Nick Johnson Explains How NowSignage Dodges Race-To-The-Bottom SaaS Price Wars By Offering Easy But Enterprise-Ready Software

April 10, 2024 by Dave Haynes

When I asked an industry friend, whose opinions I respect and trust quite a bit, what CMS software he’d looked at and been impressed by, he rattled off a few companies I was expecting to hear about, but also mentioned the platform developed and marketed by a smallish UK company called NowSignage. He’d seen a lot of different options, but these guys he said, had something that was very modern and nimble.

I finally got my act together and scheduled a chat with founder Nick Johnson. Now’s roots are in pushing social media messaging to big screens at live events – like concerts and big games. Requests started evolving, both in terms of what could be done with screens and how long they’d be used – which led in part to him concluding the future business was in permanent installations and revenue that was recurring and predictable, versus periodic.

Now markets its product as being affordable and not focused on a particular market segment, like QSR, workplace or whatever. That generalist approach tends to worry me, because buyer decisions tend to get focused on price, as in who costs the least. But in my chat with Johnson, he explains that their market focus is on what he calls multi-screen management – networks with a lot of locations and a lot of screens. Most companies would also say they want that and do that, but as Johnson explains in our chat, that’s easy to talk about, but much harder to do well.

I also had to ask about the Frankenstein’d Rolls-Royce that was the eye candy for the NowSignage stand at ISE in Barcelona.

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Nick, thank you for joining me. I know NowSignage reasonably well. I suspect a lot of other people do as well, but could you maybe just give me a rundown on the background of the company, what it is you do, what’s distinct, that sort of thing? 

Nick Johnson: Yeah, sure. Cheers for having me on, Dave.

And, yeah, nice to be here. Yeah, so NowSignage, for those who don’t know who we are, is a UK-based business that has been around since 2013. A lot of people thought we launched a market and were in a big whirlwind storm about six years ago, but actually, the tech has been being developed since 2013 now, and then we really honed in on the permanent signage market around seven or eight years ago, really.

In terms of signage, we position ourselves as a multi-screen management platform that allows our users to effectively and efficiently manage large networks of screens. So, we don’t really focus on a specific vertical specialism. So, with IE, we’re not a specific sector, like a corporate sector outright or anything like that. Our specialism is really around meeting the needs and demands of projects that have multiple screens, often in multiple locations or multiple sites, so those large-volume projects are our specialism. 

Now, I would imagine most software companies would say: we can fully support large enterprise level, big footprint projects across multiple locations and all that, so that doesn’t immediately hit me as a distinction, but I’m guessing you’re going to tell me that it’s easier said than done? 

Nick Johnson: Exactly. So normally, as you say, with CMSs, and we found it ourselves in the early days, we had an eye on those bigger projects, but in reality, as soon as it got above 50 screens, that becomes a challenge for a CMS. It’s got a different thought process that needs to go into the CMS from an intuitive nature, but also, your platform needs to be built to kind of balance those enterprise features alongside the simplicity, flexibility, and scalability of the platform. 

So yeah, there are some nuances that, for sure, where if you want to manage those large scale projects, you really need to nail the ability to make it as easy as possible for those end users to target specific screens with specific promotions or specific content and that’s quite a powerful and hard to achieve thing within a CMS. It’s all about bringing those features to enable that functionality. 

So, if I’m an end user or even a reseller integrator looking at different options out there, what’s my sniff test (or smell test) to determine who can genuinely support large-scale networks like that? 

Is it data integration, you know, is it elasticity, at the server level? What are those things? 

Nick Johnson: Yeah, both of those, obviously, come into consideration. The way we position our product is that we ultimately want it to be self managed by the user. So if it can’t be easy to be managed by the user, then you’ve got a problem, and to make it easy to be managed by the user, you do need those features in the platform like very advanced targeted tags or roles and permissions for locking down areas of the platform.

