Paul Ciolino On How OptiSigns Differentiates Itself In A Crowded Digital Signage CMS Software Market

September 7, 2022 by Dave Haynes

It has been nagging at me for the last few months that I didn’t know a hell of a lot about OptiSigns, even though the Houston-based company was a main advertiser on Sixteen:Nine.

That’s been fixed, having had a great conversation last week with the company’s sales director Paul Ciolino. 

We got into a whole bunch of things, from the company’s roots, how software development bridges the US and Vietnam, and their go-to-market model. OptiSigns is focused on making a product and services available that manage to tick the much-demanded boxes of intuitive and affordable, but also have a lot of sophistication and scalability.

Ciolino works out of New York City, which will help explain why you might hear sirens in the background.

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Paul, thank you for joining me. Can you give me the background on what OptiSigns is all about? Because I know them, but I don’t know much about your company yet. 

Paul Ciolino: Yeah, absolutely. Dave, thanks so much for having me. First of all, excited to be here. You’re my first podcast ever so it’s a wonderful honor for you to have, but OptiSigns is a cloud-based digital signage solution and really the key tenets of OptiSigns signs are: Can we make it a low barrier to entry? Can anybody use it? Is it easy? Is it accessible? Can people deploy on myriad, different platforms or OSs? 

And we try to check all those boxes as much as possible while making it all cost-effective. 

And the company’s based in Houston? 

Paul Ciolino: That’s right, yep. 

How long has the company been around? 

Paul Ciolino: So it was founded in 2015, but really the growth started happening within the last three years and we’re seeing incredible year-over-year growth now. 

Back in 2015, there was already any number of easy-to-use, I don’t wanna say entry-level because that kind of diminishes the product, but friendly, price effective, on and on, and I’m curious what prompted the founders to look at the market and go, okay, there’s an opportunity here, because, from my perspective, there was a lot of what you’ve described already out there?

Paul Ciolino: Yeah, absolutely. That’s a really good question. I think when you think about digital signage top-down and you’re looking at it with a bird’s eye view, there’s just a huge TAM there, right?

Even if it is a saturated market, there are hundreds of vendors that do it today. There are a few really big players and there are a few really big players that do it really well. The key differentiator for us is probably just going to be on the usability side of things, and I think that was where, the powers that be, were sitting in a back room somewhere saying, how do we put our footprint on this industry? What can we do to make ourselves stand out and be late adopters of getting into the industry while also being a significant factor? 

Yeah, it’s an interesting balance that has to be struck in that I’ve seen a few times promotions for companies who say that we have a very easy-to-use friendly platform and when I’ve looked at it or other people have looked at it, they said, it’s not really all that friendly or easier, or sure, it is friendly, but it doesn’t do much. 

Paul Ciolino: Yeah, I think that’s a good point. When we have this conversation internally a lot, and sometimes I talk to our customer base about it, but really the idea behind designing OptiSigns from the ground up with our engineering team and from a product perspective was like taking a look at something like an iPhone, right?

When you purchase an iPhone, you get the iPhone, you take it out of the box, you put a SIM card in it and you just start using it. You’ve got an iPhone now. So we thought about that with a digital signage lens, and that’s where we started putting our plan into motion. 

So when you are a new user of the system, how does it work, is it software as a service? 

Paul Ciolino: Yeah, absolutely. At our core, we’re a software company. We don’t do the installation. We don’t do hardware sales outside of a couple of pre-configured devices that you can get. Really, what we do focus on is just that UX/UI component. We have 135 native app integrations now, from a simple weather app to Tableau, Power BI and more sophisticated web scripting and an open API, so we run the gamut of what you can do with digital signage. 

Is there a particular market that you guys are targeting? 

Paul Ciolino: So the nice thing about digital signage is that there’s just so much variability in actual implementations. So when we think about targeting somebody specific, we do have our eyes on a couple of industries like logistics right now is something that we’re making a big push into. We’re also looking into things like healthcare, we’ve got a pretty good customer base with healthcare already, but we’re seeing a lot of organic conversations happen there. So we’re like, hey, what do we do? How can we accelerate their growth into this vertical and things like that?

