Jason Cremins Explains Why He’s Gone Headless With Signagelive
March 2, 2022 by Dave Haynes
One of the terms the digital signage community is going to start seeing more often is headless CMS – the idea of getting away from the walled garden nature of many to most digital signage platforms and instead offering something that is open and flexible.
Most software platforms out there are still variations on walled gardens, but I’ve been hearing from a few companies that have re-architected their code and platforms to be some version of headless. One of the early adopters – very predictably – is Signagelive, a UK CMS software firm that has a knack for staying very current with technology advances, and for developing a platform that is very open and malleable … but also secure.
CEO Jason Cremins was one of the first poor souls nutty enough to come on this podcast, and I was surprised to sort out that it had been almost six years since we had that first chat. I was very happy to catch up with him, and dig into what headless CMS is all about, who’s using it, and why.
We also get into another interesting thing the company has developed – secure dashboards, a stable, secure and easy way to get visualized data on digital signage screens.
Jason, thank you for joining me. We’ve spoken in the past. We’ve spoken many times actually, but for a podcast, I looked it up and saw, it was like six years ago. So you’re one of the first victims.
Jason Cremins: Yeah, thanks, Dave. I can’t believe it’s been six years since we had that conversation.
I wanted to talk to you to catch up in a lot of ways around Signagelive, but I was particularly interested because for the last year or so, I’d say you’ve been talking up a concept that is just nibbling at the edges of Digital signage consciousness, if you want to put it in that way. People are just starting to understand this idea of headless CMS, and also talk a little bit about another product of yours, secure dashboards because they’re two concepts that I’d say are not terribly well known within the digital signage industry yet, but will be.
Jason Cremins: Yeah, thanks for that. The whole concept of headless for us has come about really through the need from the channel partners that we have and the customers that we have and at its core, what it really allows us to do is expose absolutely everything that you can do with Signagelive as a platform and in terms of the management and the control of players through a series of API APIs and those API APIs then allow third party organizations to build solutions around the core signage like capabilities.
So this is a lot more than that old concept of white labeling a CMS platform, so you don’t really know who the vendor is, but you’re still using it the way it was written and the UX is there and everything else. These are the tools, and then you can write it and use it the way you want, right?
Jason Cremins: Yeah, absolutely. It’s code level control really. We are the engine underneath the hood, we’re the delivery platform. I suppose in the same way that organizations are building solutions on top of AWS for web apps, we’re looking to achieve a similar proposition for our partners who want to build custom solutions on top of signagelive for a whole range of applications, and I think one of the key things is digital signage is just one of those, the outputs can be many varied.
So why would they want to do that? My understanding is you’ve got organizations that produce content for a whole bunch of end points, not just digital signage endpoints, just a whole variety of them, and they don’t want to have to back out of what they use, the tools they use for all those things, and then log into digital signage to do that one little piece of it and then back out and do the other stuff. Is that a fair assessment?
Jason Cremins: I think it is.
It depends on who the customer is, so where the need needs being driven from. So if it’s a specialist, digital signage reseller who is providing a full managed service for their customers, then it may well be that they want to present a portal or a user experience that is unified across maybe different tools they’re providing that customer, different management tools.
We’ve got one partner, for example, who has got some really good connections into the Google Chrome management device environment, and the APIs that Google provides and they want that to be wrapped up with the CMS capabilities, and so therefore they’re using Signagelive for that component. So yeah, certainly from a point of view the integrator is very much about presenting a unified solution, their own custom user journey effectively and workflows for that, for their customers, and then what we’re finding for end-users, it’s very much about those community developers and organizations, where they’ve got existing business logic and workflow in place, and they want to avoid having to replicate those tasks. So how can we just move digital signage and publishing of data and receiving information about the device and the status into the existing tools that we all use within the business?
So what would that look like in something like, let’s say an interactive agency, that’s doing a pile of work for a big corporate client?
Jason Cremins: Yeah, what it would look like for them is that they would typically work with us. We’d set up a development environment. We’ve got obviously extensive documentation and examples of what could be achieved. We would assist them in terms of setting up example code and just really working through, I suppose the story, what is the problem we’re trying to solve? That’s what we’ll try to do in businesses is how they’re trying to solve a problem for a particular customer, and then what we would do then is point them in the right direction of the various APIs that we have.
