I am a huge believer in digital signage software and solutions companies that narrowly define their vertical market and then go after it, as opposed to the many companies out there that say, in effect, we do digital signage.
Those kind of general offers can be deadly, I think, when there is sooo much competition.
So I was intrigued by an email from TrilbyTV that talked about its focus on the education market in the UK, and even more intrigued by the marketing line that the platform and service was built by people who understand and work in education.
I had a chat with TrilbyTV co-founder Neil Emery about how the six-year-old company was founded based on years of working in UK schools doing Apple and Google training. They saw all the dead screens and bad programming in schools that they visited and concluded that they could deliver something better.
David: Neil, thank you for joining me from beautiful Devon. I was struck by the assertion on your website. That Trilby is the only digital signage platform built by people who understand and work in education. What do you mean by that?
Neil Emery: So we were Apple trainers, Apple Education trainers for 12 years, we started back in the days when schools had lonely suites of iMacs that only the art teacher and the design teacher would allow sort of their students on. Everybody else looked in and thought, what are these computers? But for us, it wasn’t about Apple. It was about making sure everybody knew the power of things like the iLive Suite, things like iMovie and GarageBand. So that's where we started training with Apple and its resellers, sort of companies that sold Apple and then the iPad came out and it went completely bonkers for us as accredited trainers for Apple and we would work with lots of schools, especially those that were going one-to-one with iPad to make sure they had a vision and a plan.
So we really understand what needs to be in place for technology to be successful, and that tends to be where schools and colleges fall down a little bit. They tend to rush in and buy technology, but they don't think about what needs to be in place to make it successful, and there's a lot that needs to be in place, and we were involved in some of the biggest one-to-one iPad projects in the UK, such as Harlow college, such as Portsmouth college. So we've got a real understanding, again, of what needs to be a place and that's very much how we present ourselves with digital signage as well. It's not just about sticking screens on walls. We work very hard with our customers, especially our groups of school customers, to make sure that they have a plan in place, to make sure that staff are signing up to that plan. So that there's some consistency across what they're uploading to their digital signage. So that's what we meant. We are very education focused and that tends to be very different from other companies that are out there.
David: Yeah. There are any number of companies who have laid it down that education is one of their key verticals, but it's much more business driven and addressable market driven than, in most cases, any real experience with the education system.
Neil Emery: Yeah, the reason we started TrilbyTV is because when we were sitting in those school receptions waiting for a member of staff to come and grab us, we would look at a digital signage screen that was turned off, or if it wasn't turned off, it was showing content we felt that had little impact, and that's again, because they know they had no plan behind it. Someone had bolted some screens to a wall. Someone had bought into an over complicated solution that was meant for the commercial space and people had given up, and we were there to create really rich content on those iPods because that's what Apple is all about. Everyone can create, but there was no nice, simple mechanism for us to share those two screens around the school or college. And we felt signage was the perfect mechanism to share that content and evidence, the learning so that everybody could feel proud.
But again, what was in place back then was not meant for education and the people behind didn't understand education to the degree that we felt we did, and that's how TrilbyTV was launched and developed.
David: So when did that happen?
Neil Emery: Six years ago now. Yeah, we gave up everything we're doing with Apple and Google at the time. We'd just written Google's transformational planning workshop in the UK. That was mainly down to my co-director, Ben Stanley, who is extremely knowledgeable in the education space. His company, Trilby, that he used to run with his father, hence TrilbyTV. They'd been going 30 years of working in education. So again, huge amounts of experience, but TrilbyTV as a single product, six years we've been going now.
David: So it was more of an evolution of what you were doing as opposed to, “Alright, we used to run a funeral parlor, and now we're doing this”?
Neil Emery: Yeah, kind of. We did lots of things. We did the training piece for Apple and that kept us very busy. We were presenting not just for Apple, but again for its resellers that sold Apple. We were doing direct training for apples all over the world, not just in education as well. We were doing video production. We were doing lots of stuff, and I think lots of people probably looked at us and thought it's great, but what do you do?
