Why Appspace Has Shifted Its Proposition From Digital Signage To Workplace Experience
August 10, 2022 by Dave Haynes
Appspace has now been active in this industry for 20 years, and through much of that time the software company was one of the larger players in a crowd of companies all chasing the general business opportunity of digital signage. But in the last few years the company has pivoted, in a big way, to the well-defined vertical of workplace. The company now describes itself as a workplace experience platform for both physical and digital workplaces. Digital signage is still a main component of what Appspace does, but just one of several in a unified platform.
I caught up with Thomas Philippart de Foy, who has been with Appspace for a decade and is now the EVP of Product Innovation. In our chat, we get into what took Appspace down the workplace path, and then how it all works within an organization.
The company has a PILE of users and says its software is in place at roughly 200 of the companies listed in the Fortune 500. But it also offers free accounts to smaller users, drafting off the well-used concept of freemium software – allowing people to try before they buy.
If you are looking at workplace – either as a vendor or as an HR, IT or ops person, listen and learn.
Thomas, thank you for joining me. You’ve been with Appspace for a very long time, right?
Thomas Philippart de Foy: Just celebrating 10 years in September!
Oh, okay, and we first met a number of years ago in Dubai, but then you moved to Costa Rica, which was a bit of a pivot, but now you’re in Belgium for a holiday, right?
Thomas Philippart de Foy: That’s correct. I relocated to Costa Rica to get closer to the US time zone while still enjoying tropical weather.
You don’t get tropical weather in Antwerp or wherever you’re in Belgium?
Thomas Philippart de Foy: Rarely, once a year in the summer, there’s a good day, and then the rest is rainy.
And you don’t like that?
Thomas Philippart de Foy: Once a year, maybe.
So Appspace, that’s a company that’s been around for a very long time. When I first got to know Appspace, it was very much a general digital signage CMS platform, you know, “What are you doing? We can help you out!” And you were, at that time I believe, working pretty closely with Cisco, but in the last few years you could, you very much seem to have become a company that’s all about workplace experience and digital signage is one of your outputs as opposed to being a pure digital signage company. Is that a fair assessment?
Thomas Philippart de Foy: Absolutely. We’re celebrating our 20 years anniversary this month, so such a big milestone, and the firs 15-16 years was really building a cloud-based CMS for digital signage. We had some mission statements. We wanted to be hardware agnostic, OS agnostic. We wanted to be cloud first, and then a few years back, we started expanding our offering and went into the room scheduling worlds, where a lot of other companies were playing, and just added that as a feature.
Then just two years ago, Summer 2020, one of our biggest customers on the West Coast came over to us and said, “Hey, we’re looking to return to the office after the pandemic. We need help in providing our users with an app that would allow them to reserve workspaces, comply with security policies and so forth.” And we decided to get onto that journey and build a product, and six months later we launched. So January 2021 and 30 days later, we signed one of the biggest tech companies as a customer, and from there it’s been quite a ride.
Did the company go towards workplace because it looked like an opportune vertical to be in, or was it what the customers who you touching or asking for and it pulled you that way?
Thomas Philippart de Foy: Yeah, in the last 10 years, I spent a lot of time meeting with customers and trying to understand their challenges and see where Appspace could help them. In this scenario, the customer came over and they had a real challenge, which we saw many other companies would have, and there was really no one in the market that had an answer for it two years ago. So we thought that’s an opportunity in which we could really put some focus, leverage our existing enterprise grade platform, cloud-first experience and credibility in our large enterprise customer base to just go and expand the use case.
Really, we also see that there is a correlation happening with workplace communication and workplace management. It’s not gonna be two different things, it’s actually gonna be one, and we thought we could come from our workplace communication expertise and go that direction while probably some more workplace management products would probably start moving towards workplace communication, and there would be a consolidation.
You also acquired a company called Beezy, which was all about the workplace as well, right?
Thomas Philippart de Foy: Yeah, when we entered workplace management, we also launched our employee app, and from there, we got a lot of requests from customers to focus on employee communication in the app itself, and we met with Beezy, they had a very similar company culture, they had a good size and they had a product which was very modern, very forward looking and built on Microsoft SharePoint, and we thought that would nicely align with our product platform and our vision, so that’s been a very fun journey, onboarding them into the Appspace world for the last few months.
