Jannatul Choudhury Relates How He Makes Freemium Work For His PosterBooking Digital Signage Platform

January 10, 2023 by Dave Haynes

Jannatul Choudhury found his way into the digital signage software business out of frustration – writing his own cloud-based platform because the one he was under contract to use and maintain gave him endless headaches.

The Manchester, UK software developer wrote the code and is now growing out the functionality and installed footprint of what he and a business partner then launched as PosterBooking, a SaaS digital signage CMS aimed at the small to medium business market.

The goal was produce something that was easy to use, and met marketplace needs. One of those big needs was minimal cost – which steered Choudhury to offering a freemium model. Offering the base platform for free to end-users also allowed him to spin up PosterBooking more quickly, because that eliminated a big chunk of work needed to develop a payment gateway.

I had a good chat with Choudhury about his boot-strapped start-up, his love of coding, and how his business operates when the code product is free.

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Jannatul, thank you for joining me. Can you give me the background on what PosterBooking is all about? What would be your elevator pitch if I asked you that? 

Jannatul Choudhury: Yeah, sure. Thank you for having me on your podcast. I love what you’re doing for the digital signage industry. It’s phenomenal, without a doubt. I think I started following you about a year ago on LinkedIn. I was thinking to myself, I’d love to be on your podcast in the near future so thank you for making that happen.

A little background on what PosterBooking is: PosterBooking is a free cloud-based SaaS platform for digital signage. We make it really easy to display images, videos, webpages, and other content on any device like tablets, TVs, LED screens,s and so on from your computer or your smartphone. The platform can be white labeled and is available in seven different languages. 

So how did we start PosterBooking? Me and my co-founder, Monsur, we’ve known each other for quite a long time now, we’ve had various startups along the way. We were managing some screens for the NHS in the south of England and we were using an existing digital signage platform and every now and then, we used to have some issues and we’d have to travel down there. It was like a six-hour round trip just to make some changes or if the screen was down, we didn’t have any playback on what was actually happening. We’d have to go down there with our laptop, keyboard, and mouse just because it was like a Windows machine. And from that we thought, yeah, let’s look at alternatives. See what’s there, are there any cost-effective solutions? And it has to work on mobile. So we were looking through a handful of them and we couldn’t find exactly what we were looking for, like we were looking for a solution that could either be free for a couple of screens so that we didn’t have to exactly pay, we don’t mind paying for add-ons, et cetera, if it benefits us, and is something that’s solely usable on mobile. 

Obviously at the time, I don’t think that there were many platforms out there that provided that so we thought like, how hard could this be? I’ve got a tech background, so I thought why not give you a crack? And that’s how PosterBooking started. 

So you’re a coder, right? 

Jannatul Choudhury: Yeah. I graduated in 2016 with a software software engineering degree. So I’ve got quite a bit of a background in tech, especially SaaS as well.

And you’re based in the Manchester area? 

Jannatul Choudhury: Yeah, that’s correct. Manchester, England. 

When you were servicing this NHS install any of coming to grips with this not being the solution that you needed, I’m curious if you canvased the marketplace and looked at the options out there because there’s a whole bunch of “easy to use, affordable” all those kinds of terms CMS software options out there. 

Did you half pause when you’re thinking, okay, I could write something, but there seems to be a lot of this out there already, or you thought you could do something different? 

Jannatul Choudhury: That’s a great question.

So we did have a look at a number of digital signage companies as a consumer and during that research, before forming PosterBooking, we thought, yeah, there’s certainly a gap in the market, and with obviously my background and our idea of what we actually wanted to do. I’ll probably get into that shortly. The name PosterBooking comes from do you know how you can book posters? So the idea was to essentially build a platform that allows customers to advertise on different screens. So it basically gives the power to customers to open up their screens to other advertisers and generate revenue through that.

So we did quite a bit of research and we found nothing that’s completely free and that helps with our end goal. So we just thought, yeah let’s build this platform and see where it goes, and quite frankly, it took off really quickly. To begin with, during Covid, we launched during Covid, it was a bit slow, but that actually helped us with servicing a couple of users and building at the same time. 

I’m curious about a post on LinkedIn that you put up, maybe where I first came across the company name, you talked about the five things that you’ve learned along the way in this journey of building up your company and I thought I’d run through those and ask you about them.

The first thing you said is, “building a startup isn’t easy, know when to ask for help.” Where did that help come from and what kind of help did you have? 

Jannatul Choudhury: So I’ve been in a lot of companies before starting PosterBooking. So I’ve been in SaaS, healthcare, e-commerce and legal tech as well. So I know a lot of people, say my managers and CEOs, et cetera. So anytime I had issues, I’d go to them even with coding issues or I recently spoke to one of the CEOs at my first place and he actually gave me some advice on how to go to market, et cetera. So that really helped.

And I’ve got quite a few advisors as well that have been in the industry and any questions I don’t hesitate to ask. I’ve even spoken to CEOs in our current industry, like I’ve spoken to MarkScreenCloud so that was pretty good. I don’t shy away. If I need something, obviously, it’s definitely good to ask, right? 

