Squirrels CEO Andrew Gould On How Ditto Turns Screen-Sharing Tech Into Digital Signage
September 12, 2023 by Dave Haynes
A lot of technology companies have bolted digital signage capabilities on to their core software platform. Often, that means the end-products don’t do a whole lot beyond playing out some files on a screen.
I’m a bit guilty of making that assumption about Ditto, a wireless screen sharing platform that also works as a digital signage CMS. In chatting with the company that develops and markets Ditto, and now in this podcast with co-founder Andrew Gould, I’ve learned Ditto is much more than an add-on. Some customers get Ditto licenses for the signage functions, and then don’t even use the screen mirroring.
Based in Ohio, the company spent its first dozen or so years selling screen sharing into the education and workplace verticals. But it started getting a lot of requests from end-users about adding functionality that made screens useful during downtimes. They wanted to get more bang from their hardware buck. So the parent company, Squirrels, spun up the digital signage component in 2020, and Ditto is now a tandem offer.
Gould concedes there are maybe some things a pure-play, enterprise-grade digital signage CMS can offer that Ditto can’t, but there’s an awfully big user base out there that’s never going to need or use a lot of those more exotic and elaborate functions.
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Andrew, thank you for joining me. Can you give me a rundown of the company? Is it Squirrels, the company, or is Ditto the company or is Ditto the product?
Andrew Gould: Ditto is the product. Squirrels is the company. We founded the company in 2008, and we’ve been mainly focused on wireless collaboration in classrooms, and huddle spaces in higher education and then, in 2020, we expanded our Ditto offering to include digital signage and emergency alerts, which is something a lot of our K-12 customers were requesting.
So when you started the company back in 2008, was digital signage on the roadmap way back then, or is it purely one of these situations where you had the K12 people asking you about it and eventually realized okay, we should do this?
Andrew Gould: Yeah, it was a situation where we were focused on the collaboration, and then in the feedback channels we had with the customers, they started asking or suggesting, It’d be really great if we could show things when we really weren’t showing things. When the teachers weren’t mirroring their screens and sharing things, it’d be nice if we could say, here’s what today’s homework is, or here’s what’s going on at the school or for higher ed, here’s upcoming events, things like that.
So we saw it as a natural evolution of, “We’re already on that screen. It makes sense to allow users to utilize that screen when it’s not being used for the primary function of collaboration.”
That primary function, could you walk through how that would work in a typical scenario?
Andrew Gould: Yeah, so we have an application that runs on a device connected to the screen or TV in the front of a room. Be it a projector, a flat screen, doesn’t really matter. It runs on Apple TVs as well as Windows devices so there’s some flexibility there of whatever device they wanna have connected to that main screen. There’s just a piece of software called Ditto Receiver and that handles all of the functionality of showing what’s being shared by students and teachers in the classroom. It handles displaying the digital signage and it also handles displaying critical emergency alerts, if they’re fired and all of those things connect back to the cloud.
The IT staff manages that from a central cloud portal, and then it periodically checks for updated settings, digital signage, configurations, et cetera, pulls those down, and caches them locally, so if you do have a little blip in the network or the internet goes down temporarily that functionality can continue to run even if it’s not connected to the internet for a moment.
So, in essence, whether it’s a teacher or a student or in a working environment, whether it’s the person leading the meeting or somebody who’s a participant, they could pull up their phone, their tablet, whatever it may be, and if they have the Ditto app, they can push their screen to the main screen in that room?
Andrew Gould: Exactly, and our big focus with the collaboration part of Ditto is that device agnostic approach. So we want any kind of device that’s coming into a space to be able to share, not just if you have an Apple device, it’ll work to this Apple TV, or if you have a Google device that’ll work to this Chromecast.
We really push hard to make sure that each device that comes in, whether it’s from a browser or from a native app on a platform, can connect and quickly share.
And that’s important in a number of ways. A, it doesn’t slow down the meeting, but it removes a lot of IT support and AV/IT support within an organization, whether it’s a school or a business. Because I’ve been in those meetings where somebody says here, I’ll just share my screen, and then 15 minutes later, it’s still being sorted out.
