Why easescreen Has Set Sights On N. America To Grow Digital Signage CMS Business

December 14, 2022 by Dave Haynes

The roots of Austria’s easescreen are as a AV systems integrator, but when the company looked around in the late 1990s for software to use for jobs that weren’t yet being called digital signage, there weren’t many options.

So easescreen wrote its own software, and the company is now, by far, a software company first … though it still offers hands-on solutions work in its home country Austria.

Now easescreen is looking beyond central Europe and actively developing partnerships and business in North America.

I had a good chat with CEO Gerhard Pichler, and marketing manager Zuzana Yalcin, about the roots of easescreen, how it differentiates itself from the many software options out there, and why they now have their sights set on this side of the Atlantic.

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Gerhard and Zuzana, thank you for joining me. Gerhard, can you give me a background on what easescreen is all about and how long you’ve been? 

Gerhard Pichler: Sure, Dave. easescreen started in the late 90s, so actually, my first company, which still exists, is an AV integrator, so we come from quite a strong technical background, and in some of the projects, the customer requested solutions, which we now call digital signage. So we started, more or less, as the second role on the market as a manufacturer of software, as I told you, more than 20 years ago and now this year, we have rolled out more than 10,000 projects in nearly 100 countries. So it developed quite well, I would say.

Would you describe what you now do as being software-first? Or do you still operate as an integrator as well? 

Gerhard Pichler: Software-first, but in our home country (Austria), we have two offices there, one in Graz, which is in the south of Austria, and the other in Vienna, the capital. So in this home market, we also do AV integration so we still keep our knowledge regarding network, transmissions, protocols, screens, and so on quite high. My team does this kind of job but definitely, the most important thing within the company is the digital signage of the easescreen.

I assume having that capability and current knowledge of the hardware market and the installation challenges and all those things is probably quite helpful in giving you insights as to what the end users and the resellers need versus just guessing and talking to people about it? 

Gerhard Pichler: That’s for sure. Especially one thing is the contact with the other manufacturers. So for our businesses, we have very close contact with two manufacturers: LG, and Samsung, and on the other hand, we know how the integrators, which actually are our customers with who we do indirect business, how their mindset is, what their pains are because we experience the same. So that’s quite helpful. 

I’m guessing that you got into the software side of this business, back in ‘99 because there weren’t a whole bunch of software options out there at that point, right? 

Gerhard Pichler: Yeah, you’re right. There were some dinosaurs, like Scala or Omnivex in Europe but the options for the customers weren’t many compared to now. I would say in the 2000s and on, there were quite a lot of solutions coming up and disappearing again so it maybe was not very helpful for the signage industry because many of these solutions were not really professional, so the customer had a bad experience. They didn’t touch signage for long, but I would say 10-15 years ago, it started again when customers trusted in professional solutions, and now the markets as you know as well, it’s merging and there are a lot of solutions out there and there’s some kind of consolidation going on.

Of all those different deployments that you have, do you have some large ones? 

I think I saw that recently you did some sort of a deal where you have, I think, roughly 8,000 displays for a tobacco company in stores in Germany. Is that correct? 

Zuzana Yalcin: Yes. That was Japan Tobacco International. They carry brands like Camel, Winston, et cetera. I believe they’re the third largest tobacco company in the world. 

Yeah, and what are you doing with them? Are there screens at the point of sale? 

Gerhard Pichler: Yeah, point of sale. So each point of sale has, I think, between one and three screens and behind each screen, there’s an easescreen license. So this is one of the larger projects. 

I told you we have 10,000 out there and the project means networks the small network consists of 1-3 screens, and the larger ones like JTI for example, with at least 6,000 or 7,000 screens. The larger networks have more than thousands of screens in one network.

So do you have a reference case or two that when you meet a potential business partner or customer, they say, “give some ideas on the kinds of projects that you’ve done.” 

Do you have one or two go-to’s that you tend to mention?

Gerhard Pichler: We go through the channel, which means our strategy is just all the know-how we have about our solution and all the things around digital signage software, we transfer to our resellers. The resellers are 20% AV companies, 60% IT companies, and 20% agencies, I would say from the creative side.

Every one of these companies has to go through a training and certification process. For many projects, we don’t really know where our license goes because they can stand on their own feet. That’s one of our strategies is to be able to multiply without having hundreds of employees. Usually, the customer asks for signage. In the meantime, digital signage is some kind of expression that the customer already knows, and if the project has some specialties, like integration of databases, or something like that, which is not which cannot be configured out of the box with our solution, then we work together very closely with our resellers and with the end customers, and we help them to integrate all solutions in their not only network but the environment, but most of the projects, we are not involved in it as a manufacturer. 

So you stay behind the scenes and you’re not even really marketing that you did this, and let your partners shine?

Gerhard Pichler: We call our solution the Austrian Army knife. It’s like the Swiss, but the Austrian Army knife. It’s a toolbox for our integrators that is very full of features, and functions that now after 23 years can be used out of the box for various vertical markets. 

