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Building a Cutting-Edge Telecollaboration Company: John Underkoffler, CEO of Oblong Industries (Part 3)

Posted on Thursday, Sep 15th 2016

Sramana Mitra: Talk to me a little bit about the commercial. How much did these three major accounts pay you to do their projects?

John Underkoffler: I will probably decline to give actual numerical figures in this context. This was more than enough to keep us going as a young startup.

Sramana Mitra: This was your seed financing, right? I imagine multi-hundred thousand, if not, millions kind of deals.

John Underkoffler: In that range. No one likes to admit that luck is actually part of success, but it is.

Sramana Mitra: It’s a huge part of success.

John Underkoffler: We were incredibly fortunate to have a number of early contracts and very enthusiastic adopters of technology who let us bootstrap the company. When it came time to consider a Series A, we were a couple of steps ahead developmentally.

Sramana Mitra: What is the chronology from the time you started doing these three projects to when you made the switch to productizing? What is the timeline?

John Underkoffler: We built out that core technology and engaged with these kinds of large-scale one-off vertical-specific customers at the beginning of the company in 2005 on through to 2009. In 2009, we sat down to design the product.

Sramana Mitra: How long did it take you to productize to a level where you could go out and sell this as a product?

John Underkoffler: We, of course, continued commercially in the old mode even as we were developing the product. We still do today, which is a great way to uncover new insights. It took us about two years to get to an alpha version of the product in place. There was already enthusiasm among our initial customers. We were able to deploy a number of these alpha systems. It wasn’t really until 2012 the we had what we could sincerely call a 1.0.

Sramana Mitra: When you had that 1.0, whom did you go after?

John Underkoffler: We knew that we wanted to start top-down. Our commercial history has consciously and deliberately targeted Fortune 1000 and Forbes Global 2000, not with the idea that it would be appropriate for them, but because we thought we could get better early on traction that way. That has proven to be the case.

In that sense, we’re following in the steps of companies like Silicon Graphics who had uniquely valuable technological propositions that big companies just desperately needed to be able to see and work with their data. Over time, those technologies permeate outward to become part of how everybody works in small to large businesses as well as at home. We’re following much of that same path.

Sramana Mitra: What were use cases of verticals that were particularly interesting? I know SGI’s business. I don’t think the audience would know the SGI business quite as well because it’s been a while and a lot of the readers are much younger. In your case, where were you finding the traction?

John Underkoffler: We had, of course, early traction with the Fortune 50 companies that we already were interacting with. That already gave us large-scale manufacturing in the case of Boeing and GE. Very quickly, we added a number of verticals including commercial real estate, other kinds of manufacturing, advertising, and visual communications.

Today, part of what we regard as the success of the product, which enables visual collaboration, is that almost any vertical you can name is part of our portfolio of clients. That’s everything from pharmaceuticals, electronics, IT, manufacturing, advertising, and automotive.

Sramana Mitra: It’s visualization that is the primary driver.

John Underkoffler: I’d go even broader than that. It’s visual collaboration. Maybe this is a good time to get into some of the basic principles that we’ve discovered and deployed through the product to the advantage of our customers.

This segment is part 3 in the series : Building a Cutting-Edge Telecollaboration Company: John Underkoffler, CEO of Oblong Industries
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