Wallboard’s Co-CEO Rod Roberson On IOT-Driven Digital Signage Software
October 14, 2020 by Dave Haynes
In the before times, when we did nutty things like fly on planes and walk around in crowds, I went to ISE in Amsterdam, and made a point of stopping by the small stand of a company called Wallboard.
An industry friend had suggested I check them out, so I popped by and had what turned into a lengthy demo. I walked away impressed and amused, thinking, “These guys are mad scientists.”
Wallboard is a digital signage content management system like countless other systems on the market. What distinguishes them is a focus on IOT devices and data integration. The demo I had, thinking way back, involved a weigh scale and booze, as part of an access control system for factories.
Booze on your breath, you get pulled off to the side. If you weigh more than you did leaving than when you entered, the system and a screen flags that … and then security people look in your pockets for stuff they think you might be taking home without permission.
It all speaks to where this whole idea of dynamic digital signage is going.
I spoke with Rod Roberson, the co-CEO of the company, which has a sales and marketing office in Dallas. Most of Wallboard’s 40 or so people – the developers and mad scientists – work in an office outside of Budapest, Hungary.
Rod, thank you for joining me. Can you give me a background on Wallboard?
I know you guys, I’ve seen you at at least one trade show, but I wonder how many people in the general ecosystem know much about you.
Rod Roberson: Yeah. Sure, thanks for having me, Dave. So Wallboard is a Digital Signage CMS software platform. I would say that the platform does most things you would expect from a traditional CMS, managed screens, managed content, but what we really focus on is building a platform that allows our users to really build some advanced content through the use of our content editing tools, our integrations with live data and IOT sensors, and our ability to easily integrate with third party systems so that we can interact with some of the business process workflows that are inherent within those systems.
Company is in Dallas, but there’s a big component of it in Hungary, right?
Rod Roberson: That’s correct. So the company was actually started in 2012 by my partner, Robert Simon. He’s based near Budapest, Hungary. He started the company back then, spent about three or four years building up the platform, building the development team, and took it to market, in Europe, basically in 2016.
And then we met in 2017. I, at the time, was running the AV division of a family owned company and we were looking to build out a digital signage as a service product offering. And we were really struggling to find the right software partner for that. So met Robert, a lot of the boxes checked and we actually just started as a reseller. Then one thing led to another, he was looking for an investment partner and he hooked up with a few venture capital firms in Europe but I was able to convince them that we would be a better investment partner for him because we were strategic, we were talking to end users on a day to day basis.
And so we formalized that partnership, in 2018 and then that led to him saying, “Hey, I really need a day to day business partner to help me with sales and marketing”, so I joined him full time in 2019, and so sales and marketing really run out of the Dallas office. And then, he’s running the tech team outside of Budapest.
So how much of the company is in Budapest versus Dallas?
Rod Roberson: I would say we’ve got probably close to 40 full-time employees. We’ve got 7 here in the States, so the majority of our company is really full-time developers. We’ve got 25-27, somewhere in that range of full time developers, that sit there in Hungary.
What is that, about an eight hours difference?
Rod Roberson: It’s seven hours.
Okay. So you’ve got to juggle your days quite a bit.
Rod Roberson: I do, and it’s been an interesting experience in terms of what my days look like now. I’m typically up pretty early and at least part of the internal work day is almost over at about 10 o’clock. But, yeah, it’s a different work-life balance than I was used to before.
Now, what was it that attracted you to this platform versus the 5,000 other ones that are out there?
Rod Roberson: One of the things we were looking for was just the flexibility to own our own backend, and one of the interesting things about Wallboard is that it’s a distributed server infrastructure. We’ve got 40-45 global partners out there. And I would say the majority of them run their own servers so they really control that back end, which was an important piece to us.
In addition to that, I just really love the flexibility of the system and the ability to do some more advanced things. I do think that, you’re right, it’s a crowded space when it comes to just traditional digital media playback applications but I think when you start to talk about more advanced things like data integrations, IOT sensor integrations, and the ability to start to create more dynamic content, content that reacts to the environment or reacts to something else that’s happening versus just “here’s a playlist I’m playing”, that’s when I think, the space gets a little less crowded, and you know that originally, what excited me about the Wallboard.
So when you say a distributed server setup, does that mean if there’s a reseller up here in Canada, you’ll basically enable them to white label your platform?