The most important for us is definitely the corporate market. So most projects are in this field. Companies use our software to inform the employees and the customers, on production lines, for example, real-time data showing to the teams there, digital door sign canteens. So these are the kind of projects we do. The project with the many licenses, I mentioned before, 1000-10,000 are more in retail because these are the projects with a lot of licenses, but besides corporate and retail, we identified ten verticals where our solution is widely known and used, for example, higher education, transportation, healthcare, for example, is very interesting because we are certified in Europe with some kind of protocol so we can show patient names. So they can use our software for calling the next patient on one side, but also for showing their offers that the hospital has or some advice they give, or for wayfinding, things like that. It’s quiet interesting.. 

I often say to companies that are marketing CMS software that I encourage them to find a vertical market or a specialty of some kind that has a lot of opportunity associated with it versus being a general offer because if you’re a general offer, you are mainly competing on price because the functionality is maybe different across different companies, but in general terms the same. 

But it sounds like you’re doing fine with being a general offer because you’ve got 20-plus years in the business and established resellers.

Zuzana Yalcin: Yeah, so that’s where our sales channel comes in because our integrators have specialties, so they are the experts on different vertical markets. They know how to customize our software to the end customers’ needs. So it’s also an example of where you empower the integrator, you empower the reseller, and then they’re able to do amazing things. 

Is the software white labeled? 

Gerhard Pichler: There are some examples, yes.

So if a business partner, a reseller wants to say this is Brand X’s software, you guys are behind the scenes entirely, but driving it? 

Gerhard Pichler: Yes, we are prepared for this so we can easily white-label it for partners. Usually, this discussion comes up with large integrators. They say, okay, I want to hide the name and I want to add my own branding to the solution. But when we talk to them, it often turns to the opposite. They say, okay, it’s better that we have a very close relationship with you, and we can start with all the references we bring to the table. 

Still, there are some examples where easescreen is hidden behind the different names.

We met on the floor at a Digital Signage Experience in November and you agreed to do a podcast, and one of the things that intrigued me was that you’re an Austrian company, but you are in the United States looking to expand into North America and build up partnerships here. I gather that’s been something that’s been an ongoing effort for the last couple of years.

Gerhard Pichler: Yes, that’s true. So from time to time, we do get some projects in the US. For me, the US is definitely the Mecca of digital signage. There are a lot of really professional companies there, which could be great partners for us. There are so many opportunities. The market is that huge. So for me, it’s a challenge to start a business there, and I wished to do this many years before, and we decided I think two years ago to install some guy there to do market research, to find ways how we can sell it, through which channels, and so on. He is a very experienced guy out of the AV business and after we see that there are enough opportunities, there are chances for us with our solution. 

The market in the US does not really have a lot of software that is comparable to ours. So then we decided, okay, we go to the next step. The next step was founding a company called easescreen America LLC in Miami, which we did this year, I think it was in June. Because we have had success in the US for a long time, it’s definitely important and necessary to have a company there, and I think 2023 should be our year. The pipeline is quite full now with projects. 

So some of our guys were doing the DSE in Vegas, they were on the East coast visiting future partners or partners, which already signed contracts with us, and they brought I think five or six projects to Austria. So I think the start is quite successful up to now.

If you’re an AV integrator or an IT systems integrator, whatever it may be, there are a lot of options in North America. There are a lot of companies selling software solutions and it wouldn’t be that you’d get a meeting where they’d go, “oh finally, somebody’s got software that can do this.” Why are they choosing to partner with you when there are other options out there? What’s ticking their boxes? 

Gerhard Pichler: One thing that we experienced is that we tell them and they seem to trust us. We only go through integrators. So many examples in the past, the integrators told us that manufacturer, they promised us they promised not to make shortcuts directly to the end customer, but they didn’t do it. The integrators, they’re waiting for, I think manufacturers who they can trust.

Other things include things like we have so many options in the setup, we can be installed on-premises, for example, which many other solutions are not able to be because they’re only cloud-based. We have a cloud infra as well if the customer wants to use it, they can use a private cloud, and so there are many options for the integrators and multipliers, it seems for them very interesting, and besides that, we have technical feature wise I think so many things on board out of the box which nearly no other solution can bring to the table, and these are some of the reasons why they change because many of them when you talk to them, they would tell us about the bad experiences with other solutions. With us, it’s always good if some company is experienced and tells us the pain and we can show him how our solution would do it, then you can win them very fast.

So it’s interesting and very good for us if companies give us the chance to talk to them, they have already had experiences with solutions, then these companies are the best us and for them, we can be quite fast. 

In terms of partners, do you have a kind of partner, like a profile that you would prefer to work with?

Gerhard Pichler: It seems the larger projects are done by IT companies. So in the US, they’re large IT companies, they do the job for digital signage for companies, and so on. So the profile seems more to be IT-focused companies than AV. But we have experienced in the last months, the really interesting projects, they come up more from bigger IT companies.