Your second point was, “Perfection doesn’t exist, so release the product as soon as possible.” I guess you can do that sort of thing with SaaS, right? 

Jannatul Choudhury: Yeah, definitely. To begin with, we probably launched within a couple of months and I was working at the time as well, so I had a full-time job and during the evenings, I would literally code all night or evening. We launched within a couple of months, so we had our first end-to-end solution which literally allowed customers to create their screens, upload their images, and we had our web player, so it was literally the web player and it was wrapped on the app, so like a web frame and that was literally it.

And that allowed us to get into the market straightaway. We didn’t have any payment gateways which was probably a big chunk of development time as well that we saved simply because the software was free at the time.  

So then you could just layer on functionality and things like payment gateways and so on as the need developed?

Jannatul Choudhury: Absolutely, that’s correct. 

You said, “Build a community and allow that community to make suggestions.” When you describe a community, what do you mean by that and what did they guide you? 

Jannatul Choudhury: So with PosterBooking, we’ve got a community group on WhatsApp and that’s got over 200 businesses worldwide and every so often we’ll send them a message, it’s like a community group where all the businesses in that group communicate with each other. If they have any issues they’ll put it on the group and either we’ll reply back to them, or if someone else gets there quicker, like another business, they’ll reply. So it’s very much like a close-knit family. 

So say there was recently a couple of businesses that wanted a certain feature and we obviously looked at how that goes with PosterBooking, if it’s beneficial, and then we actually released it. T]here’s a number of features actually, say two factor auth or multi-user or even little tweaks to allow them to miss a few steps from the content management page, upload images directly onto their playlist from there. So these little things, the community is absolutely huge, right? We’re pretty close to them and our online chat as well. We have an email system as well, but when someone messages us on the website, on chat, they’ll come directly to us so we’re pretty hands on in every aspect of it. I think that really helps a lot. 

Is that community culture unique to what you’re doing here, or is that pretty common in that if you’re running a SaaS platform, it’s the one of the things that you do?

Jannatul Choudhury: To be fair, I’ve not found that to be a common thing, but it does really help our business staff, especially when you’re a startup. You have that communication with the businesses. They feel like they’re part of the business, giving ideas and updates, like sending images through how they’re doing, just a sense of community, 

I guess it’s important for you and whoever’s doing your development. It just gets you a lot closer to them. 

Jannatul Choudhury: Definitely and in terms of development, I’m the only one that’s doing development on the CMS.

So whatever people will tell you, it’s useful?

Jannatul Choudhury: Yes, definitely. And so sometimes it’s really important, like some updates, or even if you make a release ,they’ll point it out to the group if there’s any bugs or anything and I’ll get there and fix it straight away. 

Your fourth point was, “Use a freemium model with premium upgrades.” I assume that the upgrades are how you actually make money because you can’t make money out of free too easily. Do you need a lot of scale to work at your licensing costs and any costs? 

Jannatul Choudhury: Yeah, I’d say most of our customers are SMBs so say 90% and most of them will have like under 10 screens as well. So it’s not the focus for us right now. It’s not all about making a lot of money because we have very low overheads since it’s like just a couple of people. And I’m developing it, so we don’t have any development costs to begin with. But with our pro services that we’ve recently brought out it’s literally keeping the lights on as well, with our service and bandwidth usage, et cetera. It really helps with that. Moving forward we will probably release more pro services and see how it goes.

Do you have any sense of what percentage of your user base is opting into paid services? 

Jannatul Choudhury: I couldn’t really tell that off the bat, but we are somewhat cash flow positive, but obviously we put all that back into the business. I’d say about 10% are on pro services because we have a bunch of white labeled users, some people want reports, some people want to see if their screens are down so we have downtime alerts via email. We also have large uploads. So obviously being a free platform, we need to try and make some money somehow so we offer large uploads, 4K uploads, et cetera. And it does help and we’ve seen a massive usage on larger uploads and 4k. 

So freemium is something that’s been around for 20 years or so and not necessarily in digital signage, but just broadly in web-based software. Is that a challenge or does it help that the marketplace assumes that like with Gmail and products like that, that you can get a pretty good service for free and that therefore, particularly for smaller SMB customers, that’s an expectation?

Jannatul Choudhury: So I’ve worked in SaaS before, right? And we had a premium model as well, and it did really help. And with us, we’ve seen tremendous growth. Just like some businesses, they won’t even consider using digital signage and for us to have 10 free screens, it just allows them to put their foot in the door, right? And customers are really happy. There were a handful of customers that genuinely didn’t believe our pricing for the free tier which was not shocking to be fair. 

I think we’ve all downloaded apps and signed into services only to discover that the download is free, but to use it costs money.

Jannatul Choudhury: Yeah, they’ll have purchases. 

Your final point was, “Most importantly, believe in yourself!” 

What do you mean by that? Is it just simply that to put in the extra hours in the evening and everything to do this, you’ve gotta have a lot of belief in this? 