So if it’s, for example, the ability to either hard trigger or soft trigger content, we’ve got APIs that allow you to do that. If it’s the ability to take data and ingest that and have that display within HTML5 content again, we’ve got APIs that allow you to do that too. So we’ve got a range of entry points around the core platform APIs and SDKs, and it would allow us to work with that agency really, to build a solution for their customers.
So would they then have to build a brand new interface to deal with all out or could it be layered into what they’re already using?
Jason Cremins: Totally laid in. So it is what they’re already using. If they’re using modern web technologies, typically they have API capabilities or certainly they’ve got accessibility or capability within their teams to be able to build out those user interfaces. Obviously in recent years, with the way the web technologies have moved, there’s been very much a separation between the visual experience and what’s being delivered on the front end to using portals and UI/UX is whether it be, across mobile, across the whole range and the actual business logic and the doing behind the scenes, database distribution and media management, et cetera.
So yeah, very much they can build it however they want, as long as they adhere to the APIs that we have in place.
Is there a degree of transparency? So let’s say you have a reseller or an integrator that you’re working with and they have a big corporate client of some kind, a retailer, QSR, whatever it may be. Do they know that it’s Signagelive under the hood or are you completely big behind the curtains?
Jason Cremins: We’re completely behind the curtains. From our point of view, everything is transparent. For example, the customer would be looking into their portal so therefore we are the code downstream of any actions that they’re taking on that portal, there’s no reference to Signagelive.
The way that licenses are procured and added to devices, the way those devices are presented is all again, completely transparent, and the partner can decide what that’s called, how that looks, without any reference to Signagelive, and then when you’re on the device end the pages such as activation codes or notices of expiring or those other things are completely customizable as well and programmable by the partner.
So yeah, from our point of view our role there with those organizations that we’re working with is to provide them the support, and provide them the tools and extend the API as they require and allow them to go and build their book of business around that code.
Does this require a different kind of support for your reseller ecosystem, in terms of, if it’s your own product and it’s visibly Signagelive that you’re working with and you make a new version release or whatever you push it out and everybody knows about it.
With this you have a tool set and then you have an integrator with its own toolset or its front end that it’s written on top of. So do you have to say we’ve changed this about our API or whatever that you need to deal with?
Jason Cremins: Yeah, that’s a very good point. And I think that starts from the outset, because the minute we’ve done the initial discovery and the qualification that there is genuine interest, and also they’ve got the capabilities within their organization to undertake the type of integration that would be required with our APIs, then the commercial team completely steps out of the way, the regular end user and channel support team steps aside, and those partners are provided direct access to the development team.
So it’s very much a developer to developer conversation around utilizing the tools and the various code samples and all the other bits that are required and that’s a completely separate Slack environment that those guys can work on together, and have that kind of trust, and build up that relationship to build the solutions without with us commercial and regular support team getting involved.
What took you down this path? Headless CMS is a broader concept in Web 3 or whatever you want to call it, but did you see this as a trend that you wanted to get on top of or were you being asked about it?
Jason Cremins: A bit of both, I would say. I think one of the things that we were looking to do was re-engineer our own platform and it made sense that we became the first consumer of our own APIs. So I think there was a conscious decision to do that and that journey probably started 3+ years ago, and every line of code we’ve written, the sense has been API first. So we’ve crafted and come up with the API architecture and then decided, we’re going to build on top of that in terms of the user experience within Signagelive.
So I think that was one of the key things, but then also we were getting a lot of requirements for integration with say business workflows and tools that people were already using beyond just shuffling content from a third party platform down to a screen, and then also extending that capability into local environments. We’ve got an APIs that allows us to, to trigger either immediately or soft trigger, IE, do this next, and then we’ve built out another API, which we call real-time events, which runs across the different devices we support that allow us to extend that further through code to interact with non-web technology. So things like serial devices, lighting controls, all these other things that are required, when you get down into a physical presence, you want to build an experience that’s beyond just sending web requests.
So yeah, it’s been a combination of both and that’s been both end-users that have approached us and we’ve had conversations around their needs and also then the partners and integration organizations that we’re working with who are building out these experiences based on what the customer wants to achieve.