Rod Roberson: That’s correct. They can white label it and we have got a mix, we’ve got partners or resellers that completely white label the system, and that’s very important to them, so they can do that. We also have ones that say, “Hey, I want to leverage your marketing. I want to leverage the Wallboard knowledge base.” And so they still want to be Wallboard, but they still want control of that server environment. We allow them to do that. And then that allows them to do a lot of administrative things on their end, in terms of customizing the settings, they can customize the security aspects of the system and they can create some custom programming that is very unique to their specific server.
So if you’re doing it that way, are you then selling a site license to these partners, or can you still get Wallboard as a service directly from you or your partners and pay a monthly license per node?
Rod Roberson: Yeah, so to the end-user, it looks about the same. And then most of our partners are selling the same way, which is an end-user license per node like you said.
From a reseller’s perspective, we have partners that say, we don’t want to do that, we don’t want to manage our own infrastructure. So we have servers in the US and in Europe, where partners, certainly new partners, can come on, test our system, but a few licenses on the system. but I would say our more serious partners end up gravitating toward their server environment.
Would these be your customer base? Would they be a little bit different from the standard customer base of a lot of CMS platforms that go after a small to medium business or they chase a particular vertical but it’s a general offer? You’re talking a lot about IoT and it sounds like increasingly specific and “complicated applications”.
Rod Roberson: Yeah, I think that it’s an interesting question. I think that we’ve got a little bit of a mix of both, we’ve got the resellers that are very much more traditional AV integrators, they’re interested in selling to those small and medium enterprises, they’re selling meeting rooms and conference room technology and all that other AV stuff. And they’re just bolting on digital signage as an additional offering, but as we get more advanced, we’ve got different kinds of partners that are into retail technology, and so they are very interested in IoT sensors. Some of our partners are just selling into the corporate environment, not so much.
The same thing goes for data integration. The partners that we have that are really into the contact center space, they are very focused on that particular part of our platform, so it really runs the gamut in terms of, what is the partner, what’s their customer base look like? And that kind of drives, what they’re interested in from a platform perspective.
So let’s say five years ago, you pretty much had to go to a somewhat specialized CMS platform that had data modules built-in and had already written connectors. It was its own thing, but data has got fairly accessible now, and being able to take different data feeds from different systems isn’t that technically hard in certain respects, but I assume it gets a lot harder when you get into specialized IoT sensors that maybe don’t have a whole platform and API behind them.
Rod Roberson: Yeah. So you know, what we’ve done is, we partnered with a company called Five Stack, and they’ve got a microcontroller that’s a nice little piece of equipment that you can connect to a bunch of different types of sensors into that little microcontroller computer. So digital analog, sensors with various different other communication protocols. So we’ve written firmware on that microcontroller that can talk to our CMS.
So at that point, I can take basically any sensor integrated into that microcontroller. And that is that it acts as almost the glue between the sensor itself and our CMS that’s triggering content.
If I think back all the way to the before times when you go out and meet people and all that, I went to ISE and got a demo from Robert and walked away from that after 20-25 minutes, kinda amused thinking, “these guys are mad scientists” because they were showing me all these crazy sensor integrations.
Could you describe some of the business applications that you’re doing?
Rod Roberson: Yeah. I think it’s early, we’re still looking into various different use cases, but I think that one of the demos that you probably saw there in Amsterdam, we’ve got a partner that doesn’t really have a digital signage background at all, he’s a security consultant. And he recognized a need in these large factories, in his case, Eastern Europe, but there are large factories where these workers that go in and out of these things and there’s a lot of different things that need to occur for them to get through the entry Gates.
So they’ve got questions that need to be answered, they need to specifically ID themselves, they want to make sure that they’re not stealing products and services. And so there needs to be something there in terms of a live security person to check what they want to check, alcohol content, and I don’t think it was not in the demo back then, but certainly now we’ve added a temperature check. Previously there was a need for like seven or eight of these security guards, because you’ve got 25,000 workers coming in at three different shifts, and we were able to essentially build a complete business process with our software, utilizing all these sensors. You essentially walk up to a kiosk. You step on a scale, you insert your RFID badge into it, you answer a few questions, your blow on the alcohol breathalyzer, you get your temperature taken, and if you’re good to go, you’re off into the space.
If you’re not, there is an alert that gets triggered and now we’ve got two security guards versus seven. So there’s a serious ROI in terms of reducing the labor force needed to get through this process. And then on the back end of that, they weigh you again, such that if you’re 10 pounds heavier, they know that something’s up.