The targeted tags will allow people to target localized stores with localized messages based on the tagging functionality. I’d probably say the most important thing is just giving that flexibility throughout the platform. You can’t say that all scheduling has to be done in the scheduling area. You need to be more flexible on that. So in the NowSignage CMS, we enable certain degrees of different types of scheduling to happen, whether it’s in the content area, the actual playlist area, the scheduling area, and even at the screen’s level, there are different types of tools that you can use to meet the requirements of the customer. 

So, it’s not always one size fits all. You have to go to that customer and say, look, we’ve got this feature set here that makes it easy to manage large networks. What’s your specific requirement here? And we may turn around and go, great. You want to use our targeted tags and our override functionality, or we might say you want to use nested playlists and the ability to set assets to show and remove at set dates and times. So, it’s giving that broader flexibility within the CMS to adapt to their needs. 

I’m curious as well about the whole idea of affordability. It’s one of the things that comes across on your site pretty quickly that you talk about it being cost effective and affordable. But it’s also pretty sophisticated, like a lot of the platforms that say they’re affordable, it’s because, they do the basics. 

Nick Johnson: Yeah, and I’m glad you used the word affordable there because I don’t like the word cheap. So, for us, it’s not a race to the bottom. We’re not about being the cheapest. We’re about being what you get out of our package, which is the most affordable. It’s the most cost-effective. So you get the most amount of performance out of our platform for the cost and ratio. So yeah, it’s all about affordability. So, with the platform, we don’t charge for add-ons within the platform. 

When you get access to NowSignage, you get access to all our features and functionality, and you even get access to them as we roll out new features and functionality; they become free for all end users to use. So that’s why we appeal, as I said at the start there, we don’t really have a sector specialism; we focus on the type of customer that we want to work with, and then often those customers we find because we operate, let’s say with lots of supermarkets, a supermarket isn’t just a retail requirement in the front of the store. A true requirement for a supermarket is actually they want to centralize that CMS and they have a retail requirement. They have a retail media network requirement. They have a digital out-of-home requirement. They have a back office requirement. They have a factory and manufacturing plant requirement. So all of these requirements are completely different, and the NowSignage platform allows those users to pull on different features and functionalities in the platform.

So they may in their manufacturing plant use our Microsoft Power BI integration for showing dispatch information and fleet management, whereas in the retail media network, they might be using our proof of play functionality, which, as you’ve alluded to, is very much an enterprise feature and it normally very often doubles the cost of a license. We absorb all of those costs, from our servers and so on because we spread that across our whole customer base. So, yeah, it’s absolutely the most affordable is how we position ourselves, not the cheapest in the race to the bottom. 

Yeah, I’ve often said that if you’re going to be a generalist, that can be a little deadly because you are just competing on price by and large, but what you’re saying is, we go across a number of vertical sectors, but we’re not really a generalist because our specialty is large, multi-screen networks.

Nick Johnson: Yeah, and what you will get with those networks as well, because of the types of brands and customers that you’re working with for those projects, it’s not really about just selling features and competing on cost for those large networks. Now, obviously, they will be price-driven because often they go out to tender, so you do need the ability to really come down on your price, which we have that capability to do so we can be very competitive on price, but equally, what the brands wanna see is they really want to build a partnership with that CMS to get confidence from you that you are advising them on how to structure their account to maximize the usage of your platform, to meet their goals and of what they require from the network.

So if you can communicate and instill that confidence, I think that’s really where you find the winning edge to things. 

You also, as a company, say that your hardware is agnostic. I have seen all kinds of companies go down that path, and many of them then almost surrender and come up with their own dedicated player devices. 

I don’t think it’s because they’re making extra hardware margin; it’s just that they grow wary of trying to support all these different types of hardware, and the much easier path is to just have their own, which they can control because they know the build and everything else. So, how do you manage being agnostic across so many different platforms?

Nick Johnson: Yeah, so it’s all about getting the feature parity across all those different operating systems. There are so many out there. You’ve got the standard kind of Android, Windows, Linux, all of those. But then you’ve got the more proprietary ones with the system on chip, where a lot of them are really using an Android base there but you’ve got Samsung with Tizen, LG with WebOS, BrightSign with their setup there. So, yeah, we’ve got one centralized code base, and so I probably can’t share too much about that and give our full game away, but yeah, we’ve got one centralized code base set, which delivers feature parity across all those builds.