And this isn’t just conceptual at this point, you have clients who are using it in this way now, right?
Jason Cremins: Yeah. From our point of view, the commercial model is really the thing that determines where the split is, so we traditionally sold licenses and then subsequently services and plans, and they’ve gone through the traditional channel model, whether it be distribution, resellers,
This is more of a consumption model. So it’s an ability for at the first level of the ability to activate licenses as required and deactivate those as required. That’s been a big key element of all that we’ve done, and then further on with as we’ll get onto other products, it’s true consumption is about the actual amount of usage that you need from the platform.
So are there companies and projects that you can talk about that are actively using a headless CMS model?
Jason Cremins: Yeah, we can. One of the organizations that we’re working with and they’re actually included in the white paper that’s on our website is Entwined who are down in Australia, and we’ve been working with Entwined now for the last two and a half years as they start to build out their digital signage strategy, and they were disillusioned with the challenges they had trying to work across multiple different CMS platforms to meet the needs of different customers in different sectors. So we work very closely with them to become their engine for their success.
I think one of the big attractions is that we’ve got this very wide support for different player technology into the 30+ different platforms that we support in different variants, and they wanted that. They didn’t want to be restricted by a single CMS’s support for a certain hardware tech, or a certain operating system. So we work with Entwined to build that out and we’ve got some significant wins together, but we will allow them to make those announcements as they come along.
So in that case, there is mostly a managed service model for them?
Jason Cremins: From their point of view, it is absolutely a managed service model. We support them as a technical team and to ensure they’ve got everything they need, and from their perspective, they are providing a fully managed proposition for their customers. So they are direct to their customers providing a full installation, maintenance, content services, marketing strategy, everything that’s required to deliver a successful solution.
Yeah, that’s interesting because I was saying to somebody the other day that one of the trends I see happening is you have “solutions providers”, “integrators” companies that normally just do installations and so on, adding more service capabilities because there’s more recurring revenue there and it would be mightily challenging if you are at the mercy of the software companies to get a particular piece of functionality or whatever added to their roadmap, and then, you wait for it to actually come together and so on, and then you’ve got to, as you said, support all these things versus having a lot more control over what you can do and narrowing it down to one provider. But I guess there’s still the challenge that even with that, they’re still waiting a little bit on functionality to be delivered at year end, right?
Jason Cremins: Yeah, occasionally. I think most of the time, what we’re seeing is there’s an opportunity to bring in other adjacent technologies. So with Entwined and with other partners we’re working with, for example, Audience Analytics, we’ve got certain partners and work that we’ve done in that space, but if I got a particular partner they’re working with, and there’s absolutely no reason why they can’t combine what we’re doing in terms of providing proof of play and accountability in terms of what the player is doing with a media playback, and then combining that in parallel with other information, and then delivering that as a complete set of data and set of insights for individual customers.
So I think it’s about really understanding what the need is. If it’s not core to what we’re doing as an organization, if it doesn’t benefit the wider community of companies that we have. Bear in mind a lot of the APIs that we do develop at their core are for enterprise customers and so if we see things the other way round as well, is that it’s exciting for our API headless customers when we can say actually, for example, we’ve built out out granule user permissions model which has now got over 150 different flags you can turn on and off per user, and by the way, we’ve got a new hierarchy of infrastructure coming along and we just launched 2FA for security.
So they benefit from all of those because all of those are available through the APIs, and a lot of that is then listening to the same customers they’re approaching with a complete solution that maybe we’re having conversations with other territories where they’re overtly using Signagelive as a platform.
Do you see headless as being a pretty significant part of your business and will you always balance the Signagelive familiar UX that some companies are going to use Or a lot of them are just going to headless?
Jason Cremins: I think there’s definitely a trend towards more integrated solutions. People talk about user experience platforms. I heard that kind of thing mentioned and talked about by others and I suppose it is about that, and it’s really whether we build something that. I don’t want us to be a constraint for our partner or for our customers. So we will take our product and develop it where we feel it needs to go and where the mass market requires Signagelive to go.