So after sitting all those in all those perceptions for so long, we just knew that there was a product needed that was a bit more honest than what was out there in this space and that's really what made us jump into being brave and developing TrilbyTV into the platform that it is now.
David: So it's one thing to have the subject matter expertise and the understanding and the business contacts within the education market. What do you do though on the software/platform side that makes it differentiated, that makes it finely tuned to the education system?
Neil Emery: The first one was ease of use. We spent lots of time training education staff, who were so nervous about technology, that even if you put a URL on the board and ask them to put it in their iPad, if they put it in wrong, they would present the iPad to you to put that in, because that's so far out of their comfort zones. And we'd see from those early apps, like ClassDojo, iMovie, Book Creator there was usually a plus icon you'd press that plus icon and pretty quickly something would happen so that a teacher or a member of staff would feel like they'd had a success, which means then they would move on to the next stage and that's absolutely how we've built TrilbyTV, to be so simple that there's no need for its departments to be micromanaging our platform or people. So that was the main one.
Secondly, we've made it work across all platforms. So we didn't want to charge our customers for expensive boxes, which had happened in the past, I'm not saying wrongly, but that's where a lot of the solutions made their money, but we have player apps for iOS, TVOS, MacOS, Windows and Chrome. So some of our schools will use anything from a Fire Stick to an Apple TV, to a Microsoft Notebook. It doesn't matter, they can use whatever they've got to get going with us.
Unlimited screens. So we didn't want to charge them a per screen price. We wanted them to see the impact that signage can have and to be able to grow their estate without us charging them more. So we have an unlimited screen license which since then others have followed. We've certainly seen that in the market. Some of those who look at us and what we do have moved down that route as well. So it's definitely that same, that sets us out as a USP, and the last one probably is our content catalog, where we have a catalog of free of charge content that we make with exciting companies out there, like WWF or Botanica. So there would probably be the four main areas that we focus on.
David: There's a lot of subscription content out there. There's companies like Screen Feed and See/Inspire, and so on. They focus on news, sports, weather, curated, user generated material, all that sort of thing. It sounds like you've gone down a completely different path. That's all about the sort of thing that you would expect to see in a school, and that both parents and educators would be receptive to?
Neil Emery: Yeah we looked at the historical digital signage, and it was very much zones and ticker-tape and newsfeeds, and that doesn't do anything for education. Actually, news can be very biased. So that's the last thing children or visitors like to see in a school reception, and plus, that zonal content, it was confusing to the viewer. So, we wanted to make their content look fullscreen and beautiful, which it already is.
I still get people though, who still want a clock and ticker-tape even though there's a clock next door to the screen anyway.But yeah, we went down the route of thinking about what content, a couple of reasons really, what would inspire them to do more of their own good content, but what could we provide that has an education focus and keeps their screen up to date and interesting. So for example, the collaboration we did recently with Britannica, the encyclopedia that is sold, I’m sure people will be well aware of, if we did a “Country of the week” so if you download that to your TrilbyTV and add it to your screens, every week, it updates itself. You'll get a country of the week, capital city, population, and five revolving facts, and that's all done within a nice animation.
It's a nice, useful area for you to have a look at. And if there's content in there that will help keep your screens up to date and inspire the viewers than perfect. It's all free of charge and you're more than welcome to use it.
David: How does it work within schools, like what are they using the screens for and where are they putting them?
Neil Emery: So a lot of signage, historically, I think went in with some of the new schools, the building schools for the future as brought in by the labor government. So a lot went into areas like receptions and the dinner halls and your staff rooms, and the student corridors. Again, the problem back then was that the platforms were very commercially driven. So again, it was your clock's logos, ticker tapes, and maybe you were allowed to mix in a few pictures as well, if you were lucky.
What we do now with schools is so at the training session I had today, I had the head of HR, I had the reception lady and I had the repo graphics lady, and we started off by having some sticky notes and I got them to write where the screens were, then I got them to right underneath who the viewers were, where, and then from there we started to define what the content was. So we work really hard with our customers to make sure that they're putting in that simple plan so they understand screens, viewers and what content needs to be dried from that. But very much historically is the reception staff room, dinner hall, and student corridors, which is where the screens are.