Now is Beezy still a brand, or is it that their IP and their capabilities are rolled into Appspace?
Thomas Philippart de Foy: We’re rolling them into Appspace step by step. The brands are consolidating under a single brand. Now, it’s the Appspace Modern Internet by Beezy, but we are clearly focusing on aligning all the different teams under a single organization, and also the brand and the product will be one.
We definitely don’t wanna run two separate products. We’ve always had that philosophy that with Appspace, it was one platform and features and not multiple point products so we’re gonna continue doing that.
There are digital science CMSs that say that the workplace is one of the verticals that they’re in, and then there are companies that just do room booking software, and maybe the displays hardware as well, they blend those together. There are hot desk companies and everything else.
I’m thinking, like in a lot of other vertical markets, that the end user really doesn’t wanna have to cobble together an overall solution that features all these different components and different companies doing them, they’d rather just have one company doing it all. Is that a fair statement?
Thomas Philippart de Foy: Yes, and the pandemic has accelerated the need for platforms versus point products.
Pre-pandemic on the workplace management, you had the IWMS to manage all your assets, you had room booking solutions for the room scaling panels, you had visitor management solutions to bring visitors into the office. There were all point products, and then on the workplace comm, you had digital signage that was a point product, you had kiosks often very close to digital signage, and then you had email publishing, you had intranet. All of those were point products as well. I think what we’re seeing now is they’re unifying on both sides. So you’re starting to see vendors who offer room booking, hot desking, visitor management, and then on the other side, you’ve got companies who are starting to consolidate and acquire, and they’re doing digital signage, employee app, intranet, email publishing, and what we’re doing is both at the same time, which is probably our biggest unique differentiator.
We believe, if you have an employee app, it’s not only about employee communication or workplace management, it’s the two combined. So a single app on users’ devices versus multiple apps.
And I assume that resonates well with the business communicators and the IT people within a company, because they don’t wanna have to deal with all these different logins and back in and out stuff?
Thomas Philippart de Foy: I guess there’s two sides to it. There’s certainly the administrative side to it, but there’s also the user adoption. A big part of the return to the office is implementing new tools for employees to reserve access into a building, reserve a meeting room or a desk, and comply with formalities, that’s for sure. But the other side of it is how do you communicate with those employees? How do you let them know what are the new rules in place? What are the new policies? How do you communicate what are the new benefits in the office, the new technology available?
So being able to communicate in the same app that you’re actually gonna reserve your workspace, invite your visitors, makes a lot of sense, and I think that’s what HR and Corp comms are really liking with our story is that one app will do it all and it will of course integrate with all their backend systems and so forth.
So if I am a business communicator at a large corporation and I want to address these issues, what can you do for them and how does it work?
Are they buying an enterprise license? Is it cloud based or are they installing something on prem, and how does it all come together?
Thomas Philippart de Foy: Yeah, it’s a great question and it’s a big one and there’s two sides to it. Once again on one side, you’ve got the admin, the console is fully cloud based, you don’t need to install any software on your desktop, and you can start by just going on Appspace.com, create a free account and you get a full featured Appspace environment.
We don’t monetize features, we monetize users and devices. So even with a free account, you’ll have all the features of Appspace, but you’ll be limited in the number of users that can log into the app and the number of devices that you can register back.
So it’s the whole idea of Freemium?
I just wanted to ask because “free” is intriguing to me. You don’t see that very much in digital science anymore, unless it’s entry level super limited in what it does and so on, but you’re doing free with the idea of onboarding people, getting them used to the system and them realizing, I like this and I’m willing to pay for it?
Thomas Philippart de Foy: Yeah, so what we think is that in order to be successful with Freemium, you need to have a platform that’s really self-service, and I think that’s what we focused a lot over the last 10 years is simplifying the product to the point where someone who just goes on our website, creates a free account, in 30 seconds is in the Appspace account, able to register a device, create some awesome content, publish it to the device and it’s working, and we were able to do that for digital signage, but then we were able to expand that into all the digital communication channels and also for workplace management.
