One of the challenges of a world so wholly reliant upon technology is that you can become dependent upon the availability and locality of experts who know how to fix it. Despite their best efforts, these experts can’t be everywhere, or travel distances at a moment’s notice. Or can they?
I recently spoke with Gary York, CEO and cofounder of Help Lightning, a company using augmented reality and video streaming to help technicians assist in the process of fixing equipment anywhere in the world. It’s a fascinating approach to and application of technology, and just complex enough that I’ll leave it to Gary to explain.
Mary Juetten: What’s the name of your company and where are you based?
Gary York: Help Lightning is based in Birmingham, Alabama. Birmingham holds a special place in the Help Lightning story as the company’s founder, Dr. Bart Guthrie, is a prominent neurosurgeon at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. He founded Help Lightning out of necessity as a way to consult on cases, prep support staff, collaborate with other physicians and meet with patients. Dr. Guthrie needed innovation that enabled immediate telepresence, regardless of geographical location.
Personally, I live in Birmingham with my family, and I’m actively involved in the community, particularly through TechBirmingham, the McWane Science Center and Urban Avenues.
Juetten: When did you start?
York: I’ve been with Help Lightning almost five years and the company is a perfect blending of my interests. First, I am a technologist at my core. I am trained in electrical and computer engineering. And, digital transformation and futurism have always intrigued me. As a result, I have spent the bulk of my career at the intersection of what’s practical (entrepreneurship) and what’s possible (research). Before joining the Help Lightning team, I held technical and executive roles with a number of leading technology companies from Silicon Valley to Boston.
Juetten: What problem are you solving?
York: Help Lightning is a global leader in merged reality and remote visual assistance. Our SaaS platform offers instant help, anywhere in the world, through augmented reality features—including the merging of two video streams (the hands of an expert in one and the field of view for the end user needing help in the other) and the use of 3D annotation.
Our patented technologies allow an expert to virtually reach out and touch whatever the person needing help is working on. The expert’s hand displays in the field of view of the person needing help, where the expert can annotate, use hand gestures and even bring in tools, parts, images or instructions to quickly resolve the problem. Our software also captures pictures, session recordings and call data, which become part of the call record for later review or training purposes.
Help Lightning aids field service and technical support in more confidently diagnosing customer issues, finding resolutions quickly, boosting customer satisfaction, eliminating wasteful dispatches, assisting newly onboarded personnel, and differentiating the way products are sold, implemented, and serviced.
Juetten: Who are your customers and how do you find them?
York: The majority of our customers are companies that manufacture equipment and their tech support centers and field service groups. Some industry-specific use cases include medical device manufacturers supporting hospitals and clinics, automotive equipment manufacturers supporting industrial customers, electronics engineering and R&D teams supporting factory engineers, and telecommunication service agents or technicians supporting in-home customers.
Juetten: How did past projects and experience help with this new project?
York: I have been fortunate to be a part of four successful software and services exits to date (three private sales and one IPO). I am certainly grateful for my long career as a technologist and entrepreneur. Two of my greatest professional achievements to date are receiving the Smithsonian Innovation Award and the EDPA (Experiential Designers and Producers Association) Lifetime Achievement Award for Innovation.
Juetten: Who is on your team?
York: I have an incredibly talented team of industry veterans leading alongside me at Help Lightning. Marc Guthrie, our chief operating officer, has extensive experience designing and building enterprise-class software products and solutions, particularly in health care, retail, financial services, manufacturing and distribution. Neal Evans is our chief technology officer and he is steeped in a host of technical issues, ranging from artificial intelligence and computational physics to evolutionary algorithms. Scott Braynard is our chief sales officer and he’s experienced in designing, building and scaling high-performance sales teams in enterprise software, services and hardware. And our chief marketing officer Tim Tyrell-Smith is well known as a technology-driven executive and has been successful in multiple private equity and VC–funded operating companies.
Juetten: Did you raise money?
York: Yes, we have raised money and we continue to partner with investors. Our most recent funding round was a $8 million Series A round last summer.
Juetten: Startups are an adventure—what’s your favorite startup story?
York: Some of my favorite startup stories are the ones about overcoming challenges. Entrepreneur Cindy Eckert comes to mind, in particular, given her experience building, selling and then reacquiring Sprout Pharmaceuticals. Startups are an adventure that require passion and resolve. I remember at a previous company, we were showing our product to an executive who was the buyer. Money was tight for her organization. After seeing the demo, she jumped up, slammed her hands on the table and said, “We have to buy this system if it takes bake sales!” Her enthusiasm lit up the room and gave our product team a lift for months.
Juetten: How do you measure success and what is your favorite success story?
York: One of my mentors told me early in my career that your customers will pay you a portion of the value you create for them. As a result, we have always tried to focus on creating customer value. If you create value, you are likely to have enthusiastic, endorsing customers. At Help Lightning, we hear stories of value creation every week. One of our customers shared a story of a medical procedure that had gone off the rails. The surgeon brought the device manufacturer into the surgical suite virtually using Help Lightning. Within a few minutes, the problem had been resolved and a life-threatening situation was avoided.
Another one of our customers is a large consumer electronic company. When Covid hit last year, the company was struggling to figure out how to meet the fall deadline to deliver its new flagship product to the market in time for the Christmas buying season. The company purchased Help Lightning and within weeks collaborated with its Asian manufacturing plants to get production set up and back on schedule. This company has commented numerous times that Help Lightning saved its product launch and the financial returns that came along with it.
Juetten: Any tips to add for early-stage founders or CEOs in growth mode?
York: I stumbled into being a tech entrepreneur but now I have quite a bit of experience building business value in growth-stage, enterprise software and services startups. My advice for early-stage founders or CEOs would be to focus on the three Ps: people, product, and paying referenceable customers. These are the three golden legs to a successful company launch for an early stage startup.
- People means the mission-driven employees who are working with you to create a high-value startup.
- Product is the world-class product that solves an important problem for your market.
- Paying referenceable customers provide the proof point that you have product-market fit and a meaningful ROI for your customers.
With these three Ps in place, you have a solid foundation to build a world-class business.
Juetten: And of course, any IP challenges or horror stories to share? They can be anonymous.
York: I was advising a friend of mine on his early stage software startup. He had developed two different software packages jointly with a partner. He did not have clear ownership of the software and the partner had unrealistic expectations about the value of it. My friend didn’t understand the need to have clear ownership of the IP as a part of the value creation of the startup. In the end, he scrapped those two products and went in a different direction to avoid muddled software IP ownership—a costly mistake.
Juetten: What’s the long-term vision for your company?
York: We are actively telling the Help Lightning story, selling to more customers and growing our global business. Help Lightning had a fantastic story prior to the pandemic around reducing costs, increasing customer satisfaction, and driving higher-service revenue and margins. Covid really thrust remote visual assistance into the spotlight though as travel restrictions and social distancing became the norm. Our customers have been able to navigate these pandemic business dynamics while also achieving operational efficiency and effectiveness. We envision a world in which you can access the world’s best experts anywhere, anytime, virtually to help you immediately solve pressing business problems.
Thank you to Gary for illuminating me on the world of remote virtual assistance, particularly as a life-saver within medicine. Few things are as frustrating as when something does not work or breaks! I echo the three Ps above and would add in the fourth P as persistence or staying power. #onwards.