David: Do they do things like, “This for the lunch menu today or the lunch menu this week,” that sort of thing? It's an example that I've seen a number of times.
Neil Emery: Yeah, absolutely, and the nice thing is nowadays with mechanisms like Google Slides, you can add Google Slides for a menu, and the staff and the dinner hall don't even know we exist because the Google Slides presentation is online. As soon as they change that, it automatically changes on the screens, which is great.
But we also get them to think about don't just putting Google Slides or a menu up there, how about photos of the food? We all are engaged by food programs on TV now where we see the final product and we think, wow, I'd want to eat that. We say to our schools how about you get some of the students to take some nice photos of the food, or actually they're in food technology, let’s have a video of a lasagna being made and put some of that up on the screen. So we try to get them to think slightly differently than just putting a static menu on their screens.
David: Do students get involved?
Neil Emery: Oh, absolutely. Yeah, and again, that's where we came from. We remember the early days of accessing those screens, putting in the students' work there and seeing how proud they were when it was playing in reception. So there's something we push quite highly and especially an Apple distinguished school. So again, we're historic with Apple, so we have schools that have Apple distinguished status. They would have a group of digital students who would create content on a regular basis before uploading that to us where it's then moderated by someone above them staff-wise before it goes live. It's a great thing to be doing.
David: It sounds like your platform is largely cloud-based and that you've got a kind of a web player that will work across different types of devices as you were describing. Is that accurate?
Neil Emery: Yeah, so we are cloud based. We use Microsoft Azure for all our hosting. So that's what we use, and you can have web players as well, but we have pure apps available too. So you go to the Windows app store or the Play store or the Mac App store, and you download our player app and it does that.
David: So it's a native player for the Apple TV and so on?
Neil Emery: Yeah. So you open it up and you get your regular code that pretty much everybody else does nowadays.
David: And one of the things that can be a challenge in schools, because IT resources are pretty limited, is how do you manage the devices remotely?
Neil Emery: We have a player dashboard within Trilby TV, so you can see all your players that are online. We're just bringing out some new player updates as well so you'll be able to set restarts and clear cache and adjust volume and all that sort of stuff. So it can all be very much managed remotely.
David: I assume one of the benefits and advantages you have over companies who are also in the digital signage space and have software, but don't know the school systems and so on, is you understand how administration works, where budgets come from and budget cycles and all that sort of stuff, does that give you a leg up?
Neil Emery: Yeah, I think so. In education not that we are anyway, but you're not going to get rich overnight. They take a long time to trust you.But once they're with you, they're with you for a long time. We're really close to our customers and we want to be close with our customers because we want to make sure that they're using it properly, but of course, all of that experience and all of that knowledge that we now have from those, from Ben's point of view, 30 years, and from my point of view, 15 years, yeah, of course, when we're talking to a potential customer, they understand pretty quickly we know what we're talking about.
David: I watch the web analytics off of 16:9 and what people are reading and there's always a big thirst out there for open source or free or freemium platforms and there are certainly some tools out there that are free-ish and I'm curious for schools who are on limited budgets, do they go down the path of trying to use open source stuff and, or very low cost stuff, and then realize that we need some hand holding here, it would be great to have some support and they rethink their budgeting and who they should work with?
Neil Emery: Everyone's different, right? And I think, with IT, that's the buying mechanism for digital signage and education over here. You're always going to get some IT people who really enjoy coming up with their own stuff and open source.
David: You mean IT people are know-it-alls? (Laughter)
Neil Emery: I didn't say that. Wel, we have to be careful because they buy our product. They are just like that. It's not important, maybe it is a little bit that they know everything about this solution and no one else can get in there and find out because they wouldn't be able to. But actually when they ask themselves about the time it takes to keep an eye on it and monitor it and update it, then it's wasting that time, which is then where we win the battle of, “Neil, this is so easy to use. I can give ownership to others. I can set it up, but actually I can give ownership to others and let them get on with it,” which is what they want in the end. They don't want to be managing what is in essence, a marketing tool, because that's what digital signage is. It's a marketing tool.