That’s interesting because I was waiting for you to say, yeah we’re chasing retail and QSR and then I’d be rolling my eyes because everybody and their sister is, but logistics and healthcare, I think that’s really smart. They’re not all that addressed yet, and I’m curious, what’s the ask in logistics, is it for visualizing data like Power BI and Tableau?

Paul Ciolino: Yeah, absolutely. A lot of times these people are using more bespoke dashboards as well. So when you think about trying to take something out of the box, and then you think about maybe the staff over at one of these logistics companies, let’s call it a trucking company or something like that for example, maybe they don’t have the bandwidth on the it side of the ball to have somebody spend three weeks creating a custom integration with an API or something like that, which they can do with us. But we offer OptiSigns where you can basically take your internal dashboards that are gated by username and password, and you can script the authentication and the execution of that username and password, and then get to your target resource that way. 

Why do they want that? Where are they showing on these screens? 

Paul Ciolino: They’re showing everything from lead times to rotation schedules to availability to weather, to all kinds of different, increment factors that could be going into either a trucking scenario again, or maybe we’ve got some type of supply chain issue, and they’re doing a full SWOT analysis in their backroom and they have to have all of this real-time data come up as they’re planning around the next week, month, quarter, half year, whatever they’re gonna do. 

So it’s really myriad, just like all of our deployments are as well in different verticals, you can use it however you need to. 

I find that interesting because so much of the attention in digital signage is around the wow factor, creative like amazing displays and all these things that are going on, and to me the long tail of digital signage is the stuff that you might describe as boring, just like showing KPIs on a screen or giving instructions on what to do when something happens like an alarm trigger or whatever, like that stuff doesn’t get anybody’s pulse racing, but it’s incredibly valuable to the day to day of a company, right? 

Paul Ciolino: I think there’s been like this large front end push to make signage sexy when I think, at the end of the day, the reason that somebody’s gonna go pay for anything in a digital signage space is that they need it and they need specific things to be up on the screen.

I’m not saying you can’t make things look sexy with OptiSigns, obviously, you can do that, but at the end of the day, we want people to be able to take anything that they need to have up on their screens and deploy it easily and efficiently without breaking the bank. 

You mentioned breaking the bank, your pricing tiers are pretty friendly in that. I think I saw it was $10-12 a month, depending on what you’re doing. Is that accurate?

Paul Ciolino: Yeah, that’s about right, and that’s gonna be the starting price, obviously, if people are gonna be looking at growing their business with us and scaling, which is something that we specialize in as well, just making that ease of scaling, something that comes out of the box with us.

It could be anywhere from $10-15 a month per screen, unlimited users, unlimited resources uploaded into the cloud, and all that kind of stuff. 

The $10 one gives you a lot of functionality, but as you scale up or tier up, so to speak, you are just adding more capability.

Paul Ciolino: Yeah, basically the way you can think about it is, let’s say somebody’s got maybe they even have a hundred screens or something like that, but they’re gonna be putting the same thing on a hundred of their screens. They probably don’t need to go into the conversation about creating manual permissions or a brand kit or reporting for their advertisers that are paying for ad space or things like that, so they can live with that standard plan that we have and be happy all day. 

They still have access to 95% of the functionality on the platform. It’s just gonna be some of those more robust features binding to an IDP or an SSO provider or something like that or creating a monitoring and alerting system where they can enable triggers for different events to go to specific people and make sure that they’ve got as much uptime as possible.

That’s all quite interesting because when I think of the pricing tier that you’re at, it’s usually small to medium business operators who the company is targeting and they’re never talking about data binding or anything like that, it’s just about you can put this menu on a screen and you can change it on demand.

