September 7, 2016
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.”
That information already existed, but was not being processed and delivered to the public efficiently. Before Mappedin came along, Liu explains, shopping mall managers tended to pay multiple outside agencies to separately translate updated blueprints into displayable content for their in-house digital signage networks.
“Everyone knew why they needed digital wayfinding and had already tried it out,” he says, “but they were paying too many different people and the customer experience was still poor. The technology had to be simplified and made self-serviceable for them. When it’s as easy as using a word processor, then you’ll see information getting updated across all media at the same time. It may not be sexy, but it’s game-changing.”
As experienced engineers, the team at Mappedin was well-positioned to tap into this market by simplifying digital wayfinding with a standardized software platform.
“In the very beginning, we were doing what everyone else was doing—building systems ‘soup to nuts’ and even maintaining all of the data,” says Liu. “We realized the core need for digital wayfinding was a good content management system (CMS). The tool we’d built for ourselves became our flagship product, as we were able to innovate and change it quickly.”
The business case for taking this direction became even clearer after Mappedin pilot-tested a directory for a mall where not only the manager, but also the tenants, were granted access to update the CMS. The ease with which they did so encouraged Liu to prioritize the same approach for other clients.
His team also recognized the need to focus on its specialized strengths. The manufacturing of the company’s interactive directory hardware, which is highly customized for each client, was outsourced to a small group of preferred outside partners.
“I can’t share their names publicly, but they’re sign companies that wanted to add more value to their existing portfolios,” Liu explains. “We work closely with them and they can do this work much better than we could—not just in terms of the manufacturing itself, but also with the geographic scale of their market coverage and the convenience of service they can ensure for our customers.”
Indeed, scale has been key to the rapid growth of Mappedin. With clients like Canadian Tire and Cadillac Fairview, the company has rapidly established a nationwide footprint.
“Malls are run nationally, so once you can gain their managers’ trust, they’ll roll you out wide,” Liu explains. “And the nice part of that is you only have one customer to deal with. That’s how we’ve been able to do all of this work with a team of 34 people handling software development, services and support in Kitchener.”
Mappedin’s interactive kiosks are currently being used in nine of the 10 biggest malls in Canada. This level of reach, in turn, yields significant analytics that the company can integrate into its future work.
“We work with our customers to build a platform that lasts, which means it needs to be updated year-by-year,” says Liu. “In fact, our CMS gets better month-by-month. As we learn from how our kiosks are being used, we can identify trends, differentiate them from anomalies and continue to improve our interface.”
One particular area targeted for improvement is the physical side of that interface.
“Problems with touch screen technology have plagued us since day one,” Liu says. “We’re just now starting to get projected capacitive films that work well on 1 to 1.4-m (40 to 55-in.) touch screens.”
Investing in growth
It may come as little surprise one of the company’s most notable investors has been Environmental Systems Research Institute (ESRI) Canada, a Toronto-based provider of enterprise geographic information system (GIS) software. Originally a land-use consultancy, ESRI has evolved over time to put geographic information to ever more uses.
At the end of June, Mappedin closed a seed extension after raising its total venture capital financing to $3.5 million, led by Green Century Investments with participation by Amolino and local investors. With the announcement came the hiring of Greg Barber as vice-president (VP) of sales, following 23 years with Microsoft, and Suzanne Farb as interim VP of marketing, who’d also worked with Microsoft before joining retailer Target.
“With Greg and Suzanne on-board, this funding allows us to accelerate our go-to-market strategy while continuing to invest in our platform,” says Liu. “We set ambitious growth goals each year and we’ll continue to bet on ourselves and our consistent record of execution.”
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