Andrew Gould: Yes, and we’ve all gone into those rooms that have the laminated sheet of instructions of, “If you’re using this device, it’s these seven steps, and if you’re using this device, you have to be on this network. Then you have to do these three steps, et cetera, et cetera.” All of that goes away with Ditto which means far fewer support calls for the IT staff, and just a more pleasant experience is that we have people come into our offices, accountants, lawyers, just general non-technical people, and they’re blown away at how easy and fast it is to get their content up on the screen, which is all anybody wants.
We don’t care about how fast or how crisp it is or how cool it looks once it’s up there if it takes you 10 minutes to get it connected. So quick, fast, easy is always our guiding light as we mature the product and move it along.
On the digital signage side of this, the way it’s marketed from what I can see is, it’s a tandem product, as opposed to, we are a collaboration product that, oh, by the way, we can also do this. You seem to be saying, “It’s a full-fledged product on its own. If you wanted, you could just use it for digital signage.” Is that a fair statement?
Andrew Gould: Oh yeah, for sure. We have customers that turn off the mirroring capabilities and they just use it for digital signage. Menus in the fast dining have TVs over the counter where people order. We have customers that are just using it for that, that don’t even care about what the original purpose of Ditto was, which was the screen mirroring stuff, and then we have customers that only use it for screen mirroring and we haven’t got them up and running on digital signage ye. They haven’t realized what the value add is.
But there are more customers doing both. They are mirroring, and then when it’s not mirroring, they are showing important information to the users. Whether it’s connection information, things going on at the organization, stocks, or just the kind of stuff to keep it feeling more fresh, utilizing those screens. But yeah, it’s definitely a product that can just be utilized as a standalone digital signage solution.
I’m guessing that you and particularly your customer-facing folks fight a perception problem in that there are other products out in the marketplace that were started as one thing and added digital signage on, and generally speaking, the perception I have and the feedback I’ve somewhat heard is that, “Yeah, it can do digital signage too, but we’re not talking about robust digital signage. We’re talking like we can run a set of files on a screen in an order and that’s about where it begins and ends.”
Andrew Gould: We are not an industry-leading digital signage solution when it comes to features. There are incumbents that are far more feature-heavy than we are, but what we’ve tried to focus on are the things that the customers truly need to have a good digital signage experience. So it’s being able to create signage lists, as we call them, which are basically playlists of media, ease of use of setting all of that up in the configuration portal, so that it doesn’t feel like an add-on or a thing etucked into a corner. A lot of time and energy is spent on the part that actually the end user never sees, which is configuration managing of all the media files and also providing templates for people who don’t want to or don’t have the resources to create their own digital signage assets. Providing some really easy turnkey solutions as well to say, hey, if you just need to get some basic information shown and you don’t want to have to pay a designer or something like that to create something, here are some really cool templates that we’ve put together for you and they’re just WYSIWYG, change this line, change the subject, change the body, upload an image, add a video, and you’re ready to go with really nice looking digital signage.
So I wouldn’t say we are innovating digital signage by any means, but we’re trying to create a package that doesn’t feel like we just bolted something onto the side of it. That really feels like a first-class digital signage solution.
In a lot of cases, while there are certainly feature-rich software options out there, I suspect a hell of a lot of end users don’t ever use more than 15% of what’s available to them with those platforms.
Andrew Gould: Yeah, absolutely. We poll our users frequently about, “Hey, what do you like about the product? What don’t you like about the product?” That’s the most important part. We wanna make that better, and we ask, “Hey, here’s a whole list of different things. How much would you use this?”
The feedback nears that there is 10-15% of features we don’t have that people say they might use, and most of the people say that they probably would never use synchronized digital signage across eight different screens or things that kind of fall into the more high-end solutions for digital signage. They just want ease of use, things that look nice and reliable. Those are what they care about the most.
Yeah. So if somebody comes to you and says, “We’re putting a huge LED video wall in the lobby. Can you drive that?” You might say, I suppose we could maybe do that, but that’s not what we’re here for.