But I think what we’re finding with the headless proposition is that it does allow that kind of wider thought process and say, a partner or someone looking to create their own brand in the space or integrate with their own backend digital asset management platform or workflow systems, they can decide what features they want to present to the customer, and some of those will be from Signagelive, and others will be from other third party web apps that they’re talking to.
You only have to look at the way things like Zapier have blown up over the years in terms of connecting A to B to C to create a solution and we want to be part of that. We integrate with low-code and no-code platforms, for example, which basically takes the development and the ability to build applications, not just from a curly bracket low-level coders, but it puts that into community code, as they always say about low code, “if you are capable of driving a spreadsheet and creating macros, then you could build a low code application for your business”, and we want to be talking to those community developers within organizations as well, who go, “Do you know what? That’s great, but I’d like to do something slightly different or I need to make sure it shows not just this, but that as well from our other systems we have.” And we want to make sure we’re part of that solution.
One of the reasons I find this so interesting is It gets away from the whole idea or notion of a walled garden, which it still seems like a lot of digital signage software companies operate within in that they’re not really paying attention to what the larger, particularly web centric development world is doing.
Jason Cremins: Yeah, I totally agree with that. I think you can’t win on features alone. It’s a fool’s errand. If you look at any organization that’s making money in digital signage today, 90% of the features are going to be tick boxed yes certainly when it comes to an RFP. We can all argue that we do things better or have you, so there’s got to be reasons why you’re successful, and I know you’ve covered it and your podcasts and your writing, Dave, that you either go super niche in a particular sector and use case, or you provide a true platform that is pliable and capable and can bend and flex to the needs of the kind of solutions that we’re not even thinking of. These are organizations that have got particular problems we haven’t even heard of yet.
So we don’t want to be measured or contained by our thoughts on what we think the world needs. We want the ability to go, Hey, we can do this bit. We’ve got these APIs and capabilities. By all means if you want us to extend those, that’s exactly where we want to be spending our time. The experience you want to build in terms of logging in and what you want that to do on the screen at the far end.
The other area I’ve talked about, I guess there’s a bunch of things I’ve not heard about through the years, but it is data-driven content. And this is something that there were a handful of companies going back to the mid 2000s, like the Omnivexes and Scribers, when that was around, that were doing that sort of thing, and then it grew more common and everybody was saying, yeah, sure, we’ve got APIs. We can tie into data tables and stuff like that.
But the data sync services and secure dashboards that you’re doing you’re saying this is different this is its own approach?
Jason Cremins: Yeah. I think we are trying to solve the same problem in a different way, in a more scalable and robust way. I think that’s the way of looking at it.
I’ve got admiration for those that have gone before us, in that sense, in terms of trying to solve the challenge of getting data from backend systems up into a screen in an automated, scalable and updatable way.
What we’ve come up with is a solution whereby from the backend, we have secure dashboards that you can log into any web app, whether that be a Google-based app or Microsoft, any of the Microsoft suite through to people like Grow.com who we use for our own power BI and in business intelligence dashboards and login once, login smartly, as we call it, because the system will actually, determine how it needs to log in and what it needs to press. It does all that in the back end for you, and then from that, you can determine what you want to capture and where you want that to go. What we’re effectively doing at that point is whether it be an individual metric on a dashboard, whether it be the full dashboard itself whatever the determined frequency needs to be. We’re securely capturing that data as a JPEG and there’s a real conscious reason why we’ve done that as a JPEG, because we want to make sure it can play back on any player that we support, not be restricted to the latest, greatest, web browser capable player that can run super fast, HTML5, because that’s so restricted. And then deliver that content security to screens.
So we’ve seen a big need for that. I think one of the things we wanted to avoid was a reliance on having to do this through creating a macro with a Chrome extension that you have to run through that sequence in a browser to capture the dashboard and then it saves it back to the server and it says, don’t worry, I’ve got that. I’ll do that again. We want it to do this centrally and do it once. So if something changes, you can go in, make a single change and all your dashboards will then be republished to the screen.
We’ve also with that solution and working through the initial B2 customers that we’ve got, realized one of the key aspects is what happens when things go wrong. So we’ve built a complete debugger there. So it actually walks you through every single stage that we’re doing, the macros that it’s running in the back to say we’ve got this, we’ve now pressed this button. We’ve cleared that popup that came up, don’t worry right now, we’ve prepped the metric. “Is this what it looks like? Yep. That’s what I’m going to send to the screen.” So you can script that as you need to go and capture the data.
