PointCast proves that Silicon Valley is not solely populated by Cinderella stories of glass slippers and dashing princes on hardy steeds. In fact, the PointCast saga has been anything but a fairy tale for the last year and a half. Internal tumult, massive reorganization, and overall corporate uncertainty discouraged and impeded PointCast’s growth for several months, but those roadblocks have hardly stopped the company from trudging on toward a happily ever after.
When Fast Company last visited PointCast in late 1997 and early 1998, the maverick startup was leading an impressive crusade into the intriguing new field of push technology. Its desktop tool was delivering personalized news tickers to more than 500,000 users, and the potential was astounding. So astounding, in fact, that PointCast was receiving offers from major Internet players by the handful. But the organization remained independent, and insisted that it could stand alone as a distinct company and a strong brand.
Then, on May 11, 1999, PointCast was acquired by Launchpad Technologies, the developer of the eWallet consumer shopping utility. The merged companies then became known as EntryPoint, and immediately began working on an integrated desktop tool that would contain PointCast’s news delivery capabilities and Launchpad’s e-commerce function. Exactly 62 days after drawing up the plans for this far-reaching tool, EntryPoint unveiled the beta version. Early this fall, the rejuvenated company intends to introduce the final product and begin its domination of a quickly growing industry.
In the following interview, EntryPoint President and COO Francis Costello and Director of Quality Assurance Samir Shah discuss the challenges and rewards of merging two companies, the market potential awaiting them, and the importance of retaining and pleasing customers.
How have you seen PointCast grow and change over the last two years?
Shah: I walked into PointCast about three years ago. At that time, they had just launched version 1.0 of their product. Everything was really hot in that field at that point. So I walked in and started working on version 2.0 of the product. Then we moved on to build the Japanese, Asian, U.K., and German versions of the client, and we focused on the college and corporate segments with specific versions for those audiences. Shortly after unveiling the last version of the client, Launchpad bought us. Now we have refocused the company.
It’s amazing how PointCast finds itself in the middle of the hottest trends. We were into push technology, then we entered the active channel realm. We found ourselves right in the middle of the Netscape-Microsoft brouhaha, browser wars, and now we are in this new desktop area market that everybody’s fighting about, and it’s getting white hot. We have a highly engaged user base with the PointCast client and we are building this next-generation tool bar that marries the news and information part that we’ve done so well with the e-commerce part that Launchpad brings to the table with eWallet.
How did the relationship between Launchpad Technologies and PointCast originate?
Costello: Launchpad Technologies launched eWallet last November as a desktop shopping tool. Launchpad was very focused on that desktop position, and we were looking for other ways to bring super convenient tools to the user. This spring, when the opportunity to acquire PointCast came up, we saw a company that had historically built an amazingly strong relationship with the user at the desktop level by delivering personalized news and information.
We saw an enormous opportunity to combine that relationship with the e-commerce elements of eWallet and take this initiative to the next level. That’s why we’ve re-launched as Entry Point, which combines Pointcats’s news and information engagement with the e-commerce functions of eWallet. The improvements include a much more compact presence, less download usage of bandwidth and disk space.
Shah: There are so many opportunities to milk this e-commerce market with our tools, and that’s where the synergies between Launchpad and PointCast make so much sense. We couldn’t have asked for a better partner to come in and introduce that angle of our product.
What challenges did the merger and name change present?
Costello: Clearly, joining two companies together is a very challenging process. PointCast obviously has been fairly publicly for sale for a period of time this year, and has been through a lot of disappointments as a company, so there’s clearly a lot of challenges in dealing with that history. But it’s also a company full of really great people who’ve been working on and interested in solving these problems and really continuing to deliver these products. There’s an enormous amount of enthusiasm, too. Steering through those difficulties and leveraging the talent and enthusiasm here is our number one challenge.
We’re building very strongly on the positives of the past, but taking them completely to another level with a new and improved company that combines the best of both. For example, we see each of PointCast’s customers as a critical component of the new product. We’re aggressively reaching out and communicating to PointCast’s users, both in terms of getting their feedback on the initial product, and figuring out which new elements they like, and which they don’t like. We are really reaching out to loyal users and working with them to deliver a great product.
Shah: Typically, you encounter problems when you merge two companies that have certain similarities because people starting stepping on each other’s toes. That didn’t happen here because we’ve got the strong news and information side, and they’ve got the strong e-commerce side. Also, we just get along with them really well. We love the concept of us and them. These days, you can’t afford to take sides, you’ve got to move fast, you’ve got to integrate fast, and you’ve got to get products out really fast.
How are you working to build the EntryPoint brand?
Costello: We’re leveraging different types of partnerships by expanding some of promotional and revenue opportunities through our strong e-commerce component. And certainly there are huge opportunities in our larger market when you start thinking about other devices that could come into play within the next 12 months. We’re obviously very focused on the PC right now, but this is really the first step.
What specific initiatives are you working on now?
Shah: In August we released a beta version of the product, and we are shooting to get the 1.0 release out really soon. And we’ve got a feature list as long as my arm. We’ve all got big, fat guts because we’ve been eating pizzas every evening, and not leaving until three in the morning. We’re working weekends, evenings, nights, holidays, and playing soccer in the corridors. We just created a small little play area where we can take out our frustrations.
We’ve learned a lot from our past with the PointCast client. And they’ve learned a lot with the eWallet and the shopping site, and everybody has just been pitching in with the best ideas to make this come out. We’ve raised the bar so high, it’s going to be tough for our competitors to catch up. And we’ll continue to raise it.
What are your predictions for the future of this industry?
Shah: I see this desktop space just becoming an outright war. The desktop products that win out will have the best features that people want. Flashing ads and promotions are not the answer. These tools must be able to present news and information in a manner that people can digest easily, that is not a load on their systems and their networks, and that provides e-commerce and shopping facilities that are really easy and convenient. That’s utopia in this field, and whoever gets to it first is going to get millions of users and then modernize the space without compromising its user base.
If you go out and ask a bunch of people what they want, you’ll be amazed at what they tell you. Sitting in engineering, deciding the fate of a product without user feedback is not the way to build a product. You’ve got to listen to your customers. They tell us what they want, what they don’t like, and we experiment with that, give them stuff, and they either accept it or reject it. Getting a loyal user base is what it’s all about. Keeping them highly engaged, keeping them in your service, is the sure road to success.
Previously featured in issue 13, page 98