Andrew Gould: We’ve certainly had those requests and we’ve said, “Hey, here’s how you would do that if you are ready to do it. But, to be honest, there are better solutions for that problem.”
Digital signage is not a one-size-fits-all problem. There is very high-end hardware that drives large billboards and there’s our end where we’re just trying to drive it on a 70’’ screen in a room. So we don’t have to solve everyone’s problems. We’re fine saying, that sounds really cool. We wished Ditto was designed to do things like that. You might be better served with something that’s from the ground up built to power stuff like that.
You can stay in your lane, and it’s a pretty decent-sized lane.
Andrew Gould: Correct. Yeah, it’s a huge market. So there’s plenty of room for lots of people to all be swimming, doing different things, and not really stepping on each other.
One of the problems I find with some entry-level, and I’m not saying yours is, but just in broad strokes, entry-level platforms don’t have much in the way if they have anything at all in terms of device management, and I gather that your device management is done through third-party device management modules, like the Jamf and so on.
Andrew Gould: Yeah. So early on, we explored building Ditto with MDM capabilities. But what we experienced in talking with our customers is that most of them already had a solution to do those sorts of things. So we would have to convince them to switch to our device management platform and 90% of what MDM does has nothing to do with what we would need to do with it. So we’d be building out this whole lump on the side of Ditto just to be able to replicate the service they were already using so they would switch to ours.
So we ultimately looked at that and said, this isn’t the right fit for us, rather than trying to fight upstream and convince all of these customers that already have solutions to switch to ours. Let’s just partner with all of these solutions and make it work really well. So we’ve partnered with the various Apple TV MDM vendors to make it really turnkey to mass deploy Ditto to hundreds of Apple TVs with literally just pushing a couple of buttons. So that’s been our approach to it and that seems to be what the customer’s like with us.
Yeah, if they’re already using it, why would they go to something that’s just dedicated to your application?
Andrew Gould: No matter what I do, I will always be inferior to a Jamf. They’re a huge publicly traded company focused solely on MDM. I’m never gonna make an MDM as good as theirs, so why try?
What is your footprint, and what would you say are your core vertical markets?
Andrew Gould: The core vertical markets definitely K-12 and higher education in the United States. We have a footprint all around the world. We’re in Europe, Asia, Australia, South America. We have a lot of business users as well, whether that’s in office space or co-working spaces have been a big business for us lately, as people are working from home but wanna get out of the house occasionally and go somewhere else. Those office spaces are looking for easy mirroring as people come in and out.
But we’re really focused on the K-12 and higher education market because this solution just fits so nicely into that environment. It works great in business. It works great in fast casual dining and all these other places that people use Ditto. But what’s cool about Ditto is that it is so universal as a tool. It can plug in all kinds of places. We have churches that use it to show the lyrics to songs as people are singing along. There are all kinds of really interesting applications that we set out to get into flexible and adaptable tools and put into a lot of interesting environments.
When it comes to education, how is it being used in classrooms?
Andrew Gould: So you’ve typically got it running on the screen at the front of the room, whether that’s an interactive whiteboard or just a TV mounted on the wall or projector, whatever. It’s usually connected to that, and then primarily, the teacher is using it to push her screen from a laptop device up to the screen, and then we can support up to four devices sharing at the same time. So then students will connect and we have an add-on application for Windows and iOS where the teacher can manage who’s allowed to be sharing. She can approve or deny connections to hide somebody if she wants to emphasize on her screen and not the other students who are connected to that.
Then typically, when nothing is being shared, there’s digital signage that’s usually managed at the school level, but we do have some schools that allow the teachers to set up their own digital signage per classroom. So you’re seeing that digital signage there and then it’s spilling out into the hallways. They’re putting TVs into hallways of even K-12 schools, higher ed common areas. They’re running mainly just digital signage in those areas versus the hybrids that they’re running in the classrooms.
Are school districts mostly using Apple TVs?
Andrew Gould: It’s about two-thirds Apple TVs and one-third Windows devices, that’s how our users break down. So it’s not quite 50-50. I think it’s trending more towards that 50-50 blend. Early on, it was very Apple TV heavy, and we’re seeing a bit more of a skewback towards Windows devices.