Paul Ciolino: Yeah, and you hit the nail on the head there. We have incredible organic growth within those verticals where you’re looking at QSRs gyms, and places like that. But I think the thing that we’ve been doing really well this year, especially, and especially in the last quarter and a half or so, has been getting into really earnest more of those enterprise deployments, where we’re talking about, we’ve got a GDPR situation in Germany or something like that, and we have facilities on five different continents and we need to make sure that everybody’s got the right access and we’ve got audit logs that they can enable and we really do pair very well with very robust security concerns. 

Yeah, that’s interesting as well in that I’ve talked to a few companies who started out targeting the small to medium business market and have migrated to enterprise because of the demands of customers, but also it’s just that if you’re dealing with the entry level market, you’re being beaten up on price and it’s not necessarily easy to scale that kind of management of all those different customers. 

Paul Ciolino: Yeah, and I think that’s something that’s, again, credit to our engineering team, they make it so easy for people to scale on multiple different levels, whether you’re talking about headcount as users within the platform, you’re talking about multiple locations, or you’re talking about multiple screens within a single location, and it really does just make it very intuitive. We’ve got our support team as well who’s great. I think the CSAT that we talked about in our H1 review was like 94 or something like that, and that’s an objective number, I’m not putting a lens on that one, but I think when you think about implementing something new and you’re looking at a by process that maybe has 15-20 touchpoints or something like that, you’re making a pretty big commitment just from a G&A perspective as a client, and then you think about, okay, is this gonna save my needs for the next year, three years, five years, ten years, and if so, how is that gonna look? What is my hardware, reliability gonna look like and things like that, and we kind of cover all bases. 

Is it important when you’re dealing with those kinds of pricing tiers to minimize the number of customer touches, make as much of your offer and your software self-service and not have to provide a lot of support and customer contact? Not that you don’t wanna talk to your customers, but it’s just that if you have a whole bunch of them, that means you need a whole bunch of people to deal with them.

Paul Ciolino: Absolutely. Yeah, so that’s again, credit to our engineering team and the way that we laid the bedrock as a company from our founders to be able to build this thing where it is very self-service. 

Another thing that we do that a lot of companies these days are moving towards is we’ve got a support blog, we’ve got a support site. We’ve got a ticket creation system, a phone number, and an email. It’s very multi-threaded in how people can actually go about getting the help they need, and I think that’s something that has allowed us to spend time on growth and not as much time on maintenance, while still providing an exceptional level of service to our customer base. 

You’ve mentioned a lot of growth in the last three years. Why do you think that is? What is it that’s resonating? 

Paul Ciolino: So at the end of the day, every company’s going to have a little bit of this slow out of the gates kind of motion, right? And once you get the feeling for an industry and a customer base, and you have enough conversations and you get enough feedback, all of those things combined into something very powerful, even from a business owner’s perspective, where you’re like, okay, I can listen to these things and then I can go act on them. And one of the nice things about us is we run a very agile team, a very lean team, and we have the same communication with the same people, a lot of the time, and so that means that we can go ahead and pivot on almost a weekly basis with our roadmap if we need to, and we can effectively release functional app integrations or just things that maybe we don’t think about that our users think about.

And I think that level of service that comes from, even the engineering team level, is something that is really hard to achieve in any business in 2022 these days. 

And some of the software development’s done in Vietnam, right? 

Paul Ciolino: That’s right. They have a very close working relationship with our founders. They’ve worked together for a long time. They know how to communicate effectively, and it’s really paid dividends for us as a business. 

Is that kind of a historical thing? I don’t know South Texas all that well, but I believe that there’s a pretty big Vietnamese diaspora there that went over there for fishing fleets and everything else, but I suspect there’s still a lot of business ties back?

Paul Ciolino: Yeah, absolutely. I can’t speak to the geopolitical business ties within the founder’s relationship levels. Personally, I’ve benefited from the influx of the Vietnamese community in Houston via Cajun cuisine, but outside of that, I think it’s just something where people have worked together before, I’ve worked with people and at a few different companies or something like that, and we can talk about anything at the drop of a hat and we can make an effective decision when it needs to be made

How do you sell? Is it just direct to the customer or are you doing things like an affiliate channel or reseller channel?

