Enplug drags digital signage into the social era, raising $2.5M and landing Porsche and Coffee Bean as clients

By Michael Carney , written on April 17, 2014

From The News Desk

Digital signage is hardly an industry that screams for startup attention. Yes, the category hasn’t had much innovation in the decade plus that it’s been in existence, but it’s not like the dentist offices, restaurants, and casinos that host these screens are clamoring for technology. If anything, these signs are often an afterthought.

Culver City-based Enplug is changing that with its interactive, real-time, social display platform. The two-year-old company has installed 32 to 80 inch displays in more than 300 locations in multiple countries since November, including in Porsche dealerships, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf cafes, Arco AM/PM convenience stores, and Rita’s Ice parlors.

Enplug today announced $2.5 million in Seed funding from angels including Lightspeed Venture Partners managing Director Justin Caldbeck, Idealab founder Bill Gross, former AT&T president and CTO Hossein Eslambolchi, Oaktree Capital co-founder Larry Keele, and Santa Monica accelerator StartEngine. The convertible note round was raised on a rolling basis over a period of approximately six months, with the final participants closing earlier this year.

For brands and venues looking to increase customer engagement, Enplug’s interactive screens display real-time social media content, meaning that if a customer tweets or posts to Instagram using the brand @handle or #hashtag it will immediately be displayed on the screen – profanity and sentiment filtering notwithstanding. The average result is a more than 500 percent increase in social media interactions within the first month after installation, the company reports.

The Enplug platform also supports photo slideshows and can display menus and special information, making it a tool for venues to disseminate information and create ambiance beyond the social engagement that they foster. Furthermore, every screen is customized with a brand’s logo, colors, and custom graphics.

Owners can tap into the Enplug app store to choose which social networks, visualizations, and other engaging experiences rotate through the screen, and at which rate. The company recently deployed an iOS mobile app for admins that allows them to monitor and manage what’s on the screen at an given moment and also to view real-time engagement analytics.

When Enplug launched in 2012, the concept was for a display ad network that would help venues generate engagement and ancillary revenue. The plan was for an outbound sales team to canvas small business owners and try to sell them on the value of installing these smart displays. But when the company began deploying pilot displays around Southern California, the result was exactly the opposite. Inbound demand for screens was through the roof, according to founder and CEO Nanxi Liu, stemming entirely from patrons who walked into pilot locations and saw the screens in action.

“People started asking us, 'How can I get one of those screens installed in my location?'” she says. “First we tried just charging for the equipment and installation. Then we added a monthly software subscription. At this point, any advertising revenue is just the cherry on top.”

Today, Enplug is a SaaS platform where venue owners actually pay monthly for access to the software powering the company’s interactive screens. The going rate is $99 per month, per screen. The company grandfathered in its early adopters, meaning that 150 of the current 300 plus locations pay nothing to host their screens. That puts the company’s revenue at approximately $15,000 per month, a number that Liu declined to confirm, only saying that the company’s top line is growing rapidly.

Depending on the venue’s needs, the company can either provide and install new screens or retrofit existing ones. Most locations have only one screen, but the goal is to begin focusing on multi-screen, multi-location accounts – enterprise venues, if you will. The only other hardware required is a small, wi-fi enabled media player that Enplug provides at cost and, for US locations, will deliver and set up for free.

It’s not just the interactivity that makes Enplug different than legacy digital signage platforms. Because every screen is connected to the company’s servers, it’s able to collect and analyze data about performance and relay that information back to venue owners. For example, Enplug may tell a bar that displaying a static ad for $2 domestic beers is driving less engagement and conversion than a prompt to tweet at the bar for the same discount. The company can also provide information on which customers interact with the screens and how frequently, making it possible to identify and engage with a brand’s most loyal customers.

With its seed money, Enplug plans to expand its team, which currently counts 35 people strong, in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and eventually New York City. With the bulk of the current team focusing on product and technology, most of the future growth will occur in sales and account management. During its initial rollout, the company targeted small, mom-and-pop locations, Liu says, but going forward the plan is to focus more on enterprise-scale deployments.

“We’ve been fortunate to have more inbound leads than we can handle thus far, but we’re ready to start focusing on outbound sales,” Liu says.

The Enplug culture is a unique one, stemming from the fact that every employee lived and worked together in the same six bedroom Bel Air home up until the team crossed 20 employees. It was a cozy arrangement that built close personal ties within the early team and blurred all lines dividing their work and personal lives. The company has since moved into a traditional office space – on the floor below the Dominos franchise headquarters, meaning the pizza never stops flowing – but about half of the company’s 35 employees still live together in the original house.

The biggest challenge facing Enplug is the sheer size of the addressable market and the fact that its product is best demonstrated rather than explained. For the company to fulfill its massive potential, it will need to build a fairly large sales force and do plenty of door knocking. But with every new location it installs, the company adds another billboard for its own brand and service. It’s a self-fulfilling loop that Liu hopes to get spinning at warp speed.

As for competitors, Liu says that the Digital Signage 2.0 market is wide open. The company runs into legacy platform providers like BroadSign and Four Winds Interactive, but says that none of them have shown the ability or the willingness to offer anything more than a one-way experience.

“We see them as potential licensing customers,” Liu says, noting that her company is already engaged in conversations around such relationships. “I think one thing that makes us unique among startups is that we’re extremely focused on generating revenue, so we’re exploring all avenues.”

As for the digital signage market as a whole, with the falling cost of displays and the emergence of new technologies like Enplug, all signs point to adoption expanding dramatically

“Our hardware partner told us that they’ve experienced a 4X increase in demand for media players over the last six months,” Liu says. “By the same token, we weren’t expecting to be in multiple countries at this point, but we’ve had venues enroll from Mexico, Slovakia, Australia, Russia, and elsewhere.”

“Digital signage has traditionally been boring and ugly,” she says. “We’re changing that and the market is definitely responding.”