When Stratacache CEO Chris Riegel did the deal, there were lots of people wondering what might happen. Was he buying the company for its customer base and vast reseller channel, or did he have other plans. In short order, he jokingly made up Trump-style red ball caps that said: "Make Scala Great Again."
Five years later, Scala is a wildly different company and product - with a much smaller reseller channel and an integrated, retail-centric platform that has largely been re-written and re-structured.
Riegel has been a frequent guest of this podcast, and that's because he's wickedly smart, and frank about what's going on in the industry.
We talk about the five-year journey he's had with a renewed Scala, but also got deep into what's happening in the marketplace globally. And we nerd out on the microLED factory he's spinning up in Oregon, and when it will start producing both small and large format display material.
As always, a valuable, insight-filled 30 minutes or so.
Side note - Chris was coughing up a storm during the chat, but he says he's fully vaxxed and it's not THAT. Just a bug and allergies.
Mr. Riegel, thank you for joining me.
Chris Riegel: Thank you for the opportunity.
So about five years ago now, you bought Scala and at the time there were lots of industry people who were looking at that going, okay, what's going to happen now? Is it going to be absorbed by Stratacache? Is it going to accelerate or what's going to happen?
And you sent me a note the other day, saying, “Hey, we're coming up on five years. It's an interesting story to tell.” So what's the story?
Chris Riegel: Yeah, it's been a hell of a ride. Probably the best way to say it. So five years ago we decided, there's something here in Scala and something absolutely worth growing and saving. When we stepped into the acquisition, Scala was arguably one of the I think top brands from visibility and great legacy, great history, but had atrophied, to be honest, so we saw what was truly a global footprint and its Scala was really one of the first in the market that had grown out of a global entity and it was a good acquisition for us to be able to buy that asset, bolt the power that we have in the North American markets and in the Indian markets to that Scala infrastructure in Europe, in the Nordics, in the Middle East, in Japan and Australia, and really convert that Scala was the entity that allowed Stratacache to convert from being a pocketed global, to a fully global entity, and now really hitting every country around the world, but principally, 28 offices around the world being able to service those global customers and Scala gave us that global reach.
Now that was not without some interesting challenges and some interesting discoveries during the path. So it's been quite a ride.
Yeah. I can remember going to InfoComm back in the late 2000s, I think it was 2007 or something like that, and yeah, Scala was the company in digital signage in terms of visibility and everything on the floor, like they were the monster, and I just slowly over a matter of the next five, six years saw it, as you say, diminished.
Chris Riegel: And what you have in Scala, and what is amazing about Scala is that there is such tribal knowledge and such capability towards digital visual communication and optimizing that experience for the customer. It's really this amazing retail practice with a skillset I've never seen matched throughout.
What we did in coming in was really update that, bring that more modern, more current. In some examples, Scala was always principally a Windows platform. Windows is not the same thing it was 20 years ago, so we brought Scala into Linux. We brought Scala from x86 processors into the ARM processor world. We've updated big chunks of the code to modernize and refresh, and then updated a lot of the technical teams within to say, “what do you do for the next 20 years?” And coming in as a change agent, what I saw was the equivalent of the old house with great bones, but needed to be updated and refreshed. Some of that was tech, some of that was people, but to say, what do you do to stabilize and turn around this business and make it valid for the next 20 or 30 years looking forward?
There was too much looking back and too much resting on the laurels. And we're very much about challenging and growing people in technical teams, and how do you make that better and really tackle that problem every day. The beauty and the horror of technology is that yesterday means nothing for tomorrow. You have to go out and hit every single day, focus on where is that market going, how are you evolving that experience? Because the market doesn't stand still.
One of the things about Scala at the time was, as we were saying, it was a platform that was getting some hair on it, so to speak, and what you had though, was this huge reseller channel, or just like resellers all around the world and you re-positioned things, where you went away somewhat from channels to much more direct sales?
Chris Riegel: I'd counter that a bit. What Scala had when we did the acquisition, Scala had about 300 resellers around the world. Of those 300, 200 of them or companies that did $5,000 or $10,000 a year, negligible revenue.
