Francesco Ziliani On How SpinetiX Has Evolved Its Digital Signage Offer To Be SaaS-First
June 27, 2023 by Dave Haynes
The Swiss technology firm SpinetiX has evolved its go-to-market approach through the years – positioning itself much more as a software solutions firm than as a manufacturer of very nice media layout boxes … that also came with software.
The company has end-point devices that have been operating flawlessly for years, but to grow and meet demands, it had to look at what it wanted to be and what it wanted to do.
Now, founder and longtime CEO Francesco Ziliani is talking in terms of SpinetiX being a SAAS software company, and happily showing how carefully selected partners – like Taiwan’s iBase – are also now making hardware that works with the platform.
I met with Francesco down in Orlando, where the company had a stand at InfoComm and was also doing off-site meetings and demos with partners. We get into a lot of things, including where he’s seeing a lot of market growth. As is the case more broadly, workplace communications is a big growth driver.
We started out by my asking him about company priorities right now …
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Francesco Ziliani: Look, this year, the priority is to remind people that we are still hardware because we believe hardware is important, but software as a service is really what I believe is the right strategy, the right vision for us, and to make this model SaaS for an indirect sales channel work, because if you think about most of SaaS, they are a direct business. Microsoft and Adobe sell direct; we do not.
We have two levels, distributors and resellers. So to make this model work, you need active partners. So you don’t need only an opportunist or someone who once has an opportunity and starts selling SpinetiX. You really need someone who says, I share the same vision. I like the product, and I keep learning it so I can bring more over time, and it’s through that AV channel; only some are ready for this step. Many people like box-moving types of business, right? I buy something, I add the margin, I install and resell. So everything I can do to inspire resellers to ask themselves, is SaaS for digital signage, for my customers, and for me, interesting? Am I ready to explore it seriously? That’s something there that can help SpinetiX.
Yeah, the company has, in certain respects, pivoted, not really, but when I think about SpinetiX, I think about these gorgeous little boxes that are ultra-reliable, and you get the software with it, and now you are talking much more as a software company that has its own purpose-built boxes, and as you were telling me before we turned the microphone on, getting partners.
Francesco Ziliani: Yes. Our tagline is: We do everything except scrapes because it’s true. We have the hardware. Now, we use partners to manufacture, but we co-design. We have the operating system, the DSOS, and the rendering engine all integrated, and that’s also quite unique because, let’s take BrightSign, for example, they have their operating system, but they allow others to install the rendering engine, and now you have two people responsible. BrightSign is upgrading the operative system, the CMS might not follow up or vice versa. The CMS needs to do something, and BrightSign is not there yet.
In our work, that cannot happen. It’s like Apple. We control everything. So every update is tested and comes with everything you need. That’s why the reliability is so high. So that’s also an advantage. Now this is still there. It’s available on GP 400. Now we can also install the same DSOS on an SDM module. Sharp NEC is a partner now that we signed, and we are going to have a Sharp NEC display in the booth with the SDM. So that’s integrated.
What’s an SDM?
Francesco Ziliani: Smart device module. So SDM and IBASE have the same philosophy. So now I’m not forced to manufacture myself. I can ask someone, you are good at manufacturing, you manufacture and install my operating system on it. So we work together. The operating system is very reliable, we cut everything useless for digital signage, so very compact, and then rendering engine with all the APIs, and so we basically make all these players like a zombie for SpinetiX., and as a zombie, they can talk with IO.
They’re zombies because it’s a defined, tightly contained operating system.
Francesco Ziliani: Absolutely. You cannot install any program on it. You cannot change it. Everything is locked. Yeah, and that is for security. You cannot jump on it and say, okay, now I install a program or install something else. This thing comes natively compatible with ARYA CMS. Aria is a highway of data to players. But when we work with banks, the player is within the bank’s network. We talk to ARYA through http to know what to display and to get the instructions. But once the instructions are on the player, it locally talks with sensors, databases, and whatever services. So it’s fully secure. Even if I cut the internet, the player has the capacity to get data around him autonomously on the local network.
So it’s not streaming video; it’s really like a CMS as an application. Easy to use, made for the end user, no training needed. That’s the value of it, and every time you need to do something more complex, our partners use Elementi, which is our offering tool. They create the widget, customize it, and have a button to upload on the right ARYA account. With the button, ARYA has an additional asset, which can do whatever it has been designed for. So connecting to an SMTP or doing whatever. Now this set in ARYA is like a video, it’s like an image, so it’s a programmable element, so the end user cannot look inside. It’s just there, but he can put it in a layout in a very simple way. So you understand that we make the end user autonomous with a tool that always remains simple, and we give our partners a tool that makes them able to program whatever they want, and now this is a combo. So we integrated this, so when you create a project with Elementi for using widgets, you know that you need to have an ARYA widget.
