This month, in the CEO Spotlight, we welcome Alan Phillips, Founder and President, Thinking Screen Media (formerly known as FrameMedia) in Wellesley, Massachusetts.
- You started FrameMedia in Jan./07 to offer FrameChannel for in-home use, and quickly commercialized with SignChannel. Was the in-home product a ‘test run’ for the commercial product? What was your plan when you started the company?
Our vision has not changed from the day that we founded the Company. In 2007, we were seeing the emergence of a new technology category (which today, we call ‘connected screens’). The category of ‘connected screens’ was being defined by wireless photo frames, TVs, and other Internet appliances. Unlike personal computers and mobiles phones, these screens are limited in their ability to easily search and configure content. Our plan (then and now) is to enhance the value proposition of these inexpensive Internet-ready screens by facilitating content selection on the Web and intelligent delivery to the screen through our FrameChannel and SignChannel services.
The one recent change to our business is the company’s name, now Thinking Screen Media. We felt this name better reflects the broadening of our opportunity with all connected screens, not just wireless frames.
The timing of our SignChannel commercial product was determined by evidence of demand for our services in the business market. Specifically, we began to see that a significant portion of our FrameChannel users were businesses using our service for commercial purposes.
- FrameChannel, at least initially, charged little or nothing for content. Is that still the case? What about Sign Channel, since I presume both use the same RSS feeds for the news content?
FrameChannel is a Web-based service for the selection and delivery of content to the consumer’s ‘connected screen’. The FrameChannel service continues to be a free consumer service with an advertising business model. In partnership with 30 content providers, the user has access to over 1,000 channels of content.
SignChannel is a paid subscription Web-based service for the selection and delivery of content to the business’ ‘connected screen’. The SignChannel Web service allows the business to manage and marry its business content with 1,000 channels of content to create a compelling presentation to promote its products and services. Unlike the FrameChannel service, there are no advertisements associated with the content channels on SignChannel.
- I know that you have several investment angels as partners. What percentage of the company do you own and is the company growing as you planned, or slower in this economy? What is your revenue model and are you turning a profit yet?
Thinking Screen Media is venture-backed by investors who believe deeply in this category. They share our belief that this will be a very big market opportunity. Analysts project that by 2013 there will be over 500 million connected screens in the market.
Employees own over 30% of the company. Although the recent economic downturn presented challenges to the consumer electronics industry and thus connected screens, we are now seeing increased sales volumes with new and innovative connected screens hitting the market.
- You’ve been involved in a lawsuit with Ceiva Logic that alleges that FrameChannel service infringes on one of Ceiva’s patents. Where does that stand now?
We maintain our belief that Ceiva Logic’s patent is invalid. On Aug 31, 2009 the US Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) issued a communication documenting its rejection of Ceiva Logic Patent Claims upon re-examination (subject to further review upon plaintiff rebuttal). Although the process may be a long one, we are very confident in the outcome.
- How many wireless digital frames are now on the market in the U.S.? There were projections that 20 million units would be shipped in 2010. Do you think this is still accurate? How many of these would be for commercial use? Do you think that your products are spurring a significant amount of frame sales
I believe the analyst’s projections on units shipped, but the vast majority of these frames are not Internet-ready. Almost all analysts predict that connected frames will start to flood the market over the next year.
- In terms of advertising sales for both FrameChannel and SignChannel, who handles them? Are consumers willing to have advertising in their home?
We have yet to begin to sell advertising on the FrameChannel service. We expect to begin ad sales in early 2010 through a sales partnership which will be announced shortly. As to the consumer’s willingness to accept advertising: I believe that there is an understanding that, to support a service like FrameChannel, there needs to be a revenue model. That revenue model can either be subscriptions or advertising. We believe the consumer will prefer the ad route for which the Internet provides a proven model for consumer acceptance.
- You originally had a screensaver and Google Desktop gadget so prospective purchasers of your product could play with the tool before purchasing a frame. Do you still offer this and for which product?
We will re-introduce our Screensaver product later this year. In addition, a prospective frame buyer can sign up for a free FrameChannel account to learn almost everything about the service without needing to purchase a frame. Further, we plan to make a similar option available for SignChannel whereby a user may set up his account and not have to pay for usage until he activates a frame or media player.
- Can the advertising on your products be targeted? On both? Can your explain a bit? If so, is there any way of measuring results?
Yes. We are very excited by our targeting capabilities. Targeting can be based on location, screen type and size, room in the house, content channels, and other demographic information requested at time of registration.
- Are you operating only in the U.S. at this time, or elsewhere as well? What are your growth and expansion plans?
Over half of our users are outside of North America. We will expand in partnership with our screen and digital signage partners. We believe that these screens will be ubiquitous and the opportunity for the SignChannel and FrameChannel platforms will be enormous. With SignChannel, our two largest distribution partners are Scala and Signarama. Scala has more than 350 distributors worldwide and Signarama has more than 1,000 franchisees worldwide.
- You have extensive experience as co-founder of uLocate Communications and Nurse.com, and have held senior positions with GrandBanks Capital, ZDNet and CNET. What have you learned from these that you can apply to your current position?
Everything takes longer than expected and longer than you would like, but in the end perseverance wins if the initial vision was right.
- You have made agreements or partnerships for SignChannel with some major companies – among them Scala, Roku (BrightSign) and All Digital Media. With interest from such companies, do you see SignChannel as developing as your main business and/or perhaps developing another generation of your current offering?
We believe that our business is about delivering content to connected screens and both FrameChannel (for the consumer) and SignChannel (for the business) will be substantial revenue generators for Thinking Screen Media in the coming years.