So yeah, budget wise, you might have a USB stick. You might have a laptop. Although that always makes me laugh because the laptop is budget and it'd be better off in the classroom, but that's just my thoughts. We're £1000 for unlimited screens, it's not a huge amount of money for a whole solution that runs your digital signage. But you're dead right. I think some will start off trying to come up with something themselves, but they soon find out that it's causing them a lot more pain than they want it to.
David: So when you say £1000 for an unlimited license that's per school, or is it a school system or how does that work?
Neil Emery: No, that's our single per school costs. Some of our schools have up to 40 screens, which is where it becomes very financially viable for them. We do have a multi-site license as well. We have some of the big multi academy trusts using TrilbyTV now in the UK, they pay a cost at trust level, which then significantly reduces the per school costs. So under a multi-site license, it's only £500 per school rather than the £1000.
David: So it's like an enterprise license as opposed to software as a service. You buy at one time, it's perpetual, and then do you pay for support or how does that work?
Neil Emery: Oh, no. So it’s a yearly subscription which, again, everybody pretty much does that.
David: Does the demand, and the use differ between what over in Canada, they would call public schools or private schools, but I know I get confused as hell because public schools are private schools in the UK and so on, are there needs and the way they use the system different?
Neil Emery: Private schools here, obviously that's the schools that parents pay for children to be at school and often boarding. They have so much more resources, obviously, you've got teams of twelve people, whereas in a state school, you might have a team of two people sometimes if we're lucky. So because of that, I think independent private schools are able to shine those screens a lot more. So because of the resource, they're sharing much more rich content. They have time to create that content and make it look good on the screens. They have a strategy in place to do that a lot of the time, whereas your public schools, often because of the lack of resources, are struggling for ideas, but also for people to create the ideas and create the content.
For us, we would see the content being pretty much the same across the school sector. It would change a little bit for colleges and universities. It definitely changes for primary schools, which is, your lower age schools, whereas that's more about sharing and showcasing student work at that lower age group. But I think for us, it's about educating our schools and our colleges right across the board that this is an extension of their website. This is a great marketing tool and they need to be thinking about what content is shown on those screens.
David: Are you doing much in colleges and universities?
Neil Emery: Lots in colleges. So we do well in that space, not so much in universities because we'll be very honest about our product and we're not wayfinding them and we're not touch screens. We are just easy-to-upload full screen content, so not so much for universities. We've got a few, but we definitely do well in colleges.
David: Yeah, I guess once you get into the larger footprint, universities with campuses and everything else you need to get into directory systems and everything else that does get more complicated?
Neil Emery: Yeah, again, we don't want to pretend what we're not, and won't be. So although we have a few colleges, we tend to be in specific places. We're not for bus time tables or things like that. Again, we’re for fullscreen content, marketing specific events to the students.
David: How big is your company at this point?
Neil Emery: We're still pretty small, so there's seven of us and we're heading towards eight next year.
David: And you can do that sort of thing, particularly these days, you can be virtual and you can scale up and scale down as you need, right?
Neil Emery: Absolutely. We're very lucky we're self-funded. We work extremely hard to make sure that we don't need to go down the route of investment and having a board of people telling us what to do. We want to keep that kind of closeness and that honesty of the company and grow organically. Of course we'd like to grow quicker. But we want to make sure our organic growth is honest towards our customers. So yeah, we're still small, but we've got aspirations to grow in the next five years that's for sure.
David: And what would be your install base, like how would you describe that? Are you in hundreds of schools, thousands of schools?
Neil Emery: Yeah, we're in hundreds of schools. Currently we've got about 1300 screens live in UK education at the moment.
David: As you said, you'd love to be able to grow that more.
Neil Emery: Yeah, absolutely. You know, me and Ben, when we were in Wales six years ago, thinking about where we should take the direction of the company. Because of what we'd seen in education we knew we could become the number one signage company for education because that's what we focus on.
You won't see a dropdown on our website and it says retail and restaurant and this and that and this and that cause that's not honest and that doesn't work for education. So for us, we want to become the number one digital signage platform made, and I always stick to my made, because that's important, made for education.
