July 28, 2014 Issue
The Most Powerful Name In Corporate News and Information
Document and Web Content Solutions for Compliance Streamlining
Fergal has worked in software development since 1989, both in the US and Ireland. He founded VisibleThread in 2008, based on a belief that there had to be a better way to identify risky document content. Before founding VisibleThread, Fergal was Product Management Director with Compuware (NASDAQ: CPWR), a $1.3 billion a year organization, where he set strategic direction for the company’s Business Requirements Management suite.
Fergal came to Compuware through the 2006 acquisition of SteelTrace, a software start-up he founded in 2001. As founder and executive, Fergal originated the SteelTrace product line, and played a key role in bringing it to market. He helped grow top line revenue by 80% CAGR at exit and to over 300 customers. SteelTrace was re-branded as OptimalTrace on acquisition by Compuware.
Before founding SteelTrace, Fergal was a technical leader at middleware product vendor IONA (NASDAQ: IONA) Technologies. He’s held senior technical positions in a number of blue chip companies including: GTE, Bank Of Montreal (Harris Bank), Dell Computer, Kraft Foods, and Advantest (Japan).
VisibleThread was founded in 2008 and is a market leading
language & content auditing company. With regional offices in the US, Europe
and Australia we help Global Brands maintain clearer web copy and risk free
enterprise content. We help sales teams win more, marketing teams
communicate clearly, and program delivery teams to reduce compliance risk.
1101 E. 33rd Street
CEOCFO: Mr. McGovern, would you tell us the vision when you started VisibleThread and where you are today?
Mr. McGovern: Our original vision was actually born out of many years of frustration.
We were not happy that business people were signing off on contracts and specification documents for large-scale IT programs without realizing inherent risk. There was no easy way to identify risk in the documentation. We were specifically interested in analyzing the words and language contained in documents for risk factors. For example, if a document talks about ‘liquidated damages’ or ‘API’, a contract manager will need to carefully review that. API means “Application Programming Interface” and on its own is untestable. So this kind of thing can easily slip through and lead to Program Delivery risk and scope creep.
So we wanted to uncover those ‘dark areas’ of content buried in 100s of pages really quickly, when a lot of key stakeholders simply don’t have time to review. Stuff that can really de-rail a program later on.
We initially developed a product that identifies risk in documents and streamlines compliance – analyzing either MS Word, Excel or PDF documents.
And more recently, we introduced a web analysis solution that identifies risky web content. With the proliferation of content on websites, on mobile devices and so forth, it’s a huge issue for marketers to quality control the content. Are we adhering to brand guidelines? Are there stale references to products? The potential risk identified within web content is especially high.
Our products are now used by leading global brands like Boeing, Booz Allen, SAP and Xerox; it’s really gratifying to see our original vision driving value in some of the largest global organizations.
CEOCFO: I have not heard of a similar concept. Is this something that is unique?
Mr. McGovern: In many ways yes. What is unique is that we’ve married solving a pretty challenging technical problem around unstructured language analysis and provided actionable insights in a very easy to use interface. Language analysis in an automated way is always tricky and quite complex. There are examples of good projects in academia for sure but the problem is that normal people in a business setting don’t have a lot of time. Providing overtly complex, very academically deep solutions is rarely a good way to solve the real business problem. Real business users have limited time to battle overly complex products.
So, what we bring to the equation is simplicity and ease of use. Our customers get instant reports and visibility into poor quality across collections of documents. These reports answer very specific business questions. Do I have legally risky language? Do I have out of date product or brand references etc.
CEOCFO: What were the challenges in putting the technology together?
Mr. McGovern: We use a combination of both proprietary and open source components. These collectively allow us to analyze the content in very deep ways. For instance, we use NLP (Natural Language Analysis) engines and other deep search technologies to get our results. And simpler things like searching content within documents using pattern matching. With our NLP engine, we use machine learning and statistical analysis techniques to categorize the content we find.
But drawing back, the single biggest and most important aspect of how we put our solution together, is making sure it can be used by busy business people who are not linguists and wouldn’t know a ‘noun phrase’ if it slapped them, nor should they have to.
So to answer your question, the real skill when putting together a product like ours is creating an easy to use solution. We show insights and reports in a couple of clicks. We pride ourselves on not forcing users to spend time ‘prepping’ content. Our users love it because they just upload docs and get instant reports that they can share with colleagues. No messing around, and no PhDs required.
CEOCFO: What is an example of when and how a company would use your product?
Mr. McGovern: If you are a major US government contractor, you must ensure you’re compliant with the government’s requirements when trying to win business. There are also a lot of regulatory requirements. These contractors will stand up teams of people typically headed by a proposal or capture manager to make sure that they are not stating something in a proposal that will expose them to risk. Subject matter experts are called in to help draft the proposal. Professional writers also are involved. Some of these proposals can run over thousands of pages and can be worth well over $1b, so winning that kind of business is material for a major corporate entity. For instance, a major US Air Force program could easily be worth many billions. And to put this into context, the feds spend over a trillion dollars each year.
Let’s take a simple example; using the word ‘ensure’ in a proposal; if you actually say, “we will ensure smooth delivery of this system”, the word “ensure” implies a contractual guarantee. Same with ‘liquidated damages’ clauses. Are we over exposed? So, we are automatically identifying those risk factors that will if left in the document will expose the contractor to business risk or program delivery or contractual risk.
