After opening their Internet of Things marketplace offering 38 solutions last December, Telus has just announced its expansion with the addition of more than 30 new solutions.
The Internet of Things risks being over mysterious for many small and medium business owners, who know of the category and wonder if they need to be participating somehow but lack the time to investigate and implement a made-to-measure solution.
Practically speaking, Telus’ IoT marketplace resembles an app store for its clients, who can select an Internet of Things solution and simply add it to their bill, much like any other service offered by the telecom provider.
This goes a long way to demystifying the Internet of Things category and making it real for business owners.
Until an IoT solution can be presented in real terms, and as something that provides return on investment, the whole category remains steeped in mystery for most business owners.
For solution developers, it also offers expanded access to customers who might find their offerings overly abstract or obscure, while also providing the imprimatur of one of Canada’s major telecom companies as an assurance of quality and recognition.
With Telus’ own research indicating that spending on IoT solutions is projected to grow from $5.6 billion in 2013 to $21 billion in 2018, the Western telecom giant’s insight that an easy-to-comprehend marketplace for business owners seems ready to pay off.
Cantech Letter spoke to Telus Internet of Things Senior Product Manager Greg Stark by phone.
Most people think of Telus as a telecom company. What spurred your entry into the development of an Internet of Things marketplace?
It’s a really interesting category. The main reason why we’re getting into this space is because we’re transitioning to try to sell more integrated solutions. Obviously, we sell connectivity, which is the backbone of all these solutions. For example, if you’re a restaurant and you’re implementing a food safety solution, there’s connectivity in there. So we’ve got a vested interest in making sure that that solution is successful. But when we were looking at the category, the challenge that we have is that our customers don’t necessarily understand what IoT is yet, because it’s so confusing. The reason why we developed the marketplace is because we hope to humanize what each of those solutions means and to encourage adoption. And not only do we get connectivity from each solution that launches, but we can help these technology creators be successful. So that’s really what led to the creation of the marketplace itself.
Yeah, as much as it sounds like we already exist in the shiny world of the future if you spend a lot of time talking to people who run start-ups, it is worthwhile to remember that less than half of Canadian businesses even have a website. So there’s a disjoint between Canadian businesses, who are struggling to come to terms with buzzwords like Big Data and the Internet of Things, and the start-up community, who are developing these categories to begin with.
To a certain extent, if you just think about the Internet of Things broadly, it is a buzzword category. But when we start actually putting solutions together and merchandising them the way that we put them in our catalog, they become way more meaningful. It translates that buzzword into something that’s real. Look at something as simple as that food safety solution. It’s amazing how customers react because it solves real business problems. Usually, our customers don’t talk about it as “the Internet of Things”. They talk about it as “this system that helps me track my food”.
So, you’ve got solutions in your portfolio from all across Canada. It’s a broad range, both geographically and in terms of the services offered. What’s the scouting process behind finding partners there?
The first thing we try and understand is, what do our customers need? Obviously, we can stock anything, but those that are going to be successful are the ones that have real customer demand. So our account teams, who work with our customers, are always asking us, “What can we possibly do with IoT, and what solutions exist?” So we start there. We start with the customer. We try and understand what they could need. If you’re a restaurant, what could you need? You probably need that food safety solution. You might need some digital signage. You might need a point-of-sale system. So typically we start at the vertical level and we narrow down and say, “Okay, what solutions are required?” The other thing we’re doing is we keep track of all the start-ups. We did an IoT meet-up at our office in Toronto, probably about a month ago, just to understand where people are at, because the innovation starts with small business. So we keep an eye on those guys. That’s the other source of data that we have. Then there comes a point where we actually have a customer that’s interested in one of these solutions. That brings that partner to the top of the list. Usually when we onboard a partner, we try and make sure there’s actual customer demand. Ideally, we’d actually have our first sale with the partner pretty much immediately. That’s usually a really great catalyst for us to kick-start the legal process and paperwork to get them on. So it’s those two sources of data, the customer information and then looking at what technology exists in Canada. And I’d take it one step further and say it doesn’t necessarily need to just be Canadian technology. We have a partner, for example, who’s coming on from the U.S. They do beer keg monitoring. Their customer challenge that they’re trying to solve is actually quite simple. If you’re in the Air Canada Centre or a large event venue, the kegs in the keg room tap out at a certain point. You need to make sure the kegs are always connected so that you can fulfill demand. So that’s a U.S. solution that we’re bringing in to Canada, because nothing exists like that here.
It seems like one of the more obvious uses of Internet of Things technology, is making sure the beer kegs are full. Although, I’ve got to say, I feel almost ashamed as a point of national pride that it wasn’t a Canadian company who could have provided that particular solution. Kind of ironic.
