At the beginning of 2020, a pandemic was on its way, and no one was quite sure how to handle it or what effects it was going to have.  Specifically, for our company, the majority of our customers are in the consumer packaged goods business, and we were starting to see effects like shortages of key components in the supply chain, and general uncertainty as to when or how those shortages might be addressed.

The ramifications to product makers was that they had a spike in demand for their products, but issues producing them and/or getting them to consumers.

For consumers, it simply meant they were having a hard time getting the things that they used in their everyday lives, like toilet paper or rice.

As a company whose efforts are positioned squarely in the middle between the products and the consumer, should we try and help, and if so can we make a difference?

Honestly, we struggled with this.  The biggest question was if we could actually make a difference given our limited resources even though we did design the Observa platform with the ability to collect and analyze data for altruistic purposes.  Sure, we make a difference to our customers and our Observers on a daily basis, but how could we positively impact the information needs of the entire country, or even, in our own humble way, the whole world?   After throwing around tons of ideas one afternoon as we packed up our office for permanent remote work, we came up with something that we thought could be beneficial to everyone but yet not too distracting from our core purpose and products.

Our idea was to allow people who were going out and getting the products they needed to report back and let others know when and where they found them. On the information gathering side, the thought was that it would not be an inconvenience or an unnecessary trip, as people were just doing an extra step as they were out shopping.   From the data presentation side, the information would reduce the need for shoppers to visit multiple locations searching for hard-to-find items.

A real time view of the shelf so to speak, which is a core component to Observa.

We scoped it out, figured it would be a minimal investment of engineering time, and went for it, using a descriptive and not too cute name of Shelf Scout.

Technically, Shelf Scout used our current app to collect information, and we just had to build a new front end for people to go and search for information about products at locations near them.  All of that was surprisingly easy, and even provided a little bit of joy for the engineering and marketing teams to roll out a modern/minimalist website with cool graphics and dynamic JS charts very quickly, linking into our platform via APIs.

We did run up against a hurdle in the technology space, however when we wanted to get the location of website visitors without being too invasive and requiring their GPS locations via HTML5. We initially started allowing the input of zip codes, and then looking those up in a Redis cache to get GPS coordinates for searching. That solution was fast and easy, but not very good, as ZIP codes can represent a pretty large geographic area and thus not super useful when you’re trying to provide hyperlocal information. It also has the problem of only working in the US, and there was no reason for us not to allow the world to use our free tool. Fortunately, we were able to find a really cool company, Geocode Earth, that partnered with us and gave us free access to their geographic information, which really was the last piece of the puzzle that Shelf Scout needed to go fully live.

So we did it.  We created something that we figured would be useful, gave it away for free, and got people to use it. The information shelf scout was based upon and was also donated by our amazing Observers.  We got feedback from Observers saying how happy they were to contribute, and even a couple of thanks from people who were trying to figure out where to find things.

You may be wondering why I’m referring to Shelf Scout in the past tense. Simple answer is that we shut it down. The bonus answer to that is that it no longer seems to be necessary, as the retail supply chains are much healthier and/or much more stable now.

What did we learn?  Our project did work, it did gather tens of thousands of visitors and hundreds of submissions, but it just didn’t get as much traction and participation as we would have liked:

  • One of the reasons for the limited number of users is that we were unable to do any kind of effective press campaign.  The press was absolutely saturated with news stories about the pandemic, and readers wanted to know about how Amazon was dealing with a million workers or what local regulations were being put into place.
  • As anyone who tries to go to the park on a sunny weekend (or tries to start a tech company) knows, lots of people will have the same idea at the same time. There were other efforts like ours that came out about the same time, and trying to compete with them for attention on an altruistic project just isn’t in the cards for a wise startup.
  • Spending money on advertising wasn’t even a thought.  In fact, we couldn’t have spent advertising dollars if we wanted to, as the majority of advertising outlets banned advertisements targeting COVID related topics, even altruistic ones.
  • It is absolutely a lesson in humility, trying to be part of a solution to a global humanitarian problem, and I salute those who address those problems on a daily basis.
  • As a startup, you are advised to stay away from partnering with other startups.  Solid advice, but when you’re trying to get something off the ground quickly that isn’t a core functionality, every tool in the box is in play.
  • Guerilla marketing 101 tells you that helping others can also help your business by making yourself and your employees feel good, getting more usage on your platform, etc., but just like any product it doesn’t make sense to keep going if it’s not being used.

Science and entrepreneurship are all about experimentation, and the failures are as valuable as the successes.  Even the successes are eventually failures, as they get replaced by the next discovery.  Shelf Scout was a good experiment, and I believe we did it for the right reasons, but it is now shut down.  Hopefully the specific use case of finding scarce resources during a looming pandemic won’t be necessary again.  Thank you to everyone at Observa for helping make Shelf Scout, to Geocode Earth for helping to make it really usable, and to all of the Observers for donating their time to help others find what they needed.

Finally, I just wanted to say that there are many out there that still need help meeting their basic needs, and as things normalize or settle into a routine with a new set of parameters, don’t forget those who are still struggling.

Here’s a couple of useful links if you’re looking to get or give help: