When word-of-mouth is how your product is marketed the most, what are the keys to influencing the messaging among peers? In this episode of The Kula Ring, Matt Fiddes, Founder and CMO of Agility Technologies, explains how they develop their products with the specific needs of their rescue worker customer base in mind. With their FIRSTLOOK brand, they build relationships to introduce the product at all levels in the rescue industry including trainers, influencers, users, and the public tax-paying community. He also describes the importance of customer service to gain a competitive advantage in the first responder community.
Influencing Word-of-Mouth Messaging in B2B Niche Markets Transcript:
Announcer: You’re listening to The Kula Ring, a podcast made for manufacturing marketers. Here are Carman Pirie and Jeff White.
Jeff White: Welcome to The Kula Ring, a podcast for manufacturing marketers brought to you by Kula Partners. My name is Jeff White and joining me today is Carman Pirie. Carman, how you doing, sir?
Carman Pirie: I’m doing well. Look, we’re kind of in the opening crescendo, if you will, of… Do you have opening crescendos? I don’t know. Crescendo at the end? But anyway, we’re at the opening something of summer in Nova Scotia and that’s bound to make me happy.
Jeff White: Yeah. It can never be bad. The weather is certainly getting nicer and that’s definitely a positive thing, so this is actually a coast-to-coast episode.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. Yeah. That’s why we talked about the weather because it is a very Canadian thing to do.
Jeff White: I don’t think there’s any alternative. And you know, the nuts do roll to the edges, so-
Carman Pirie: That’s true. That’s true. Both in the U.S. and in Canada, I would suggest.
Jeff White: Absolutely.
Carman Pirie: And I mean that in a nice way. Yeah. Well, look, let’s get into it. I’m excited for today’s guest.
Jeff White: Yeah. I think so too. It’s an interesting category with interesting aspects to the relationships for selling and marketing to this group, but yeah, I don’t want to be too-
Carman Pirie: Steal the thunder? Is that what you’re saying?
Jeff White: Yeah. Exactly. I don’t want to do that. So, joining us today is Matt Fiddes. Matt is the Founder and CMO of Agility Technologies. Welcome to The Kula Ring, Matt.
Matt Fiddes: Hi, gentlemen. How are you doing today?
Carman Pirie: Wonderful.
Jeff White: Absolutely fantastic. Yeah. I think my radio voice should be really good because I was out at a punk rock concert last night until really late, and normally I go to bed at 9:00, so-
Carman Pirie: So that, and if you would have just maybe smoked a handful of cigarettes before getting on the show would have done it.
Jeff White: I’m gonna start doing that. Yeah.
Carman Pirie: That’s the thing the old school radio people knew, right? I mean, they knew enough to smoke, which gave you the good radio voice.
Matt Fiddes: In the morning, for sure.
Jeff White: Yeah. Yeah. Definitely. That’s probably not gonna happen for me, but Matt, why don’t you tell us about yourself, and Agility, and what you guys do there?
Matt Fiddes: Sure. My name’s Matt Fiddes. As you did mention, I am the Chief Marketing Officer and co-founder of Agility Technologies. We currently manufacture a 360 spherical imaging camera for rescue services all around the world. It’s called FirstLook360. The brand for our rescue division of our company is FIRSTLOOK and we started the company around I’d say seven years ago from the ground up. We basically designed the camera and the application the camera runs on in-house and we have suppliers from all over the world, but everything was done in Canada. We’re based in Richmond, British Columbia, Canada. And we basically introduced the camera. It was a kind of game changer for search. And what I mean by search, search specialists that are looking for victims in a structural collapse and other applications within a fire company.
And we’re global. We’re all over the world now with the camera. And it’s been a wild ride. I can say that it’s been difficult to put together a physical product and an application at the same time. It’s difficult. I probably wouldn’t do it again, but we’re excited where we are and obviously the future of the company.
Carman Pirie: That’s really cool. And I mean it’s really just fascinating technology I think.
Jeff White: Yeah. A real game changer in the industry, eh?
Carman Pirie: Yeah.
Matt Fiddes: It is. What happened was we had worked for a company previous to starting Agility Technologies and for about 15, 20 years, a camera that was used to locate victims in a structure collapse really hadn’t changed. They were a camera that was mechanical. It moved left and right. You would turn the pole, you’d look up, and you’d look down. And that’s never changed, and we thought that if we could bring kind of some of the consumer technology into the rescue realm, if you will, that we could really change the way search specialists and other rescue professionals would do their job in a much faster rate.
