I tell this great story as if it was only yesterday. Back in my early days in AV integration sales in the late ’90s, within three months of being hired by the company, the owner comes into the sales cubicle area and a few of us turn to look at him as he starts speaking. He put out a simple question: “Who here wants to handle education?” We all look around at each other and I decide to say “I’ll do it.” Of course, I had never dealt with the education market before so I guess I had to wonder why I said that, but at that moment I was committed to the cause.
What essentially came along with the responsibility of education was SMART Technologies sales and especially the SMART Board, a behemoth of a white board that I was led to in the warehouse and told good luck, you’ll be selling these. I looked at the board, on wheels, and said “what did I get myself into here?” And so the SMART Technologies era for me officially began. Soon I got to know every intricate detail of the SMART Board, Notebook software, everything that mattered to the education market. At every InfoComm that I attended I always stopped by the SMART booth to see all of the latest technology. I also stopped in to catch up with all of the people I knew at SMART, and there were quite a few. Last year, prior to planning the trip to Orlando, I found out that SMART wouldn’t be there. Now for me that was a giant surprise as SMART was always a major exhibitor at the show. Why was this? Essentially it was left to speculation and not much more.
This year however, while looking into the trip I noticed that SMART was making a return to the show. What were they bringing? Well, as SMART is known to do these days, as they did last year at Enterprise Connect, it was a surprise. There would be a grand unveiling at the show, and a grand unveiling it was, with a floorshow to go with it. I was invited to witness the launch by John Lee of TallGrass Public Relations, and if I remember correctly it was based on a Twitter DM conversation between myself and SMART. John was handling media at InfoComm for SMART, so he got in touch with me, and let’s say all moved on from there. This blog is a result of these virtual encounters leading to show floor meet and in-person viewing of the launch of their revolutionary new product — SMART kapp. And the disruption continues…
At the show I met Neil Gaydon, the company’s president and CEO, Scott Brown, the president, Enterprise and Jeff Lowe, the VP of sales and marketing. As well as bow tie wearing Royston Birtwistle, not a company executive but the man who made the launch tick. In fact, here are SMART kapp moments (including the launch) from InfoComm. SMART was back, in a big way.
Neil Gaydon became the president and CEO of SMART Technologies in October 2012. He is an innovative, results-oriented leader, focused on delivering exceptional growth in highly competitive markets and turnaround situations which demand vision, energy and execution. He has led several global organizations in senior management positions over the last three decades and most recently held the position of CEO for Pace Plc., the world’s largest provider of digital television technologies to the Pay TV industry for set top boxes, gateways, home-networking, software and support services. Neil is a graduate of Harvard Business School in the Advanced Management Program. Personal awards include 2009 Institute of Directors ‘Director of the Year,’ 2009 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award winner and 2008 TechMARK Personality of the Year (recognizing technology businesses and innovation).
Scott Brown was named SMART Technologies’ President, Enterprise in May, 2013. He is a key member of the executive team and responsible for the strategy, financial objectives and operating plans of the Enterprise Business Unit which is a key growth area for the company.
Jeff Lowe, another key member of the executive team, joined SMART Technologies in 2012 bringing more than 22 years of business and marketing experience in technology and telecom sectors. Jeff is responsible for sales across North America and global marketing for the Enterprise Business Unit of SMART Technologies.
Neil Gaydon is my main interview subject for this blog, Scott Brown and Jeff Lowe have also contributed answers.
CM: Neil thank you for participating in this post-InfoComm blog interview. First please tell us about SMART Technologies the company and its current culture.
Neil Gaydon: Our new culture is founded on customer, execution and accountability. We have a new and effective strategy, structure and culture which everyone throughout the company understands. We have built flat team structures, eliminating tiers of management that clog the arteries of progress. We strive to live by our culture which inspires high performance. Our culture is global and has its own language aligned to key performance and financial metrics. Transparent and honest communication throughout the company is crucial, where for example Town hall meetings led by the CEO present progress, both good and not so good.
This is leading to vibrancy, energy, passion and trust. We are starting to see the benefits through new ground breaking innovative products launched over the past 6 months, including the new and exciting SMART kapp. Despite the continued headwinds in our education business we have come out fighting with a new high performance culture, belief in the talent of our people, exciting innovation and complete commitment to our customers.
CM: How have the many generations of collaboration solutions at SMART led to your current collaboration technology mind-set?
NG: Collaboration is a wide ranging subject we can’t possibly address in its entirety so we specialize in key areas. In enterprise we focus on markets that require rich two-way data and interactive displays/devices i.e. AEC, banking, manufacturing etc. which we achieve with our Visual Collaboration Solution (VCS).
A second area is disrupting the traditional meeting room. Through our relationship with Microsoft Lync, which now comes with powerful meeting room features, coupled with SMART’s class leading Room System and Meeting Pro software has the capability to dramatically improve the meeting room experience.
Lastly we just introduced SMART kapp, an exciting new product which not only disrupts the boring old dry erase board and flip chart but will create an entirely new category, just as we did when we first invented the SmartBoard over 20 years ago. SMART kapp will enable a new collaborative experience for the millions of people who want something simple and magical with which to capture and share ideas.
