Tuesday, May 23, 2006
Interview with Robin Richard, Chairman and CEO of NTI Group
My interview today is with Robin Richards, Chairman and CEO of NTI Group. NTI Group (www.ntigroup.com) is a Sherman Oaks-based company that is providing mass notification systems for the education and other industries. Robin was previously President of MP3.com, and was Chief Operating Officer of the company after it was purchased by Vivendi Universal. He also was Managing Director of Tickets.com. I thought it would be interesting to talk to Robin and his new company, which includes much of the team from MP3.com.
Ben Kuo: Thanks for the interview. Why don't you tell me a bit about your company is all about?
Robin Richards: I had just finished up running MP3, and as CEO of Vivendi Universal Net, and had taken some time off. I got a call one afternoon from my youngest daughter's principal--saying that they had Back to School night tonight at six o'clock, and that they hadn't had the best show up ratio for parents in the last couple of years, urging us all to come. My wife and I would have normally come, as we always do, but I thought it was very interesting hearing the power this man's voice, knowing this man, and going to the event. We showed up and there were like six hundred parents! There were three times as many parents as normally show up--more than I have ever seen. So I walked up to the principal, and asked him; why so many parents today? He said it was the phone call, and that it was incredible how he was connecting with the community, and how he could lead and instruct various behaviors. I asked him; who does this? He said--"it's this little company in Southern California". Long story short, I got in touch with them, and we bought the company.
We then put millions of dollars into the technology, for redundancy, mirroring, data security, and all the things you would expect for a team that came from MP3.com. Much of our team is from MP3.com. We have something which is far superior to anything on the market. The rest of the market is auto dialer-based, which has been the state-of-the-art for twenty years. We said--what does the education market want from a product? Communication is critical, speed of communication is important--particularly in the case of weather alerts in much of the country, with superintendents getting up and 4am in the morning to gauge the weather--you've got lockdown situations--where they would like to get the message out to all of the community in minutes. Then we need to make sure that this that this system has to be usable, so it needs to be web-accessible. So my guys said--why don't we just make no hardware, no software, and no phone lines--and all we'll do is if they've got a telephone in their hand or web access, they can pick up a phone, access their database, and they can create their message, that can go from the phone to the web, and they can review their message, pick their intended targets, make it very simple for call grouping--and send their message to the entire community, just the parents, just the staff, or "bus route 31". What we're learning is that people are segmenting their database to create more efficient communications, from football coaches, to PTA meetings, to bus routes, to the true emergency evacuations such as the recent North Carolina snow day, to hurricanes in Louisiana and Florida.
So we said there are just four things we want people to be able to do: number one, send out an attendance message. This is a very interesting thing in the education market. The central office in each building of the school district knows who is absent by 9:30 or 10:00 in the morning, but they have a limited ability to let anybody know before the afternoon--if at all. So your kid might be skipping school, and you wouldn't know until 3:00 in the afternoon, if you know it at all. Under our system, we pre-record these messages and they just tag the database, we do text-to-speech insert of the student's name, and by 10:30 all the parents and the whole school has been contacted. Most importantly, since we know the language spoken in the household in the database, we are able to send out in-language to the parent or guardian that the child has missed school, and even down to a period.
Now we're doing about 10 million telephone calls a month--over six thousand schools and districts nationwide. After collecting that much data over a year and three quarters is that this early notification of absenteeism is reducing absenteeism by one percent.
BK: How's this different than existing systems?
RR: This does three things. The attendance, the general outreach--the come to the back to school night--and the emergency. You just push one of those buttons, and you access your database, and you pick and choose.
BK: So this is different in you don't have any equipment and everything's hosted by you?
RR: Exactly, they have nothing to do, nothing to remember, they just have to pick and choose through the interface. It's really a hosted system. A few advantages to a hosted system is that if the power goes out, the system still works. We're running from three different power grids in America. If a hardware based auto-dialer system goes out--the database goes down. Who do you call? Number two, hardware based systems are modular in nature. You buy a four-pack, an eight-pack, or a 16-pack; and they usually goes 32-, 64-, 100-. These are nodes that you can add that ship out two telephone calls a minute. If you had 100 nodes--the biggest we have ever heard, the City of Sacramento has that--that's 1200 calls an hour to one telephone number only. If you had a tsunami, or something like that gave you six hours notice--a hurricane coming, or a tornado. These systems would only get to five to six percent of the people prior to being clobbered by those emergencies. We have the capability of doing approximately 400,000 calls per half hour. So, the speed is the whole reason you would want a system like ours. Because when you need the speed, you absolutely need the speed.
