MindFireInc, a relatively new player in the one-to-one communications market, announced late last month that Carolyn Valiquette, most recently the General Manager of PODi and an executive with Caslon & Company, joined the company as Executive Vice President. She has an extensive background in software engineering, marketing and management in the technology industry, and joins the management team of Founder Moe Farsheed, CEO; David Rosendahl, Vice President of Client Services; and Dr. Pongskorn (Ko) Saipetch, Vice President of Engineering. She will work with them in setting corporate strategy and software direction, managing vendor partnerships, and improving operational efficiencies, focusing on MindFireInc’s flagship product LookWho’sClicking – Web-based software that automates the creation, management, and tracking of Personalized URLs and VIP Landing Pages, as well as automated follow-up email, lead distribution email and reporting.

WhatTheyThink recently spoke with Valiquette to get the story.

WTT: Carolyn, thanks for taking time to speak with us. How long were you with PODi as General Manager?

CV: Two and a half years.

WTT: Can you share a bit of your background?

CV: My background is in software engineering. I have a Masters in computer science and 15 years in the field, all before I entered the digital printing arena. I made my way into digital print at Nimblefish in 2000. I had come from the financial industry where I did systems integration for presentation of one-to-one sales conversations—for instance, for a call center at USAA insurance. So I had gotten into one-to-one communications early on, though it happened to be for use in call centers or for financial advisors sitting down with clients. Nimblefish evolved into producing large scale agency-like marketing programs using their proprietary PURL software. I was interested in a stronger software focus. I considered moving back into financial software, but I decided to stick with digital printing so I moved over to Caslon & PODi.

WTT: How did you come across MindFireInc?

CV: One of the Caslon Print Service Provider Peer Group members mentioned them in a quarterly meeting. I put them on our list to get them to join as a general member of PODi and exhibit at our shows. I had heard it was a technology company that provided something along the lines of personalized URLs, and when I started taking to the CEO, Moe Farsheed, and learning about them, I thought, ”This is what I wanted to do six years ago.!” This is the business model I believe is the right one—linking direct mail with the Web, providing low cost technology to service providers and agencies, enabling them in a cost effective way to add personalized URLs to direct marketing and build out the personalized landing pages that a person expects when he or she logs on.

WTT: What were the key elements that attracted you?

CV: What I saw was a highly focused company that offers Web-based software to address a specific need – providing a personalized web response channel for direct marketing. They don’t try to solve any other problems around digital printing workflow. It is not a document composition company, it doesn’t do print template layout or data cleansing services. The solution is called LookWho’sClicking, and what we do is augment a mail file by adding a column for personalized URLs and an optional password, and that mail file goes back into the normal direct mail workflow. That precise URL then gets printed on the direct mail piece. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. When the recipient lands on that personalized URL, the whole site is highly personalized, and it looks like the direct mail piece. This makes them feel like they ended up where they expected to be, and lo and behold, didn’t just get dumped onto the corporate Web site. They are still being spoken to in relevant terms about the same product and offer, so the personalized, relevant conversation that started in the direct mail piece is being continued through this Web response channel.

WTT: How long has the company been around?

CV: The company has been around about six years. LookWho’sClicking began at that time and is now in its third generation.

WTT: Who is the primary customer base?

CV: We sell primarily to reseller partners—print service providers, agencies, people who want to package their own value added services around our technology and sell to the marketing community. We have around 48 reseller partners—print service providers and agencies. Some of those people have been using it for a couple years and are well advanced, pushing a million records a month through the system. Our partners have anywhere from 1 to 40 active campaigns going on at any given time, and have more clients than that, since all clients don’t adopt this new technology at once.

We will be looking to meet more potential reseller partners at ON DEMAND this week. We have already marketing partnerships with HP, Creo and Printable. We’ll be in the Partners area of the HP booth. With Creo, we’ll also be in Adobe, Kodak and Xerox’s booths, and the Printable team is very well versed on our offering too. The booth numbers that we’re in are all listed on our web site: www.mindfireinc.com.