I’m not sure exactly what’s behind that trend, maybe it’s the drive down of cheaper and cheaper Windows devices that can actually run 4k video and kind of stuff, the nooks, and the likes But yeah. So right now, the blend is really two-thirds Apple TVs.
What about collaboration displays that have systems on chips embedded in them, can you work with those?
Andrew Gould: So we’ve looked at the Android TVs and Samsung’s OS and those sorts of things.
The feedback that we’ve got from customers is that they are not really interested in that capability. The limitation of that is usually given the horsepower on those devices; we can usually only show one or two screens at a time. It ends up making Ditto, a hobbled product for it, and most of the time when people come to us, they’ve already got Apple TVs purchased or they’ve got a Windows device, they’re already looking to use, and they’re coming from the, “I picked my device, now I’m looking for the solution” approach, and the Smart TVs don’t come up in the conversations that much.
We’re not opposed to it. If that’s the way the market wants to go, we can surely adapt to that. All our technology is really flexible, so it’s quick for us to repurpose a new platform, but just not what the customers are asking these days.
Yeah, and it’s not like an Apple TV is expensive.
Andrew Gould: It’s $150, and it’ll run for probably 10 years before you have to worry about replacing it. They’re really rock solid.
When you’re selling into K12 in particular, are you selling district-wide or do you have to sell down to the school level?
Andrew Gould: It’s typically district-wide. It’s usually the IT coordinator or applicable semi-related role there that’s looking to roll out an agnostic solution, and that’s another place where we really shine is that schools are not one-to-one all the same type of device. You’re typically seeing iPads in the lower grades, and then you’re seeing Windows surfaces or Chromebooks as you get more into typing and writing papers and those sorts of things. So they want one solution that’s going to work across the board for all of those things, and that’s what Ditto’s bread and butter is.
So that starts the conversation off right away: one solution, you’re supporting one product across, whether you have three schools or a hundred schools in the district, it’s all the same solution, and then we can start the conversations if you realize digital signage, you’ve got all these screens in the cafeteria or the hallways, how are you putting information up there? And a lot of times it’s, oh, there’s a USB drive, and we go around and collect them, and we update them once a month. Somebody’s job is to update the USB with the media and plug it back into all the TVs, and there is a much better way to do that.
With a lot of schools using Chrome devices, is that problematic at all, or does it work with your system just fine?
Andrew Gould: No, it works great with Chrome. So Chrome OS used to have applications; they called them Chrome Apps. So we originally had a Chrome app that did all of this. That was in the store.
And then Google wound down Chrome apps just because they weren’t really being utilized all that much on the platform. So we went to a pure browser experience. So you just go to our goditto.com website, and you enter the room code that’s being shown on the teacher screen, and then we just use the web RTC built-in technology to capture the screen and send it over to Ditto receiver and show it so you can actually share without installing anything on a device, and that works on all platforms that support the browser capture technology.
There are other options out there for certainly higher ed. You’ve got companies like Rise Vision that’s particularly strong in K to 12 in churches and things like that, and some others How do I describe them, CMS software companies that are focused on that market, and then you’ve got the companies like Zoom that have video collaboration that have added on some digital signage capabilities and the Air Teams, where people who do similar screen mirroring. How do you match up against them and how do you sell against them?
Andrew Gould: Yeah, so the Air Team and Immersive, they’re selling proprietary hardware with a subscription service on top of it. So if you’re looking for, “Hey, just give me a turnkey solution, give me everything. I’m not really worried about the price, I just want it to work.” Those are great solutions. But what we see in schools is they care very much about the cost and the pricing, and some of them have already made investments into hardware with Apple TVs or Windows devices, and they’re saying, look, this is just extra cost that I don’t need to do the same thing.
So how we position against those is just, “Hey, you can use whatever hardware you want. We’re happy to run on either of those platforms and if you’ve already got them, cool, just buy our subscription, and you’re ready to go. You don’t have to worry about buying a five, six or eight hundred dollar hardware device, deploying it, or managing it differently than how you manage other things.” So that’s how we match up against those.
