16 | Rob Taylor: SaaS Development, Marketing and Scaling

On today’s episode of Digital Rage we speak with Rob Taylor from TD Media. Rob has built a SaaS product called Conference Brain that provides a complete conference and live learning management solution.

About Rob Taylor

  • Rob is the Founder and CEO of TV Media
  • Product manager of Conference Brain

If a client wants a specific feature there is a very good chance that we will develop it for them. Where some of our competitors would say this is the way it works take it or leave it.

Rob Taylor

Show Notes

Alright on the show today we have Rob Taylor. Rob is the Founder and CEO of TV Media. He is also the product manager of Conference Brain. Which is going to be what we wanted to dig into mostly on this episode because it is a very interested app. And he is a father and he is also my brother, so welcome Rob!

Hey! Thanks Jeff.

Yeah, welcome to the show.

So, let’s start with why don’t you tell us about the Conference Brain, give us the overview.

Yeah. Sure. So Conference Brain is a platform that allows organizers of live learning events to manager pretty much all aspects of their events using a single log in. When we built the system it was designed as a beast mode project for a specific client and they were using six different systems to manage their one meeting. So between managing the website, the eblast, attendee registration, exhibit registration, abstract admission and judging. All of those were done in different systems so there was no single source of truth for their data. Which became really problematic when they wanted to start building advance functionality. Like giving their members discounts on conference registration. So, it was sort of the itch that they had and as we were developing it for them, we found that there were a lot of other organizations in that similar set of circumstances.

Alright, and oh, question. What does CME stand for?

So, continuing medical education. Doctors are required to their education on a regular basis annual and submit proof of that. A lot of that can be done online these days. But when you have a meeting in March, April in Palm Springs. It is pretty easy to attract people to come to your meeting at a live event. Um. yeah and there are just a lot of networking and things that you can do in a live context.

Okay. So, your app will actually track and help count towards continuing education?

Right. So they literally plan the entire meeting using our platform. Like they are already using it now to plan the 2020. We just finished 2019 right at the beginning of April. So all of the scheduling in terms of what sessions their going to offer, what social events. With CME there are pretty strict requirements for what you can give credit for and what you can’t. So if you are having a cocktail reception that is sponsored by a pharmaceutical company that does not confirm CME credit where an educational session would. So, our platform differentiate between those two things and allows the organizers to assign a value in terms of points for each session that someone attends. Then at the end they get a certificate that says you have earned 21.5 CME units. So that is how that works.

Oh great!

So can you maybe walk back and tell us why you choose that industry. Was that just based on one of your clients for a other company and then you got into that.

That is a great question, yeah. That is exactly what happens. We do a lot of work in the fertility space and the client that we developed this for was the specific reproductive society. So their the second largest organization for CME for reproductive endocrinology. Which is basically fertility medicine. So they just celebrated their 67th annual meeting. They have been doing it for a while. And one of our clients fertility center we work with was on the board of directors there and was aware of the need and they were looking for companies to build something custom for them. They couldn’t find anything else out in the market place that let them do exactly what they had a vision for creating. So it found us is really the answer.

Got it.

So how long ago was that?

Uh, we started building it in, about 5 or 6 years ago. They have ran 4 meetings on it. And we spent about a year or two on it just getting ourselves familiar with the organization. We went to a meeting before it was worked on to see how it was run. Then we spent about 12 months building the first version of it. Then over another period of 3-4 years we have continued adding features. For instance in the first couple years that we did it they still outsourced the mobile app for attendees for a third party but we since then have created a service that ties into our back end. Sort of work was they had to export it from one system and input it into another system and now they don’t have to do that. The mobile app pulls from the single source of truth. Which is really one of our driving principals in developing this thing.

Do all of the attendees have, they can down a iphone and android app at the conference.

Exactly. They can do it ahead of time. It is in both of the respected stores and it has everything from their sessions, schedule to all of the attendees contact information, exhibit map, list of abstracts. With these learning events there is a big focus obviously on education and a lot of that education comes from the community. Where they submitted abstracts and those abstracts are judged. Then there is a big poster presentation where everyone puts their big scientific posters up on a board. So it gives them a listing of what posters are at which location. All that important information.