Paul Ciolino: Yeah, so we absolutely do offer that. We have a couple of different options available. We’ve got an affiliate program to where, maybe you don’t wanna spend the time or you don’t have the time or the capital or anything else to be able to go and become a reseller, but you have a lot of people that you know in your network that are interested in digital signage.

So we’ve got that affiliate program. You can make some money off of referring customers to us and it pays out quarterly and things like that, and we try to make it very easy and low maintenance for them to maintain those relationships, and then also generate business for us that are not cold leads at all. They’re very warm leads. 

The other side of that is gonna be that reseller pro reseller program that you mentioned and that can work in a few different ways. You can package the software, if you need to, you can white label it, and that’s not even in our top-level plan, that’s in our middle level plan. It’s not like we’re gate keeping too much here like we really do wanna make this software available to anybody that needs it, and we’re doing that in several different ways as well. 

You’re happy enough to be just operating under the hood and nobody even knows it’s OptiSigns? 

Paul Ciolino: Absolutely, that’s why I’m off camera. 

You have an $80 Android stick that you offer as a hardware option. I’m curious how often that comes up as an ask or are they using any number of different platforms out there, because I know you have a web player or that’s the foundational player.

Paul Ciolino: So going back to the low barrier to entry that we’re going with at OptiSigns. We’re OS agnostic. You can deploy Windows or Linux, we’ve got an ARM Linux. We’ve got LG commercial grade native app, an Android native app, and Fire TV so you can use a Fire Stick as well. It really doesn’t matter how you deploy with us, that is just there as an Option. We don’t make any money off of those devices, they’re literally just there in case somebody thinks that’s the best deployment for them, and if you go to, like Reddit or somewhere third party where there’s no Optisign sales lens on it, you can see that these Android players are generally very reliable. 

We’ve had them deployed for, I think over a year and a half now, and we’ve got over 99% uptime with them. So things like that, providing reliability to our customers and, places like Australia, where it gets super hot over there, maybe there’s not the best wifi connection, things like that. Those are really good deployments. I think we’ve got over 10,000 of our Android sticks that are out right now, and that’s just one of our deployments.

Oh really, and are people going down that path because they are price sensitive or they just want like a dumb-down device that they can just stick in?

Paul Ciolino: Yeah, I think it’s somewhere between those two. Okay. So if you think about it like a Fire Stick, it’s gonna be a little bit cumbersome, people can go watch ESPN or something like that on a Fire Stick. If you’re looking at something like a Raspberry PI, right now those are incredibly expensive. We do sell those too, just in case that’s what people are familiar with and maybe they need more granular security pushes or something like that to their systems.. 

That’s interesting, I’ve never heard somebody say Raspberry PIs are incredibly expensive, but I know what you’re saying. Once you fully get them out, they’re not $35, right? 

Paul Ciolino: Yeah, with supply chain stuff happening right now, they’re like $300 or something like that. That’s what I’ve been hearing. We’re selling them for $130 on our site, I think, but outside of that, you’ve got the ability to do something like an Intel NUC, or you can do a Micro PC, or you can have a full-blown computer behind a screen.

When you think about something that marries the functionality of what those things can do without the processing power, because you don’t need it, but you also have the reliability that’s gonna be above something like a Fire Stick, or if you’re just using a web browser version or something like that, I think that’s a really nice, happy medium. 

One of the devil’s advocates arguments around web players for digital signage is: yes, you can get this application running on any number of different kinds of devices, whether they’re smart TVs or Fire sticks or whatever it may be, but there’s not a lot of device management.

How do you counter that argument? 