Even if you just want to do that back to school night at 7 PM, you can make this call at 5 PM and know it will be done hitting a district of 10,000 in 15 minutes--and you're done. Plus, you don't have the same kind of user constraints on our system that you do on a hardware based systems. On a hardware-based system, you typically have to go to one person who keeps the keys, who knows how to lock and load the system, and give them your text, and come down to wherever you have to come to. They're more cumbersome systems. With ours, it doesn't matter if you are in Hawaii, you can pick up your cell phone, we load the databases options in, you call a password protected telephone number, you dial in your PIN number and leave your message, and then it asks if where you want to send the numbers. You pick one, it's out, and you can be 10,000 miles away.
BK: What's the connection here to MP3.com? It seems like this is a totally different industry... It looks like you have a bunch of the team over there?
RR: Yes, we have fix or six of us that came from MP3.com, and a few that came from Tickets.com. And one of our presidents came from the very first company of my career. We have a very significant group of experienced executives who understand the primary advantage of a small company is your technological prowess and your speed. We believe that we've been in enough interesting industries doing enough leading edge technology that our technology is far superior. And the speed at which we can institute ideas and execute operationally is pretty spectacular because all of these folks have been with me for years and I trust their judgments. It makes us capable of going a lot faster than a normal small company--let alone a big company.
BK: It sounds like you've been providing your service for awhile now?
RR: Yes, since we bought the company we have grown thousands and thousands of percentage points. We're the market leader. We came from nowhere, we didn't even have a quarter percent of the market, and now we have ten percent of the education market.
BK: Do you see taking this beyond education?
RR: Starting three months ago in January, after we became the market share leader in the education, we started getting calls from cities in the East. They operate a bit differently out there than here, where their school board chairman is often time the mayor of the city. Their charters are different. So I am sitting there talking to school board members, and they are telling me this is the best thing they've ever done--and they ask me why they can't use this for their city. I told them it didn't seem like we had a product for a city, because of the nature of the database. Cities are a more complicated concept. I asked them who leads this market today, they gave me a few names--all hardware based--and I sat down with my guys and said we needed to build a system with mapping capability, LAT/LONG, centroid-out capability, like a car navigation system. Something that has the capability to actually draw with your cursor a section of a map and automatically create a calling database off known numbers in that city and businesses in that city. So, quickly, if there is a chlorine spill and we want to go South of Main Street a mile East and mile West and mile South and tell residents to stay in their house or not go there, we can create a database instantaneously from our mapping program. The police chief, mayor, or whoever has access to that database, and can then provide clear and concrete leadership to those people.
This is particularly important with the avian flu. We've been to a lot of meetings and have been following this. The avian flu is not about IF, it's about WHEN. Will it ever reach the level of a pandemic? I certainly hope not. But I do know this. We haven't heard the end of it because of the Channel 7 movie. It's not a good thing facing our world. Officials will need the ability to communicate swiftly with their citizenry, in a targeted manner, to provide leadership. This is kind of a tool whose time has come, in a world which requires swift communications. That's our Connect-GOV, Connect-CTY product which connects with governments.
The third is Connect-ED, which is used by colleges and universities nationwide. That allows them to contact their students on cellular devices, SMS, and email--since they don't even pick up the phones in their dorm rooms anymore. We have a number of colleges that have signed up for this product.
BK: It seems like the theme here is really taking a service which was hardware-based and putting it online--like which you've done with your other companies.
RR: Yes, that's what we did with music, with ticketing, with Moviso, which was a company we founded with ringtones. Now, we're doing that with notification. Taking everything online, and using the power and efficiency of the Internet and its backbone, VOIP, in combination with stable, other technologies--and improving the efficiency of an already existing world of products and services. That's why it doesn't matter what industry our companies are in, the theme is taking a look at industries which are underserved technologically and then building it. That's what using the Net is all about.
BK: Thanks for the interview!