Being “excited scared” can be fun!

I doubt that there is an actual word of “excited scared” and I am not sure if there is a word for it (let me know if you can think of one). It is a little like the feeling you get when you see the most beautiful (or handsome) person across a room. It is more like it when you actually make your way towards that person. Even still when you find the courage to say a few words. It is mostly like the feeling you get when you have done all of that and are standing with this person just about to have your first kiss. Your heart is racing, sweat budding and are excited and scared at the same time. Each step in the process was scary, but that very feeling of the potential of being blown off and the challenge of going further is extremely exciting.

We have just embarked on an “excited scared” journey at StrandVision. Over the next 4 months, we have committed to give away 1 million subscriptions for a year based on our low end package. Our hope is that new customers will discover the benefits of digital signage (and they even they can use it), like our product and service as much as our paying customers and eventually want to pay us themselves. The tricky part is that this is just the “walking towards” step of the process as we begin the process to build a lasting relationship with each new subscriber. Hopefully the product and our service look presentable since we all know how first impressions impact the upcoming steps.

As I have personally gone through this process (and will continue to), I was reminded how important it is to take risks like this. I am inherently a risk taker, but I had backed off some (getting older has a way of doing that). So I would recommend that each of you take one little risk every now and then. If you want to try something big, that is even better – as long as you have though through a plan of attack. So, I wish you lots of “excited scared” over the coming months and may your risks turn into the kiss you are hoping for.

We Now Offer TOTALLY Free Digital Signage

After much research on Free, and much work to offer a great product without the need for a lot of support, we are pleased to announce the Summer of Digital Signage Giveaway program under which we are offering a free digital signage subscription for one year to anyone..

The promotion runs through August 31, 2010. To get your own free subscription, simply complete a test drive from the StrandVision Digital Signage web site at http://www.strandvision.com/testdrive.html, fill in “SDS-SV” as the promotion code and begin your personalized digital signage displays. If you are seeing this message on a computer, then you have everything you need. You can be up and running in just a few minutes. We also send you tips over the first couple weeks to help you know where and how to install your screen, tips on good signage and even how to make money from your free subscription by sharing the news (and sharing the free subscriptions with others).

The Summer of Digital Signage program is designed to introduce companies, non-profit organizations, schools and government agencies to the benefits of digital signage. It offers you the opportunity to create your own custom digital signage content and have it delivered over the Internet directly through an existing personal computer to your existing display monitor or television.

For a quick overview of free digital signage and how it can add to your communications mix, visit http://www.strandvision.com/signage_overview.html.

The StrandVision Summer of Digital Signage package is a full-featured digital signage system that allows you to incorporate your own photos and graphics into your digital signage display. Several advanced features are also provided including scheduling, scrolling text, a graphics library, time and date notices, as well as local weather and Radar. The digital signage can also be displayed in a frame on your own Websites.

We decided to give the full boat for free – no hidden fees, no gimmicks. We don’t even ask for a credit card. We see the Summer of Digital Signage as an opportunity to introduce and educate everyone to the potential of digital signage. We also think that, as the economy begins to improve, we can help you increase your business by giving you another powerful promotional tool. We’re confident that once you see the potential of StrandVision digital signage, you’ll want to make it a permanent part of your communications mix.

StrandVision provides the digital signage service through participant-provided Internet connections, Windows PC computers and displays. The promotion runs until 5:00 PM Central on August 31, 2010. Summer of Digital Signage subscriptions are valid for one year from the signup date, providing participants meet minimum usage standards. See http://www.strandvision.com/summer_of_digital_signage.html for details.

Starting a business – a couple of links

I was going through old emails and came across this one from my accountant. It has valuable information that I thought would be good to share.

LLC or Other Form of Entity:

I would definitely consider forming an LLC. You could contact an attorney if you wish but many people having been setting them up on their own using the following web-site http://www.wdfi.org/corporations/forms/corp183forms.htm . It does cost a few bucks so you need to evaluate whether the cost is worth the liability protection depending on how many sales you will have.

If this thing really takes off and you want to (you would not have to) change to a corporate form of business in a few years, it is very easy to do with an LLC. Also, an LLC would not complicate your tax situation. LLC’s with single owners are considered “disregarded entities”, a technical firm that means that the IRS treats you as if the LLC didn’t exist.

Income Taxes (Yuck):

As to deducting expenses – keep track of what you’re spending. You would definitely want to offset your sales with expenses as much as possible. If the expenses exceed sales result in a loss, we can make a call on whether it makes sense to deduct the loss.

Sales Taxes (Mega Yuck):

Don’t forget about the state sales tax permit for in-state sales. You can apply for the Wisconsin one at http://www.revenue.wi.gov/faqs/pcs/seller.html.