Paul Ciolino: Honestly, it’s not really our job to counter that argument because it’s not gonna be our most recommended deployment. We’re not gonna sit in front of the University of Central Florida and say, you guys should be using a web browser version for all 360 TVs that you have or something like that. We’re gonna tell ’em like, what do you need? Do you have wifi in every area? Do you need an ethernet adapter? Do you need to go to a Raspberry PI? And so we’ll have a very consultative conversation with our customer base before we even get into demoing the software. So that’s like the first thing that we wanna nail down with our customers: How are you gonna deploy? And let’s figure out the reasons why you wanna do that, and not just because, you’re used to doing it that way, or you heard it was the best from like Jim down the street. 

So you are saying that you have native players as well, or you have web players that have device management?

Paul Ciolino: Yeah, so kind of all of the above. So if you wanted to go, like with what’s called our managed device route, right? Like you could do something where you get that $80 Android stick, we’ll charge you a little bit extra, as long as you have a pro plus package, you’re gonna have our version of an Apple Care where we have an MDM, our support team can remote in, they can troubleshoot. You don’t have to spend valuable time with your IT professionals or anything like that to go and troubleshoot these sticks. We can do it for you. 

So is that your happy place? If a customer goes down that path where obviously you’re making a bit more money out of them, but you remove some of the mystery, so to speak because it’s a known device.

Paul Ciolino: Yeah, absolutely, and I think at the end of the day, we’re happy if our customers are happy, and that’s why we have that consultative approach on the deployment. 

Tell me about the app store/library. You mentioned you have a hundred plus apps on there.

Paul Ciolino: Yeah. So we’ve everything from, something like just a native designer app that’s within the platform, or something like the Adobe Designer Suite, or like Canva or something like that. Something simple, something that most people that are creating digital signage are gonna need at some point.

How does that work? 

Paul Ciolino: Yeah, it’s basically a frame within the platform, it is just like an app. It’ll take you to a page where you can design from a template, we’ve got like 700 plus templates out there right now. Everything from menus to employee appreciation to emergency notices, all that kind of stuff, and then you can go ahead and configure each element on the page. You could even do something like pull from a data source where we can map elements within that page to a spreadsheet in Google or Excel, and so for QSRs in particular, this is really beneficial because they can go into a spreadsheet, never have to log into OptiSigns again, once they get the framework of their menu done, they can just change their pricing by changing that spreadsheet.

Do you have to work with your customers to help them figure out what to do?

Paul Ciolino: Absolutely, and that’s within the fee structure that we have, with supporting meetings, and obviously we’ve got our blog with really good documentation on it as well.

Where are you seeing traction in the marketplace? I know you mentioned healthcare and logistics. Are there particular areas where there seems to be a lot of interest and more of an ask than maybe in the past? 

Paul Ciolino: We talked about it earlier actually, but one of the places where we see a ton of room for growth is gonna be in that reseller side. So creating those partnerships and channels. We have a couple of partners where if they need to have somebody do install and maintenance, we can do that as well. We’re never gonna be that company that vertically integrates all of that under one umbrella, but we can certainly provide the introductions to those.

We predict that the reseller marketplace is gonna be a significant chunk of our revenue within the next two years. 

You also have a mobile app, which I was curious about. Is that a mobile app for control of the screens? 

Paul Ciolino: Yep, nail on the head. So that’s just gonna be an admin app. You don’t want to go on an iPhone 5s and start designing on there for screens that are gonna be much bigger than that.

We tried to keep it pretty myopic with the app deployment. That’s just one of those things where somebody’s on the go, maybe it’s a small business owner, maybe it’s somebody in a larger company that is going around and they wanna show something cool to their stakeholders or shareholders or whatever it’s gonna be, and they can go ahead and just control it ad hoc as they need it.

Was that something that you developed because a customer was asking for it, or you could just figure out that this is something that would be useful?

Paul Ciolino: I honestly can’t speak to the inception of the idea. But I do know the way that we think about things in general and it’s like: 

Is there going to be a need for this at some point?cHow much is it gonna cost us from a time money perspective? Is it worth it? And then we just go do it. 

You also have an audience analytics add-on, what’s that about? And is that something you guys wrote or is it a partner? 