When you create a more complex project with Elementi, you need streaming—that system type of license in Element. We have the planning system in ARYA, so we simplify this combo with integration, and we can offer the right tool to the right audience.
So if I’m an end user and I’m interested in this, I’m getting an IBASE box, and it’s going to be connected and managed via ARYA. Is Elementi opt-in, or is it fundamental too?
Francesco Ziliani: It’s an option. So let’s see the path. You buy an IBASE, it comes with our operating system, and it comes with everything you need to connect on ARYA. The first step is ARYA Discovery which is free of charge. You can have one screen, you can have 1000 screens. You create your account, you pair your players, and your screens on your account and you can start publishing images and videos, and that’s all free. You don’t spend anything on the cloud right now. At a certain point, you get stuck because you need more users or more storage, or more functionalities, that’s when you need to upgrade to ARYA Enterprise.
ARYA Enterprise is an indirect channel. So you need a SpinetiX partner. You need someone who knows how to set it up, and how to help you discover more. So you contact a partner and the partner comes to you and asks, “What do you want to do?” And if your needs are basic, you just upgrade to ARYA Enterprise by paying an annual fee. The partner will call you at the end of each year saying, “Is everything fine, do you need more?” Then let’s say you need more, because you now understand that you are responsible for spending two hours per day updating images and all these images are already in your database, so you would like this to be automatic. So your ARYA Enterprise is now upgraded to ARYA Enterprise Widget and in the widget, you are compatible with Elementi widget projects. So it means that your supplier, your SpinetiX partner is designing for you with Elementi, which is the right tool, programs you, whatever you like, and once he has created that content shows you say, “Hey, is that what you want?” “Yes.” And with one click, it’s in your account, and now as an end user, you can use that widget, and decide to show it in the lobby or in a certain location, with a certain background, with a clock or a countdown, whatever you like. But you are autonomous because that thing has been designed for you.
And like this, we value the services of our partner who is fully autonomous with Elementi. They don’t need us. But we also protect the end customer, who can still ask them to do the job because they don’t need to understand what’s behind, and before, when we only had Elementi, it was not like this. We had Elementi, which was a complex product in the hands of an end user. So some end users love it. But most of the end user we’re saying it’s too complex.
Yeah, I don’t have time to learn this!
Francesco Ziliani: “I don’t have the time, and I’m using it perhaps with my intern and the guy is not trained, so he’s making mistakes and he is gonna leave.”
So ARYA is simple for that type of user, still we are not limiting the experience. Now what I want to fight is leveraging down. I want to leverage up, so that’s why I am calling partners to say, “You cannot just sell ARYA Discovery for free or just our enterprise for an annual fee for basic features, you need to upsell your services, customize it.” Because if you don’t do that, then the hundreds of CMS that will beat us one day. So instead, if I’m able to create this local relationship with the supplier, and the end user. Instead of being in a relationship, I supply once and I go away, I’m a partner with you, so I’m with you with the evolution of your needs, then I’m making my customers loyal, and that’s the secret of SaaS, because every year you add something and we double every year the number of new things but if we lose the previous one, then it’s like having a bucket that is leaking. So you add water but it’s not growing. And I want to remove leaks, and to remove leaks, you need to create this loyalty, this relationship
We’re sitting in at InfoComm and historically the integration companies that come to InfoComm are looking for products and they’re thinking about margin and how many of these can we move and everything else and, historically at least, it’s been a bit of a struggle to get a lot of these companies to understand, you also should be in service. There’s recurring revenue in that. With shrinking margins and everything else, this is something you need to do.
Is it hard to find those companies that understand that or that a lot of them are waking up to it?
Francesco Ziliani: There are many that are ready to do this, but it’s true. AV is not IT yet. They are blending, converging, there are good things in both communities. But I think the opportunity AV has is great because they have the relationship with the end customer already, because they are selling services of support. So it’s just a click in their mind, in their mindset, to say, “Hey, now, I’m not selling you a box, I’m selling you a service. I’m with you supporting, training, inspiring you”, and of course I understand that perhaps they tried solutions that were not reliable yet, or not delivering on their promises and it’s true that if you are not protected on that side, you are in trouble, because you don’t have actions to take. So you want a solution which is reliable, secure, and you want to build your services there, on top of that type of solution.
