By Peter Saunders
As Hongwei Liu puts it, many companies in the digital signage sector have been launched by salespeople who hired engineers to work behind the scenes. Mappedin, his company based in Kitchener, Ont., has gone about its business the other way around, as it was started up by engineers who developed an initial concept non-commercially before they had to figure out how to market it to paying customers.
Specifically, Mappedin has built and continually revised a software platform for the management of indoor wayfinding information for digital signage, interactive kiosks and other communications media. Liu co-founded the company, of which he is now CEO, with his fellow University of Waterloo classmates in 2011. By focusing on what he calls the ‘battleground’ of retail and tailoring software and hardware for the specific needs of real estate investment trusts (REITs) and premium shopping mall management firms, Mappedin reportedly increased its revenue by more than 500 per cent in 2015 and is currently forecast to triple it by the end of this year.
From the campus to the mall
Liu was a first-year electrical engineering student at University of Waterloo and working for BlackBerry in a radio-frequency (RF) lab when he heard about a residency program called Velocity. Launched in 2008, it was offering mentoring, funding and workspaces for startups run by the university’s students and alumni. Velocity was an opportunity for Liu and his classmates to work outside the regular curriculum in an environment that encouraged them to come up with new, exciting ideas for technology.
“We wanted to build a navigation tool for indoors that would be as simple to use as the Global Positioning System (GPS) is outdoors,” he explains.
Once that software was up and running, the next step was to determine whether or not anyone would actually pay for the product.
“The initial version of Mappedin was just for our campus, but we went on to work with hospitals, casinos and other facilities,” says Liu, who dropped out of university after three-and-a-half semesters to dedicate himself to the business. “We soon saw retailers were the ones who really needed it. Their customers have more choice today than in the past and less time to browse. And they’re starting to expect the same convenience of search functionality they find online. As a result, every premium retail landlord has recognized changes in shopping traffic and behaviour and has been thinking aspirationally about the digital experience they need to provide.”
Simplifying data management
While many customer-facing digital signage systems had already been developed for the retail sector over the years, Mappedin took a different approach to its touch-screen directories.
“Our big advantage, which came about one-and-a-half years into the business, was realizing how much more dynamic information needs to be indoors than outdoors,” says Liu. “Street names don’t change every day, for example, but the offerings in a mall do, such as with pop-up shops. A paper map becomes out-of-date very quickly. Information displayed on digital signs needs to be correct, in real time.”