Paul Ciolino: No, that is actually a proprietary algorithm that our engineering team has done as well. We’re talking about basically three different statistics here. The first one is going to be gender: Is the person looking at the screen male or female or walking by the screen, male or female? The second is going to be dwell time, and that’s gonna be, how long is this person in front of the screen for? The third is gonna be attention time and that’s how long is this person interacting with the screen for?

And so when you think about reporting, OptiSigns does it really well in a couple of different ways. The first way is going to be like a proof of play reporting where you’ve got an advertiser, they’re paying for a certain ad to be played a certain number of times over a certain period, you can batch those reports, send them out, do whatever you need to do, make sure that everybody’s cool. Everything’s transparent. Everything’s above board. 

Same thing with AI reporting, but that’s gonna be more in the split testing realm of things, right? Where you design an advertisement or you design a menu or you design something and you want to see how people engage with it when you test different versions of it and so you can basically take August 1 through August 31 on this design, September 1 through September 30 on this design. What does my dwell time look like? What does my attention time look like? How’s my split looking? Are males interacting more with this design? Are females interacting more with that design? All that kind of stuff.

The audience analytics stuff using computer vision has been around for probably 15 years, and the challenge in the past was that it was expensive and you had to have additional hardware and everything else, and that kind of ruled out much adoption. 

Has that changed? I believe it’s $5 a month at MSRP so I suspect at scale it gets cheaper than that, and I’m assuming you’re using just simple USB cameras to do the capture. 

Paul Ciolino: Yeah, honestly, I think you could probably just pitch this for me at this point, but basically you need any camera that can see, right? It doesn’t have to be a fancy camera that can do like 4k or anything like that. You wanna make sure that you’re setting it up at the right distance, obviously, you don’t want a $20 USB camera trying to find out who’s looking at the screen 50 yards away or something like that. 

But outside of that, it really is just plug-and-play. Does it make sense financially for you to go invest the time and the little bit extra money for that to get that kind of feedback for your own purposes or for your client’s purposes? If yes, then, it’s a great option to have. 

Does that change the hardware set-up at all?

I guess what I’m saying is does the $80 Android stick no longer the right device because you’ve got the extra overhead of the video processing? 

Paul Ciolino: Yep, nail on the head again. You’re gonna need to do a Linux or a Windows deployment with something like that, just because of the processing power that’s needed to be able to effectively communicate that data back to the algorithm. 

So just going back to the company, how large is it? 

Paul Ciolino:  So we’re just sub-20 right now so we’re a very small shop. We definitely move quickly for sure, and again, just going into that, learned communication that we all have together, makes it really efficient for all of us to get stuff done.

And it’s just privately held, self-funded that sort of thing? 

Paul Ciolino: Yep, precap and no debt. I asked about shares when I was joining and they said yes, but it’ll be very expensive. 

So what can we expect out of OptiSigns through the rest of this year and into next year? 

Paul Ciolino: I think more the same, we’re gonna be obviously focusing on a few different verticals going forward as we identify some customers, as we continue to move internationally, we’ve got a decent customer base in the EU, UK. We’re blowing out into South America at this point a little bit. We do have a decent customer base in Australia as well, and then I’ve been having conversations with people in places like Somalia and other countries in Africa. So the reach is wide, right? And we’ve really only tapped that kind of outreach from a marketing perspective, even. We really haven’t put a whole lot of dollars into growing our business internationally. It’s mostly been organic. 

So I think you can see that we’re gonna be growing organically again. We’re gonna be trying to be more aggressive in the way that we ideate on how we’re going to tackle new verticals and things like that as well. But yeah, at the end of the day, we want to continue to make a product that will take any screen and turn it into a digital sign that you can use in any way that you and your team or your clients need to use it. 

All right, and they can find the company at 

Paul Ciolino: Yes.

Paul, thank you very much for spending time with me. 

Paul Ciolino: Absolutely. Dave, it was a pleasure.

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