But we see people that are, I’m not saying afraid, but they have an attitude of, let’s see what’s for me, and probably start one project after the other. I’m going to give an example of a company in Switzerland who started four years ago with ARYA with a few units at the beginning, few customers, they start calling existing customers they have, proposing the new model, and now it’s a small company, but they already have more than a $100,000 in record revenue and now if you think like this, a hundred thousand means that you can have a part-time employee developing more, and the hardware is very reliable, so the end customer does not have reason to stop. The product is evolving, so you don’t have reasons to look for competition and they’re running in parking lots, they’re running in schools, fulfilling different types of needs, and the solution works very well. They’re very happy, and I’m using them as an example to say, “Hey, you can start, even if you’re a small company, there are local opportunities to you that might start with just one screen the first year, and then double, and then upgrading to more powerful plans and the solution is open, you can upgrade, you are not forced to stay three years, five years, every year. You can choose. So yeah I think it’s a modern app approach to digital signage.
When I think about SpinetiX, historically, I think of these beautiful little boxes and the stories I hear about how they’re still in the field 10 years later, 12 years later, and so on. So reliability, durability is a big thing.
I’m sure that’s still the case, but it’s not what you lead with anymore, right?
Francesco Ziliani: We want to do more. But by doing more, we are not forgetting where we are coming from and so the hardware remains reliable, the know-how is in the team. But I think, yeah, we would like to scale up a bit more.
And is that the driver behind, like you’ve always manufactured or contract manufactured, or designed your own boxes, but now you’re adding hardware partners, more partners. Is that just for scale?
Francesco Ziliani: Scale is one reason. The second reason is that we live in a complex world where supply chain manufacturing, finding chips are a challenge for everyone.
We learned many things in the past three years.
Francesco Ziliani: Yeah, and despite the fact that we had a very good relationship, so we have been able to go through difficult times, I realize we are not in the position to guarantee right availability for whatever type of project. So we need to have Plans B, C, and all the work we have done on the Intel platform opens us to a lot of opportunities, and then if you think about it, we have a product we are launching, which has four outputs. So that’s ideal for video walls. Four outputs, perfectly synchronized. You just plug in, you use it as a single screen from ARYA or from Elementi easily.
So you could blend an 8k LED wall?
Francesco Ziliani: More. It’s four times 4k. So you could have 2×2 8k video walls if you want, or 1×4, or even just 1×2 and we can already do this with the synchronization feature of our players. That you only have one device, so it’s more convenient in terms of price. One license, one device. What is the volume behind? I don’t know. It may be a hundred units, a thousand units. If I’m manufacturing that device, I put myself in a niche of a niche. And there are people that are good at doing that. That may use the same product for other applications. So why not collaborate with them, helping them learn why we need POE in digital signage, right? Or why we are asking them for a higher capacity battery. So there are specificities in terms of synchronization, security that are of our industry, but I can share that with this supplier, and, at the end, we come with a product which they manufacture for us to fit the needs of our industry, from our perspective, of course.
Now this, I think, it’s the best we can do for our customers, offering them more options and not being limited on the investments that we can do ourselves.
Are you challenged at all to service the – I don’t wanna say lower end of the market, but small to medium businesses, the kinds of end users who are maybe using an Amazon Fire Stick or a cheap Android player or something like that – can you even compete with that or is that not who you’re after?
Francesco Ziliani: No, today, that’s not our target, and we understand that there are customers that have really big constraints in terms of cost or budget. But we are really focused on long-term relationships with our partners. So we want devices and hardware and software that we can master. I don’t want to find myself in a situation where I’m asking you one question and I don’t know how to answer. Of course our support is best, but we cannot guarantee a result every time, but we want to have tools that we control.
Now Intel Ecosystem has devices, which in terms of budget are much more accessible than our HMP 400, which is, inducer design made for wide range temperature, supporting POE. So we have been able to offer that flexibility to some of our projects. What I’m satisfied with is often the customer is challenging us on price, then I offer them the alternative, which is budget compatible, but they still buy the HMP at the end, because they realize that CapEx is important, but operating costs are also there, and if you have a product that is designed to live two, three years, it will fail statistically on that period, and customers are smart. They know where their money needs to go. If they have a long-term vision, they will buy more reliable devices. It’s better for them.
Has the end user profile changed much through the years? Are you seeing new vertical markets and new kinds of customers showing up?
Francesco Ziliani: Yes, corporate and education are booming for us. We also see a lot of requests in manufacturing environments, and plants where basically you have a production line that uses screens to motivate the people working on the lines with videos.
Shows KPIs, dashboards, etc.