What we've done, we continue to have within Scala, a full reseller channel that has grown significantly. What we've done is really focused that to say, “I want fewer and better resellers in that environment.” The crown jewel of Scala is, you have 16,000 customers around the globe as an existing life customer base and some of those customers, you take Citibank as an example, Citibank should not be buying products from Dave's AV Barn in Baltimore, because they have requirements that are much more stringent and much more tiered towards needing direct manufacturer support.
So in that environment, we've continued to grow that channel. You've seen partnerships like Hakuhodo with Scala and others on the global side. You'll see later this year, two other big announcements of reseller partnerships. So what we've really done is said, it doesn't make sense to have 300+ resellers that you're just a line item on the card. The other part to that is with 300 resellers, you'd see a deal that pops up in Italy and you’d have 10 guys racing each other to the bottom. For us and resellers, the key point is that we want them to be profitable. We want them to have success in having that success, and I'll use Latin America as an example. In Latin America, when we acquired Scala, there was a channel, but it was just a doggy dog environment. The guys were trying to win deals based on pennies. We cleaned that channel up, went from 50 to really 5-6, and deployed a Scala operation center in Mexico city to be able to support the entire region, then work with the partners to bring profitable deals to them and recurring profitable deals so that they have a vested interest.
There are hundreds of guys in the CMS space with very little differentiation, and I'll use an example. One of the partners that we work with in Brazil said, “Hey, I can get a 35% margin on your competitor's product”, and I said, “That's great. What are you selling that product at?” “Oh, $1 a month.” “So 35% of that?” You can't run a business on that. How do you do profitable deals and make sure that channels are profitable and clean that up quickly?
Is it a challenge when you go around the world with all these different options out there and all these companies going out with, as you say, a buck a month SaaS licensing deals, they'll look at Scala and, I don't know what the number is, but it's going to be higher and they'll say you're too expensive?
Chris Riegel: Quite candidly in those environments, the customers are willing to pay a dollar a month for SaaS and nothing more. There's no revenue there, and I would applaud my valued competitors. We call the gangsters of Gangnam and try to just liquidate the value of software industry-wide, but there is a difference in when you get into the mid-tier and the large-tier enterprise space that we hunt. If you want to pay a buck, go buy somebody else's product. There's no value there. You can't afford to support it, can't afford to provide services on it, and you're going to get exactly what you deserve.
It's funny to watch in these dollar SaaS guys, customers that literally change every year. They'll just go from vendor A to vendor B to vendor C to vendor D, there's no consistency of experience. There's no feature set there and okay, knock yourselves out, but there's no margin and if there's no margin, why take the headache?
So your lead company, Stratacache tends to focus on banking and QSR more than anything else. Do you get into retail or when that opportunity comes along, you're going to tend to angle the prospect towards Scala?
Chris Riegel: It depends on the environment. What we have done within Scala is really built a group of people globally that have what I'd call agency-level chops within that retail space.
So we've got designers, graphic artists. We've got retail practice experts that can go in and really engage a retailer from the Scala's side and help them with the mission of what do you want to do? What are you trying to accomplish? Not how do I put the screen on the wall at the lowest possible price? That's really further evolved into analytics, into artificial intelligence, where we're able to say, when I take Scala as an example and bolt that to our walk base mobile sensor business when I bolt that to our Artificial intelligence retail tracking business.
The ability to say, “Hey, you saw this image on a sign. I'm tracking your cart or your basket. I know you're in that area. I know that you saw it. You converted it.” Here's the efficacy based on demographic or time or visit to unique shopper eating customers. You've got to go to that retail practice down to more closing the loop, providing the evidence, the detail around it, because it's such a results-driven business
Is retail evolving, in terms of what the ask is for a Scala and other companies?
Chris Riegel: Tremendously.
So I would contrast now with having a little bit of a different view, retail in the west is atrophying at the moment principally, because you have Bezos, that's just out cracking heads left and right. Amazon continues to grow and strengthen amazingly and online grows globally. But what you're starting to see now, and especially if you look at Asia, you're starting to see is the emergence of what we call organized retail.