So we maintained Freemium when a lot of other companies started thinking, “That doesn’t work for us, let’s go back to a trial account with someone hand holding you.” We don’t need that with Appspace, you can get started, and so we have a huge amount of customers that create free accounts every month, and then when they’re ready to expend, they just need to click on the link and they get in contact with a Sales rep and they can just either swipe their credit card or work through one of our partners to buy a subscription.
Is that a huge amount of free signups every month? Are there no maintenance until they actually contact a Sales rep and say, “I’m interested in paying for this”?
Thomas Philippart de Foy: That’s correct. They’re touchless most of the time.
We have very large organizations that will have a lot of different free accounts, different departments, different team members who will create free accounts and get started, and then when they’re ready to move and they want to do the security assessment and they want to talk contract and large scale deployments, they reach out to us.
So I guess your sales people might look at big tech company, X and see that they have five different free accounts in different departments, and the salesperson could go to them and say, “Guys, you’re using a lot of this now, do you wanna harmonize it?”
Thomas Philippart de Foy: Yeah. Our sales team, for sure, we also have a big marketing organization now. The product is also supported, so when you log into Appspace, you will have certain steps to follow to register a device, create content. It’s the system that is holding your hand, not users.
And then along the way, you will have opportunities to get help, to talk to people. You can go to the knowledge center. Our Sales reps are already really there to help customers get to the next level, which makes it nice because when our Account Executives talk to customers, they already have a good understanding of what the customer has been doing with Appspace and they can really jump right into it.
What happens when you have potential new customers who already have some sort of a room booking system and scheduling system, and they like them.
Do you have APIs where you can just continue to work with them or do they have to abandon that and go entirely with Appspace?
Thomas Philippart de Foy: No, so we have open APIs, fully documented and online for every feature of our product. So we’re happy to integrate with existing solutions that the customer may have still under contract or they’re happy with it. What we’re seeing though is very quickly customers consolidate because they see an opportunity for cost savings, for ease of management.
And then, you know the story of a unified platform, if you have an integration with an emergency system or your building management system and the fire alarm goes on, you can broadcast that message to a digital sign, to a visitor management kiosk, to a room scheduling panel inside the room on the video device, and that can be done really easily when you’re using a platform. It’s much harder to achieve when you’re using point products, because you need to integrate each point product with a security system and many don’t even support that concept of broadcast.
So what we’re seeing is when customers onboard Appspace for one use case, they very quickly start seeing the opportunity to save money, ease operations, and then benefit from the platform features and capabilities.
Are you able to provide analytics?
I’ve heard about this in the past where you start to get a sense of how a workplace is being used and where people are dwelling and how often rooms actually get booked and how many people are in the rooms, and it helps to size and maybe rethink some of the meeting spaces that a company may have.
Thomas Philippart de Foy: Yeah, so analytics and reporting is huge, and it’s actually for the two sides of the product: for the workplace communication, understanding how users are interacting with content, whether it’s on the app, on their phone, on their desktop, whether it’s on a kiosk.
We have this concept of a corporate Netflix. We’ve had that for yours where users can actually browse content on demand, very much like you browse your video content on Netflix. You do that with the remote control, with a touch panel, whatever the interaction you want to use. We track all of that, and that gives a lot of analytics on how content is being consumed, the success of a campaign and so forth.
And then on the workplace management, we have the analytics of what are the most active users, what type of workspace they book? How long do they sit at a desk? How long do they use a meeting room? If the meeting room for 10 people was booked, but used by two people, we have that data, so you can size your resources accordingly based on demand.
And then you can visualize everything inside Appspace, but we also created integrations into Tableau, into Power BI. So customers can actually export the data and visualize it in their preferred data visualization tool.
And in a workplace, the Power BI and Tableau stuff is interesting. I’m curious, are workplaces now much more sophisticated to where they see digital signage and visual communications as doing a lot more than congratulating somebody on their birthday or their 20th year with the company or whatever it may be. They’re getting into visualizing KPIs in real time and that sort of thing?