Our patent is issued!

After lots of years and dollars, our patent was issued. Being my first completed patent, I’m kind-of new to all this and all the benefits.

The patent is really quite broad which is quite amazing to have it through. The patent covers displayed content of digital signage at distant locations that is at least partially controlled by a processor and database at a central location. The processing system collects, samples and evaluates general information to determine what specific information should be displayed on local signage. The system also provides for additional signage content to be selected by the server based on general parameters setup by the user.

Almost 5 years ago when I applied for the patent, we were one of the few SAAS providers and I have always believed in the technology (even though SAAS was seen as a disadvantage back then). Also, patents are an asset for the business. So, we decided to pursue it.

As for our plans, I am not sure of all the avenues that are available to us. Obviously licensing arrangements are beneficial to everyone involved. Reviewing competitive products to determine infringement is also an option. We also have plans relating to future products and features which the patent has provisions for.

For more information, check out http://www.strandvision.com/digital_signage_patent_issued.html

More about free products…

After reading lots of information regarding how free can earn revenue, it definitely came to light that you have to be careful with it. Obviously it can forever diminish the value of a product.

One key point that I gleaned were that it is important to find ways that people will WANT to pay a little extra. Another is that it needs to be valuable enough to not only get people to take the time to select your free product, but it is best if they tell their friends and associates about it.

One valuable thing for people is to save their time, so upgrades should include some time saving features. Another way to make paid for products valuable is to offer free support for them and keep free product support limited to automated methods. The best thing is to have supplemental products that make the setup easier. In our case, we are considering offering a free digital signage software product, and we will have a pre-configured set of hardware that makes the installation quick and easy.

Getting people to talk about it is a tricky area. There not only needs to be a good reason to talk about the free product, but it is beneficial if they can make money, recognition or some other value for them to talk about it. Getting the word out to existing customers is a starting place. Advertising can be beneficial to get the buzz started. Using the social networking mediums can do some, but again, it is better to have hundreds (or better still millions) of people using those mediums rather than you. The key is to add value to everyone who “gives’ your product away. We think we have got an interesting approach – but that is confidential until the day we announce it…

More to come I suspect! Have a great Easter everyone.

When should you break everything to fix something

I am in the middle of much thought regarding communication between multiple servers, some production, some development and some on customer’s premises that are fire walled from the world. Getting all of these to talk properly is getting very tumultuous and causing lots of necessity to tear things apart and start over.

So, that go me wondering when is a good time to tear down the walls and start over (using what we have learned from the past to speed construction and build a better foundation for the future of course). My current issue is programming of software, but I have run into it with business processes, employees and even constructing several buildings over the years. It is a question that actually has a time and place in most every decision.

One of the trickiest things is to even notice that parts of our “building” are getting rickety because there are pieces nailed onto other pieces that were nailed onto pieces before it. In the case of houses and office buildings, that is a little more obvious, but not so much with intellectual issues. That being said, I have seen some contractors try to hide lots of things behind the sheet rock. Sometimes the best way to see the band-aids is to have an outsider take a peek (when working with a contractor, you are typically the outsider).

Once you have identified that something is getting cobbled together, you have to identify whether it is safe to keep it as it is (or safe to add to it). Safety can be defined in terms of future costs, revenue, capacity, morale or actual personal safety (among other things). If this is putting you in a dangerous future situation, you need to correct it immediately.

If it is “safe” to keep it as is, you may decide that it is not aesthetically pleasing. This could relate to how it looks to yourself, your staff, your customers or potential investors of your “house”. If you decide that it could “look” better, then you need to decide if now is the time to do it. I often look at the amount of time already being spent on it compared to the time to fix it right. If it is not more than double, I make the extra effort to rebuild it. Typically rebuilding the component from scratch makes the needed repair much quicker, so it costs a lot less than doing the steps separately.

If you decide that it is time to rebuild, then you need to come up with a plan tear out all the bandages and start over on that piece. Of course you need to plan for it to be massively torn apart for the time (perhaps go to a hotel or if rebuilding your stairs, put up a ladder on the outside of the house to get to the second floor). You also need to plan for contingencies to handle customer issues that come up in the meanwhile. The most important part is to come up with a plan to test all affected areas before you start. Following those steps will help to keep your remodel job a lot more manageable.

Now is the perfect time to partner!

Partnerships are a way to expand your current offerings into new areas that support your core sales. Interestingly, with the tougher economy, most companies are quite open to creative approaches to working together.

Of course giving a piece of your business away often seems questionable in good times, much less bad. The tricky part is the cost of doing it yourself – and the potential for lower sales than you need to support a new product or service. Worse still, there is the risk of unhappy customers due to high cost, less than perfect implementation and slow turnaround. These can easily jeopardize your business relationship with them.