So when we make a change within the platform, we don’t need to make it for seven different builds or ten different builds. We don’t have to support lots of builds of the platform, meaning lots of developers. We have one centralized build, and that is built in a way that is then compatible with all operating systems out there. So you may have seen that on our stand at ISE. At ISE, we had three or four BrightSign displays. We had a large video wall that was powered by a Windows player. We had a Sony system on-chip display and a Samsung system on-chip display, and on one setup there via the show Wi-Fi, which is very flaky at times, we managed to achieve perfect screen synchronization across different hardware again, which is quite unusual. 

Not only are we offering parity across the hardware, but actually with features like Screen Sync, we can bring all of that together and actually offer the synchronization to take into account those different processing powers and speeds and so on.

Does that mean if you inherit a network and you’re then going to expand on it and it has multiple different operating systems on different devices and so on, you can manage them all off of your application without having something in the middle, like Signage OS or whatever?

Nick Johnson: Absolutely, and I think that’s what’s so important with the types of customers that we’re onboarding is that they will have a network that’s out there that’s got legacy hardware and screens in there, and they’re not in a position where they want a huge outlay of cost to go and transform all that hardware over brand new hardware. So because we can sit on a system on a chip, we can sit on the media players, we also work closely with those partners, as you’ve mentioned, the Signage OS, if there was a requirement there, then we could sit alongside that. But generally, because we have that feature parity and the hardware-agnostic approach, there’s no requirement for that additional layer that needs to be added, so it can reduce all the costs and also mean that the network can be rolled out at relative ease and speed as well. 

Some of the other software applications out there that say they are hardware agnostic, they’re able to do that because it’s a somewhat truncated application. It’s a web player or something. So yes, you can get content, all the different operating systems or whatever, but it’s not a pure player. It can’t do everything that a native player could do. 

Nick Johnson: Yeah. So, ours is a full application in the way that it’s powered. So we are a Chrome OS partner, and we can run through a browser mode or any sort of environment like that where it needs to be embedded into a web page or as a browser player, but yeah, the way our code base packages or fit packages, or everything is its own native application.

A few companies have started talking, well, they’ve been talking about a few things, but one of them is this idea of headless CMS and the idea that, if I have a tool set that I’m already using within a larger company, that’s pushing out to web, mobile, intranet, extranet, whatever it may be, they want to use that tool set to also do digital signage as opposed to logging into a separate application.

Can you do that sort of thing? 

Nick Johnson: So are you referring to embedding us into different environments so that we could be played within an intranet environment? 

Probably more so that the development, the scheduling, a lot of what you would do for a digital sign network, you could do within another application, and the digital signage platform is kind of the plumbing, the infrastructure that moves things around.

It’s kind of the way that Samsung with VXT now is positioning itself as you can write your application on top of our platform. 

Nick Johnson: Yeah. So, normally, we operate with a fully open API. So we really want to be the source and the conduit for everything coming into it. So we won’t go out there and build some specialist functionality that other platforms already build a lot better than us, like a Microsoft Power BI integration; we wouldn’t try and build something like that or a Quividi integration that we’ve got if we want to do audience measurement with camera systems and so on, we have an API there. So we can pull all of those great features and functionality together and then be the source to output that. 

Similar to QSR environments, things like with the API, we sit in harmony with their product systems. So, if they want to do dynamic pricing, we will just be another outlay to them. They will look at the output to all the other different avenues for that pricing, and we will just be a different source that they’re inputting into. Then, we’ll showcase that dynamic pricing data on the screen. So yeah, we’ve got an open API, and we’re kind of pulling all that data resource into NowSignage.

I would imagine the data side of things is super important, the ability to support all that? 

Nick Johnson: Yeah, from two angles, really. In terms of the data capacity on our side, we’ve just gone through a full year’s process of improving and upgrading our infrastructure. So, the infrastructure of a CMS is super important. It is arguably what sets a lot of CMSs apart. You’ve found in recent years that there are certain CMSs that have risen to the top and that they’re probably the ones that have invested in their infrastructure, their scalability as a brand, and their security. So, likewise, we’ve done the same. 

