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Chris Cardell

Interview with Justin Laing (MerchantOS)

MerchantOS is a web based point of sale and inventory control system for small retailers.

I interviewed Justin Laing, MerchantOS co-founder to find out more. This interview is the hundred and third in a series of DW interviews. Big thank you to Justin!

How would you describe MerchantOS in under 50 words?

MerchantOS makes a cloud based point of sale and inventory control product for small retailers. We concentrate on making an easy to use product and service. We provide top notch phone and email support. And we work hard to delight our customers.

What made you and Ivan decide to co-found MerchantOS? What roles do you both play?

We both wanted to start a company. Ivan had a prototype point of sale system built in Access that was running at the bike shop he worked for. I joined as an equal partner and built the first version of the web based point of sale. I did the programming, and some marketing, while Ivan did all the testing, support, and business stuff.

Who is the team behind MerchantOS?

We are now 18 people, 17 in Olympia, WA, and Ivan is down in San Jose, CA. We’re pretty laid back and casual, but we all work hard to give our customers the best product and service possible.

Who came up with the name?

Our original name was BikeSoft, but that cornered us into just the Bicycle market. We changed our name to MerchantOS pretty early on so we could sell our services to all kinds of specialty retailers. I’m not sure if it was me or Ivan that came up with MerchantOS. We had a long list of potential names.

How many businesses currently use MerchantOS?

The count as I write this is 1,562 store fronts from 1,237 separate businesses.

What technologies have you used to build MerchantOS?

We’re on the LAMP stack (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP). We recently migrated everything over to Amazon EC2 which has been awesome. We also use Javascript (JQuery), Memcache, RabbitMQ (moving to SQS soon), Chief, Git, GitHub, and Airbrake.

What was technically the most challenging part of developing MerchantOS?

Scaling the system to be in use by thousands of concurrent users while preserving real-time write/read and keeping it all super fast. The other big challenge is knowing what features to implement, and what to leave out. We have a pretty complex problem space and get hundreds of feature requests, many of which are very reasonable.

How long did it take to put together MerchantOS?

It took us 1 year to beta test. 1 year to sign up our first 10 customers. And 7 more years to sign up the other 1552 customers. We’ve been growing pretty steadily at 3-6% per month for a long time.

How do you promote MerchantOS?

We started out just going to retail trade shows (like Interbike for the bicycle industry). A few years into things we discovered SEO and got some traction with that. Currently it’s a mix of SEO + Adwords + Word of mouth + Trade shows. Over time the SEO + Adwords are growing faster than the others, though word of mouth is definitely important. Trade shows are really about helping the word of mouth campaign.

Do you have any new features in the pipeline?

We’ll soon be releasing an iPhone add on to our product that will allow stores to do sales on their iPhone/iPod. It’s synchronized with our main system in real-time, which will allow people to seamlessly switch back and forth. We’re very excited to get it out there and see how people use it.

What do you wish you’d have known 8 years ago that you know now?

Make your product simple. Don’t take on a problem that requires a lot of feature complexity. Build something simple that is applicable to a broad spectrum of people. And don’t worry about meeting everyone’s needs. And…

Marketing is very important. Just building something useful isn’t enough (at least not in this market). You have to get it in front of a lot of people, and you need to do that in a repeatable predicable way.

Where do you see MerchantOS in another 8 years time?

In 5 years, I want to see 10,000 retailers using MerchantOS. And I think we are on a good path to achieve that goal. In 8 years, maybe we’ll have 20,000. That would be awesome.

Has MerchantOS got the feedback and growth you expected since launch?

It was a lot slower to start than I initially had hoped. But we had never grown a business before and really had no clue what we were doing. The growth and feedback we get now is overwhelmingly positive and we’re definitely on a great trajectory.

Who would you say is your biggest competitor?

QuickBooks Point of Sale. But we don’t really care that much about the competition. We sorta watch what they are doing, but we know where we want to go and we are working on that. Our success depends on our execution, not our competition. This market has a lot of space for competitors.

What is the biggest hurdle you have faced or are still facing?

Keeping the product simple, and moving it forward in the direction we want. Marketing is always a challenge, but as long as the product is moving forward the rest can be solved. Scaling is always a challenge, but we’ve handled it pretty well (knock on wood).

When you’re not in the office, where can you be found?

I’ve got a wife and two kids and I love to surf and ski. So you’ll find me with my family, out in the line up, or on the mountain.

On week days at lunch often you’ll find me at the local Taco truck.

What one piece of advice would you give to someone starting up their own business?

Don’t give up! Keep working on it. And care about your customers and product. Really, really care. Don’t settle and serve up crap. Keep working to make things better. You’ll figure out the rest.

What are you most excited about at the moment?

I’m exciting about working with an awesome team and really digging into our product to make it more awesome. I love to build things.

Can you convince the reader to start using MerchantOS in under 50 words?

Our customers are our best sales people. Ask one of them how our product is working out for their business. Or go and try our product for yourself. We don’t do the hard sell here. We love our customers and product and let them do the talking. Thanks!

Finished reading? Check out MerchantOS!

Learn more about Chris Cardell Books

This entry was posted on Wednesday, June 13th, 2012 at 10:37 pm GMT. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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