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May 11, 2015

Making Digital Content Management Fast and Simple

Aerva offers browser-based content management for digital assets anywhere in the world.

Steve Calechman

Innovation can spring from a lab, classroom, or weekly meeting. In the case of Aerva, it came in a tunnel. Sanjay Manandhar was on his usual train ride about 20 years ago when he realized that all the signs and posters would inevitably be digital. The MIT graduate, BS ‘89 and Media Lab MS ‘91, went about developing a kind of blank canvas that would allow for real-time content interaction from any location, with any device, and on any scale.

Sanjay Manandhar
Aerva Founder & CEO

Since its founding in 2005, the Cambridge, Massachusetts company’s technology has been used by the military for employee communications, Dr. Dre and Anheuser-Busch for retailing, and universities for message managing. The range isn’t an accident. From its inception, Aerva wasn’t looking to be flashy or pretty, just practical. “We constantly listened to the marketplace and we went to where the demand was,” Manandhar says.

The Power of Little Money
During the mid-1990s, Manandhar was working in European technology finance. He rode the London Underground and saw impressive signage, but it was all print. It was going to have to be digital, and there was going to need to be a way to manage and coordinate such non-static information, he says.

While the idea was born, Aerva didn’t come about until Manandhar moved back to Cambridge in the mid-2000s. In a chance encounter at the Media Lab, he met a recent MIT graduate who knew software and was disenchanted with his first corporate job. Manandhar hired him, and, in 2005, they built a technical foundation that would use a browser, the Cloud and universal connectivity. The creation could manage any digital asset at any digital endpoint, such as billboards, indoor screens, tablets and mobile devices, on a platform that was “very wide, very deep and very much a horizontal plane and quite global,” Manandhar says.

To achieve that, Manandhar says that he made some key initial decisions. One was to be customer-funded. Venture capital can allow a company’s early survival, but it can also provide false confidence. “The prime driver in any business, I think, is market demand. If there’s no demand, it won’t work,” he says.

The choice to not chase seed money came with limitations, namely limited funds, and required wise allocations. Trade shows would have provided needed visibility, but five-figure attendance fees were prohibitive. Instead, Manandhar says that he put money into software development and creating a supportive workplace culture, one move being fully covering employee health insurance. It was a cost, but a necessary one in order to not only build a stable team but also retain it. “My best assets have two legs. They may not come back tomorrow,” he says.

The funding route also brought a certain freedom. Rather than worry about investors, Manandhar says that he could focus on customer needs. As he says, the company makes a generic platform – the user decides the application and manages the content. With no geographic restrictions, initial success came in Europe where mobile technology and SMS messaging were more prevalent. Anheuser-Busch used Aerva to run a polling campaign in European sports bars. A question would come onto the screen – Who’s the MVP of tonight’s game? Patrons would text their answers, and pint glasses would fluctuate with the incoming results. That visualization of data, at a time when social media was less developed, gave Aerva an early foothold, he says.

Ensuring Safety and Scope
Another early necessity was reliable security. For that, Manandhar says that he chose to build in Java for only Linux OS, rather than then industry-standard Microsoft Windows. Linux allowed code to be inspected and updated at will – Aerva wouldn’t have to wait for an outside company to send a needed patch. Because of this focus, the United States Navy became a client in 2009 and continues to use Aerva for employee communication within its facilities.

Scalability was also a central tenet. While no project was too small, Manandhar says that the platform had to be limitless for short- and long-term projects. For a short-term project, Aerva teamed with Beats by Dr. Dre in 2012 for the company’s introduction of colorful headphones. The one-day, New York City campaign involved people trying on their preferred headphones in a photo booth and choosing one personal, descriptive word. By the time they left the booth, their images were up on three giant digital billboards above Times Square.

It was problem-free for 12 continuous hours, which it needed to be, since in that kind of set-up, “You can’t have a do-over,” Manandhar says.

For a long-term project, Aerva drives Anheuser-Busch Inbev’s current network of 8-foot display coolers with translucent screens, which can be clear to show product or can turn opaque for video. Aerva technology not only manages the visuals on the doors, but also manages the various sensors that can detect proximity and customize content, which in turn help sell more product throughout the store because of the digital cooler’s overall cachet.

Manandhar says that it’s a necessary kind of targeting. In a mature market, such as beer, a company only increases sales from stealing a competitor’s customers. “You have to continue to innovate like this,” he says.

Keeping it Friendly
One other fundamental of Aerva’s technology was that the interface had to be simple. Technical products often look technical, when the complexity needs to be hidden, Manandhar says. One quality of the company’s platform is that it works with the four major browsers, and while all use HTML, all use them differently. To make it seamless, the innards of each is known and Aerva’s AerWave platform is regularly updated for its customers at no charge, he says, adding that the result is a flexible platform, feature-rich enough for the avid user but kind to the novice.

This practical attitude was a result of Manandhar’s time at MIT. His undergraduate work in electrical engineering and computer science gave him discipline and theory, but during his two graduate years in the Media Lab, he collaborated with musicians and graphic designers and learned that form and function need to have equal weight. “If it cannot be used by end users in a meaningful way, it doesn’t matter how beautiful or vast your functionality is. It’s not going to be popular in the marketplace,” he says.

That endemic approach provides a geographical advantage. Manandhar regularly travels to New York City and says that he regularly hears suggestions to re-locate. But his office is a quarter mile from campus, and, at MIT, people with established companies have access to research and expertise, and people who are building start-ups have access to those larger companies. It would be too much to give up. “We can sell anywhere in the world, but we’ll only build next to MIT,” Manandhar says.

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