Our infrastructure is invaluable to the platform. If we have downtime or anything that’s going to impact our size of customers, which isn’t acceptable, but also the data that we can then pull together and aggregate to then analyze and give back to the customers inside the platform is obviously crucial as well, and that’s probably going to be a big focus for us this year.

We already have features like proof of play in the platform that can report on when, where, and how many times an advert is played on the screen, and all of that is live data that comes through. So customers don’t need to wait for that data, and we obviously have lots of information about the status of the screens and the uptime status and the ability to kind of set them to go on and off and push our app updates and all of that kind of good stuff. But I think that will be a big push this year to analyze and help our customers understand that data more and more, knowing exactly where their screens are and what’s happening with them. 

Your company is young enough in relative terms that I suspect you’re not saddled with some of the problems that, or challenges that, really well established companies may have in terms of they have a software application that’s, they’ve been building off of for 15-30 years, in some cases, versus what you’ve got.

If you started in 2013 and you kind of emerged a few years after that, you’ve got a platform that’s using modern web tools and everything else, and you’re a lot more malleable, I suspect. 

Nick Johnson: Exactly, and a lot of the team that I’ve brought together as well, we’re all from completely different sectors, but before that, created and delivered and brought to market a very successful SaaS business there in a completely different sector.

So, as I built this business, I brought on a lot of the expertise from the old CTO, and my investor and my business partner are from that background as well. So right at our core, we understand how SaaS businesses and tech need to work. So we’re not from a hardware background. We’re not interested in the hardware. We’re interested in it. How can this software be the most efficient and scalable piece of software and also the most innovative piece of software? 

So you’re right, probably the timing of it and in the sense that digital signage had kind of become to get a bit more established around that point and knew its place, so we don’t have all the legacy burden of the hardware and having to build on and revamp our infrastructure with. 

We’ve managed to build a very clean UI from day one, but also from the experience and background of myself, but also the people that I’ve built around the team, where we’re really focused on SaaS and technology and innovation, that’s what we live and breathe every day, really.

And the company kind of grew out of, or at least was inspired by, I believe, it was pushing social media to screens at live events. Is that correct? 

Nick Johnson: Yeah, let’s be honest. It was probably me just having a bit of fun in my mid-twenties at that point. So, yeah, the way it all started was I was working for a company that was a web agency at that point, developing websites. And so my part in that business was that we developed a piece of technology that was embedding social feeds into those websites. So, at the time, just before 2013, I separated that as a separate company and thought, wouldn’t it be great if we could get some social content onto screens at events. 

This was kind of around the time that the Twitter walls were emerging. So it was right at the early stage of that. So our first ever event was actually at the Olympic stadium, and we were powering the big screens where people were taking Instagram pictures and popping them onto big screens and I couldn’t really believe what I’d got into at that point. So, I just enjoyed the ride for a few years. We got shipped around all over the world, doing large events and as we did more of those events, I suppose the platform evolved, which is why the platform is so intuitive and focused just around the software because we kind of started off with that base and then we were doing events where people then wanted to advertise onto the screen.

So we had to bring in some advertising capability to show images and videos, and then before we knew it, we started doing some more permanent setups where we needed to bring in that better structure and management and, then, as I say, probably around, I can’t remember the exact date now, but it must’ve been around seven or eight years ago. Just overnight, it was 90 percent of our revenue at the time, I just decided we needed to focus on permanent signage. That was the model that was going to work. That’s the sustainable model and the growth model that we wanted. So we kind of just made the ballsy move at that point that we were ditching all of that income, and we focused permanently on permanent digital signage and because we have the background of the platform already, as I say, people were looking at us going, who are these guys who have come to market and we’ve just kind of won four AV awards in a row. But, actually, it’s because the software was there, and we actually just needed to understand what the channel was and what the industry was and that’s what we focused on, and we don’t sell directly at all. We only sell directly through our resell reseller channel, whether it’s a balance of integrators or distributors, and that’s how we now go to market. 