You take a market like India that has literally 2 million small retail shops, and those are starting to organize into actual retail chains, organized chain-based branded consistency of experience, the way that you see it in the West, the opportunities and where we're seeing ridiculous growth is in India, in China, in Indonesia, Malaysia, in these emerging markets where retail is organizing now and becoming much more structured. And I think, and I say this knock on wood, hopefully, COVID goes away but within 2022, that's probably the first year within the company that we see selling 1 million plus screens players software licenses that's up from 300,000 to 400,000 a year on average. So we're just seeing this aggregation now of critical mass, but that's really being led by the Asian markets
You would think between India and China and these emerging economies, that those would be the guys more than anyone else who would migrate towards the “a buck a month” kind of SaaS thing?
Chris Riegel: Yes and no. There's always a cost pressure there, don't get me wrong, but there's also a value in experience, there's a value in being able to deliver that solution.
The retail systems in many of these countries are just not quite as mature on the IT side and at the infrastructure side. So when you're talking to a retailer in the US, we do a lot of work with Walmart, combined close to 5,000 stores, but then you step into Reliance in India and Reliance is deploying 200,000 plus locations in India in the next 18 months. It's just a different scale and coming into that understanding of scale, yes, numbers are different pricing models to do that, but if I'm up a factor of 40 on the number of stores, you'll still come out on the other end of that.
Is the feature set in terms of what they want different in these emerging markets like if you're talking to Walmart, that's a very sophisticated retailer. They're probably interested in analytics, probably interested in front-end advisory consulting, creative, all those sorts of things.
When you're talking about the scale in India, is it just more that they need the core functionality of digital signage software?
Chris Riegel: What you're seeing is more of a hybrid in India of the on-prem and online kind of merging within those stores.
But you're also seeing, for lack of a better phrase, an absolute hunger, and desire. If you look at some of the large retailers in India and China who have said, “Hey, we're going to be the biggest company in the world.” They have the drive, they spend money. The existing US and western big retailers are still dealing with, “Hey, things are good enough that we don't really have to press and change quite as much”, but you've got a drive in India and China that I think you'll see within the course of the next three years this flip whereas these Eastern markets start to really organize the retail systems, they'll be orders of magnitude bigger than what you see here in the West.
When I look in the West at digital signage in retail, it seems to have gone away from stores that were putting a whole pile of LCDs all over the place to now it seems like they put in one direct view LED feature wall maybe a couple of other signs that checkout, that sort of thing, but that's it. What's happening in these emerging markets, same thing?
Chris Riegel: In emerging markets, you're usually dealing in a much smaller format. So instead of having the 200,000 square foot supercenter approach, you might have the 2,000 square foot cell phone store or the 2,000 square foot health and beauty store. As those are organizing up, you're seeing that becoming a more multifunction point to say, what is this new hybrid of having a retail store that could be a small corner market bodega, but I could also order a cell phone there, I could order products remotely, I can have it delivered in and you're dealing with a population there that's not nearly as wealthy as you have in the western world, but the ability to say, how can we lower costs? How can we improve capabilities where that retail store might be the real lifeline out to the bigger e-commerce environment?
I'll use an example with one of the customers that I work with within India. They partnered with Google on a new cell phone. So you have a new Google cell phone that's being introduced to that market, or the cost of the phone is $4. Not $4 a month, not $4 a quarter, but $4. So how do you unleash the power between China and India of two and a half billion people from a retail perspective to streamline that, to bring more and more opportunities to those two and a half billion people of which two billion of them are not particularly wealthy, but still have needs and still can take advantage of these services.
Is it fair to say they're doing digital posters more than anything else in these kinds of small footprint places?
Chris Riegel: You're typically seeing a hybrid digital sign interactive kiosk use case from 20-inch to 32-inch. We did the acquisition in China a few years back of what we call now, our Link Tablet series, but those hybrid devices that are multifunction could be a digital sign, could be interactive, can have payment, can have mobile device scan. It's that multi-function Swiss army knife that's extremely popular.
Through the pandemic, I've been curious ‘cause I get carpet-bombed with PR all the time with companies saying we're going away from interactive touch and so on, it's gotta be contactless that we're gonna use voice, we're gonna use QR code scans, throw the controls of the screen to the phone and so on, and I've always been extremely skeptical of the adoption of that. What have you seen?
Chris Riegel: You're a hundred percent right. When the pandemic really hit, I've continued to travel pretty much non-stop but I was in Portland, Oregon checking into American airlines and they had 20 check-in kiosks there and they didn't say, we're going to have voice check-in, or we're going to have haptics, so you don't have to touch it or, and have gestural. They just had 98 cents container of Lysol wipes. So once you touch the screen, you sanitize your hands, you move on.