Well, I’m sure if a company wanted to in Canada, they could do it. But it’s about collecting technology from not only Canadian companies, but all over the world, and making sure we’ve got the best solutions for our customers to implement. When I think about why our customers implement them, it comes down to three things in my mind. The first is that for our customers, when they’re adopting a solution, there’s some sort of efficiency there. So with that food safety solution, you’re saving a lot of manual labour, from going around manually checking your freezers and their temperature. So you’re decreasing your costs. There’s some sort of efficiency there. Second, we allow them to implement the solutions quickly. In this category, there are a lot of custom designed solutions. And that’s okay, but the ones that are off-the-shelf are a lot easier to implement. So it’s our intent to make sure that we have these pre-packaged solutions that our customers can take and implement quickly. Third, it’s a natural extension for Telus because a lot of Canadian businesses are already engaged with Telus, and if they can just get their IoT solutions from Telus, it’s an easy and very trustworthy path for them. If you look at our latest campaign, with 95% of customers satisfied, it’s a natural extension for them to say, “If I can get my IoT solution from Telus, that’s good because I know them.”
From the start-up community perspective, that would be the main incentive for getting involved is that it’s almost like a plug-and-play app store for the vendors who are selecting the services, as opposed to seeking out a tailor-made solution that’s expensive to build and deploy.
As you go into the bigger customers, naturally you’re going to have more specific requirements, but for small and medium businesses in Canada, it’s a great spot to start.
“When we start actually putting solutions together and merchandising them the way that we put them in our catalog, they become way more meaningful. It translates that buzzword into something that’s real.”
Looking over your offerings, with Semios for example it feels like they’re the obvious choice for the crop irrigation monitoring category. But when I’m looking at solutions like point-of-sale or payment processing, that’s a more crowded field. What sets a company apart in a crowded area like that that you select them?
If you look at some of the companies in there, there’s actually a bit of overlap. But when we’re talking with the companies, it really comes down to what their solution is. How many customers do they have? We need to make sure to do the basic due diligence on our partners to make sure they’re reputable, they have a solution that works, their technology is right. So we go through quite an extensive review. It does take us a long time to make sure that we have it right. For example, a lot of the partners that we announced this week we’ve been talking to for quite some time, even pre-launch. Last year when we launched, we were already in discussions with a lot of them and they just didn’t make it for launch. We do focus on how well their business operates as one piece. The other piece is going on the customer side. Do they have existing customers, and what’s their experience like? Does it naturally fit with what Telus is all about? We want to make sure that there’s good alignment that way, because obviously we want to make sure that we provide that premiere experience to our customers. So that also comes into play. And then there’s the actual solution. Does it solve a real customer need? So those are the three things. Is the business a good business? Do they have fairly strong customer relationships? And is the solution solving a real need?
That’s the thing. The Internet of Things is often presented as a fairly abstract category, but ultimately it’s about needs and finding efficiencies in real situations.
That’s a really key point. If I think about the last few generations of technology, when smartphones were first adopted, it was about productivity savings that a company could get. You could take your smartphone home at night and get access to work email. Smartphones actually started in the business world and then naturally grew out into the consumer world. The thing that gets me so excited about this category is the same thing. When I go to a customer and have a conversation with them, we can look at the efficiencies. For example, I was with a customer in southwestern Ontario this year, a manufacturing company, and we were walking the line. I said, “What about your forklifts? Do you have problems with your forklifts?” And they have tons of problems with their forklifts, and managing the maintenance on them and making sure that they’re always working. And in order to make sure they’re working, you need to implement a maintenance program. So if we can help that customer make sure their forklifts are always working by tracking how often they’re used and by putting maintenance programs in place, they can achieve real efficiencies and be a better company, which makes them more competitive. So that’s what gets me excited about the category. If you look at the different waves of technology, this feels really strongly correlated to how smartphones were first adopted.
You’re pointing out that technology that begins with enterprise often ends up with the consumer. Can you see a day when Telus ends up rolling out an Internet of Things marketplace aimed at the consumer level?
It’s a good question. It’s too early to tell. We’re definitely looking at connecting different things. There’s a bunch of partners in the hopper that we can’t talk about quite yet, but that could be in the consumer space. Look at some of the big connected car platforms out there. They’re building products for consumers. Although we’re not going direct to consumer, sometimes our partners have to make a direct to consumer play with what they’re doing. Look at usage based insurance. There’s another great example. You can put a dongle in your car from your insurance company.
What technology have you seen in the Internet of Things category that has surprised you or thrown you for a loop?
That would be a company called CommandWear from B.C. They have a platform that helps police improve their situational awareness and making sure that their officers are safe, that the community is safe. If you think about police today, the way that they communicate is with over-the-shoulder radio. Think about how many people are talking on those radios and how inefficient that is, and how many problems there could be making sure that you hear the right thing and get the right information. Then you take that to the next level. If there’s a missing person and you need to get a picture of somebody out there really quickly, you can’t really do with radio. When I looked at that solution under the cover, it’s a smartphone-based solution, but it allows first responders to communicate with each other in a text-type format and with picture video. That, to me, just blew my socks off, because I thought, “If we could get every first responder in Canada using this, think about how much more protected we would be.” Not only that, but our officers would be safer, too. So I decided I need to get that solution out there and start talking about it and getting customers to adopt it. To actually help someone save a life, that’s a dream.