It’s funny, I was talking about that with somebody else yesterday about the channel and the opportunities and challenges of doing that and how difficult it can be to sell direct if you also have channel partners.

You’re kind of saying that you’ve got to choose door number one or door number two. You can’t go through both. 

Nick Johnson: Yeah, and I think it’s a fine balance, and I’d say certainly in where we come from, it’s always through the channel, but I have seen some variances globally that some people say that the channel in Europe, and then in the US that they’re selling direct because they get a big contract and the brand wants to work direct.

We’ve actually just secured a very large project in the US, which is great news for us, but the relationship of that is that we engaged directly and we built trust with the end user and we demonstrated our platform, but now it’s come through to a commercial point. We are absolutely funneling that through the channel because that’s how you build that trust and that relationship with the channel. So that’s now being commercially funnel funneled through one of our channel partners, and then off the back of that. For us, there’s no way that we can; we would never do a direct deal because that kind of breaks our whole model of how we’re going to market and how we’re building trust with our resellers that they’re ultimately our partner and our direct customer. 

And are you white-labeled and totally behind the curtain, or would the end user know that this is NowSignage as managed by Brand X?

Nick Johnson: In almost all circumstances, they will know it’s NowSignage. What we don’t do is we don’t do white labels for our resellers. We want them to proudly shout about it being NowSignage. So everybody at the sales point knows that they are purchasing NowSignage. In some instances, once it then goes through the end user, they go, great, we’re now using NowSignage, but actually, we want our staff to log into an environment that feels familiar and friendly to them; at that point, we can white label for the end user, but at no point is it hidden and that it’s NowSignage. It’s NowSignage all the way and then when the end users dive in, we can white label to an end user requirement. 

Yeah, I’ve always wondered about white labeling. I understand the task and everything, but if you do that as a reseller, there’s then an expectation you really know your way around the software, and I suspect that there are a lot of uncomfortable phone calls and meetings. 

Nick Johnson: Yeah, and also, I think you get that frustration as well. We’ve found fortunately that we’ve managed to secure some of those resellers who have traditionally sold a white-labeled CMS, and the frustrations that they’ve actually ended up happening is that they get a demand from an end user to say, we need this feature, and we need it right now.

Now, it’s not their code base. They don’t own the IP. They don’t own the code. They’ve got no developers. So, at that point, they have to go back to the CMS and say, can you build this? But I think from a CMS’s point of view, that kind of, like, well, you’re a white-label solution so you now just need to join the queue of things, whereas with us, we have that open dialogue with the end user and with our reseller. So if a request comes in, it funnels straight to us, and we control that kind of destiny of where those features come in, and we’re very transparent with that roadmap to react. 

ISE was a couple of months ago. You guys were there when I was walking around. I was expecting to hear a lot more about AI from different software companies. Here’s how we’re using AI. Here’s how we’re applying it. Here’s the opportunity, and so on. 

But maybe it’s just early stages, and I just didn’t hear much. I’m curious what you guys are doing with it or you’re kind of sitting on the sidelines watching it?

Nick Johnson: No, we’re absolutely not sitting on the sidelines watching it, but to have a go at us, we’re not shouting about it as much as we probably should be, and what we’ve found is that we are doing a huge amount of development in the background with AI. So we’ve already done some integrations into the platform with AI that haven’t been released as full features into the platform.

My understanding and the feedback that I’m getting from other CMSs that we talk to and have good relationships with are that AI at the moment; none of the big brands are quite ready to take the first step with it, really. They’re all very interested in it, and it’s a great opportunity to open a door and start a conversation with them. So we do have AI features built into the platform that can, you can walk up to a screen and tell it what your allergies are, and it can then relay what food is appropriate for you within that store or help you find products within certain aisles or find your preferences. So we’re using it as a tool to really open up the door and demonstrate.

But in reality, there’s not been a huge amount of adoption from it on our side, and I think that it will come, but I think some of the big brands are just waiting for someone to take the first step to see if it goes well, and then there’ll be a lot of people to follow, but we’re absolutely in that talking point where we’ve done a lot of AI development.