Of course you can never offer a product or service that your customer’s are requesting, but then you are forcing them to look for another vendor — a vendor that will probably try to undermine your relationship and take the rest of the business.

To me, it seems that the best option is to partner with a product or service provider that has the ability to deliver the system as specified — and as part of the relationship, you each agree that you won’t come after the rest of each others business. You each focus on your strengths, and are able to exchange customer leads back and forth as they come in.

So, if you are thinking about how you can refresh your business and give your customers another reason to buy from you, this may be a good time to step back and assess what your strengths truly are. Then, determine if the most efficient and cost-effective way to satisfy your customers is to continue to develop needed skills in-house, or expand or enter new markets through partnerships. With the slowdown of business today, it’s time well spent that can add more to the bottom line in a shrinking market and broaden your horizons when businesses loosen their purse strings.

When is “Free” not good enough

The economy is taking it’s toll on all of us, and it is interesting how it impacts people’s thinking. Digital signage is one of those areas that actually makes money for a company that uses it. Our prices are low compared to most of our competition, yet I feel that in this economy, it would be good to help people out with a free digital signage software product.

I have been talking with several people about free or low cost products to have people talk about it and create a buzz. Since software has it’s cost on the front-end while it is getting developed and very little once it is completed, there is some flexibility. Of course a company cannot stay in business for long without some revenue stream. We would create a lower end version that offers enough functionality to have positive reviews, and limit some of the high end features that we offer to get revenue from the larger corporate accounts.

We have experimented a little with this. We offer a free 30 day demo that is initially setup in 5 simple steps. From there, it can be further customized and fully run for the trial period. This obviously is good to get a feel, but not good enough to create a buzz. We also have offered a free product for some companies that are on the edge of closing their doors to try to get their revenues up with the great advertising that digital signage can do. Some have taken part, but many do not. I suspect that everyone is so overworked and overwhelmed that something outside of their core business is just not something they want to deal with.

I was told to get the book “Free” by Chris Anderson. I have not started it yet, but I will report later on what I discover from the book. I hope that it offers insights into how, when and what approach helps gain a large customer base that also offers some revenue opportunities. If anyone reading this has insights into this subject, please let us know.

Digital Signage Expo Review

First off, thanks to everyone who took the time to meet with me. This is an update of what was discovered at the Digital Signage Expo show in Las Vegas last week.

One of the first things that I learned is that the Digital Signage industry is definitely an early market. The Digital Signage Association is pushing to get their own trade show and stand on their own financial feet. At the same time, the Digital Signage Federation is trying to start a new user group. First off, it tells me that there is getting to be a lot more interest in Digital Signage. Secondly, my past experience in other industries tells me that if both try to go forward, both may die an unfortunate and untimely death.

I feel the same for digital signage shows. Exhibitors (the people paying for the show) want to see a return on their investment. Yes, we do like to see some of our money go into growing the industry (this is the strategy for the DSA group), but we need qualified attendees. Too many shows just dilutes the user group so that again, all shows have trouble. I would like to see consolidation to one organization and one major show. Of course I have little say on the matter!

Other than growing the business, we had a focus to learn about options for a dedicated linux based player PC that mounts to the back of screens. There are several options that we are researching and hope to announce this new product offering soon.

We also focused a lot on discovering available content to help our customers even more. We have begun the process of content partnership with several companies for animated images / backgrounds, safety information for employee communication and general news, sports, trivia that is licensed and presented in interesting ways. Again, we hope to announce the integration with these companies soon.

I used to go to Vegas for trade shows over 20 years ago. Vegas has changed dramatically – especially the prices. It used to be a great place to get away for a few days. It has definitely become a tourist trap that in my case, makes me want to stay away even more….

Patent Lessons

I just had a question about the whether pieces of a software product can be patented. Here is my reply….

You can patent just about anything if you pay the money and wait the time. We actually got our first patent almost through (where I can talk about it). We had applied for one with StrandWare, but brady let it fall through because it took so long.

What I have learned about patents….

1) expect to pay over $30k to get it through the process – start to finish. I talked to one president who is over $100k already on his, and it is not even submitted yet.

2) It will take 3 to 5 years to get it through the process. So expect no return until after that.

3) Once you get the patent, it really means nothing unless you pay more money to defend it. (again, the laywers get rich).

4) You can use the patent to get “reasonable” royalties from competitors if you take the right steps.

5) There is always a way around the patent which makes all your legal work to defend or get royalties worthless.

So, if you have a quarter million to throw away towards the goal, the technology wont change too much in 5 years, and the potential return is worth at least that much, go for it. Otherwise, you may want to think a second and third time about it.