NXT: What is Ideum?
You know those big touch screens you see in museums? That’s what we build.
We are also a design firm that develops interactive, visitor-centered exhibits for museums and Fortune 500 companies by utilizing new and emerging technologies.
On the hardware side, we design multi-touch tables and touch walls, and on the software side we provide design & custom software development.
NXT: Why are customers coming to you?
Our roots are in the museum industry, but we love unique problems and challenges. We’ve done projects where the content is compelling, but I think the ‘how’ behind our design is what draws people in.
We’re focused on the visitor experience of public spaces, and we understand how to make that happen.
We’re one-stop experienced designers, all the way from content to technology. We can provide all the pieces for our clients, but we also offer the flexibility of partnering with outside firms if they bring something special to the table.
NXT: What prompted you to start this company 17 years ago?
Prior to starting my company, I worked at the Exploratorium in San Francisco, a hands-on science museum that explores the world through science, art, and human perception.
Over time, I wanted to work with other institutions and other subject matters and other technology. I also wanted to have more creative control over the types of projects and the directions we went in.
NXT: How did you grow over the years?
We started out doing a lot of software, web development, video and even panoramic photography. We were essentially a digital agency with a focus on working with museums. Then we started to build hardware and that’s how we stood out from the competition.
We didn’t set out with that plan of wanting to do both the software AND the hardware. This company has recreated itself several times over the years. And in fact, it hasn’t always been me that has steered the company in a specific direction. What I do instead is create a culture where change can happen.
When the iPhone came out, there was an interest in multi-touch and quite frankly we couldn’t find anybody building the large-scale hardware that we wanted to use so that’s why we got involved and started building it ourselves.
It took on a life of its own and it consumed Ideum for some time – we almost became a hardware company. We then re-focused on the creative software side, engaging in a variety of digital development (everything from mobile apps to video walls).
We now sell our touch-tables in 41 different countries, so you can imagine the learning curve we had to go through in dealing with different clients and the logistics of delivering our products all over the world!
NXT: How much does a typical touch-table cost?
Our least expensive touch-table is $9,000 and the most expensive is north of $40,000. It depends on the size, and the components that go into them.
We use industry-leading components such as LG commercial screens, 3M-touch technology, and our metal work is of the highest quality.
NXT: How did you acquire clients in the beginning? What does your marketing look like?
I had relationships with people that I had met while at the Exploratorium, either through projects or colleagues.
Also, my former employer, the Exploratorium was my first client, and we had some projects from other referrals because I knew enough people in the field and was well regarded in the industry.
Early clients also included NASA, where we built some interactive websites for them, the Tech Museum of Innovation, and we also made interactive applications for the Baseball Hall of Fame.
In terms of marketing, we’ve been really lucky to garner some attention because of our hardware. That began to give us inbound traffic. We did some outbound marketing in the beginning, but never had to pound the pavement. We’ve had 25,000 people contact us over the years and we also get a lot of repeat customers.
We also do a few conferences every year to get deepen our connections with the museum community.
NXT: What has worked and what hasn’t worked for you in the past?
A lot of companies don’t last 17 years, and I think most start-ups don’t think about being in the same business for that long. We’ve had different ‘lives’ throughout the span of 17 years, and our biggest crises involved leadership and management, supplier problems, research issues, etc.
But the issues that have caused the most trouble have also driven the most positive growth. I wish I knew that from the beginning, because as we’re going through the crises it feels like it’s the end of the world, but we always emerge stronger as a team. That’s been a big lesson for me, personally.
NXT: What advice do you have for other business owners who are still figuring out processes?
Small and incremental change can make a huge difference. The most important thing is to get buy-in from everybody, because it can be a problem if you take on too strong a role and force people to conform.
You have to ask yourself: What is the critical problem that you’re solving? How likely is it that people are going to follow? What is the potential fall-out? How do you plan on tracking it, and what benchmarks must you reach for it to be successful?
NXT: What’s most important to you: client retention, new client acquisition, or digital marketing like content and social?
All these things are important. But a lot of what we do differently than other hardware firms is that we do our SEO and content marketing in-house. We know that it’s important and we make sure our website and SEO is top-notch.
Before expanding into hardware, we were doing website development and SEO so we are well informed on the digital end. There are usually breaks between different projects for clients, so we take advantage of that time to improve our own digital presence.
NXT: What challenges are you dealing with these days?
We’ve doubled, even tripled in size and I’m concerned with building a structure around that.
We restructured last year, because our growth had outgrown our capacity. Other people on the team suggested that this growth should be managed, so we’re implementing HR systems and support systems before things get even crazier.
In terms of opportunities, the technology is becoming commonplace where the multi-touch table is now a standard for exhibit designers and curators in public spaces. This gives us an opportunity to keep growing.
NXT: What’s your favorite book?
“The Emperor’s Handbook” by Marcus Aurelius. This book taught me that you can’t control the actions of others and how you respond to issues and crises is paramount. It’s part of my duty and responsibility to take care the people I work with and create a positive culture… This book was written in 200 AD and is still very relevant today. Another business book that I like is “The Silo Effect” by Gillian Tett.
A huge thanks to Jim Spadaccini, the Creative Director and Founder. He helps direct Ideum’s commercial hardware and software initiatives and provides creative direction for custom software and installation projects. He was a Principle Investigator on the NASA funded Space Weather Mobile project. He is also active in the community and volunteers as a board member for the New Mexico Center on Law and Poverty. He has consulted with Apple and Adobe and developed promotional and instructional materials for a number of professional software authoring tools.