I’ve known about the LA start-up Enplug for a few years, and followed with curiosity the journey of millennial friends who got a company going in a rented house and gradually started to build it up and get some attention.
I hopped off a plane Tuesday (upgraded by surprise, yay!), grabbed a rental, and went over for a visit to Enplug’s West LA offices before heading way south to the gig I’m at this week.
Nice people. Cool place, typical of the dotcom/silicon beach look. Minimalist. Furnishing-lite. Ping pong table. Dogs welcome. But in a Culver City office park, not downtown loft space.
The company started in 2012, bootstrapped and then private equity supported, and went after the restaurant-bar digital OOH ad space. It was the “sign up venues, put your equipment in, sell ads and share revenues” approach that plenty of now-dead companies have tried. Selling local ads is a TOUGH gig.
About a year ago, Enplug pivoted and went into the far more stable, far less capital-intensive fee-for-service signage game.
It’s worked, and the company now lists some 600 customers – from the coffee and bubble tea places they started with to larger corporate clients with lotsa sites, like the shared workspace company Wework.
The company has 30 people working out of its Culver City office and the home that’s still being rented, and used as part office, part dorm for staff. Enplug also has partner companies doing work out of Slovakia and Nigeria. The company is engineering-heavy, by its own admission, and it’s only been in the last year and changed business model it has started to actively sell software and related services.
I got a rundown on what Enplug does – which is digital signage with a heavy emphasis on the idea of being a platform for web-driven apps of all descriptions. The company has a marketplace and is very interested in working partnerships with third parties who bring a new spin to what you might see on signs.
They’ve seen the most success, at least lately, working in corporate communications – providing content and social apps that differ from the typical motivational and messaging stuff you see in workplace environments. One of the company’s partners is Startup Vitamins, which sells posters, shirts and other with in your face statements like “Get Shit Done.”
The platform is SaaS-based and pricing comes in a variety of tiers based on business size and things like the need, at the most expensive level, to go white label. The platform is both Android and Windows, though in an interesting twist, it’s the Windows version that needs to catch up with the Android 4.4 version in terms of features and capabilities.
More typically, Android systems are limited variants of existing Windows playback systems and don’t do all the stuff a Windows set-up can manage. The company has settled on a set of single board computers from a South Korean company called HardKernel.
I asked CIO Navdeep Reddy and marketing director Ryan Gushue what their big selling point is, and they said ease of use. I suggested the vast majority of signage platforms trumpet their ease of use, so they have a problem there. But these guys said Enplug is genuinely easy and comes from the same mindset as web-based services, as opposed to installed software.
The UX, from what I saw, was indeed very friendly- with some interesting wrinkles like a set of sliders operators could use to balance scheduling ie if there are five content apps running the default is 20% of time for each, but that could be adjusted just by adjusting percentages via slider buttons.
I was impressed that in the time that they’ve moved off an ad-based model, Enplug put a LOT of development effort into what looked to be pretty deep device management (which I don’t see as often as I should). Reddy also suggested their software development kit makes it very easy for interactive developers to drop their HTML5 work into Enplug’s platform without learning anything new, and that the SDK gives a developer far deeper access into the platform than is typical.
Beats me, as I am no developer. But I do like the general approach and mindset. The user base, no matter how technically adept those people may be, is familiar with using no end of web services that are click, click, click, done. Companies that emulate that, and flatten out the learning curve, are on to something. Companies that have user experiences that instantly suggest that many hours of training will be needed will face more and more of a problem staying attractive to hyper-busy people.
One of the company’s primary calling cards is its integration and use of social media on screens. I asked what the implications of the Monster Media/Locamoda patents and Aerva settlement might be, and Reddy said the company is making a deliberate decision to not talk about its own point of view.
If I visited 50 software CMS companies, I’d get 50 opinions on why whoever I talked to that day was superior. You kinda have to be in love with your product and processes to stay sane when there are so many competitors offering up roughly the same thing.
In a lot of ways, I think what matters and what will set you apart more than the software is your understanding of the shifting marketplace and how people do things, and on that I’d say Enplug is on the right track.
I also think these guys have a very solid handle on marketing – behaving much more like a tech web services start-up in how it gets the word out than the traditional methods I see from most companies in the signage ecosystem. They’ve managed to get tech press attention that much larger, more established companies rarely get, and appear to have done a good job of being squarely part of the LA tech scene.
Reddy says the goal is to position Enplug’s platform as THE foundation for sign messaging, with apps and content getting plugged in to work on top of that base. It’s a similar notion to how WordPress has emerged as THE website management platform, and there’s a huge community of developers that create, market or at least make available plug-ins that enable different types of content and functionality.
That’s a big goal and there are lots of companies with a similar one. So we’ll see.
But this is the first established signage software play I’ve seen that absolutely reflects the mindset, interests and style of millennials.
It’s really important for anyone in this industry to acknowledge and respect that millennials now outnumber the baby boomer generation – the generation making the big decisions at competing software companies, and not necessarily knowing or understanding ALL those millennials who don’t think and work the same way.
Millennials don’t run many Fortune 1000 companies. But they run a lot of start-ups, and have marketing and communications gigs at a lot of bigger companies.
Dave Haynes is the founder and editor of Sixteen:Nine, an online publication that has followed the digital signage industry for more than 13 years. Dave does strategic advisory consulting work for many end-users and vendors, and also writes for many of them. He’s based near Halifax, Nova Scotia.