CEOCFO: Where are you in the continuum?
Mr. McGovern: We address a number of different communities of users. One of these communities I mentioned previously is government contractors. We exhibit at tradeshows and we have a very active blog. Today four of the top five US government contractors are customers, using our productivity solutions to address risk.
But our offering is also relevant for other parts of the business.
For example, increasingly marketing and communications managers need to identify risky content online. For instance if you are a university, you will want to attract new students. You have a big issue if your copy is too stuffy or difficult. Equally if somebody reads an inaccurate course description or certain terms and conditions buried in a website that may be out of date, there is a compliance and legal implication. So, we help to identify those and make sure that content is clear, accessible to the audience and consistent with brand guidelines.
CEOCFO: What about smaller contractors, are they able economically to take advantage because it seems they would have even more to lose than a larger company?
Mr. McGovern: Most of the big guys already have document review processes in place, albeit generally manual. So we logically plug into and automate steps in their current process.
But you’re right about the smaller guys. They are in fact under a lot more pressure in some ways, since they are competing in a very competitive environment. They have to make sure their outputs are of extremely high quality. This is especially the case as they often team with the larger contractors; the Booz Allens or Norhrop Grummans of this world who pick and choose who they team with.
So the small guys have very limited time to get it right and are under massive time and resource pressure. We launched a new Small Business SMB program earlier this year, tailored more towards smaller business. It gives them the same power as our corporate offer, at a much more affordable rate. This program has been an unqualified success and we’re delighted with the results.
CEOCFO: How does the implementation work?
Mr. McGovern: One of the biggest issues that we vendors face is to make sure that people actually use our products. If we don’t create and design user friendly products, they will sit on a shelf. So, we put a lot of time and energy into making our products really easy to deploy and get up and running quickly. Deployments can often be complete in a couple of hours for on-premise. In the cloud scenario, it’s virtually instant.
Our customers are normally productive in a number of hours once accessing the solution. They will start to upload documents for analysis. Then within minutes, they get meaningful reports on the content risk, clarity and consistency. This is a key element of how we actually go to market and a key element of why people adopt our solutions quickly.
CEOCFO: Are there other items and nuances you would like to be able to catch?
Mr. McGovern: Our newest version 2.11 of our Doc analysis product does some pretty amazing things. For example, I spoke to 1 customer this week who used to spend about 40 hours creating what’s called a ‘requirements compliance matrix’ for each proposal. What used to take 40 hours is now taking 50 minutes on average. We work really closely with customers to see where we can tweak and this kind of efficiency comes from knowing our users really well and refining our algorithms and product design to work better for their needs.
We are now also automatically flagging gaps across a number of documents. Before this you had to specify rules in dictionaries etc. Now it’s all automatic. For example, in the case of a federal contract, you need to make sure you are addressing that requirement so requirements traceability is a big element. We can now automatically figure out the concepts that are in play, and show gaps in a ‘gap analysis’ view. We have been working on this for a long time and our customers love it. We continually innovate, and we do have a lot of really neat capability planned.
CEOCFO: What have you learned in previous business that is helpful today?
Mr. McGovern: I have learned not to stay inside the building. As a founder/CEO, thinking that the solution you dream up will be a perfect fit is a rookie mistake. We have found a group of passionate users in major companies only by getting out there and encouraging as much feedback as possible. For this and my previous business SteelTrace, this was hugely important.
Probably the second most important learning is that we as vendors or solution providers often forget that while we are providing something that is really important to us, for our customers, we are simply a part. We are helping them do 1 aspect of their job better. We are a small part of somebody else’s business life, so if we cannot nail the issue quickly, then we are not going to be successful.
Finally, I‘ve learned that solutions need to fulfill a set of specific needs that business people have. I’m not saying they dictate the exact product design but we must marry our design to specific requirements customers have. The key for me is to make sure we can put out product quickly that addresses specific user jobs.
CEOCFO: How might Visible Thread be different a year from now?
Mr. McGovern: Strategically, we are already focused on making sure that we capitalize on the opportunity that we have across multiple sectors and increasingly for different roles.
If you think about words and language in general whether existing on a website or in documents, it is all the same. Clarity, consistency and risk identification in language is what we’re about. We want to make sure that we continue to uncover risk in those ‘dark areas’ of content for more and more roles.
Marketing and communications will become very big for us. For instance, we recently signed up DigitasLBi, part of Publicis, which is the largest digital agency in the world. They use our web analysis product to help their client, brands like AVIS, Aramco etc. to produce better and clearer online content.
CEOCFO: Why pay attention to VisibleThread?
Mr. McGovern: We are changing how people engage with document and web content. We’re shining a light into the ‘dark areas’ of content for our customers. This is increasing their sales effectiveness and helping them communicate clearly with no risk.
So, why care?
Prospective customers have a pretty simple choice; either continue reviewing
content manually (or not at all thereby heightening risk) or optimize the
tedious bits of the review process with solutions like ours. This means high
cost resources spend their time doing higher value work, rather than tedious
and repetitive work. This can be in a marketing scenario or a contractor
scenario where you can spot issues and risk much faster and make sure you
are on message and much clearer in terms of what the reader will read.
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