David: Yeah, it's something that I have coached endless numbers of people around is if you have a digital signage platform, do not go out into the marketplace as a generalist offer, because there are already too many of them. You need to find your niche. You need to find your tribe and say, we're the guys for this and it's what you are doing.
Neil Emery: Yeah, I think that's very hard as well, because if you're a new company or again, you've had investment, you're going to have to go after every market. In the US it is probably different, you see people like Rise Vision, there is a huge market in the US than probably more so Canada. So education, you've probably got more options to grow quicker. Here in the UK, although we've still got 35,000 education establishments, it's a long sell. We've customers that can take anywhere up to three months, six months to purchase your product. So there's a lot of time investment in there.
So, I think it's different potentially in places like the US as I said, where you're trying to mop up as much traffic as possible to grow your businesses as quickly as possible.
David: I think I know the answer, but I'll ask, have you thought about coming to North America or you've got more than enough to grow in the UK for some time?
Neil Emery: Well, we do have US customers and we do business and education actually, but they tend to again come to us because they liked that easy solution and ease of use. We do have links in the US with distributors, like Exertis, who were distributed in the UK. We have relationships with people like Promethian and Smart knocked on the door a few times and asked us what we're up to, but it's a different setup in the US when it comes to education, and we're aware of that, and the language differ slightly so we're aware of that as well.
So it's not our focus, but if someone comes along and says, you've got an easy to use platform, can we sign up and use you? We’re like, absolutely, you can!
David: One thing that's been around for a long time with digital signage and education, particularly on the digital out of home advertising side, is the idea that these screens can pay for themselves if you would just allow advertising on them or at least have the screen sponsored by, I don't know, British Telecom or O2, or something like that, it has not been explored at all? Or is it, would that just be hard “No” from the education people?
Neil Emery: There's definitely people who are doing it in the commercial space, and now platforms that allow you to, via an app, say I would like my pizza business advertised on there three times a week just directly billed. It's definitely a conversation we've had at directors meetings but it doesn't feel right to us.
Education is education and if I speak to some of my close head teachers for them, it's about the children and nothing else. So they wouldn't want to have these discussions in the first place. Because it's more about putting up the work of the children that day, make sure they feel proud. It's conversations that have been had, but we would stay away from those conversations fairly quickly.
David: Yeah, it would be interesting, I think, for things like sponsorships or almost like donations in the same way that maybe a company donates a new playground for a school yard, that sort of thing that you would imagine in areas of the country, maybe up in the north, that don't have the same wealth and resources and everything else that maybe that would be a way to get these systems going?
Neil Emery: Yeah, potentially. It just gets messy, I think, that's the problem. The focus is making sure that the customer understands what scientists can do first and foremost, and making sure they have a platform that's easy to use so that when we talk to them about what they love about the platform. Going to them to talk about how they might make money from companies advertising on the screens, yeah, it's almost as confusing as just simply trying to get signage running on an interactive screen, which sounds easy, but actually even that is completely a different conversation with schools sometimes
David: I have to ask about the name. I did look up Trilby and saw that in America, it would be called a Pork Pie hat. Trilby is a hat, right?
Neil Emery: If we were doing video, Dave, I would have worn my Trilby today.
There is meaning behind this, and Ben would certainly be able to give you that more. There's an article on the website that explains it as well. But from a simple point of view, Ben's dad, Tony, bless him, he’s no longer with us, was a Trilby hat wearer, and at our old offices in Birmingham, we had two lines of hats on the walls and he used to pick those between different ones regularly and where those, and it's nice because it's tactile.
Again, I go to lots of school training and they'll be like, oh, where's your hat because they expect you to wear the hat, and I think senior leadership at schools and colleges like that tactile approach as well. They don't so much like those cleaner techie type names. They like something that feels a bit familiar to them.
David: All right. It's been a pleasure to speak with you. If people want to look you up, where would they find you online?
Neil Emery: www.TrilbyTV.co.uk.
David: Perfect. All right. Thank you very much.
Neil Emery: Dave. It was an absolute pleasure. Thank you!