The haptics, the voice, the mobile there's capabilities with each of them, but the retrofit costs are not trivial, and think of what you've had with gesture-based interaction systems that've been around forever. It's still never really used. It's the magic mirror syndrome. Bad ideas don't go away, they just come back every three years within these things like haptics and others. Can they have a benefit? Sure. Is it going to be broadly used? No, it's still it.
Before we turned the recording on, we were talking a little bit about where the industry more broadly is at, and I was saying stupid busy and I get a sense from a number of people that they're also stupid busy and you said the same.
Chris Riegel: Absolutely. The markets are quite choppy simply because of shutdowns and customers trying to figure out what the future looks like, but it's incredibly busy.
And as we've seen consolidation, COVID is going to shake a lot of companies out of the space, especially coming from the older, what I call AV sector, that market's compressed dramatically especially in Europe and the Asia Pacific,
Especially if they add live events as a big part of it.
Chris Riegel: Even that, or, if you have something that requires your services when people are in the office. If they're not in the office, forget about it.
We've talked with literally dozens and dozens of companies trying to sell or trying to find a new sponsor to be able to survive. So that's going to be rough, but the market as a whole, especially as we're looking at 2022 as is white-hot with projects and opportunities and COVID is putting some chlorine into the digital signage gene pool for sure.
And why is it so hot now? Like one of the things that I've written about and observed is the thing about all the lockdowns and all the changes that were enforced on how people did their everyday tasks and activities were that things changed, and the only way to communicate that was using dry erase marker boards in the lobby of a store, and stuff taped to the doors and the whole bit, and those companies that had digital signage already had a lead. They had something they could use. Is that part of it?
Chris Riegel: I'll give you a pretty good example. So we do all of the software and systems for McDonald's in the US, several hundred thousand digital mini boards, both indoor and outdoor, and have had the privilege of doing that for the last 13 years.
In that environment where you deal with product shortages like there's a distribution problem for pork at this distribution plant, there's an opportunity for a delay of this product at another plant. The digital menu boards at drive-through and an indoor can adjust at a moment's notice based on supply chain disruptions. They can change prices based on commodity change.
The other part that's really coming into our business very heavily in those same use cases is now the labor shortages, “do I go from a complex menu when I have a crew of 14 people to only seven people showed up this morning and I need to simplify that menu because I don't have the ability to deal with the same velocity because I'm crew light at that point.” So you're seeing digital use cases in areas for us, whether it be the mini-board practices in QSR or retail than the ability of digital to adjust on a moment's notice, and where I can take as an example, sensors, and know how many people showed up as crew, how many customers are in that drive-through line? What are my products, supplies looking like? Because I have access to point of sale or product logistics information and change that on a dime. You can really help keep those businesses moving, and within the pandemic, when indoor dining was shut down, the amount of work, and I'd say conservatively today, we have a greater than 50% market share in QSR in the US and about a 40% market share globally.
The ability to help our customers continue to operate as close to flawlessly as possible through the pandemic has been a really big success across multiple brands, as we've continued to expand the business dramatically.
That's not a trivial thing to do to stitch all those systems together. Do you have to fight against companies to say we're API driven, we can integrate all these systems, we can do that for you versus actually doing it and having the experience?
Chris Riegel: Yeah, it's kinda funny. We always run into that challenge that we call the “Competitor's Magic Wand” So you go into the presentation and you're competing with little guy XYZ and he says, you know what? I've got 6,000 signs out there, and this is super simple and it's easy and it's not going to cost anything, and it's magic.
And I say, I have three and a half million signs and fleet. I have 1100 people. We run 24/7 operations and it's not easy, it's not simple, and there is no such thing as magic. If you want to buy the magic beans from my competitor, more power to you, but having the experience to say large scale, big customer complex projects. We've earned our place at the table in those discussions to be able to say, “Hey, choose or not choose us, that's your call, but we'll give you a full view of what the reality of this thing is like.”