So, we created a camera that has two lenses, and those lenses take a wide field of view, and we can stream those images live back to the application, which then stitches those two images together to create a 360-degree image onto the tablet. And you use your finger. Instead of an actual rotating camera, you use your finger on the tablet to basically view the space. So, not only is it a game changer from the technology perspective. It’s a totally different way of searching a space for a lot of these guys and girls who do this job on a day-to-day basis.
Carman Pirie: You know, I’ve got to say I probably have a bit of PTSD from having done some marketing in this general space a number of years ago. It’s just it’s a really interesting category, kind of fire departments, rescue professionals, et cetera. I find it can be a really kind of interesting nut to crack, if you will, to kind of get in and get accepted into that culture, because very much if you’re not on the inside of it, you’re on the outside of it.
Matt Fiddes: Yeah. It is difficult. Someone told us as founders do what you know, and because we had the experience prior to getting into this market, it really helped us. We had a lot of the relationships already in play, so to ask the questions about what the product will become to the end user who’s gonna be using the product and get the feedback required before the development, they were all open to doing that. And so, when you bring in individuals who actually do the work and get their feedback prior to making the product, it really helps.
Now, you need to know those people first, so that’s important, but the fire market is a tough nut to crack in the sense that if you haven’t been in it before and you’re looking to develop a service or a product for a particular part of the fire service, you better do your homework because there is a culture there that’s very family-oriented. Every firefighter is a brother. They’re close-knit. And that doesn’t mean fire department to fire department in your local city, town, county, province. It’s worldwide. They’re very much a brotherhood, so you really have to be able to get into the market first, make those relationships, and then you can work with those relationships to develop your product.
Carman Pirie: I’ve gotta think that that cuts both ways, because of course that interconnectedness that you refer to of course can really accelerate kind of word of mouth for a new product. Have you experienced that as you brought this to market?
Matt Fiddes: Word of mouth is probably the biggest marketing move of this particular product. How we were able to get the product into the market and then individuals talking to each other, and like I said, because it’s a close knit community, they do talk to each other. And so, and let me kind of step back, so the fire service is basically siloed. So, as a firefighter, I enter into a fire department and I become a guy who can fight fires, and then I might have a specialty in the fire company, which means that I might be a specialist in hazmat, or I might be a specialist in high angle rescue, or confined space rescue, or structural collapse, or heavy vehicle extrication. So, not only do I fight fires and know that part of the job. There are several other little siloes within the fire company that I can become an expert in, or assist, or become a part of a team, and so when you’re developing a product it’s not necessarily that that product’s gonna be used every day for a particular application in the fire service.
So, for us, we developed a camera that works for many applications in a fire company, but mainly technical rescue. And when we talk about technical rescue, under that umbrella there is hazmat, confined space, high angle rescue, heavy vehicle extrication, structural collapse, and so forth, and so if you’re developing a product, you better know the individuals within those particular siloes, because those individuals will talk to each other on other teams, wherever they might be located, and that’s how the word of mouth spreads.
So, it’s an interesting market. You better have a product that you’ve brought a lot of individuals that are experts in those particular siloes or those applications, because if you make a product not knowing how they use it, when they use it, and so forth, it’s just not going to work for them and you won’t get that word of mouth like we did when we first introduced FIRSTLOOK.
Carman Pirie: And did you seed it? Like did you… I don’t know, even trial some products out there initially? Or was it just literally the first people to buy it were the first evangelists?
Matt Fiddes: It’s interesting. We knew every other product that was out in the market, and because we had the experience prior, we knew the pitfalls and so forth. So, when we introduced the product in the very beginning, we already had the relationships. And one of the things that’s interesting is you have to find the influencers, and then another thing that’s really important is finding training companies. Individuals who go out to departments and train departments on specific applications in technical rescue. And if you can get them to adopt the product and have them take it to those departments and show the product and have them use it in training, that’s how you get the ball started. We already had the relationships in a lot of the departments in North America but getting individuals to try it and see its potential was really important to us. But the training companies is where you can really get the movement moving forward, if you will.