Ok. Now is it, is the app kind of custom tailored to each?

Yeah. That’s a good question. Yeah it is completely branded. Just like the conference brand it self. We are currently working with two conferences. The second is the World Professional Association for Transgender Health which is a worldwide organization. Probably 3-4 times the size of Pacific Coast Reproductive Society. So obviously their installation of conference brain is custom to them. We don’t yet have the mobile app for them but were working on that but it would be completely different. The way we do that is instead of a multi tenant platform which you know a lot of these systems run like. We actually do things a little differently. We use get and code versioning  to actually create a separate repository. So we have a upstream master repository not to get too technical then we pull that down into each clients individual repository. Which allows us a lot of flexibility of customizing the platform. We don’t really have to consider something that wouldn’t work for client A if client B wants it because we would make it a configuration option and client A doesn’t see what client B wants. So it allows us to kind of rapidly scale this thing up in terms of 90% of the work is done but if they want the registration to work differently we can customize it in their downstream repository without affecting anyone else.

And with that system it sounds like you can, in something every lastly you would worry about updates but if this is conference by conference you don’t need to worry about it lasting more than a year.

Well, kinda. With CME regulations there is a recording requirement where you have to keep all the data for 6 or 8 years. So there is definitely a longevity concern and then with our other client Wpath they actually ran 7 conferences on the same platform. Some of those are smaller surgical courses and then there is their big national one that is coming up i believe in November where it is a lot bigger. There is the idea of keeping it running 24/7 because people need access to their CME certificates. It is also a membership system. So when they pay their dues they do that through the system as well. So um, it does all year round.

Gotcha.

Got it.

So Rob, Jeff and I were talking before you got on the show. My company and I have done a couple conference. We have our own CMS as well so we have done some in the AA space, alcoholics anonymous and one of the issues we ran into was we don’t have an app for it. It’s just a website with registration. Another issue we ran into was people not having actual internet connection at the actual conference. So have you had to, how do you handle that? Obviously the people need to be on wifi but is all the information downloaded in case there are internet problems?

Yeah. So that is a good question and we did look at that originally. Part of the original specification when we did the project for Pacific Coast Reproductive Society. That it needed to be able to run locally. Their last system was filemaker pro and they would literally shut the entire registration system down and move it to a laptop and run it locally without a internet connection to do onsite registration.

Ouch.

Yeah. painful right. So technically we could do the same thing. All of our deploy infrastructure is programmatic done from the command line so it would be pretty trivial to take the entire stack and employ it to a mobile computer if we needed to. We would obviously have to shut down the data in production while we are doing that because we wouldn’t have any way of synchronizing spare data sets but it could be done. We haven’t had a problem with it though the conference venues that we run at have really good wifi internet and so it has not been an issue. I am sure if it was we could probably hard wire a solution but you can’t do much with a mobile app if there is no good internet.

Right.

Some things are beyond our control.

Yeah and I guess these days wifi is just kind of comes with you just expect it at conferences.

And you could always do a mobile hotspot if you needed to even if the infrastructure wasn’t there. We would probably leverage some third party, even if we had to go satellite we could probably do that.  

Mm.

So two of the things that I see that you probably had as major hurdles was getting accredited to assign continuing education credits and two is uh, adoption of a new system.

Mhmm.

Were those, correct?

So fortunately number 1 is nothing that we have to deal with. The society that we are licensed to is responsible for that part of it. Their kind of responsible for making the decision as to how our system would conform to those requirements. So to be quite honest we are not experts in CME compliance. We just rely on them to provide that. There are some kind of strenchet rules that we made kind of a open ended system for review of faculty material.  That is a really big deal and so when a facility is assigned to the system they have to upload their presentation ahead of time. That presentation can be assigned to a judge one or more judges and those judges have to review each slide in the deck and sign off on a series of questions that are open ended. Meaning that the client can go in and ask the questions that they want to ask and how many questions they want to ask. One of the many questions is, is this presentation free from any commercial logos. That is a big deal. You can’t and it is crazy how people will try to subtly take a picture of themselves and in the back corner is their company logo. Can’t blame them they are trying to optimize the opportunity. So by having the system it doesn’t enforce any rules but it allows the admins to say what are the questions you need to sign off on so if the certification requirements change in the future they can add a different question. They have a historical record of who reviewed the presentation so if they were ever questioned by the governing body they would have some proof to show. And then the second one in terms of adoption we have been very fortunate. You know Pacific Coast Reproductive Society by their own admission previous system was really challenging for users. For example if I registered as an attendee and I changed my address. That update wouldn’t be reflective in my membership record because that was a whole different table. They had duplicate addresses in those two tables there wasn’t a single source of truth for address. So there wasn’t really any push back in people adopting it, which was fortunate for us. I think the larger question is how to get larger companies that aren’t on our platform to adopt it.