Thomas Philippart de Foy: Oh, yes, for sure. The number of customers that display building analytics when you enter the building, when you get on the first floor, where you can see the floor plan, you can see the heat maps, you can see the air quality, you can see the average temperature of the neighborhood. That certainly is a very common use case nowadays, providing building insights to users on digital signs is becoming really exciting.
I think what we’re seeing is a huge opportunity of combining workplace management and workplace communication is when you now have context to where digital signage can help, and you know that in the retail world, there’s been a bunch of vendors who’ve monitored gender, age, ethnicity in order to manage communication campaign to those audience and measure also. In workplace management, you don’t really care about age or gender. But what you do care is which user is sitting where, and when you’ve got a majority of salespeople sitting in a neighborhood, can you actually change the content to relate to those people? And that’s been something that we’ve done a lot over the last year and a half is creating that context of digital signage experience, where even though I’m going back into an office where it’s a hot desking hotel, the content still speaks to me, because the system is aware that I’m gonna be sitting there, and I think that’s huge, because in those days you used to know exactly where people were sitting so you were planning your content for the sales team based on where people were sitting. Now, the system will automate that process based on the data they get from their workplace management feature.
And they’re not using computer vision or things like that? Because when I come in to work at an office, I have to book a specific desk, and that’s how you know that I’m there, right?
Thomas Philippart de Foy: Either because you’re booking a specific desk or you’re sitting at a specific desk, and when you’re actually sitting, we are able to identify who you are, and therefore dynamically say what’s interesting to you is more sales data or more product marketing data, and therefore we mush multiple channels of content together to provide a perfect playlist that matches the audience.
But how do you know I’m at that desk?
Thomas Philippart de Foy: That’s where workplace technology comes, whether it’s smart docking stations, whether it’s physically connecting into the network and passing the user identity, whether it’s those new video devices that we see popping left and right on the desks. It could be when you have a desk puck, which is similar to a room scheduling panel, you arrive and you will scan the QR code with your phone and authenticate and check into a desk and say, this is now my desk. So we have a lot of different tools that allows us to identify the user and therefore to get that data that we need to personalize the workspace environment.
Through the pandemic, particularly in the first months, there was all kinds of discussion about how the workplace was gonna change, because those workplaces were being hollowed out through lockdowns and so on, and there’s been all kinds of discussions and debate and everything else, particularly in the last six months or so, is where workplaces have started to repopulate as to whether it really did change all that much, and whether everybody’s just working from home or everybody’s into a hybrid thing.
You’re on the ground, so to speak, you’re dealing with companies who are implementing this stuff. What’s your sense of what’s actually happening?
Thomas Philippart de Foy: I think companies are worried that people are not coming back to the office as quickly as they had hoped they would, and although many companies during the pandemic said that they would not require employees to go back to the office. It’s very different two years later, we realize how the workplace culture is important, and having people, if not every day, at least a few days a week, come into the office and meet their teammates and so forth. So we’re now seeing a sense of urgency from many customers to find ways to convince people to go back to the office and that comes with offering a new experience, offering new services.
The new experience is making sure that regardless of where I sit in the building, I have the building talking to me, the building is aware that I’m there and being able to personalize that experience, and I think that’s where digital signage is playing such a critical role. But then in the employee app, when I’m booking a room or when I’m booking a desk, I may need different types of services, maybe I need different technology, or maybe I want catering services. I should be able to do that from the app and reserve this ahead of time, and we’re seeing a lot of demand around those new experiences where employees will get more benefits when they come to the office, not only benefits of a better physical workplace, but also benefits in terms of the services that are offered, and that will incentivize them to come back into the office, and then naturally, as people will come back to the office, they will meet their teammates again, and they will see why it’s so important to meet in person, and that will create a dynamic, and at some point I think we’ll get back to somewhat a normal situation where most people will go to the office more regularly.
Did the pandemic accelerate something that, from your perspective, was going to happen anyways and just speed it up out of necessity, or were there a lot of companies that weren’t really thinking about changing how their workplaces were experienced?