CM: You launched the new SMART kapp at InfoComm 2014 which included a mini-show in the booth based around a Museum of Productivity, deemed an “irreverent repository” of obsolete business tools. How did this launch idea come about?
NG: We had a lot of fun developing the marketing for SMART kapp where some of the brainstorming sessions literally ended in tears of laughter. After evaluating dozens of great ideas the Museum of Productivity seemed to encapsulate the hilarity of just how out of date the dry erase board and flip chart are and that they needed a retirement home. The idea that if a museum like this actually existed to honor the great products that have gone before and where they can only enter once something has been invented to supersede them, it was fitting with the invention of SMART kapp, that the dry erase board and flip chart be inducted into the hall of fame. It allowed us to create spoof videos that showed just how outdated this primitive tool is in a digital world. We have a new video coming soon which leaves the museum behind and focuses entirely on SMART kapp and what it can really do.
The name SMART kapp was derived from the internal name, DCB or Digital Capture Board. We felt the internal name was not that interesting. In addition we have just started moving to using shorter simpler names such as ‘SMART amp’ (a new collaborative software platform for education) and we believed we could do a lot of cool things with the name kapp plus the spelling of it looked great and as unique as the product itself.
Jeff Lowe: The idea for SMART kapp came about by looking at existing tools in the offices and realizing their limitations. We live in such a digital world, we couldn’t figure out why people were still using dry erase boards and flip charts which haven’t changed one bit. We thought it was time for these tools to evolve – hence SMART kapp – the next evolution of the dry erase board and flipchart. The museum was really just a fun way of saying “it’s time to retire the dry erase board and flip chart.” We didn’t mean any disrespect to the items in our museum. They were all great tools and really innovative for their time, but their time has passed. Better, more collaborative, more powerful, more useful, or less limiting tools have replaced them.
CM: Can you tell us about the SMART kapp solution from the original brainstorm session to InfoComm launch?
NG: When I started at SMART 18 months ago, I wanted a product that was as simple to use as a dry erase board but with the capability to save and share. There are millions of people who love their dry erase boards who I believed would change if they were offered something really simple to use but with the ability to capture, save and share. We were very busy during my first 6 months restructuring the company so we just couldn’t get round to solving this problem. However as soon as we came up for air we challenged ourselves to come up with a new concept to replace the dry erase board.
I was convinced the solution lay in developing a low cost interactive display that only did digital ink, white boarding and email. We had three teams present their concepts. Two of them presented ideas on similar lines to what I thought would be the solution but the whole display concept ended up being too expensive and too complicated compared to a dry erase board. Finally the third concept came from one of our industrial designers based out of New York. When he presented his idea I turned to Warren Barkley our CTO to see he was grinning just as much as I was. SMART kapp was born!
We then had a lot to figure out; how to capture a dry erase pen, how to save content, how to simply walk up and use it as it always needed to be on, how to eliminate any need for IT integration, how to design something so desirable someone might actually want to buy one for looks alone! Above all it had to do 2 things perfectly – always connect to your device and always save whatever you had written on the board. Anyone in technology will tell you that ‘doing simple’ is hard and I think we have done a pretty good job with this product.
CM: At the InfoComm 2014 launch you brought up that well known term “disruptive” when referring to SMART kapp usually reserved for the newer to market manufacturers and vendors. How does SMART, a long time industry player, plan on disrupting the AV/IT market?
NG: I don’t agree that disrupters necessarily have to be start ups’. There’s no doubt that established companies can appear to lose those daring moments of innovation which is not true at SMART where we have launched 3 key disruptive technologies in just 9 months;
1. SMART kapp – A new disruptive product for the global dry erase and flip chart markets
2. SMART Room System for Microsoft Lync. A new disruptive solution for the video conferencing meeting room that are generally too expensive, hard to use, with little to no collaboration capability.
3. SMART amp education software which delivers true collaboration on any device, anywhere and anytime has the capacity to revolutionize teaching.
CM: You have built an enterprise organization within SMART to bring a centric focus to corporate sector solutions. Can you give us an idea as to how this entity has become a benefit to SMART and will continue to be into the future?
Scott Brown: SMART has a tremendous legacy and rich lineage in education markets globally. We are known for having an install base of over 2 million classrooms around the world, all using our SMART solutions to help facilitate learning. As our solutions evolved, though, we needed to provide a dedicated focus on enterprise customers and to align our go-to-market strategies to service this critical sector. We know enterprise customers demand exemplary service, rock solid SLA’s and world class support. Our distribution model had originally been set up to serve the needs of our education customers, with a focus on the geographic composition of a school district or state.
As we moved aggressively into enterprise, we established a new global distribution model which services the needs of multi-national deployments of SMART solutions, so now we are able to ship and deploy on behalf of a global customer with a single transaction. We have also established simple, SKU-based pricing which provides consistency of installation, support and maintenance around the globe. SMART realizes that effective collaboration is one of the top key attributes and corporate behaviors that enterprise customers strive for. Given SMART’s current portfolio of solutions, we are very well positioned to help our customers leverage the power of true collaboration.
A history of collaboration in education leading to the new age of collaboration in Enterprise. As the company continues to progress in the enterprise collaboration space, products like the revolutionary new kapp will help lead the way. It’s a highly strategic path that is continuously being laid toward a SMART way to do business.