So we have tremendous response from organizations looking to get that data out of their backend systems and their web apps and the security gets that in front of their users on screens in the various departments. Big application, obviously with the deskless workers in particular and getting data around. We’re working with one big logistics organization at the moment who have got updates in terms of the status for goods in and goods out, buried in a proprietary system and they want the dispatch base across a hundred locations. And so we can show them how that works. They set it up once. The way it goes and that’s it, and it will just keep publishing that, and obviously, you can still be dispersed, you can still multi-zone it, and you can run it with other content as required but it’s very much a Trojan horse for a lot of organizations because it’s the one thing that’s been particularly tricky. And theyI don’t want to get into having to, while I can get that data out into a data table and then I’ve got to ingest it, then I have got to map that into some form of layout in a third party CMS, before I can then get it onto the screen. They want to do this in its native form, in the dashboards and the tables that they are using in their web app every single day.
If it’s a JPEG, that’s going to limit you in terms of the frequency of updates, at least a little bit, or you’re going to have a bandwidth issue as well, but I’m assuming there aren’t really that many applications out there that need true real time, something that’s changing every second or whatever, if it’s production status or whatever, every minute, or even every five minutes is probably fine, I assume?
Jason Cremins: Absolutely. Yeah, and that’s what we’re finding, and we are asking that question and there are solutions to real-time, but it just isn’t this technology. It’s not built for this, and real time is more a case of building those custom HTML5 widgets and connecting to a data point somewhere and having that is also refresh. And, we have those too, we have those bespoke instances where people need that level of update, as it happens, push updates. But for the vast majority, as you quite rightly said, it’s more a case of, I need to know what the stats are today within the last hour. I need to know what’s happened in the last five minutes. So we more than cope with that at scale using the secure dashboards platform.
I’m curious when you talk about sekless workers and production floors, and so on. I thought this is still a somewhat untapped opportunity for the digital signage market to get mission critical information out to people who don’t have desktop monitors that they’re staring out all day or don’t have emails or anything else. How do you keep them informed? And it seems that this is particularly a good way to do it.
Jason Cremins: Yeah, absolutely, and I think one of the things that we’re excited by is the number of applications we’ve never heard of before that people are testing. We’ve got on our website 30-40 applications that we test and we just keep continuing adding to a Sheet that we update pretty much every day with new applications we’ve got.
We were working with a big mining organization who used some platform I’d never heard of before. They tested it, they got it working and they went, let’s use it, and they went on to deploy that to all the locations where they’re drilling and mining and show the performance statistics there. So that’s the thing that’s exciting because we built this in an open, agnostic way. We’re not saying that we’ve got a particular integration for Power BI or we’ve got a particular integration for Salesforce or Tableau or all the other leading ones. We’ve built it in a way that will accommodate all of those, and if it works for all of those, it will work for any others as well.
Can you get into some of the more exotic platforms like an SAP ERP platform, that kind of thing??
Jason Cremins: Yeah, absolutely. It really comes down to user access, so how are people currently accessing that data?
So if you were logging into that platform through username, password authentication, single sign on, for example, and you can navigate from your browser to that content that you want to display and it can be full screen. It can be just a zone on the screen that you want to capture an X/Y set of coordinates, then it will work. If you can do it from your browser, we can do it from the backend and set that up. So yeah, it’s very doable.
I think the other aspect of this is the actual, as you mentioned, data sync services that are built on top of secure dashboards, these are built on top of which is the underlying platform. There will be other modules alongside that. We will be looking at certain instances where it actually makes sense to have dedicated apps for maybe SAP, maybe there’s some additional functionality that we need to get out of Salesforce, right? We’ll just build a custom integration with Salesforce at that point.
Or as we’re finding with others, there’s just a custom dataset there. Do we need an agent somewhere on a server that’s grabbing the data that brings it back through the same machine that we’ve built and pushes it, whether it be in a graphic or into an HTML5 page but uses this data sync services platform to achieve that in a very secure way.
I assume when this gets raised with corporate clients, they’re very concerned about the security implications. How do you deal with that?