Jannatul Choudhury: Yeah, for sure. Like with me, I love coding, right? And it’s probably like my only hobby right now. And if you ask my wife, she’d probably say I’m glued to the laptop. But it’s similar to how people play video games. I just love coding and it’s just something that makes me happy. So it’s a difficult journey, probably not for everyone, but it does bear fruit.

Have you identified particular vertical markets? I know you said SMB, but does it tend to be pubs, restaurants, clubs, churches, schools, or all those things? 

Jannatul Choudhury: Yeah, we’re pretty much open to everyone really. But our biggest vertical would be say QSR franchises, we’ve got a couple of hotel chains, zoos, bowling alleys, really just institutions and even non-profits are signing on really fast.

Your focus mainly on the Amazon Fire Stick lineup of products. What’s been the experience with those units? 

Jannatul Choudhury: Initially we had a device that we were selling for about a hundred dollars. But we thought in order for customers to really get the screens up and running without any issues, we need something that’s affordable and easy to access. So the Amazon Fire Stick was probably the only one at that price point that they could. So we focused on creating an app for that. We’re also Android as well so that really helped to get it off the ground. 

So is the Firestick attractive, obviously because of price points, but also because it’s familiar, there’s a huge distribution network to get one, like you can get one the next day if you really needed that quickly. Was that a big sort of determining factor?

Jannatul Choudhury: Yeah, definitely. We have been looking into other solutions. Some Android boxes or even Raspberry PI, but they’re not exactly easy to get a hold of. So, we really focused on Fire sticks. 

Yeah, you get into those lesser known Android products coming from Shenzhen and so on, and the build can change from shipment to shipment.

Jannatul Choudhury: That’s what we found with our own made device. 

Should end users be nervous at all about deploying a consumer product for a commercial job with those Fire sticks?

if you talk to digital signage veterans, they talk about having high reliable industrial grade very durable devices to put out in the field for QSR and so on, versus consumer devices that are not meant to be running 24/7. People use them for six hours in the evening or whatever the case may be, and therefore they’re not appropriate for a commercial job. 

Jannatul Choudhury: Yeah. I understand what you mean. So I’ve not seen a major problem with that, mainly because our predominant market is the QSR.

So we’ve got a client with about 400 screens and it’s a restaurant franchise, and they use Fire sticks and it’s pretty much plugin and go really but obviously in the future we do realize that we do need more robust hardware. We’re looking into integrating with BrightSign and Chrome OS in the future, which will really help with the enterprise clients. 

I’m curious if the folks who are in the Amazon hardware team that develop Fire sticks, the whole product line, are they aware of commercial uses of their product? And do you ever keep in touch with them about software releases and things?

Jannatul Choudhury: Every time you make a release on the app, I think compared to Google, they’ve got a more rigorous testing. So they’ll test literally everything on your CMS, on the app, how you communicate, they’ll make accounts, so they do have a very good idea on what’s going on. And if anything goes wrong, they just straight away fail the app. They won’t really release it up for you. 

Oh, okay. So you’re on some sort of an App store and that’s how distribution’s done? 

Jannatul Choudhury: Yes. So you don’t need to sideload the app. You can just download it straight away from the Amazon store.

And they do all the vetting there and do their best to break it before they approve it? 

Jannatul Choudhury: Yeah, for sure. 

What do you see evolving in this space? Web services have changed a lot even in the last 3-4 years. Are there things emerging that are gonna make your life easier or open up new possibilities?

Jannatul Choudhury: We were looking into using sensors for more information on customers. So say we use sensors to identify how many users are in your store, something like that, and in the future we’re looking at more enterprise level features, so say integrating with more apps, giving two factor authentication with their accounts, et cetera. 

But that’s all stuff that you as the only developer at the moment would have to do, right? 

Jannatul Choudhury: Yeah. That’s very much true. But 2023 is very exciting. We’ll be looking at hiring people. 

It’s the two of you right now, right? 

Jannatul Choudhury: That’s correct. So we’ve got me and my co-founder, and we’ve also got two freelancers that are working on the app side of things. 

By the sounds of it, it’s all bootstrapped right now, right? 

Jannatul Choudhury: That’s correct. We’re pre-capital, privately-funded and have not had any investment as of yet.

Is that something you anticipate doing or is your a great preference to just do this on your own and see where it goes? 

Jannatul Choudhury: No, for sure. If the right investment comes, then we’ll definitely look into it. 

All right. This was great. The one other curious question I have and it’s completely out of left field, is are you a City or a United guy, or are you supporting another team?

Jannatul Choudhury: United, for sure. 

I saw you went to the University of Salford, so I was curious if you supported Salford. 

Jannatul Choudhury: No, Salford is in a lower league at the moment.

Yeah. That’s the one with some of the former Manchester United players, right? 

Jannatul Choudhury: That’s correct.

All right. For those people who are listening and wondering why we’re talking about football, my apologies, but I was curious. 

I appreciate your time. That was quite interesting. 

Jannatul Choudhury: Thank you, Dave. Thank you for taking the time and I look forward to speaking with you in the future at some point.

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