Yes.

That is definitely a hurdle. It is more of a entreprise sale cycle in terms of there is a board of directors and their planning their meetings a year out and if you are lucky you are trying to get in on a opportunity in 24 months kind of a thing. Coming from standard development marketing that is eons.

Yeah. So that is one of the main things we wanted to discuss. The challenge that you had with growing the business with an enterprise level sale cycle. What is your plans going into the future with this.

Yeah. I wish I could speak authoritatively to this point because you know, were still trying to figure it out to be completely honest. I think the plan for us really involves being consistent. So creating content on a regular basis so were actually looking at developing documentation as content and as a marketing tool. So that as we develop, because documentation is still in its infancy but as we release different chapters of documentation publicly, even though it may give our competitors some insight as to how our system works. I think the upside of having relevant content on a regular basis will probably trump that. So, um, and then just being persistent. It is a long sales cycle and it is going to be something you have stay in touch with people on a regularly basis. Previously to be quite honest our sales approach has been try to get them to express intent and if the sale cycle isn’t closed in 6-8 weeks we probably just move on from that opportunity. Then we will need to shift from that and know that it doesn’t happen in that time frame and be more patient and invest more time into the sale. I think is kind of where we are going.

Interesting.

Are there competitors like direct competitors or is your product unique?

Uh, it’s, there are definitely direct competitors and some very large ones and so that is definitely a challenge but the flip side of that challenge being very large they are trying to do things that scale and were not. Were purposely trying to things efficiently if you will. Meaning that if a client wants a specific feature there is a very good chance that we will develop it for them. Where some of our competitors would say this is the way it works take it or leave it. That is one of the things that drove wpath our second client to choose working with us because we didn’t say no to anything. We were like yes let’s figure out what you want and make it work that way. I think we’re a bit more eager in that aspect being new and we have a platform that allows us to do that customization without a downside. It would be great if we developed features that more than one client would want to license but um were still willing to work with the clients as sort of a custom application development if you will but with the benefit economically of having most of it already done. I think that is our sweet spot. We can offer them a high level of customized service but their still not paying for a complete solution.

Yeah makes sense. Rob would you mind speaking about pricing at all or how that works. You don’t have to get into the nitty gritty.

Yeah. That’s a fair question. So for CME compliant organization that uses all the features, including the mobile app and registration, member dues collection and all of that it ends up being around $36,000-$38,000 a year, licensing. There are organizations that don’t have membership bodies that just do conferences without membership or that do not require CME compliance so were looking to offer custom solutions. Where people aren’t paying for things that they don’t need and that would lower the price point but were still toying around with and see if we can make sort of a light version that would have registration obviously and session planning but may skip some of the things like faculty review or abstract submission if an organization doesn’t do that.

That sounds like a good approach to have a scaled down version you could probably easier to set up for them as well.

Yeah and the thing you know, it would include everything in terms of the website, mobile app and registration. Organizations that are doing that now through multiple providers might be attractive to them both economic and just sort of a operational standpoint.

I have a leading question. I want to lead you into sort of like taking a peak under the hood but do you see that the customization of your app would be scalable and which would be something that would never go away.

I think I understand the question.

So 10 years from now you wouldn’t lock down your service like other big competitors have.

No, I don’t think so. I honestly, we come from a development background. I am not a sales guy. I am a developer, a marketer. So I really enjoy the process of learning the needs of the potential client and see how we can address them with technology. That is sort of an inherit passion of mine so I don’t think I would ever want to just do something that was the same for everybody and if the leading question is to lead me into the technology stack and how we do that is that where you are going?