Jason Cremins: Yeah, absolutely. Security is at the core from our point of view. So we’re completely transparent in terms of how the platform has been built. We’re open to inspection. We’ve been running quarterly penetration tests on our whole platform since 2015, and we make those available under NDA to prospective customers and existing customers, and in addition to that, we obviously achieved ISO 27,001 last year. We’re extending that out across the world as well.
We take data and data security to the highest level and we want to make sure we’re open and honest with our customers in terms of what we’re doing with our data, how we’re encrypting their data, and we’re open for that to be fully tested. There’s not been an instance and we’ve got some pretty significant organizations across a range of sectors. where, we’ve passed their security tests with flying colors, and in many cases they’re saying, you’re taking security to a level that we’re or even doing ourselves, because we’re not exposed, we haven’t yet got there. You’re dealing with things from a variety of different angles that we just don’t currently have in our business. So it does give them the confidence that we’ve got those angles covered.
Let’s wrap this up on a broader topic that doesn’t require the same technical acumen. I’m just curious, how are things going? How is the business hopefully coming out of COVID?
Jason Cremins: Good!
I think like everyone, it was May 2021, when we saw the early signs of what was happening with COVID. There was a bit of a good kind of stop and take a breath moment for everyone to think, right? Where’s this going to leave us as it was, we had a very strong year. We did right by our customers. We made sure that those that were struggling, we paused all of their payments. sp if they were on monthly billing with us, we said, just come back when you can, and that’s bounced back tremendously for those that we were able to support, if it was organizations that had bought term licenses, multi-year licenses, et cetera, we made sure we extended those licenses as long as it was viable for both parties to ensure that they could shut those down and not lose that licensed usage is such, so when they come back online, we’re not asking them to renew, and that’s been fantastic, and I think that we’re able to grow, we added five people to the head count at the back end of last year and seeing some of those announcements probably coming through on LinkedIn.
We’ve done goog, we grew again last year, and I think the cool thing is we’re very much focused on the two strategies, one of which is going very much into the upper mid-market and enterprise customers, and as I mentioned earlier, in terms of the functionality that we were developing in the core platform itself, but then equally is very much this approach towards headless and whilst there’s other organizations that provide really good solutions for agnostic device support and building your CMS on top of those platforms, we go to the next stage. We’re actually giving you a full headless CMS and device support platform, and I think that’s one of the key areas that we’re looking to grow. So if organizations are either entering the market and once to get into digital signage with their own brand solution, we want to be there for them to have that conversation.
Yeah, that’s interesting. What you just finished saying, it’s so important to think about the infrastructure and the real tools, as opposed to the pretty UX and the capability to support, protect our piece of functionality. Who cares if everybody does it?
Jason Cremins: Yeah, exactly. And then also the pedigree of it, we’ve got customers that have been with us for decades literally now, and we’ve been at this for a long time, since ‘97 from my point of view. So we’re a long way in, but we only feel as though this aspect of the market is opening up now.
The days of fighting out on the UX features and capabilities and hoping you’d tick the boxes of that particular customer wants it, I’m not saying it’s gone, but it’s certainly going or being caught up by organization going, how do I code my own solution on top of your APIs?
Yeah, and if you’re going to mid to high level enterprise work, the whole race to the bottom price fight goes away, right?
Jason Cremins: A hundred percent, and this is why we’ve seen a massive push with regards to people moving on to plans. It just makes sense. It was always licenses and then networks, and then adding maybe training to a network or to a customer, and then you start adding additional modules and active directory and secure sign on and all those things, and for many reasons, those organizations don’t want to buy in piecemeal ways. It’s a big lift for them to actually get a PO through their organization. So they just want to say, look, I know what I want to achieve. I know roughly how many players I’m going to put online in the next six months. So you can give me some flexibility there, but can I just at least have all the bits in place to get this up and running, keep all the departments happy, keep IT happy and that I don’t have to go back to procurement every month when you turn around and say, oh, you need this additional module?
So the move towards the plan structure has been a real positive for us for those mid-market enterprise customers where they expect that.
Jason, great to catch up with you.
Jason Cremins: You’re welcome. Thanks very much for the opportunity to talk to you again, Dave.