Creating Creator

The following is a short case study on “Creator”, a cloud-based content management system I built at Mashgin, where we make visual self-checkout kiosks that use computer vision to see items so you don’t have to scan barcodes.

In the years since launch, it has given location managers the ability to customize their menus in ways they were unable to in the past. This empowers them to make frequent changes, tailoring the menu to customer needs rather than just “using the default”.


Mashgin Creator is a tool for operators to build and manage their menus, from items to discounts, schedules, and more.

Mashgin customers have been able to easily edit their checkout items in the cloud since we first launched in 2016. But when we began to design our mobile and in-person ordering app, we realized customers would need an easy way to design more complex menus, with custom item options, photos, nested categories, scheduling, and more. This is where the idea for Creator came in.

Creator is what they call in the industry a “CMS”, or content management system. Any software tool used to manage content of any type could apply.

In the food service industry, a CMS is used to manage their menu items, pricing, discounts, taxes, etc. The scope could be anywhere from an individual cafe to a nationwide chain of stores.

Most existing CMS software for food service was cumbersome to use and poorly designed. It was really just a simple layer on top of a database, allowing users to edit basic item information. Some software didn’t even allow for real-time syncing of data — any changes are “submitted” and someone behind the scenes has to deploy them to the menu.

The output of these menus is very simple: it’s just items in some nested menus, each with its own data like price, type, options, etc. But the work and consideration that has to go into building each menu is anything but simple.

It was clear that our customers needed something much better.

Designing the app

Believing that all the existing tools weren’t very good, we chose not to base the core design off of any other examples or prior work. Creator would be rethought from the ground up based on the needs and jobs of its users.

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Product Study: Falcon 9

Last week I was outside of Vandenberg Air Force Base to watch the launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. (It was perfect weather and an amazing experience for my first launch!) To commemorate it, this is another one of a handful of product case studies I wrote to help understand successful product launches.

Falcon 9 was finished in early 2010, and had been in development since 2005. Its first flight occurred on June 4, 2010, a demonstration flight to orbit where it circled Earth over 300 times before reentry.

  • 1st flight to ISS: May 22, 2012
  • 1st cargo resupply (CRS-1): October 7, 2012
  • 1st successful commercial flight: September 29, 2013

Development costs for v1.0 were estimated at $300M. NASA estimated that under traditional cost-plus contracts costs would have been over $3.6B. Total combined costs for F9 and Dragon up to 2014 were ~$850M, $400M of that provided by NASA. 

By September 2013, the SpaceX production line was manufacturing 1 F9 every month.

(1) Value created — Simply describe the innovation. How did it create value? 

The Falcon 9 is a two-stage rocket that delivers payloads to Earth orbit or beyond. It’s a transportation vehicle to space. F9 drastically reduced launch costs, allowing NASA and small satellite companies to send payloads at a fraction of the cost.

(2) Value captured — Competitive advantages, barriers to entry. Why didn’t incumbents have a reason to fight them?

  • Ahead on the learning curve — highly advanced, experiential, expert knowledge
  • Capital and time barriers — lots of money and time needed to get to scale
  • F9 was a disruptive innovation, built from the ground up at low cost. Incumbent launch companies had no reason to start from scratch and lower their profits when they had strong (mainly cost-plus) contracts with existing customers. Industry was viewed as very inelastic and that little demand existed at low end.

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Product Study: iPhone

One of a handful of product case studies I wrote last year to help understand successful product launches.

Apple’s iPhone was announced December 9, 2007 and released June 29, 2007. It was $499 for the 4GB version, $599 for 8GB. After 8 years it had captured 50% of U.S. smartphone market and >66% of sales, with 100 million users.

(1) Value created — Simply describe the innovation. How did it create value?

The iPhone is a pocket computer. It has typical phone capabilities including phone calls and text messaging, along with cellular internet connectivity. Differences between other smartphones at the time were:

  • Large multi-touch screen with no tactile keyboard, no need for stylus — this allowed full use of screen when not using keyboard
  • Ability to browse normal, non WAP, websites (can zoom easily using multi-touch)
  • Ability to run desktop-class applications
  • Multiple sensor inputs — proximity, light, accelerometer

(2) Value captured — Competitive advantages, barriers to entry. Why didn’t incumbents have a reason to fight them?

  • Distribution:
    • Extension from existing Apple network — iTunes, Mac OS, iPod.
    • Brand attachment to Apple.
    • Economies of scale exist with integration and complexity of engineering.
  • Switching costs once owning an iPhone.
  • Strong habit attached to usage many times / day — strong attachment to UX.
  • Phone makers saw it as toy for rich people at first. Computer makers didn’t see it as a computer (low-end disruption).

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My favorite books on business, management, investing and design

Out of the many books I’ve read in different subjects, below is a list of some of my favorites with some brief commentary for some of them. There are a few other “Mental Model” categories (psychology, history, economics, ecology, etc.) that I left out — hopefull they’ll be the subject of another post.

Business theory

  • The Origin and Evolution of New Businesses, Amar Bhide — extensive study of startups of all kinds, how they grow, what makes them successful (this is not a “help” book it is mainly observational)
  • Innovation & Entrepreneurship, Peter Drucker — how companies should systematically innovate — lots of good startup/innovation strategies (it’s not random)
  • The Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen — every businessperson or investor needs to read this (and the one below) — every industry’s value chain is disrupted at some point
  • The Innovator’s Solution, Clayton Christensen — expands on “Dilemma” with better explanations and examples — I think the “jobs to be done” concept is one of the most important in business
  • Competition Demystified, Greenwald + Kahn — how businesses capture value by building a moat, and what strategies to use if you have or don’t have one
  • The Halo Effect, Phil Rosonzweig — the anti-business-book — but still has great insights on how businesses work and how best to run them
  • Built to Last, Jim Collins — read this with The Halo Effect in mind — lots of good advice & stories (I like this much better than “Good to Great”)
  • The Strategy Paradox, Michael Raynor — dense at times but a great theory on why strategy is so hard
  • Hidden Champions, Hermann Simon

Continue reading “My favorite books on business, management, investing and design”

Value Investing Word Clouds

Berkshire Hathaway Letters (1983-1987)

Berkshire Letters 83-87

Berkshire Hathaway Letters (2003-2007)
Berkshire Letters 03-07

A word cloud is a visual representation of a group of words, with the size of each word weighted to how many times it appears. The above two examples use the Berkshire Hathaway shareholder letters for the 5-year periods ending in 1987 and 2007. You can see some often-used words between the 20-year period: business, earnings, value, company, insurance. Word clouds are a good representation of what subjects the author is focusing on.
Below are a few more examples: (all created at Wordle) Continue reading “Value Investing Word Clouds”