That is straight where I am going. Straight under the hood. I want to know how it works.

Right. So uh it is all done in PHP at least the main web part of it and company framework. If you have ever used company it is complexed but really good at what we want to do which is establish a common way to do something and add exceptions. So on the view layer just looking at how things are presented to the screen regardless of the back end logic um,. What we would call the base repo has a set of view layers but even within the company there is a really easy way to override the base layer of the view. So what we do is we pull the whole company view down into the clients repo and then within that we make new files that only live in the downstream repo and override the default view layers. So, not to be too technical. I guess it is ok to be technical. But it is really designed to, and there is some manuel going back and forth. For instance if you update the base layer you have to synchronize that override layer downstream. But it is a real easy way for the development team to focus on one core repo, push that down and there are other people who can handle implementation at a clients specific level. So even operationally it gives a really clean division of labor where developers can work on developing core features without worrying about how that is going to affect anybody down stream. Then another set of people can focus on how do we take that and make sure it works in that clients and that is not something that scales very well because you have to manually in some cases update things. Like I said earlier were not trying to scale well were trying to do things purposefully and not at scale because I think there is an opportunity there.

Yeah definitely. It helps with the evolution of the product as well because if you have a few clients asking for the same feature you add it to the core features.

Yeah. Then we have the options of tying things to a central configuration file and even that configuration file can be partially overridden on a client level. So there is a main config its Yamel in cemphany. So it is a config.yaml file but then we have a config.client.yamel and in the up stream repo that is an empty file but down stream if we want to add parameters we literally copy parameters from the main config yaml and change the configuration there.

It takes priority.

Exactly. Exactly. So the view layer has this view of overriding and priority and the config layer has this same idea and then if we need things that are programmatically different we can build two things parallel versions of something like a registration flow and we say client A uses this registration flow and client B uses this registration flow. Um so it doesn’t, we never have to touch client a’s registration flow if client b wants changes.

Yeah.

So company itself is fantastic. It’s complicated but for this type of development where you have uh, upstream, downstream repo. It is really wonderful for our purposes. Then the mobile app is done just to kind of give you a walk through of it. We chose reactive for the mobile app which is ok. You know.

It’s popular for sure.

It’s popular and I am not honestly adversed well enough in reactive for sure, it is not my strong suit. But I think those are more to me as a developer, the developer we use is great but mobile app development is so much harder than web development.

Yes.

Really there’s so many more considerations and it takes longer. I am so used to so quickly in a web environment so that is definitely been kind of an adjustment. This isn’t the first mobile app we have done but it is the one that has been used the most for sure. Um, then we tie the real native client to the data set using anodapi. So the mobile app connects to the nod stack and the nod stack pulls data from rethinkdb which is  really interested sort of data store. Were using MySQL. Company uses this thing called doctorant or optionaly instead of writing query you are writing indoctron. Doctor pushing company to rethink that as well. We did that kind of on purpose because we wanted the mobile app to have the same data but be redistributed multi server database environment that we could have on a different set of serves so that the mobile app would never be directly affected by the web performance. It’s a little convoluted but um it works well in practice.

Yeah and I went straight to thinking it went from mysql to a json file. Having the db solution seems like a much easier option.

Well and we kind of do a change feed so that as certain tables are updated we store kind of a meta table that says hey this table was updated at this date and time. Then the mobile client through nodapl stores when the last time was updated in their client and if it hasn’t changed it doesn’t bother to download it. So it knows when to download this new data sort of by this meta change log information on the table which pretty efficient. You still have to do pulling every I think we do it every 30 seconds but you are pulling this tiny information date, time and then if it’s greater than you stored locally then you go and grab the whole table again.

Gotcha.

I have a question about set up. If a company comes to you and they pretty much have no customization and want the features that you offer. What does the set up look like?