So I think that’s an interesting application. We’ve got a couple of others, and we’re doing some proof of concepts here on the East coast. We’ve got a major retailer where they’ve got a 6X1 display. and then, and they are displaying all sorts of various different types of content. The original idea was to have buttons underneath the displays and a physical display so that the visitors could go and say, “I want to look at the Michelin tires”, or “I want to look at the AT&T services that you’re offering”, and they would have to touch these buttons. Well, COVID hits, and all of a sudden they’re saying, “what can we do to make this more contactless?” So instead of having a physical button there, we placed an IR sensor and we basically tuned that IR sensor, so that it only gets triggered if your finger gets within, two-three centimeters from the sensor itself. So we’re able to mimic that button experience with an IR sensor to actually trigger the content.
So you know, things like that, I think the retail space is really interesting for this IoT sensor application. I think there were some other ones with meeting room signs in the corporate environment that we were tinkering with. So again it’s early, but we’re really excited about the things we can do and it’s opening up a lot of conversations, you know what I mean?
There are conversations where people say, can you do this, or this is my business need, what can you do? And that’s where the mad scientist comes in and Robert goes back into his work area and comes out with some crazy ideas.
I assume that some of what you described, like the access control and weighing and testing for whether they have alcohol in their breath. Those are systems that if you went to a big multinational company, can’t name one, but I can think of a few, they would say, “Sure, we can do that for you”, and it would probably cost $75,000 a unit or more. As you were describing with that company, you can buy sensors for, like they don’t cost much at all, do they?
Rod Roberson: No. It’s certainly like buttons, sensors, those things, you’re talking dollars, so again, there’s some costs in terms of some of that customization, but we were able to dramatically reduce the amount of customer customization we have to do because it’s all built on our core platform and we’re reducing a lot of the custom coding that has to happen because we built these interfaces so that we can, graphically say, “when this happens, trigger this content or when this happens, trigger that.”
So that’s a lot of if/then type stuff isn’t in our interface as opposed to actually having to hard code that in a program.
Yeah, I’m a huge believer in data-driven signage as opposed to scheduling a predetermined long and advanced signage that’s just rolling through stuff. But I assume that it’s still a challenge to get, not only partners but particular end-users over the line in terms of understanding that this is possible and it’s not crazily complicated and that they could manage it and maintain it on a fairly easy basis?
Rod Roberson: Yeah, I think you’re right. That is a challenge and that’s part of our sales process to show these things and show specific use cases. One of the things that we’ve done post-COVID was, we built this desktop broadcast app so you can, essentially, have some digital signage on your desktop itself, and everyone starts to really get excited about KPI’s and all this other stuff. Now we have to get to the data because there’s some way for us to get to whatever it is they want to display, but showing how easy it is to manage that data either, I mean, we could do it in a simple Google sheet, it doesn’t have to be some massive complex database or Salesforce connector. We can do that too but even starting with baby steps starts to get people to understand what is possible and then that really gets the ball rolling in terms of, “Hey, this would be really cool and would be valuable to communicating this specific type of information, especially to a remote workforce”.
So with the pandemic, one of the things that have come along is using technologies and processes like queue management and trying to enable access control to limit the number of people coming into a facility or an establishment, a bar, whatever it may be. And it seems like all of this kind of really elevates the idea of using sensor-driven, IoT-driven signage. Are you guys seeing an opportunity there?
Rod Roberson: Yeah, absolutely, especially in Europe, there is a very big demand for people counting type solutions where they’ve got limited capacities and pretty strict rules with respect to how many people can be in a specific physical space, in retail and in restaurants and bars. So, definitely seeing that.
We’ve got a couple of different conversations going with that respect, we’ve got some retail analytics companies that are already in some of these retail spaces with their retail analytics, and they’ve got the ability to do that “people counting” and so from that perspective, it’s just data integration. So they send us the data and we can post how many people are in and count the people coming in and out. We’re working on some other different types of technology, not camera related, but utilizing IR sensors to do that person counting function because it’s a significantly cheaper option. So yeah, we’re working on various different things, definitely seeing a demand for that.
The other thing we’re seeing is a demand for some ability to track and trace, especially in the UK right now, there’s some sort of mandate to do that. I think there’s a lot of these pubs and restaurants that are doing this by hand where you’re walking into a pub or a restaurant and the bouncer’s writing down who the people are coming in. We’ve developed a really quick and easy solution where they could hit a QR code that takes them into our system on their phone. They submit their information. That then submits it back to the restaurant we were at, and we’re not housing any of that data. That’s data for the restaurant, but it allows them to conform to the government regulations in an easy way and it’s not paper-driven, which seems like a 20 year old technology to me.