Carman Pirie: It’s that third-party validation, as well, right? I mean, I have to think that these folks are quite risk averse.
Jeff White: Yeah. Well, if you recall, Carman, we had Mike Nager on the podcast from Festo Didactic, and the same kind of strategy, you know? Like basically they’re getting into the community colleges and things like that with their technology for students to learn on in a living lab and then when they graduate and they go and work for contractors, or whomever, they’re like, “Well, where’s this?” And so, they’re kind of as an influencer coming into those companies saying, “You know, the latest technology is really this. This is what we used when we were learning.” I could see that as being a huge benefit to kind of bring that technology into their job.
But I also think it points to the issue, and I imagine you see this, where there’s a bit of a young-old divide. I don’t mean to be ageist at all, but I think there’s certainly folks in the fire service and rescue community who would have been there for a very long time and wouldn’t necessarily be advocates for technology like this. How did you approach that?
Matt Fiddes: Yeah. That’s a difficult thing. You’ve got the older guys who have been used to doing a certain thing for a very long time and change is not something that they’re willing to do, and then you have a lot of the younger guys coming up into the service, and they’re more willing to adopt new technologies. I mean, it’s like you helping your dad out or your mom out with IT with regards to anything mobile or on their computer and so forth.
But getting back to the training companies, it was the same thing. We’ll take for example a company called TEEX, which is a big training facility down in Texas attached to a university, Texas A&M, and so they do search specialist training for teams all over North America and South America, and there’s a hierarchy within that particular organization, and to crack it was very difficult. But once we did, it really started to again get people involved with using the product. And then what happened was because the technology was so far superior than our competitors, they would basically leave other products behind and use our product primarily, and so after the sessions or after the training sessions and the guys left back to their departments, they would become the influencers.
And so, they’d go back to their departments and start talking to other individuals within their department about the product, and then that communication would be filtered up to someone who would either have money in the pot to buy a product like ours right away, or they would plan on submitting for grant money to buy the product in a future date.
But there’s another kind of element to trying to get these older guys to change and it was making sure that the application that ran the camera was very intuitive, so it wasn’t very difficult to understand. When you have an application that has too many buttons, or there’s things that the app does, but you don’t know where they are and so forth, it can be frustrating. And so, you have to have an application that kind of looks like the older generation of camera but on an actual touch screen, which we did. And so, the biggest feedback we got from guys that weren’t willing to change but now see the benefit of the product not just from the technology perspective, but now that it’s mobile it’s far different, is the intuitiveness. They were able to use the product without me having to stand over their shoulder and tell them what to do or have someone else over their shoulder telling them what to do, so there’s an approach where you have to… I won’t say dumb down the product, but you know how… you know the principle of KISS, which is keep it simple, stupid? That applies to products that when you develop a product and you bring it into a market, you don’t want to overcomplicate it. And that’s because our customers are mixed. They’re guys that are in their late 50s, early 60s, down to their early 20s, right? And so, we had to be vigilant when we were actually developing the product.
Jeff White: I love that UX design is a huge sales assist. That’s right up my street.
Matt Fiddes: Oh, it’s massive. It’s absolutely massive. I think if we overcomplicated the product we wouldn’t have gotten the adoption that we have today and yeah, we had to really simplify the use of the app with the camera and… I mean, if you looked at our interface, they’re big blocks, you know? And you know, the buttons are big for big thumbs and stuff like that. I mean, it’s not just the intuitiveness of the application. It’s people’s fingers, and hands, and eyes, and so forth. You have to make things bigger than they are for the visual aspect.
Jeff White: Plus, you’re in dirty environments and-
Matt Fiddes: Exactly. Yeah.
Jeff White: There’s a lot of considerations there that typical app designers don’t have to take into account.
Carman Pirie: That’s true.
Matt Fiddes: Correct. Correct.
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Carman Pirie: I’m gonna go rogue on this a bit. Well, it’s not often that we talk to a more startup manufacturer, and so it’s a nice opportunity to kind of think about this, and I think you’re in an interesting kind of strategic point as an organization in that you said it before. You talked about how… You know, start with do what you know, and it sounds like what you know is the rescue… that rescue fire customer and that application. So, now that we’ve developed a product for them, as an organization, and you’re looking at kind of how you grow this company, are you thinking that you grow it by developing more products or enhancing products for the people that you know? Or are you looking at saying, “Well, what we know now is actually this product and we can look at other markets that we can sell it to?”