In a use case of McDonald's with 400,000+ screens that are under our management, there's something that breaks every day. That's the nature of the beast, but how do you stay ahead of that power curve in the large customers that we work with globally? I had a really fun customer interaction about two months ago. One of our larger retail apparel customers who decided to speak out against the Uyghurs situation in China called and said, “Hey, I have PLA troops in my store telling me to turn off our digital signs. What should we do?” “Do they have guns?” “Yes.” “Then you should turn off your digital signs, and by the way, we told you this would happen, not a political statement, but you were hosting outside of China against our advice. We warned you, now you see what happens.”
Unfortunately, it's just a diverse and complex world. There are no magic wands, and a lot of customers, we call them “rebound customers”. In our environment, the customer that says, “Hey, I'm going to buy from the competitor that's going to do a dollar a month in SaaS and is making me all of these promises.” We say, okay, cool. Here's our information. Call us back in six months when you see that’s hollow because the amount of work that it takes in any scale retail network to keep this stuff going is not trivial regardless of the technology.
Yeah. I would imagine you see that over and over again, a company X that tried the cheap route and then discovered that wasn't a great idea. Now we're going to actually pay some rules.
Chris Riegel: My favorite current theme is the customers that say, “It's not that complex. We're going to build it ourselves.” We've done this for 22 years. We have 600 million plus invested in capital and tens of thousands of man-years in development. But if you can put it together in six weeks with your internal teams, good luck.
With Scala and retail, are there retail vertical markets that are more active than others?
Like I'm thinking that you're talking about the bodegas or equivalent of bodegas in India, and so on. Those are essential services. People need food, they need cigarettes, or just whatever. They don't necessarily need fast fashion.
Chris Riegel: Scala has been really successful both previously and within our stewardship in automotive, in retail apparel, in high-value goods, luxury environments but also in, chain grocery C-store that the depth of that practice, and especially as we brought order to some of the chaos we saw day one the ability to engage those customers that are understanding that digital signage is not just having to put a pretty picture on that screen and it's going to do something.
“What is it going to do?” “I don't know.” No, this has to have business metrics. Why are you making the investment? What's the return? Define success, and this is a tool you're going in any of those environments and competing for an investment to say, why am I going to spend money on digital signage versus a new retail store, or X or Y or Z? Earn your place at that table. Keep that place at the table by delivering value to a customer.
I can go into a lottery environment or QSR environment or retail environment, and say, I'm going to give you X lift with Y percent greater margin. I'm going to prove that point and I'm going to give you full access to all the statistics so you can double check my math. If you can find somebody else that can do that, knock yourselves out. But if I can deliver you in a retail or QSR or gaming environment, 1 to 3% lift and a margin lift of 3 to 5%, that's a big number.
Yeah. So tell me what's going on with the microLED plant that you're retrofitting out in Oregon?
Chris Riegel: It's a pretty wild ride. MicroLED, as a tech, we've been researching it for 5+ years, made the dive into buying the fab two years ago, and have been spending a tremendous amount of time on research and development. MicroLED is an unbelievable dislocator, and when I say dislocator, today if you look at the Asian display cartels, they have been able to control a market, not unlike OPEC, by having a very high cost of entry, having a bunch of barriers around that. The typical government sponsorship to go into that marketplace.
MicroLED is a different beast. In the intersection that it's coming, between what would be called the epitaxy of world, growing LEDs, and the Silicon world. All of a sudden the cost to pin up a plant is 1/10th to 1/20th of what it was before. So you can have companies that can compete and can build out next-generation displays without having to have government sponsorship. If you look at it, I'm not trying to wave the nationalist economic flag. But if you look at the last two, three generations of the display, whether TFT, LCD, or AMOLED or OLED or other, a lot of that tech is developed in the US and North America, none of it's manufactured here.
Why? Because we don't have a great industrial policy at the government level to compete. When you look at Korea and China, how the government sponsored the building of those fabs, that's the way that they do it, that's the game. That being said, you're never going to have that happen here.
I thought that was happening in Wisconsin? (Laughter)
Chris Riegel: Yeah. Don't hold your breath on that one. But the central planning model has changed and with microLED, you can bring up a fab at a fraction of the cost, but also then have a product that is less expensive because of the simplicity of a direct view product. So there's some really exciting stuff going on here.
You're not focused on large formats for microLED. The volume is all in wearables and things like that, right?