The more CMS type things that are focused on, digital signage in those very specific things. Again, those are the incumbents, those are the people that have been doing this; some of them have been there for decades doing this type of stuff. So we’re not here to try and outcompete those companies. We just see that there are certain niches that maybe those companies don’t fill as well, and we’re content to come along and fill those in and keep improving our product, and one day, maybe we’ll compete with them. Maybe we’ll have a platform that we’ve decided, hey, we should just make it do everything for everybody and look at going after competitors like those.
But like I said, the market is big enough that they can have that niche. We can have this niche, and it’s a very healthy business for us, and we’re happy to keep doing that. There are a couple of things that we know how to do really well versus, maybe, trying to get too big too fast, trying to do everything all at once.
Was having the digital signage component added to it pretty important because you’ve got companies like Google that have Chromecast that costs 35 bucks or something like that, that can do some degree of screen sharing, and it would be people who are really cost conscious, they could just go down that path?
Andrew Gould: Yeah, for sure. We don’t really see many Chromecast in school-type approaches. For whatever reason, they still don’t have basic security like onscreen code or passwords. They’ve only recently rolled out the ability to remotely manage those types of things. Adding digital signage wasn’t really about competing with any particular thing.
The customers that we have and the ones that we’re trying to get all value this functionality, and we saw it as a natural fit. It wasn’t like we had to completely reinvent the product and take it in some radical new direction. It just seemed like a natural complement to what we were already doing and we talked with some customers. We’re running two different solutions on an Apple TV, and they were trying to use Ditto for screen mirroring, and they were trying to use a different Apple TV application for digital signage, and they were trying to do crazy MDM scheduling, based on the class schedule, lock this app for Ditto, so it’s open, and then when it’s time in between class, walk the digital assignment solution, and we said, there people really want it that bad, maybe we can just be all of that in one and not force our customers to have to run two things like that. So that was the natural genesis of it versus we need to protect our position or something like that. It just made it evolutionary to move in a new direction.
So, how seamless and intuitive is it?
Let’s say, it is running in digital signage mode, the screen is, and the teacher decides, I want to push something to the screen from my laptop or my phone or whatever, and launches that session, does its thing. To then go back to digital signage, what’s involved?
Andrew Gould: You just start sharing your screen and stop sharing your screen.
So it’s directed from the device that wants to share their screen. So, when you open the app, you enter the room code. We make them fun, easy to enter, like red apples, big pineapple things that are easy, not like random numbers and digits that are hard for kids to type in.
And they push ‘Start sharing’ and boom, their screen’s up there, digital signage fades out, screen sharing fades in. It’s an instantaneous switchover, and then as soon as the last person stops sharing their screen, if you’ve got multiple people connected, it goes right back to the digital signage slide it was on when the person first connected. So it’s very easy. There’s no mode, nothing you have to tinker with on the screen itself.
So the management, whether it’s the school, the district, or the individual teacher, they’re using a browser to plan out their digital signage side of what the screen’s doing?
Andrew Gould: Yeah. It’s all a cloud-based portal. So you can be in the same building, or you can be in a different state. We have businesses that are deployed with Ditto in offices around the world, and there are a couple of people that sit in California and they manage all the digital signage worldwide. So it’s super easy right from the portal.
And what’s the commercial side of it? What are you paying? Is it a SaaS?
Andrew Gould: Yeah, it’s a SaaS model. It’s a yearly subscription. We offer a monthly if people are using this in bursts, but obviously, you save money by purchasing for an annual versus monthly. And it’s per screen that’s running Ditto.
So the other thing that we allow is, if you have multiple screens in a classroom, obviously, you can show digital signage on those, but we actually allow one device to push their content to multiple screens. So we’re seeing, especially in some classrooms, you’ve maybe got a screen in the front or to the side or behind as they set up classes less like when I was in school where it was just rows, everybody facing the front now that these little pods of kids are sitting at tables and not everybody’s facing the same direction, so they’ve actually got multiple screens in the rooms. So we just charge per screen that runs the software, and that’s it.
What’s the fee?
Andrew Gould: So, it’s $12.50 per month annually. So it’s $125 per month if you’re at 10 or more receivers in a school.