Francesco Ziliani: Not only that, motivational videos are triggered by the KPIs they measure. So you don’t have a sterile gauge or red-green level, right? You really have someone that is based on, is it Friday? Is it at the end of your turn, to understand the KPIs and give you the message that is relevant for you where you are.
I think digital signage is a narrow term for us sometimes. I hope you can visit our new building in Switzerland. We have this corporate building where we rent spaces to different companies, and we have a lot of digital signage there from the parking lot to the roof. We really see the impact that digital signage has in a corporate environment to inspire people, to inform them about services, about what’s going on where, before going home at five o’clock, six o’clock, we display the map of the traffic, so you can make a decision, should I take a drink before going with colleagues or is it the right time to leave? We have the timetables of trains, and buses appearing at the right time. Little things that make the user of the building achieve an easier life. That is growing a lot. We sell a lot to military campuses like Fort Knox in the US and place like that.
Yeah, I was about to ask about security. If you’re doing Fort Knox, and you mentioned before I turned on the microphone that you’re also doing NASA, so obviously, you’re pretty solid on security.
Francesco Ziliani: Yes. I think our team really designed products with security in mind, and that’s a game changer, and it’s challenging. Still, I think it’s important because you put a lot of information, you put your credibility on the screens, on your network of screens. If someone is able to bypass your security, then you risk a lot in terms of image or terms of trouble, or continuity of service. It’s really the customers we have that consider the investment as business critical, so security is definitely important, and then, GDPR in Europe is important, so everything related to how you protect your personal information and we have corporations that are asking us, what are the logs that we can access to know who has used the data, if the data remains in the cloud or not, where is it a store? Is it in Europe, in Germany, or in the US? So that means a lot of infrastructure work, a lot of tools that are only sometimes seen by the end customer if they’re not interested, but a large corporation, know what they need. SSO (single sign-on) as well, these are all tools that facilitate a lot of the deployments and acceptance of our solution.
You’re European-based, have you seen shifts in terms of where the business is?
I’ve heard from some companies who’ve said Europe is going along okay, but the real growth is in North America. is that what you’re experiencing as well?
Francesco Ziliani: Yeah, North America, I think we are just scratching the surface of opportunity. So today, we are, more or less, half in terms of our business. But I see a huge potential in the US. That’s why we have invested in a team of three people. Before, we didn’t have anyone. We only had distributors, but now we have three local people, and Europe is doing well. They are indeed asking themselves a lot of questions about the impact of power use for digital signage. But at the same time, they realize that. The benefits are there as well, right? So you need to inform people. You need to keep this communication channel open, and of course, it has a cost, but if you do it right, the benefits are higher. So I think we passed that period where everyone was saying, switch off because we need to save.
I advocate if you use this tool to do the right communication, then the investments are worth, it because the impact is big, and in the end, you can change bad habits. I’m 16 years into digital signage, and I’m a believer in the benefits of digital signage for many, many sectors.
What you’re talking about on the factory floors, I think the same thing could apply in healthcare environments as well, where there are just so many ways that you could be communicating with people, and these are people who either don’t because of their job or don’t have time because of how busy they are to sit down and read stuff, they’re going to see stuff when they’re zipping down a hallway or along a corridor, and if there’s a screen there that’s going to motivate them or inform them or tell them, “There’s a gas leak, go that way, get out!” That has incredibly valuable.
Francesco Ziliani: Absolutely, and it’s true that hospitality in the large sense, whether in a hospital or a restaurant, in a hotel chain, or a campus, it’s all about delivering relevant information, and our product, our solution, is made to automate. Of course, you need someone to know what to do, but the technology is there. And you can really take into account all the parameters. You can add artificial intelligence. You can imagine a world of possibilities, but it needs to be simple, and I remember we made an audit some time ago, and we were asking our customers what they think about Elementi, our software, and half of the customers said, it’s the easiest software that we have been using, and the other half was saying it’s the hardest software we have been using, and that is because basically, we were providing one tool to two audiences.
So simplicity is a relative concept. If you understand your audience, you are able to provide the right tool, then you are delivering a simple tool to them, but you cannot make something like programming simple for everyone. It’s a lot of investment.
I think having the capability with the solution to really segment the stakeholders and address their needs, that’s at the end, our innovation is that we are bringing with this integration with ARYA, and that’s what I believe is going to be the future for our industry and many other people will contribute with dedicated software for specific verticals like business management, building management, right? You have dedicated software for restaurants, and all this is going to be simple for the right audience, and our job is to collect the data from this software, to make it simple to animate the network of screens so that the information is delivered in a relevant way.
All right. Thank
Francesco Ziliani: You’re welcome.