Yeah, I would think, there’s going to be some privacy pushback with that, but that’s not really our problem, that’s up to the government and the venue operators to sort out. You’re just enabling it, right?
Rod Roberson: Correct.
So one of the interesting things that I saw about your company was an integration you did with HP. Can you describe what that’s all about?
Rod Roberson: Yeah, our investment partner, ImageNet, that their core business is selling printers and copiers, and they’ve got a super-strong relationship with HP. So HP has developed this platform called HP Workpath, and it’s essentially a platform that sits in their interface and it allows app developers to develop apps, primarily for printing, scanning, and copying, but we went to their developer conference last year in Barcelona and because that user interface is running on an Android tablet and we’ve got such deep integration with Android already, we were able to relatively easily port over our code, so that we can run on that HP Workpath and in that base and path environment.
That tablet right now is a fairly weak piece of hardware, we’ve actually had to dumb down our platform a little bit, so there are no performance issues because there are all these things that these resellers are thinking to do with terms of data integration and the ability to send messages back to the service company that the printer has an issue with.
A lot of that stuff is coming, but at this point, it’s really more of a screensaver, so when the printer is not in use, it’s scrolling through corporate communications type messaging and that sort of thing, and then it just almost acts like a kiosk. So when you touch the screen, our application goes into the background. They’re using the printer for whatever they’re going to use it for, and then after the 32nd or 62nd timeframe, it goes back to that screensaver mode.
What are the kinds of things that you’d want to put there? I’m sure it goes beyond “Happy birthday, Becky” and “It’s taco Tuesday”.
Rod Roberson: Yeah. I think that some of it is kinda like a reminder to do some of the things that they want to be done, for example, “clean the screen” is a reminder type of a message that we’re having, more generic COVID-type messages in terms of just office space, protocol, but then also more like how-tos, right? Certainly, I’m probably going to know how to scan a document that, but maybe there’s something more unique in terms of what I want us to want to do, and if I’m able to put a lot of that information in almost like a kiosk type of environment on the screen itself.
Right now we can’t do video, but ultimately we can push videos to that so that if I don’t know how to do a particular thing or there’s a trick, or if there’s an issue with the printer, I can quickly get to that from an informational perspective.
So because it’s an Android tablet device, in some cases, pretty small display, but on other ones, decent Samsung galaxy size displays, the challenge is that the processor doesn’t have the horsepower or the version of Android is too old?
Rod Roberson: That’s correct. I don’t even know what version of Android they’re using, but I think they’re on version 4, and we’re up to 11 now, and they’ve got a new generation that’s supposed to be coming soon, I think it was supposed to be coming out this fall but I’m sure that got delayed, so we’re thinking sometime in 2021, and it’s still early for us on the sales side. With HP, I have weekly meetings with them and it’s been surprising to me how excited they are about this because I think it’s something unique for them, I think it’s something that they can go tell, and if they’re in a competitive deal with another manufacturer and with these copiers, it’s hard to sometimes differentiate what one can do versus the other you need, if I can do this, it’s an icing on the top type of a thing that I can go as a value add to win a deal.
You also see it for your company as a bit of a door opener in that meeting room signs lead to more kinds of digital signage around an office space. This might lead to, “could you also do meeting room science because you also do that directory or other stuff”.
Rod Roberson: Absolutely. And the benefit there is that it’s all in one ecosystem, right?
So it’s in one system where they can have their signage, their meeting room signs, communication on their printers, directories. It’s not five or six different software vendors and systems that they’re managing. You can all do that, in a single instance of Wallboard.
With manufacturing and production facilities, do you see an opportunity with no end of different kinds of equipment that makes stuff for packaged stuff, or whatever that there’s an opportunity to apply sensors to those things to show the state of equipment?
I’ve been in auto manufacturing plants where there are big bulletin boards filled with printouts of spreadsheets that show the state of different systems and thought, “this is goofy, this is like 1985”, but that’s the way they were. And you would think that being able to jack into a piece of equipment that spits out some basic readings on how it’s doing, that being able to translate that kind of a sign or apply a sensor to, it would make a world of difference?