Is that just for the screen mirroring, or is that for the functionality, including the digital signage?
Andrew Gould: Yeah. That’s for everything. That’s one price for everything. We don’t charge more for that. We view it as, “Hey, we took this thing that we charge this price for. It made it even better by giving you all the stuff, and it’s the same price.”
And that includes the emergency alerts as well. So that ties into a protocol called CAP, which is how the National Weather Service and School Alert Systems all can send alerts. So we have a CAP server capability, where we can receive alerts from other servers, whether it’s the National Weather Service, an alert system that, unfortunately, a lot of schools are having to deploy now, where it can push one button and text the parents and send a push notification and send all the alerts out to Ditto and Ditto immediately takes over and shows that alert. You get all of that for that one price.
Yeah, it sounds very much like this isn’t a constrained compromise limited solution for the K to 12 market, it’s gonna do pretty much what an average classroom and what an average school is going to need.
Andrew Gould: Yeah, we really tried to put everything in there because, again, we don’t want people having to be like, “Well, Ditto almost does everything. It’d be great if it just did this one other thing, and then we wouldn’t need this other solution.” The hope is that we can provide that one solution that everybody needs.
Tell me more about the company. It’s been around since 2008. Is it privately held, or are you listed?
Andrew Gould: We’re privately held. I’m one of the co-founders of the company, started it back in 2008 with my business partner.
When we first started out, we weren’t doing collaboration. We were doing iOS app development. We had one of the first 50 apps in the iOS app store. We could actually get to the bottom of the list.
It was a TV guide app where you could put in the code and see what was on TV. It sounds like an archaic technology today but it was pretty cool back in the day, and then we got into the collaboration space in about 2012 when we released our first collaboration app, and then we’ve been focused on collaboration ever since.
Where’s the company based?
Andrew Gould: North Canton, Ohio, about an hour south of Cleveland but we have a diversified team present in a lot of states all around the country, but all the within the United States.
Is the majority of your business in the US?
Andrew Gould: Yes. That’s where mainly our outbound sales are focused on. But, like I said, we have a really big following actually in Australia. A lot of ditto customers there, and we are working on expanding into Europe this year and into next year to really go after that. There’s a lot more regulation and requirements, and apps have to work certain ways and those sorts of things that we want to make sure that we’re compliant and respectful to those things and come into that market appropriately, but it’s a big focus for us because we think the same needs exist there as they do everywhere else.
Yeah, it’s interesting. A lot of US and Canadian companies think they can just make the jump over, and then they get asked about things like GDPR and they’re looking at the other person, “What?”
Andrew Gould: Yeah, or even just common things like in France, everything has to be localized into the French language.
If you have one string in your application that’s in English, they typically won’t purchase. They value that. So we want to be respectful to those things, and they’re not hard things for us to comply with. It just requires us to pay somebody who knows French to translate a list of strings, and then we can sell into those markets as well.
Are you selling direct, or do you have channel partners?
Andrew Gould: Mainly direct. We have some channel partners that we started with right before the pandemic, and so we’ve seen a lot of that market move around, and so some of the channel partners that we originally partnered were more business-focused and the world has changed for business where people just aren’t going to the office as much anymore, and those channel partners just didn’t make sense.
So we’re actually working through a sort of reset of that channel partner program to be more education-focused with the channel partners. But we have some really great channel partners in the US that we work with, whether they’re distributors or they’re resellers, whether they’re just purchasing on behalf of the school and passing that through, or taking our solution and bundling it up with, “Hey, here’s the screen you need and here’s the speakers and the WiFi and everything,” and including us as a full technology rollout. We like to work with both of those.
If people want to know more, where do they find you online?
Andrew Gould: Our website is goditto.com. You can sign up for a free 30-day trial there. You can set up as many screens as you want, and play with digital signage as much as you want for 30 days, and then, as I said, it starts at $150 per receiver for a single license, and then we have volume pricing above 10 and it scale scales down from there.
Great. Thank you very much for spending some time with me.
Andrew Gould: Yeah, thanks, Dave. Appreciate it.