Thomas Philippart de Foy: That’s a great question. I actually think the pandemic gave the opportunity for large organizations to make a cultural change in the workplace that was planned, but maybe seen as a 5-10 years initiative, and they were able to do it in 2 years.
Hot-desking in hotels is an example. We’ve been talking about hotels and hot-desking for years, but no one was able to implement it. It was such a big cultural change. The pandemic gave the opportunity for companies to take the decision, to reduce real estate and implement hot-desking in hotels, and they had a good reason for that, and for employees, it was like a natural thing that was happening. It would have taken years to get there otherwise. That’s why no one was really focusing on the technology for it.
I also think that the pandemic has accelerated the adoption of apps, like Microsoft Teams. Many companies were still using Skype for Business and other tools and they were struggling to unify under a modern app like Microsoft Teams or Slack or WebEx, and this gave them the opportunity to do that, and by doing that, all employees now have one common app on their personal device, whether it’s a phone or a desktop, they’re able to communicate, chat, exchange files, and we’ve just launched our embedded app for Teams. So now you have Appspace embedded in Teams, which means users don’t need to download a new app to reserve their workspaces or receive team communication. They have all of it inside one app, and I think that’s an acceleration that’s a result of the pandemic.
We obviously saw how Zoom and Microsoft and WebEx grew from that. That has also helped in the adoption of new technology, like workplace management and employee comms.
Yeah, I was curious about that because if you have all these other workplace tools, the next logical thing to integrate into there would be video conferencing, but that’s that’s an entirely different business and pretty damn complicated. So the easier path would be to integrate with something like Teams, right?
Thomas Philippart de Foy: That’s correct. I think Teams offer the framework to embed an app fully into Teams, handle the authentication for the user, and then from there, we have so much insights on what the user needs that we’re really able to personalize the experience.
The Teams embedded app is a huge win for customers because if you think of a very large service organization with 200,000 desk workers, rolling out a new app for communication and for workplace management is a big challenge. Getting users to download the app or deploying the app to their personal device, enabling user authentication, tracking how users are actually logging in the app. This is no longer a challenge when you are embedded in Teams, because one morning you wake up and on your sidebar, you’ve got a new button, you click on it and that’s where you reserve your workspace, that’s where you see your workplace communication, all of it in an app that you were already logging in every morning.
So I’m a CTO at a very large tech company, and if I’m a CTO, the company’s going down, but regardless of that, if I’m sitting across from you and I say, “okay, this is interesting, make me comfortable that this is secure.” What do you tell me?
Thomas Philippart de Foy: We obviously work with close to two hundred of the Fortune 500 companies, so we’re used to working with very large organizations that have very strict security requirements, and our product (the cloud service) is already approved by IT, by Security and enabled whether it’s for digital signage or room booking or visitor for one of the features.
Enabling suddenly to turn on the other features doesn’t require any more security assessment because the product has been approved. We also have only one app, whether you are running our app on a system on a chip display, on a kiosk, on an iPad, it’s the same app in a different container. And this means that once you have your app approved for one of the use cases, your app is actually approved for all the other use cases. That’s again been strengths on our side is trying to keep it single simple platform that allows you to really very quickly scale this across your organization.
One thing that’s come up a lot in the last couple years is digital science companies who addressed some of the ideas of remote work by having, in effect, a network screensaver, something that would push out to home based workers and pop messaging on a screen and all that. Are you doing that sort of thing, and if so, is it widely adopted?
Thomas Philippart de Foy: Yeah, it’s a little bit what we started doing five years ago inside meeting rooms on video devices. When the video device is not used for video conferencing, pop up a screensaver and its Appspace, it’s running natively on the client and it will display all the important communication. In the case of a meeting room, we’re targeting a wider audience.
Now, when you run our UWP app on a Windows device, we obviously know who is the owner of that device, so we’re able to personalize the content. Now, I see this as an interesting use case for screensavers. Although I’ve never seen someone sitting in front of his laptop watching a screensaver as they do a digital sign, drinking a coffee, but I do like the experience of: you’re running the Appspace app on the desktop, it’s in screensaver mode. When you plug in your laptop in the office or at home, it pops up the experience where as a user, you can say, “Hey, I’m working from home” or “I’m in the office”, and that then trickles into a whole series of events that makes your colleagues, your teammates aware of where you are working from today, are you in the office and so forth.
