This startup wants to store info on literally every manufactured product. Ever.

Written by Andreas Rekdal
Published on May. 30, 2017
This startup wants to store info on literally every manufactured product. Ever.
itemmaster
Photography by Erik Holowicki. Interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

 

Whether you’re picking up a carton of milk at the grocery store or ordering essentials online, there’s more going on behind the scenes than meets the eye.

An ocean of data is shaping your shopping experience, helping retailers put the right products and information in front of you at the right time.

Chicago's ItemMaster manages that wave of data, with a platform that allows manufacturers to distribute accurate, up-to-date product information to merchants —  everything from nutritional content and barcodes to branding and recipes.

And ItemMaster doesn't plan to stop with the grocery shelf. It wants to build an information hub for every kind of manufactured product. Doing so will inevitably involve some trial and error — but that’s okay.

“There’s a tolerance and support for the fact that when you're building something new, you're not going to be 100 percent right all the time,” said Sharon Baker, VP of sales and business development. “We want to take some risks in a smart way, and you have the air cover and the support to do that.”

We sat down with four ItemMaster team members to learn more about the product ItemMaster is building. In addition to talking tech stacks, the team shared their thoughts on ItemMaster’s culture of ownership and what the company looks for in prospective engineers.

 

 

ITEMMASTER AT A GLANCE

FOUNDED: 2009

EMPLOYEES: 80

HEADQUARTERED: The Loop

SEEKING: People who “get actual joy out of creating things that didn't exist before,” and who aren’t afraid to take ownership of a project and run with it.

VIEWS: Overlooking LaSalle Street and the sunrise over Lake Michigan.

STACK: Primarily Java, Node.js and AWS.

TYPICAL DAY: Don’t expect to have one.

 

 

FROM BANANAS TO BATTERIES: PLANS TO EXPAND

What does ItemMaster do?

Courtney Acuff, VP of product and marketing: Reaching shoppers today requires that retailers deliver information about products in any environment where a shopper might encounter them. Our platform lets shoppers both online and offline see the best representation of that brand.

We provide factual information, like nutritional information, certifications, barcodes, the weight of the product and so on. But on our platform, that travels together with the storytelling that brands create to engage and entertain their customers: images, marketing copy, recipes, user-generated content and links to YouTube channels and social media pages.

Sharon Baker, VP of sales and business development: As shoppers, we often decide not to make a purchase because we don't have the information we need. Is this product actually sold in 16 oz or 24 oz containers? Is it certified organic? To make matters worse, that information also supports search, sort and filtering functions for online shoppers.

So if I make organic baby food but I don’t keep my product information up-to-date, consumers looking for a product exactly like mine may never find it?

Baker: Right.

 

 

What are the most interesting technological challenges of building a product like that?

Jeff Ayars, VP of technology: There are lots of ways to build an attribute database, and we're going to build a big one. It’s going to be interesting to keep it performant while still building it to be flexible enough so that it will work when we expand beyond packaged goods into things like consumer electronics. Bananas don’t have battery types, but our platform still has to work when we start to accept products that do.

Matt Wojtowicz, senior software engineer: There's also a lot of interesting DevOps that we're going through right now to move from a big application into smaller microservices. So we’re doing a lot of infrastructure work and setting up continuous delivery so that we're being able to deploy a lot faster instead of having to wait and release code.

A NEW VIEW OF THE DIGITAL SHELF

You’re also working on some data analytics products. Could you tell me a little bit more about that?

Ayars: Instead of charging retailers money when they take content from our platform, we enter into a value exchange where we ask them for impression data back. So every time they show one of our records to a customer, they tell us about it. We capture those impressions, store them and put them in a data pool that we can run analysis on.

What do you hope to learn from that data?

Ayars: A view of the digital shelf that manufacturers and retailers don't really have today. If you're a big manufacturer, you probably have an agreement with CVS where they will tell you how much Cherry Coke Zero they sold last month. But you have no idea how many online views Cherry Coke Zero got.

We can provide that digital shelf information about how a product is experienced across time and geography and in comparison with other products in its category. We can do the same thing for retailers as well, creating a market view that lets them compare their own performance over time, and compare their performance to that of other retailers — without naming names.

 

 

THE STACK

That sounds like a massive undertaking. What technologies do you use to keep it running smoothly?

Ayars: Our stack is primarily Java, Node and AWS. We're using Jenkins and Ansible for build and release, and Angular 2 on the front end for our web apps. As we build out our data pool, we’re also interested to see if we can leverage Amazon's Athena, which is an elastic analytics platform that they're coming out with.

Java was historically chosen for us, but I like it because it’s scalable and because it’s easy to hire people who know it. Node is something that we picked up since we moved to AWS. It gives us a lot of flexibility, which makes it good for lots of different kinds of tasks and services that we build into our infrastructure.

How do your developers work together to make it all happen?

Wojtowicz: Collaboration for the developers is pretty high here — it's not a team where someone owns one part of the codebase and only they can touch it. Usually we are all working on the same group of projects and then periodically rotating. It allows us to share knowledge and become more tightly knit as well.

Ayars: That structure came about pretty organically. When we do sprint planning, we estimate the average case for any of us to do a task, and we don't pre-assign tasks to engineers. People just pick up what they are interested in.

 

 

You’re expanding your Chicago technology team from five to 12 this year. What do you look for in prospective new engineers?

Ayars: Curious builders — people who are lifelong learners, are interested in understanding how things work and who get actual joy out of creating things that didn't exist before. That, and we're really working to build a diverse group of people because we have a core belief that people see problems differently. If everyone sees the product one way and you approach it from that way, you may miss out on opportunities for innovation or be blind to some problems or concerns.

Wojtowicz: We’re also pushing for high communication skills. We're small enough that we're working with a lot of other people outside of the company, as well as with other departments inside the company.

Courtney, your prior work experience is mostly from larger, more established companies. How does getting in on the ground floor of a startup compare to how you expected it to be?

Acuff: It's been everything I'd hoped it would be and more. We have a cultural value of ownership, and there's no one I can turn around to and say: “You know, I just don't feel like doing this today. How about you do it?” I touch and talk to and interact with every single aspect of our business, and that to me is just awesome.

 

 

What does that culture of ownership look like in your day-to-day work?

Wojtowicz: If you are the self-motivated type, this is a good place for you. You will get thrown into the deep end. If you're not into that kind of pressure you're not going to have a good time. But if you're the kind of person that enjoys being given a problem and left to your own devices to solve it, you will have a lot of freedom to work like that.

Baker: There's nowhere to hide, but in a really good way.

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