So one way to the market was through reps, so they introduced us to the integrators there. So we cover now I think nearly 45 states, reps like Simco or BP Marketing, and these guys, who have a large network of AV and IT integrators behind them. For easescreen, this is the way we can reach the integration network quite fast. 

Is it a challenge on the educational side? 

One of the things I’ve heard over the years is if you’re going to have a reseller channel, you have to invest a lot of time in ensuring that the people who are talking about your product and solutions, fully understand what it is, and if they’re an IT systems integrator, they’re thinking about all kinds of things, including network security and bandwidth and so on. 

Gerhard Pichler: Yes, of course, it’s a challenge, but since we have been so long on the market, there are so many slides and training programs exactly prepared for these kinds of topics. We can talk about the language they talk. So you have to talk to IT companies differently of course than to agencies, and in the end, in the US market, we have to learn our marketing lessons because the first step to the customer more than here is by a colorful brochure and things like this, which is quite old fashioned, but it’s definitely necessary.

And here, I would say, comes in Zuzana again. So what has been your experience on the marketing side, comparing the North American market to Europe, and what homework we had to do? 

Zuzana Yalcin: So definitely from a marketing perspective, it’s way more about storytelling. Of course, at some point it’s about the USP, it’s about the features, it’s about all the amazing things you can do. But the first story is always: who are you? Where do you come from, and how do you actually serve the people all around the world? 

So for me, this has been a big lesson in trying to focus on the human side of software because in the end, our partners are human, the end customer is human. The user is human, so how can I translate that story in a way that makes sense to everybody from a professional integrator all the way to an amateur user? And I say that without any negative connotation, but just so they know what digital signage is, what the screen is, and what it can do for them.

This is something I’m noticing actually in Austria as well, most people see digital signage every single day, multiple times, if not countless times, but they have no idea what it is. They cannot label it, and if you talk to them about digital signage, they think it’s maybe digital signatures or something like that, so just raising awareness in general is a pretty exciting thing for me. 

Yeah, I was gonna ask about the evolution of all this. Given that you’ve been involved in it for as long as I have that, what have you seen changing through the years? Obviously, something’s never changed. There’s still a limited understanding of what it is, but I suspect I find in my own life that I don’t have to go on and on at length to explain what it is I do and what I’m involved in. They get it pretty quickly versus it was, a five-minute conversation back in 2005. 

Zuzana Yalcin: I think software is definitely becoming more accessible to the end customer in general, and it also changes customer expectations because they expect to be empowered more. They expect to be involved more. But I think, 10-20 years ago, you could be a genius technician with amazing software and rely on people coming in. Now you definitely have to tell the story if you definitely have to go out there and share the message. 

Gerhard Pichler: Yeah, but you are right, Dave.

Of course, the awareness now is different than 20 years before. In shows like ISE or Infocomm and so on, we’ve been part of ISE, I think 15-17 times. In the first years, you had to explain even to the people in the industry, what is digital signage and so on, and that changed completely. Now, people quickly understand what it is. I would say that changed. 

The trust in signage is there. That means customers who want info screens and systems for showing content, know that if they make the right choice they can buy systems that are stable and reliable. That is different than it was 5-10 years ago. I think what didn’t change is that the end customers are not aware of which kinda tasks they have when there is a digital signage solution. When we are involved in projects, we try always tell the customer, I hope it’s clear to you that there will be a technical, very perfect system for you, but in the end, you have to think about who do you want to reach? What are the contents? How is the way that content coming to the screen? Who is responsible? So in many projects, this didn’t change. The customer is not aware that he has to give resources, that the digital signage system is successful and lives and is active, I would say. So that slightly changes, but it’s the same story as many years before I would. But we help them in creating concepts, for example. 

How is the company set up? Are you privately held or do you have a private equity backer? 

Gerhard Pichler: Oh, private, a hundred percent. A hundred percent of the code is made in-house and we are privately held.

What’s your headcount? 

Gerhard Pichler: 25. 

Has that grown much through the years? Obviously, it started with one, but… 

Gerhard Pichler: Yes. I would say by one or two per year, so we are growing but not that fast

There’s a lot of companies that are your size like you have larger companies, particularly private equity backed ones, actively looking at as potential acquisitions, I suspect you’re getting those emails and phone calls pretty regularly? 

Gerhard Pichler: Yes, that’s right. But we didn’t decide on one until now. 

You’re staying on your own path. 

Gerhard Pichler: Yes, up to now. Our mission is not completed yet. 

So if people wanna know more about your company, where can they find you? Obviously, you’re going to be at ISE in a couple of months, but online they would find you find you at…

Zuzana Yalcin: www.easescreen.us, and of course we are on LinkedIn, Instagram, and Facebook. Simply type in an easescreen and you will find us. 

Simply put, I like it. Thank you very much for spending some time with me. 

Gerhard Pichler: Thank you very much, Dave.

Zuzana Yalcin: Thank you. The pleasure is all ours. 

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