Neil Gaydon is Making SMART Technologies Even Smarter

Neil Gaydon is Making SMART Technologies Even Smarter

SCN: You are a graduate of Harvard Business School, spent much of your professional life in the tech sector. What led you to focus your business expertise in the field of technology?

Quick Bio

Name:Neil Gaydon

Title:President and CEO

Company:SMART Technologies

Overtime: Gaydon has been awarded the 2009 Institute of Directors ‘Director of the Year’, 2009 Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award, and 2008 TechMARK Personality of the Year (recognizing technology businesses and innovation).

Neil Gaydon: I’m not a trained engineer or anything like that, but when I was at school, I built my first hi-fi system putting circuit boards and things together, and so through that, I started to like electronics and gear. Although that wasn’t my first sort of chosen route, I went through a strange affair to end up running an electronics store—very nice gear, you know, Hasselblad cameras and professional gear, recording gear and high quality music systems. I really found I liked that a lot.

From there I worked for a large British loudspeaker company, and from there I went to what is still my favorite hi-fi manufacturer, a very small company in Scotland called Linn, who at the time made, I would argue, the world’s best turntable. I then grew a whole range of products from that to multi-room systems. After spending 10 years with that company running sales and marketing, I wanted to change careers and move into a different world.

  • Pace in the north of England had made the world’s first Impact-2 digital decoder, and so I got a job with them and worked for them for 16 years and in the latter six years was chief executive. As I was made chief executive, the company was in trouble and it was very badly leveraged and in a very bad stage, about the 10th biggest in the world, shipping a couple of million products, which sounds a lot but revenues around a 250 margin is very tight. We were losing money and overdrawn badly. We turned it around over the next four years, remarkably, to become the biggest set-top box company in the world, so in just four years we went from 250 million to 2.3 billion.

SCN: Coming from Pace and your turnaround efforts and success there, how have you applied the ethos that you forged at Pace to your relatively new position at SMART?

NG: My motivation for joining SMART was based around the fact that they have their own brand. You know, Pace was always challenged a little bit. With the power of a Comcast or a DirecTV, your ability to innovate is greatly limited, whereas with SMART, your ability to come up with new ideas and taking them to market was compelling, and also just the effect SMART had had on education and this big thing about collaboration.

As I arrived in SMART, it was clear the company had done fantastically well and the founders did an amazing job of making SMART the most penetrated technology in classrooms—over 2.8 million classrooms around the world—but the company had lost its way a little bit, and you know, was a bit bloated.

The way in which we had viewed Pace was that it wasn’t just about having a compelling strategy, and obviously your structure is very important and getting your operating model right and your cost structure right, but the culture of the company is an absolutely crucial piece of the puzzle. Actually joining together the strategy and the structure so that you can execute your strategy, those two pieces are always moving and fluid. Your fundamental culture, how you do things in the company and how those three things join together is really the key. It’s no good having a strategy that’s great if the structure and the culture is no good, and it’s no good having a great culture if your strategy is poor and you haven’t got the right structure, so getting all of those three right and also doing those in a way that aren’t so much conventional.

SMARTkapp, which Gaydon hopes will retire the conventional whiteboard as we know it.

SCN: Where did the idea for SMARTkapp arise and what did the development process look like?

NG: This goes back to when I first joined SMART. I walked in and there was a ton of stuff to do in restructuring, reorganizing, all this stuff we talked about, the new culture. At that point, as well, the run rate was way too high for the size of the company, and so what we did was create a specialized business unit for enterprise and education, so there was an unbelievable amount of heavy lifting and reorganizing to do. The first thing I wanted was my dry erase board, but at SMART, it’s forbidden to have a dry erase board because we had our SMART Boards and so you needed to learn to use a SMART Board. I was in a hurry wanting to restructure the company, but I had to go through the training and everything until I got proficient with the SMART Board.

I said to our new CTO, we’ve got to fix this.The SMART board is very feature rich and there’s a lot of people who want this type of program, but this product offers more than the average person needs, creating a higher price. We need something really as simple as a dry erase board or something that could just work. I said, surely if we take one of our interactive flat panels and we just have inking and white boarding on it, and yes, it would be two-way and maybe we use mobile technology instead of a computer, we could do something pretty low cost.

One of our industrial designers who works for the company, based out of New York, he said, look, I’ve got this idea. He started writing on a board—nothing worked, but he said, what would happen is I’m writing on this with this normal dry erase pen. What I’m writing would appear on your mobile phone or your tablet. I went, Oh, my God, that’s unbelievable. I said to Warren and he was grinning as much as I was, and I said, that is unbelievable.

So we started messing around with, you know, what price and things like that, so we ended the meeting going, that’s the one. We’re going to go forward with that, but we’ve got a lot to solve here. How do we capture the handwriting? How do we keep the cost down and how do we make this thing really, really simple? We pulled together some of the best brains in the company. What was interesting at that point was the engineers actually weren’t that excited about it. They were going, yeah, it’s boring really, but simple, and you’re going, guys, you know, doing simple is really hard. I said there are two things this thing has to do. One, it always connects to your device, doesn’t matter what you do, it will always connect, because we were leveraging the power of the phone, so I said it must connect. You know, how do we get the Blue Tooth thing connected? Whether it’s QR code or whatever, it must always connect.

Secondly, whatever you write on the board, the handwriting always appears beautifully and perfectly on your screen, always, no question. I said, if it does those two things, this thing will fly.

SCN: With the former Microsoft employees you’ve brought on board, which elements of the culture needed adjusting and which elements have you found to be assets?

NG: Microsoft is a big brand name and certainly they’re having a huge influence, but they joined SMART because they wanted to be in a smaller company where they could exert bigger influence. Microsoft’s training of people is fantastic, and a lot of their value is in the way in which they work aligned with mine. Having those capable people joining the company is great, albeit SMART obviously is considerably smaller than Microsoft with very, very different challenges to Microsoft in how you manage the business. So in getting the culture so it’s global, I mean, we’re still only half way through this. I’ve only been with the company a little over 18 months, 20 months, and building a culture takes a few years.

SCN: Innovation in the AV space is moving at a breakneck speed. What are you and your team doing to keep SMART ahead of the curve?

NG: Well, I think we’re already showing in specific areas our competition either something very interesting or something, you know, quite new like kapp. I think that what we’re doing is, we can’t solve all of collaboration and that’s going to be done with partners and working with great companies like Microsoft and others. I think what we’re doing that’s how we keep pace with such a phenomenal rate of change, we’re clearly not Cisco and we’re clearly not Microsoft, so it’s very important that those partnerships that we have, we add our value to it. The way in which we will keep up, and in some cases, innovate ahead of the market like with SMARTkapp or SMARTamp in the case of education, or in the case of an SRS where we’re working in conjunction with, you know, an incredible quality company like Microsoft, but where we’re adding our own flavor and our own value that, you know, has got a lot of interest in sales is the way in which that we will keep ahead.

As you can tell, I’m keeping my powder dry as to a couple of the other ideas that we have. You’ll see a few of these things be announced in the first quarter of next year where we’ve got some very interesting new products that’s going to start to come out, but right now we’re executing on kapp, we’re executing on amp. We’re executing on the things that we have just started and getting market acceptance and run rates on those, but enhancing some of the things that we’ve already launched and/or a couple of other new things. You’ll see those unveiled.Chuck Ansbacher is the managing editor of SCN.