Island entrepreneur applies next-gen thinking to existing technology—with blockbuster results
In the fall of 2006, 32-year-old Mark Hemphill became a father to twin boys. One night he was looking down at them sleeping in their crib and, like many new parents, his thoughts turned to the future and the legacy he would leave his sons one day. He imagined them thinking of him, “Who the hell is this guy and what does he have to show for himself?”
Hemphill wasn’t without accomplishments. He had a BBA from the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI) and an MBA from Rotman School of Management in Toronto. Throughout the ‘90s, he had applied his talent for software and business as a senior consultant of logistics at the German enterprise software company SAP, then a manager of supplier and content solutions at internet-based procurement software company Ariba. After the tech bubble burst, he returned to UPEI to lead the Business, Education and Applied Technology (BEAT) program.
While he’d done well for himself, for years he had thought about starting his own business. Maybe now the time had come. “I decided to stop talking about someday doing my own venture, and actually do it,” he recalls thinking that night, as he stood over his sons.
A year later, in the fall of 2007, Hemphill launched ScreenScape, a company that offers online-based software that empowers businesses to control their digital signage.
The idea for the company had come to him during his UPEI tenure. There, Hemphill had been introduced to digital signage and saw an industry ready not just for reinvention, but with the potential to be “a holy grail of marketing.” Until then, screens in stores were stuck playing the CP24 news channel or had systems that required on-site set-up and maintenance.
Hemphill imagined an internet-based business model where screens could feature dynamic content tailored to influence buying behavior at local points of sale. What if a car repair shop could show an image that would upsell an oil change? What if a health clinic could remind patients to fill their prescriptions in the pharmacy next door?
In 2007, the new father bet on that vision, funding the venture with nest egg money from his Ariba days. The first years were spent getting the business and technology on its feet, until the company exited stealth mode and sold its first software in June 2009. There were hurdles, notably end user and tech barriers. “We were frustrated that our customers weren’t able to have an easier time with the technology in those first few years,” he says.
Equipment and technology hadn’t advanced enough to make ScreenScape’s planned digital network easy to operate by everyday users. “ScreenScape wasn’t able to assert itself as an online provider of digital side solutions. The industry itself wasn’t ready,” he says. (Not that the company was idle. Throughout 2012 and 2013, they worked on the underlying technology to capitalize on any eventual breakthrough). During those early years, Screenscape kept itself afloat by nurturing slow growth, postponing hiring new employees, even reducing staff at one point. Above all else, they remained patient.
Their patience was rewarded in 2014, which Hemphill considers to be the company’s “Before versus After” inflection point. That year the emergence of Apple TV, Google Chromecast and Roku, as well as the growing standardization of Wi-Fi and consumer tech savvy, created a perfect storm that solved what Hemphill considered ScreenScape’s last mile problem: “the setup process and the ability to keep the technology in great working condition on premise inside every business.”
“We instantly saw a change in our business,” Hemphill says. The company was able to seize the moment with the product system it had developed inhouse: a small $200 HDMI plug-and-play that connects screens to the internet. A quick trip to Screenscape.com allows subscribers—who pay a $40 monthly subscription fee per device—to start organizing what will appear on their screens. With a cloud-based media editor, they can either create content from scratch or use supplied templates and stock assets to get a head start. If a company has a dedicated graphic designer, existing content can also be uploaded. All content then goes into a playlist that controls how it rolls out on businesses’ screens.
The company’s mission is to ensure its product remains essential to its customers’ businesses—whether it’s something that’s boosting sales, entertaining waiting customers, or educating and informing. That mission has seen ScreenScape grow rapidly. The company now has over 25 employees and clients in more than 40 countries. More than 50 per cent of them are located in the United States. They also have over 1,600 customers, many of which represent chains with dense networks of locations. Their clients include Planet Fitness, Amazon, Costco and more. ScreenScape has also been named to Canadian Business’ Fastest-Growing Companies list several times, a reflection of its 400 per cent growth between 2012 and 2017. Hemphill is humble about their growth, noting it has taken 10 years to get to this point. He credits that success to the company’s goal to simplify digital signage, as well as shortened sales cycles.
Still, some trials remain. Finding top sales and developer talent is a hurdle, as it is in most industries. Hemphill stresses that finding financing in Atlantic Canada is better than when he started out, but can still be challenging. There’s also the speed at which technology moves, which means there’s a constant need to keep up.
Hemphill compares the current state of the digital signage industry to where the World Wide Web was in 1994. A major change over the next five to 10 years is that messaging won’t just be more strategic, but specific and targeted. “It’s all about understanding the clientele that you have,” he says, adding that it can be done without collecting data or invading anyone’s privacy. “Advances in the hardware, advances in the software, advances in content management which make it easier and more automated, making sure every screen is not just fresh daily with fresh content, but tailored to the needs and preferences of the local audience.” He also envisions a time when ScreenScape could become a marketplace, where users could create content that can be licensed by others and generate profit.
In other words, ScreenScape still has a lot of room to grow. Looking back to that night all those years ago standing over his twins sleeping in their crib, Hemphill (now 46) can’t help but marvel. “It’s been quite a ride,” he says.