Q&A with Visionect
Visionect is a 10-year-old company based in Ljubljana, Slovenia, that develops ultra-low-power digital signage. ID magazine recently talked with Visionect CEO and founder Matej Zalar and Visionect board member Sri Peruvemba about the company’s products and plans, as well as its lessons learned.
What’s the history of Visionect? How did the company get started?
Our three founders [Rok Zalar and Luka Birsa, in addition to Matej Zalar] started working together about 10 years ago. From the beginning, we were working with electronic paper, trying to build some kind of low-power device with it. I had been studying economics in Finland, where I was also doing some projects for Nokia. I discovered electronic paper at Nokia, and I thought it looked exciting.
Our first electronic-paper-based product was issued in 2010. It was called Geoffrey, and it was a tabletop ordering menu for restaurants. It was waterproof, and at the time you didn’t have many waterproof devices. It was also visible in direct sunlight, so it worked well in beer gardens and outdoor restaurants.
ID: What were some of your biggest challenges with regard to getting that first product to market?
MZ: As a new company, the challenges are always cash and time. Creating the physical device is definitely easier and faster now. Ten years ago, we didn’t have rapid prototyping technology, or 3D printers, so developing new products was much more time and resource consuming. Also, when we made a mistake it took much more time correcting it. In those days we used traditional ways of launching a product – we made it based on our best assumptions of customer needs, then tried to reach as many
customers as possible. We did not always get early customer feedback like we do now. I do think that everything that did not work was a very valuable learning experience for us. Today we can be much faster also because we know better what not to do, and what does not work.
ID: After Geoffrey, Visionect introduced some additional e-paper based products – JOAN and the newest one, Place & Play. Can you tell us about these and what the differences are between them?
JOAN is a 6-in. or 13-in. diagonal, wireless, low-power display, which is basically used as a conference room sign. There are different products in the portfolio, including JOAN Board, which is used for monitoring multiple meeting rooms, and also single JOAN units. You could use Place & Play, which is 13.3 inches diagonal, for a conference room sign, but in general it will be used more as a monitoring station or for other applications. You can also display it in an industrial/medical environment like a factory floor or hospital room or someplace where you don’t want the distraction of an LCD – an LCD looks like a TV that is constantly updating and shining light into your eyes, but Place & Play looks like paper. And it is extremely low power. You can use this product in a location where it’s not possible to have a power cable. It will even stick to a glass wall, and it goes a whole year without a recharge.
ID: When will Place & Play be commercially available?
SP: It’s shipping now. With the rollout of Place & Play, Visionect did something really clever. They started by speaking to a lot of customers about their needs and then they created the product and did a beta test with about 30 or 40 customers. That was several months ago, and now they’re shipping Place & Play to customers worldwide.
MZ: We started our adoptive customer program with JOAN, which is our most successful product to date. About 2,500 companies are using multiple JOAN products. Now we repeat this program with every new product. If we were developing Geoffrey now, we would definitely start out with the early adoption program. With Geoffrey [which is no longer sold], we learned, for example, that the hotel and restaurant industry is quite complex. You have to have very strong relationships with the cash register companies, and you need tight integration with their software. When we launched Geoffrey, we knew how to build the display but we didn’t know very much about the hotel and restaurant business.
Low-power e-paper signage at this bus stop in Ljubljana, Slovenia, is by Visionect. Ljubljana was named “European Green Capital” for 2016 by the European Commission. Photo by Sri Peruvemba.
ID: Back to your beginnings – You’ve been working with E Ink and other partners for quite a few years. Do you think you have informed their product evolution as your own products have been developed?
SP: Visionect is probably one of the oldest customers of E Ink. [Note: Peruvemba was formerly chief marketing officer for E Ink.] In 2007, when Visionect launched, there was no Kindle [which first sold in November 2007]. There weren’t any widely available software tools. E Ink itself was not yet mainstream. In 2007 E Ink was a startup with a small team, and Visionect had just started. I’m sure both of these companies contributed to each other at one time or another. Collaboration is definitely
two way, and it’s very healthy and has grown stronger over the years. E Ink continues to be very supportive of Visionect today.
ID: What challenges are you facing as the company grows?
MZ: In the past 10 years, Visionect has grown from a company of three students to close to 40 people. You have to grow up, and move from “everybody does everything” mode to a more professionalized structure.
Also, when you are venture funded, you have to learn how to grow quickly. Finding a VC [venture capitalist] always takes time. In many cases it takes from 6 to 12 months of intense relationship building. Investments don’t happen overnight. VC investments are like marriages. You have to build trust and relationships, and you cannot build that over one face-to-face meeting. After the investment, you have to be able to move fast, grow fast, and expand fast. It takes a different mentality and strategy (especially for EU companies) when you decide to go the VC-funded way.
ID: What’s the role of marketing in your success?
SP: Even Fortune 500 companies would be envious at how well Visionect does its marketing. Their images are really great looking. Their brochures are awesome – and none of it is outsourced. It’s all done in house. They’re very creative. They have a strong outbound marketing program, and are very customer focused.
ID: Do you manufacture in-house, in Slovenia?
MZ: We assemble in Slovenia, using parts from Germany, China, etc. It all goes together like Legos!
ID: What is the tech scene like in Slovenia?
MZ: It is growing, more and more. Traditionally, Slovenia has always had very good universities, but we were not very good at selling. We had zero history doing startups in this part of Europe. But that has changed in the past 10 to 15 years. We have many younger companies, and industry is growing.
You need role models. Basketball is an example. Last September, Slovenia won the European Basketball Championship, and since then, for the past two or three months, every other kid is playing basketball. Basketball schools are full.
ID: Sri, what’s been your experience of working with Visionect?
SP: Visionect has that kind of energy that you only see in startups. They’re enthusiastic, they’re eager – they really do things. It’s a joy working with these guys.
ID: How have sales been?
MZ: In general, we have been growing more than 100 percent year over year over the past four years.
ID: What are the company’s plans for the future? What kinds of products are you working on?
MZ: Our mission is to help people make better decisions in public spaces by delivering more relevant information through our ultra-low-power display network. We plan to focus on building more end products like JOAN and supporting larger sizes of e-paper displays. We are also currently focusing on establishing a strong distribution network in the EU and North America with our local partners. •
Matej Zalar is the founder and CEO of Visionect, a world leader in deploying digital signs in challenging environments. The result of a decade of market-leading expertise, Visionect technology excels in versatility, ultra-low power consumption, ease of installation, and simplicity of use. Visionect is the maker of JOAN room-scheduling technology and the Place & Play signage concept.
Sri Peruvemba is a member of the board at Visionect. His two decades of experience in the display industry include a decade of management roles at e-paper companies.
This article is based on phone and email interviews conducted by Jenny Donelan, editor in chief of Information Display.