Rod Roberson: Absolutely. And then making the content more dynamic so it doesn’t just go into a Power BI massive dashboard where you’ve got 8 million pieces of data on one screen, and it’s just hard to read. You’re pushing the most relevant content to the screen based on whatever it is. So if System ABC is down, that’s what’s coming onto the screen and it’s not one tiny data point, to try to find amongst a million.
Is it challenging in current environments, because you can’t travel really very much at all, except locally, to get the word out about what you guys are all about?
Rod Roberson: Yeah, I think certainly it’s been somewhat challenging. Obviously, we were excited about exhibiting at DSE and all that sort of stuff. We made some real headway at ISE and DSE last year. So certainly from that perspective and just being able to get out and about, it is more challenging, but, with what we do in demoing software, that part, we can do virtually and, a certain part of our day in day out is more partner acquisition, and not always just in use, selling to the end-user. And that certainly has been staying fairly active over the last six months because, there’s a cycle to that, people get to get in the system and learn it and test it and that’s not always their first priority. And we’ve been able to make a lot of headway with respect to a lot of different types of partnerships. And not necessarily having to slow down so much, due to COVID, but no question, on the end-user side, and we still need screens to be deployed and turned on for licenses to be ordered and that certainly has been slower.
Although, we see the activity picking up. We see a lot of people saying, “we want to start these projects early 2021”. So you know, that’s good in terms of that activity. It’s always going to be, what happens here with COVID is, obviously I can’t predict that, but I’m hopeful that, we’re in a stronger position or the world is, going into 2021, which will make all these conversations that we’re having now come to fruition.
Are there partners who are better suited to what you do? I mean local and regional digital signage solutions providers who’ve been around digital signage forever, but I’m thinking because of your technical strength in the IoT side of things, that there are maybe integration partners who don’t wake up in the morning, thinking purely about digital signage, they’re thinking about other elements, all the way to access control systems and things like that.
Rod Roberson: Yeah, I think that’s absolutely right and that’s been a struggle for us, finding who is our ideal partner. We can talk to a lot of more traditional AV integration firms, and if digital signage is the fourth or fifth thing that they sell and they’re really more focused on, all those other things, Crestron/Extron blah, blah, blah, that’s going to be tougher.
I mean, they always love the software, but it’s hard for them to focus on, even building a digital signage recurring revenue business, that’s just not what they do. They’re more transactional in nature and so they’re not waking up thinking about that, but there are other partners that are more boutique digital signage, this is what they do. And those are the partners that really understand our systems, understand the value of the time savings related to being able to do some things without having to custom code, and another system and bandaid all that stuff together. Those are the partners, I think they’re naturally faster at getting it and starting to scale in terms of ordering licenses.
Do you see much of an opportunity for just playing plain vanilla digital signage wherein you create some content, find a playlist, you schedule it, send it out and you’re done? It strikes me as that’s the sort of thing that’s so easy these days to do that. I don’t know that it’s still going to have much relevance.
Rod Roberson: I agree. I mean that’s just going to be a price war at that point. I can argue that our system is elegant and it’s an easy way to do that, and we still have customers, that’s all they want to do. But it’s very difficult to differentiate yourself in that sort of world.
You mentioned Android, is that the primary platform you’re working on for the hardware that you’re using?
Rod Roberson: No. I think that’s really driven by our partners. I think we’ve got a really strong relationship with BrightSign. We’re seeing a lot of new partners that are BrightSign-only partners and like our software and like to be able to do that in the BrightSign ecosystem. We’ve got some use cases that need Windows, but there are also the partners that say, “Hey, I want a cheaper box and, and I’m comfortable with Android and I’m selling to small businesses that don’t have the security agitation that sometimes comes with Android.” So it fits for their business model.
Now BrightSign is a special purpose box, PCs, or they seem to be turning into specialty applications in signage, just because of their costs and everything and the market seems to be moving into dedicated boxes and to systems on chips, where do you see things going?
Rod Roberson: That’s a good question. When we built out our system on chip integrations with Samsung and LG, I thought that that’s just where the market would go and take off, and we’re seeing some of that, but we’re still seeing a lot of people still stick to these dedicated boxes.
I’m not as focused on the hardware. What we want to do is allow our partners and our end users to say, it doesn’t matter, choose your hardware, whatever fits your budget and your use case, but run our software on it, and so we’re focused on being able to perform on all those various different operating systems and hardware components.
Rod, thank you very much for spending some time with me.
Rod Roberson: Thank you so much, Dave. I really appreciate it. It was a fun conversation.