WTT: What do you see as your primary competition?

CV: We often run into home grown systems. There are quite a number of print service providers who were not able to find a technology to do this five years ago, so they wrote their own. I just ran into a few of those at the DSCOOP conference [the new HP-sponsored HP Indigo user group] last week. They are now starting to figure out the problem with homegrown systems – you have to maintain them in order to stay current and competitive. For many people with homegrown systems, the software becomes stagnant because software is not their core competency and it doesn’t get that much attention. I consider those homegrown systems to be a good thing, because the people who created them understand the concept, and when they do come on board, they hit the ground running.

WTT: What about packaged software or other ASP offerings?

CV: We haven’t done a full blown competitive analysis, but one thing I have heard from a number of our customers is that some of the other offerings are not as feature rich, reliable, or cost effective because it is not the only thing they do. Their personalized URL-generation capability is typically bundled with a document composition tool or a Web-to-Print ordering system. LookWho’sClicking is our primary focus and what MindFireInc is all about.

WTT: Where do you see this going in the future?

CV: According to the DMA, one out of every three people who receive direct marketing prefer to receive it online. That is from 2004 research, and we have been looking for updated data since we expect that percentage has grown as the Internet increasingly becomes the preferred channel of communication. Marketers understand that you can’t just have someone respond by going to your corporate Web site. The ability to keep the conversation going with the recipient is basically lost if that is the return path. As marketers learn to acknowledge this response channel that is being called for by their recipients, I think we will continue to see the number of personalized URLs on direct mail, sales collateral, enrolment booklets, etc., continue to go up. We plan to continue to add features and support more marketing scenarios. We plan to continue listening to our client base, learning what their clients are asking for and ensuring that our products are staying in lock step with the market.

WTT: What is the pricing model for LookWho’sClicking?

CV: We are priced on an annual license basis, and then we charge record upload charges. The annual licensing fee is less than $10,000 for the first year, and it goes down after that. Record upload charges start at 4.75 cents for 3 months of hosting the personalized URLs and then go down with volume. That encourages our reseller partners to get their volume up. We calculate their volume on the total volume across all of their customers, not by individual clients. This means they can benefit from each and every client they bring on board, even lower volume ones.

My time at PODi was very educational. I got to know this industry and lots of people in it, and I heard a great deal about the pain of eroding margins. Many print service providers are working harder and making less money. One of the things PODi was dedicated to was helping them improve their margins, and I believed in that. I also managed the Caslon peer group, and I learned even more about the struggle print service providers are going through to make a living. So I was thrilled to see this offering that allows print service providers to wrap value-added services around this technology. They offer high margin services, drive more volume, and we both do well.

WTT: Tell us a little about how it works.

CV: When the operations person at the print service provider logs into our system, they have at their fingertips an easy to use point and click interface a lot like Microsoft Word for creating templates for the landing page, uploading imagery, look and feel, etc. A relatively non-technical user can easily configure one of these personalized URL sites. Adding the personalized URL to the mail file is critical, but if that is all it was, it would not be that helpful. The real value is the easy to use configuration interface, allowing users to configure a number of different pages including a welcome page, survey page, update your profile, thank you, etc. The user basically configures a template and links areas of the template to the right database field to drive the required imagery or data point, such as first name. They link the template to the database they are already using to generate the mail piece. A copy of that database is uploaded into our system and used to drive all of the variability on the Web site.

WTT: What other kinds of things does the application do?

CV: There are some other interesting features. For example, the thank you page is rule based such that you can customize it based on the way the respondent answered survey questions two pages earlier. Another important capability is automatic lead distribution. With easily configured triggers, when someone visits the Web site, the lead can be sent directly to a sales rep. This is very valuable to an enterprise marketer. Another is reporting and analytics, tracking who responded, what they did when they got there—the marketing manager gets his or her own login and own view of the campaign, so they can watch in real time as the campaign evolves.

WTT: Carolyn, thanks for taking time to share your perspective. We will look forward to hearing more about MindFireInc as the company continues to grow and develop.