That’s a good question. It could be done really quickly. The hurdle is usually importing and utilizing their user data. So that is more important to membership organizations and they have dues they want to collect and dues history that they want to import into the system um and most of those folks don’t have normalization done. Their people will be just a text fill instead of being a table. So you can have md credential you could have 7 or 8 variations of it with periods and capitalization and all of that. So, going through and normalizing all of that but short of those challenges. We can spin up in 2-4 weeks pretty easily.

Ok. Wow nice!

Yeah it’s already done. It’s just a matter of creating another repository and programatically creating it. So if there is you know,, it has a built in CMS for modifying. Basically conference brain is the website for the organization but if they have an existing WordPress website they can do a conference.domainname.com and do the conference function there. Then the design wouldn’t be such an aspect. We try to discourage that because having a single website, single place to log in is probably a big advantage as far as friction for their attendees but it’s an option to scale up quickly.

Ok got it. During the actual events how are you providing support at those events.

Yeah. It depends from a pcrs I actually go onsite and help them with onsite registration. I am actually the guy printing peoples badges and helping people buy tickets and stuff. That was an opportunity that came early on and I took it. Developing is one thing but to see it in action is another. You make a long list of things that could be better.

On the ground. Home Depot requires all executives to work on the floor for two months attorneys and all.

Then our other client wpath, we have been to one of their meetings because I wanted to meet the board of directors and see how the meeting was run and they run every meeting without any assistance from us. It is not like we have to be there but we certainly can be and like to be if it is feasible.

Alright we’re coming up on the critical 30 minute mark. What we love to ask our guest is what tools do you like to use. Obviously you  use get, what else is primary to the tools that you use on a daily basis.

We self host our repos on get labs on our own servers so we don’t use github we use get lab. Which is fantastic. I was a little intimated getting that set up myself but super easy to maintain and I would highly recommend. Macbook Air for programming. Sublime text is my primary tool of choice for coding but our dev team uses different tools php storm I believe.

Any vs coders?

No. I don’t think so. Sorry. Um, we have a really interesting ticketing system that no one has ever heard of called egroupware its out of germany. It’s open source but we use for all of our ticketing and time tracking internally. We run payroll of that to figure out how much to pay everybody based on how much they have worked and clients submit tickets directly into that system either by email or directly into that interface. Um, I like Iterm2. I have been using that for a while and within that I use Tmucs which is good screen multiplier. If you do any stuff you should learn screen or tmucs it sets up your workspace in a terminal and even if  you are on a remote server and it dies you can log back in and all of your stuff is still there. You can run processes within a terminal context. What else photoshop, illistrator.

You used lume the last time I talked to you.

Yeah that is right lume is great for short videos. We do that all the time if the client has a question about something we will record a short screencast and send it over to them. I have tried a bunch of different video programs and this one is by far easiest even their paid version is like $8.00 a month. It’s ridiculously cheap.

Yeah. I can’t express how simple they make sharing easy but how much they give you for free.

Yeah and I like the feature that they send you an email when someone has seen it so even in like prospecting emails, i’ll record a screencast and then I’ll get insight if the prospect actually viewed the video or not. Sort of gives me how far along they are coming in terms of being ready to talk. Let’s see what else that is pretty much it.

Well there you go. Fantastic. Um, alright so what do you want to promote how do people follow you. Where do you want people to reach out.

Yep. Well were on linkedin, I think and I do a little on Twitter. LinkedIn is better and then conferencebrain.com is the best way to learn more about the platform and there is a demo request form there that you can fill out and we will be right in touch if anyone wants to try it out. We have a full version with demo data where you can log into the back end and see how all the functionality works and that would be the best way.

Alright sounds good. Thank you very much rob for being here, it was very informative and fun talking to you.

Yeah. Thanks a lot guys.

Thanks Rob.

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About the Author
Jeff Byer has been designing identities and building websites since 1995. He is the CEO and co-founder of Print Fellas LLC, and the President at Byer Company, a division of Jeff Byer Inc, a web design company in Los Angeles. Jeff has a Bachelor of Arts Degree from the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. He is a certified Project Manager by Franklin-Covey and has qualifications in Photoshop, Illustrator, HTML, PHP, JavaScript, MySQL, SEO, Bing Ads, and Google Ads. Jeff Byer is a co-author on 5 US Patents related to content management systems he has created on the internet.

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