Chris Riegel: There's a big space in large formats. The initial microLED use cases have been small format: wearables, optics, precision optics, things like that, simply because there are some challenges in the technology like mass transfer that had not yet been figured out or distilled that made it really, you can only be cost-competitive in those small environments.
But if I take the equation of a square meter glass, microLED can deliver a square meter of glass at an equivalent resolution to TFT, LCD or O LED for between 50 and 60% of the fab cost of that product. So it can be super competitive, and in our use case, we'll absolutely go for a large format and I want to make sure that our friends at solar are aware of it.
So at some point, I think you told me before in the past that you thought by the end of the year, you'd be at least doing rapid prototyping.
Chris Riegel: Yeah, so we're now in the joy of receiving all equipment late, just because of the pandemic and the slower nature of manufacturing and getting anything in. That being said by Q1, we'll be in the prototype stage. What we're doing is putting a lot of focus on, without nerding out on it too deeply, a 300mm epitaxy on Silicon. So today, most LEDs are built on 150mm Sapphire, which has worked for 20 years and is very precise. We're taking the step to go 300mm GAM on Silicon, which is a more complex process, but once you're in the Silicon world, the ability to then scale-out silicon-based emitters directly to bond to see 300mm Silicon wafers, you can start doing some really interesting stuff that breaks the mold.
I understood most of that, but at that point, the idea is that the way conventional LED is made, it's machines that are picking LEDs or batches of LEDs and placing them on substrate and it just takes a long time and a lot of cost and energy to do that, right?
Chris Riegel: It does and within the LED industry today, that LED can be grown. that the large format, large emitter, one millimeter plus LED. Those are grown in epitaxy processes that are not particularly clean.
When you get into microLED, we're talking emitters that are 3 microns by 3 microns, 5x5, so you're dealing with super small stuff by an order of magnitude. The LEDs that we're making are smaller than the Coronavirus. So when you deal with making extremely small emitters, the ability to say, “Hey, wait a minute, I'm able to build-some would call a smart pixel, some would just call it a digital Lego-I'm able to build an emitter directly bonded to a micro IC and build a smart pixel concept.”
There is some really cool stuff that you can do there. You'll probably see the first mass commercialization of that coming out from Apple with wearables, but the applications around it are myriad and it is hundred percent a game-changer.
Do you see the end product for the digital signage market being the equivalent to a flat panel display, like you'd be selling 85-inch microLED panels, or do you see it as like big ass LED video walls?
Chris Riegel: Yeah, great question. I think our core mission is that I'm not going to fight Xi Jinping to win aisle seven at Costco for the 85-inch $399 television. Chinese can have that market, no question.
In microLED, if you're getting into large-format sizes, you'll most likely be within the container of tiled panels. So maybe you're at 200mm to 300mm tiles to be able to get to large formats. But within that, I think that the differentiation there between microLED and call it miniLED, 50 mics or up is minimal.
What you're going to find in the greatest benefit of microLED are those environments where using the fact that your emitter is so small, it's not visible to the naked eye. So you can do transparency through window glass. You can bend and curve it. So the curved surfaces, the bend surfaces, the flex surfaces, because the emitters are so small, they're within the bend radiuses of the substrates. There's a lot of really cool stuff you can do where you're not just fighting the low price commoditized markets. I've been to Shenzhen thirty times and there are a hundred thousand companies in Shenzhen.
Unless you can differentiate yourself from that mass market, you're dead day one. So you have to pick your battles correctly
So the set of Corning videos that have come out in the past 10 years or so, about a day in glass, where you have all these dynamic visuals are just showing up on countertops and windows and everything else that's what's going to happen with this technology, right?
Chris Riegel: Absolutely. The ability to make the display a more natural interface to the consumer, where it doesn't have to be a standalone display device, where it's integrated into third-party devices or features, Corning had great vision. Around that obviously with the goal to sell more glass, but the idea was right.
And now that this is continuing to transition, think of your smart home, think of your smart car, think of your smart whatever, all of that is microprocessor driven in one form or another. So how do you associate displays that are much more natural to the user's experience as opposed to something that's a bulky bolt-on whether that's in a car, on a refrigerator. in a window making that just part of that infrastructure.
All right. Always a pleasure. Thank you for spending some time.
Chris Riegel: Thank you.