the first 6 months were painful, we learned a great deal during that period. We were soon onto version 2 and 3 and thinking about replicating the integration with other POS systems. When we tried the POS integration at the original pilot location, the numbers were a lot better. We were finally delivering measurable results to our customers. Now we have over 30 POS integration, numerous POS partnerships and a dominant position in the market.

The thing about solving hard problems is that, while they are painful, if you persist and solve them you might build something really valuable – a strategic advantage, an an entry barrier or even a business model…

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