Matt Fiddes: That’s the conundrum that we face, and we’ve had multiple discussions as founders regarding the direction of where we go. And to kind of step back, Agility is the parent. FIRSTLOOK is the brand and FIRSTLOOK is the division of our rescue products. We’ll no doubt make other products in the rescue market and there’s plenty of other products that are out there that are aged that we can replace with new technologies. We’re understanding new technologies on the consumer side that can really help out the fire rescue market in ways that a lot of people just don’t seem to understand, if you will, and so with the creation of FirstLook360, we were able to learn a lot of things that we can incorporate in other products in the rescue market.
That said, yeah, the rescue market’s really small. It’s a very niche community. We talk about word of mouth in terms of marketing the product that really helps not only on just the product itself, but on the service side. It’s huge. If you don’t service your customer in this market, you’re doomed to fail, basically. You can’t… You have to service them like they’re your best customer in the world. It doesn’t matter if it’s a little fire department or a big fire department. But-
Jeff White: Man, you finally illuminated the one problem with massive word of mouth marketing. It really works both ways. Yeah.
Matt Fiddes: Yeah. I’ve seen companies fail because they… Sorry, I should say they haven’t failed yet, but you’re seeing a decline because of the thing, because you get complacent when you maybe have a bit of a monopoly in the market, and you just kind of ride the wave. You’re not talking to your customers. You’re not pressing the company to make sure that if there is a product that needs to be repaired, it has to be repaired today. Not a month or two months away. I mean, we’ve had customers that we’ve been able to obtain due to the fact that our competition would take months to repair their product and get it back to the customer, and these guys are basically there to respond to emergencies. You do not do that, because once you pull a product from their cache, they don’t have that product to use in the response.
So, the mentality of this is that they need their product back right away. They don’t need it two months, three months down the road. That’s not going to work. And so, the progression of these companies is that they’ve lost market share due to the fact that they couldn’t service their customer. And it’s not because… They have decent product and if they kept servicing their customer I don’t think they would have lost market share even if we had the best camera in the world, right? Because we can go back to change. Some guys, if they have a good relationship and they basically like the camera and they’ve been serviced really well, they’ll continue to buy or invest in that system.
So, getting all the way back to your first question about the rescue market, sorry to continue to talk here, but the conundrum is because we’ve learned so much from developing FIRSTLOOK, do we go into other markets with the camera and maybe make it smaller? Or go into industry? We will be going into the tactical market. I know that for sure with our product because we can, and we know there’s a need. But it is a discussion point of whether we go into markets we don’t know, and if we go into those markets, how do we go about marketing the product in those markets? And you know what? I think you learn as you go, but we’re gonna stick with do what you know right now until we decide that we’re gonna go into markets that we don’t know.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. It’s kind of interesting to think about how do you program a way of getting to the level of understanding and kind of intimate knowledge of the market that you have with rescue, how do you get to that level with another batch of customers in another category in a way that doesn’t require you to have to work 10 years in the industry in order to develop it, right?
Jeff White: Yeah, where word of mouth may not be the core mechanism, either, of spread.
Carman Pirie: Yeah. Yeah. And I’m reminded of there’s an article out of Harvard Business Review that I was reading. It was talking about different approaches to consulting firms and whatever, but I think it was somebody from McKinsey that had said that they prefer to hire people who can grow gray hair fast, like so it’s not about getting people that have a whole bunch of experience, necessarily, but can work for a year and have that year kind of translate into what feels like 10 years of experience.
So, I like that kind of notion of how do you grow gray hair fast in terms of an understanding of a customer market, and how do you get to the level that you have with the rescue market with something. That’s fascinating to me. I wish I had the answer for you, by the way, but I don’t.
Matt Fiddes: Well, I’ll add to that, and I think that you have to really do your homework. Not on… The application that your products are gonna be used in, right? So, not only do you have to know the product and teach the product, but you have to know the applications that your product’s being used in. And if you don’t educate yourself in those applications, when you present the product to a customer and they can look you in the eye and say, “This guy doesn’t know what we do,” you’re not going to build any trust any time soon, let alone even sell your product into that market unless you know. So, maybe it is that you do all the research first into those types of applications or markets that you’re gonna go into well in advance of the actual creation of a new product and then go into that market knowing you’ve done your homework and you can talk to these individuals like you were their coworker for 20 years, if you will.