So screensaver for just pure content playlist, that’s really easy to achieve, but I don’t know that this is a huge benefit and a huge win, but coupling that with workplace management can be really interesting.
Yeah, I do like the idea of being able to instant message somebody in a way, other than an email, but you’re right. If I was working for a large company and I was sitting at home and there was something steadily popping up on the screen telling me about Millie’s birthday or Bob’s retirement or whatever, I’d be looking very hard to figure out some way to disable it.
Thomas Philippart de Foy: One thing we did though, is we worked with a big law firm in Canada, and the CIO managed to convince the partners to move from a physically assigned office to a hot office, if you will. Very challenging, because lawyers and partners are very conventional. They like their workspace environment. They want their corner office. And what the CIO was able to convince is there would be new sacrifice in the personal experience and to do that, they put in every office, a digital sign, 55 inch display coupled with video or not, depending on the office profile. Outside the office, there is an office scheduling panel.
The partner from home is able to reserve on their Appspace app, “Hey, I need an office from 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM and these are the amenities I need.” They reserve that workspace, and when they come into the office, they actually check on the panel outside or on their phone and the digital sign instantly switches to their personal channel. They have potentially their practice news, maybe their preferred sports news, and also their family pictures that they want, and they’ve just personalized that office with content for the partners and that made them really excited because now they had a big 55 inch display showing their practice news or their family pictures instead of those little frames on the desk that would take the dust.
I think when technology really increases the user experience and doesn’t sacrifice anything, I think this works really well as a home office as well. If you have an extra display and you can use that real estate, that makes sense, but let’s not be mistaken, people care about themselves primarily, they want information that’s relevant to them. If I’m at home, I don’t know that I want this birthday of a colleague, but I wouldn’t mind having pictures of a year ago from my family and kids that I celebrated, maybe that’s more useful for me.
We haven’t talked about back of house and all the discussions around being workplace, as it relates to an office, are you doing work in production areas and industrial areas and so on?
Thomas Philippart de Foy: Yeah. So if you remember, we acquired a company called The Marlin Company a couple of years ago, and their main focus was industrial. A very large amount of customers in that space, and we’ve been working a lot with those customers in transitioning from digital signage, which was a normal evolution of printed posters to digital content and focus a lot around safety and workplace wellbeing and so forth to communicate on personal devices.
Now, frontline workers typically don’t have a company email address. So how do they log into the app? So we combine digital signage with the employee app. Digital signage will say, “Hey, there’s a new employee app. To access the app, scan this QR code!” User scans the QR code on their phone, enters an employee ID and a phone number and a few seconds later, they get a one time password to create their credentials and they are now logged into the same app as the desk workers with different feature sets, but it’s the same app, and now they also have the ability to have employee communication, team communication. They can chat, they can react socially and comment on the content the same way anyone else.
This is breaking the barrier between the desk workers and the frontline workers where really the frontline workers who didn’t have a lot of the technology stack because they didn’t have a company email address, where everyone has a smartphone so why wouldn’t they have the same benefits? And that one time password, no email login has been huge win for us and for our customers in making sure every employee is aligned and has access to the same capabilities.
Last question, this conversation flew by. What’s the installed footprint for Appspace at this point?
Thomas Philippart de Foy: It’s always hard to say because we count users. We evaluate that around 10 million users benefit from Appspace around workplace management and workplace communication today. We have around 2,500 customers, two hundred of the Fortune 500, and deployments that will scale on the screen size between 50 screens and 10,000 screens for a single customer.
And on the user side, our largest deployment is 175,000 users logging into our app to receive team communication or reserve workspaces. So very large deployments. We like to focus on large customers, but with the Marlin acquisition, we were able to really get into the industrial segment where you have a lot of smaller organizations, maybe not always smaller in terms of number of workers, but maybe smaller in terms of number of physical workspaces.
Yeah. All right, this was great. I learned a lot, which is, I guess the point.
Thomas Philippart de Foy: That was great. Thank you so much for giving us the time.