Yeah, I think, as you say, a lot of the work isn’t really something that is going to be visible to an end-user or to a channel partner. It’s work that helps expedite some basic coding and things, right? 

Nick Johnson: Yeah, it’s all about bringing in the data and feeding that back to the end user in the cleanest and most efficient manner. So it can become a very powerful tool, where we’re seeing it. As I say, a great example would be to walk into a coffee shop and say, “I want something for breakfast, but I’ve got a nut allergy,” and it can relay all that allergy information and say, this is what we suggest, and if you say, “I don’t want anything that has to meat in it,” it will say: here are the vegan options. “Where can I find that?” You can find that on aisle five, it’s priced for 99 or whatever it might be. All of that is just pulling live data and using the AI tool to relay that information. 

Just going back to ISE, I can’t have this conversation without asking about the Rolls Royce.

Nick Johnson: Yeah. So we had a lot of interest in a lot of questions about why you have got a Rolls Royce there, but I think that’s it Dave. But I think for NowSignage and me, we like to get noticed and it’s important to get noticed because it’s, at times, a crowded marketplace, and I think you’ve really got to understand that there’s a cost of being dull, and a lot of people waste a lot of energy and get drowned out by all this white noise because everyone’s saying the same old, same really. So you’ve got to really consider what is the cost of being dull.

And if you’re going to be dull in the events industry, you’re going to have an empty stand. You’re going to have no pundits on your stand. You’re going to be having no conversations. So, it’s all about, I think, making people care, making people smile, and surprising them in some way, and if you can hit those three points at any point in any form of marketing, I think you’ll get an interest in your sparking debates, really.

So, for people who did not go to ISE, what did you do? 

Nick Johnson: So we bought a 1950s vintage Rolls Royce from a scrap heap, and we did it over three months. My business partner is a fanatic about cars… 

Yes, I met him. 

Nick Johnson: He did it as a bit of a hobby, and before we renovated it, we, to some Rolls Royce lovers, they may not have been happy, but I remind them that it was on a scrap heap, so we did save it in the first place. Wwe chopped it in half, we attached a flatbed truck to it. We then constructed a digital scene on the back to make it look like it was a, like a food van, but actually it was constructed with screens and the digital element created a visual effect to make it look like the screens went up and down and then we drove it 1,300 miles from Manchester in the UK all the way to Barcelona at 50 miles an hour and parked it on the stand. 

So, was it on the back of another truck, or was it a viable rolling vehicle? 

Nick Johnson: So with this setup, and it was over seven meters long unit, so yeah, and because of the age of it, we actually built an electric motor inside it underneath.

So what we did is we transported it on another vehicle that had to drive very slowly, and then when we got it near the venue, we actually drove it in with a remote control by the electric power. So we actually drove because no petrol was allowed in the car, and we remote control it in and reversed it onto the stand and then we had a few gags throughout the show as well, where we got people to sit in and then quickly remove the remote, and they thought that they’d pressed something and made the car move forward. 

Well, that’s certainly a lot more eye-grabbing than a bowl full of pens. 

Nick Johnson: I agree. 

So what are you going to do next year? Or you can’t tell me? 

Nick Johnson: I am under wraps on that one, but let’s just say it’s definitely going to be bigger and better. The problem that I think we will have once we do next year is that I’m not too sure how we’re going to top it the following year. So, next year is going to be, yeah, pretty impressive.

It is vehicle-related again, but yeah, it’s even more impressive. I’m quite looking forward to getting it over there. 

Yeah. Well, the challenge of that is just what you just said. If you one up by yourself every year, then there’s an expectation now: what are you gonna do? Is it gonna be a space shuttle or what?

Nick Johnson: Yeah, or just not turn up for any year or so, but I don’t think we could do that. 

Nick, thank you. That was terrific. 

Nick Johnson: Excellent. Well, yeah, thanks for having me on, and yeah, I look forward to catching you in Infocomm or wherever I see you next. 

Infocomm and I’ll be at the event in Munich in six to seven weeks, something like that, so I’m around.

Nick Johnson: Good stuff. 

All right. Take care. 

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