Jeff White: I have to imagine too there’s opportunity there for existing customers to potentially paint the way of where a product needs to go by showing you, “Hey, this is how we’re using it now.” And you’re like, “Oh my God, I never even thought of that.” That could both show you opportunities in new markets and it could also kind of show you… illuminate potential products. Yeah. It’s interesting.
Carman Pirie: I guess I’m curious, have you had that? Because you have such an in depth understanding of this market, I guess have you been surprised as you’ve been building this market and bringing it to market? Has there been anything about this niche category that you’ve discovered you didn’t know that kind of surprised you?
Matt Fiddes: Yeah. Absolutely. You learn every day. One of the things that COVID didn’t allow us to do is to learn more about how the product’s used in these particular applications, because you’re not actually physically there to see these guys use the product in training. And remember, our product’s not used every day. Our product is used mostly in training and then of course in the event of a disaster, right? So, not having the physical presence deters us from learning more about our product and what it can potentially become.
Now, that said, because it’s mobile integrated and it’s an application that runs the camera, we have had other companies come to us for third-party integration on the request of these rescue professionals that we sell the product to. So, not to say that we didn’t know those companies before, but there’s definitely potential for other use cases with the camera in reference to other particular applications in the mobile realm, if you will.
Jeff White: I have to think… I mean, the training company is very much kind of a B2B relationship where it’s your business selling to theirs, but a lot of the end users, the fire departments, and the search and rescue organizations and all of that are largely publicly-funded entity. I don’t know. Maybe there are private fire departments. I don’t know.
Matt Fiddes: There is. There is private fire departments. Yep.
Jeff White: Who knew? But you know, that public side of it adds another layer of complexity from a procurement perspective. Is there anything that you’ve learned about kind of selling into that? Because we’ve spoken about the influencers, and the users, and the training companies kind of seeding that, but anything that you’ve learned that’s particularly useful for organizations that sell into public procurement processes?
Matt Fiddes: Absolutely. A big thing is to communicate to your tax base the things that you do with the products that you’re investing in. It’s a massive thing. You need to get the community on board with your fire department because there’s significant investments made by a fire department from a tax base and they have to turn around and show those individuals that we invested in this product, or this truck, or whatever it might be, and this is the reason why we did it. And you have to communicate that. Now, with social media, it’s a little easier to do.
But in terms of building a grant around our product, for instance, you have to tell the story and make reference to other particular disasters close to home that if I don’t have this product and we don’t train our guys to use this particular product in this particular disaster that could happen – We’re in this just-in-case market, if you will – you’re not gonna get the buy in from your customers who are your tax base, really, at the end of the day. And again, if you’re submitting for a grant, you need to tell the story that it is required that you have this product because these things could happen in my community.
And so, fire departments find themselves having to do a lot of marketing on their own, and people don’t realize that. Just the static business, if you will. But it’s not the case anymore. They really do have to market themselves.
Carman Pirie: And as a supplier into that market, of course, if you can help them do that marketing, then you stand to benefit.
Matt Fiddes: Yes. Absolutely.
Jeff White: Yeah.
Carman Pirie: Well, I’ve really enjoyed today’s conversation. I think it’s an interesting product. Fascinating little kind of category to sell into. I really thank you for sharing your experience with us today. It’s been a pleasure to have you on the show.
Matt Fiddes: Thanks, Carman. I appreciate it, Jeff. And it was great reaching out to you guys and talking about it. This is the first time I’ve really talked about the marketing side of the business and this niche community, and although we’re B2B, it’s far different than your everyday industrial B2B, if you will, so I really appreciate the time.
Jeff White: No question. Thanks so much for sharing your story.
Matt Fiddes: Excellent. Thank you so much.
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Matt FiddesFounder and CMO
Matt Fiddes is Chief Marketing Officer and Co-Founder at Agility Technologies, responsible for global marketing, international sales, and the growth of Agility’s signature rescue products brand, FIRSTLOOK. With over 25 years of experience in the emergency services market, Matt’s greatest strengths are his creativity, drive and leadership. He thrives on challenges, particularly the expansion of FIRSTLOOK internationally.