4 Chicago tech companies explain how their products evolved into what they are today

September 29, 2016
Technology is anything but static.
 
All products evolve over time, and the journey from Point A to Point B is often punctuated by a series of interesting pit stops, side projects, histories and backstories not always known to the end user. With that in mind, we talked with four Chicago tech companies about how their flagship products have evolved over time, asking them to fill us in on how they got to where they are today.
 

VelocityEHS is a software company dedicated to helping companies meet all of their environmental, health, safety and sustainability needs. The company's VelocityEHS platform is used by more than 12,000 customers and 8 million users. 

Responses via VelocityEHS.

Where they were: 

VelocityEHS originally started out selling chemicals online. When the dot com bubble burst, Glenn Trout — who still serves as the company’s president and CEO — and just five initial employees placed their bet on customer feedback for a better way to help with chemical compliance and started MSDSonline to meet this demand.

MSDSonline’s chemical management software streamlined a key OSHA requirement by helping companies more easily collect and organize critical chemical safety documents (called MSDSs), and then share that information with employees. Customers initially received software via mailed CDs, which were then manually loaded onto computers. Once loaded, users would then have to access the internet to “sync” the necessary MSDSs to their system. While this process provided customers with an online database of MSDSs that replaced the paper and three-ring binder process historically used, it still required a good amount of time and manpower to implement and update.

How they've evolved:

Companies and safety managers were slow to warm to the new model of electronic MSDSs management versus the paper systems they were so accustomed to using. The company’s “build it and they will come” website sales model initially failed to gain traction, so the company changed course at the last minute to accelerate growth by investing in a sales team that could better communicate and sell the company’s innovative solution to safety data sheet management.

Where they're at now: 

Recognizing that chemical management was just a small part of its customers’ safety programs — and building on the success of its simple and intuitive approach to solving complex EHS problems — MSDSonline expanded its software offerings and rebranded as VelocityEHS in 2015. The new company offers a suite of award-winning, cloud-based environment, health, safety and sustainability products, including Incident Management, Audit and Inspection, Risk Analysis, Compliance Management and Ergonomics help companies operate safe, compliant and sustainable workplaces.

“While technology has played a large role in our success, VelocityEHS became the environmental, health and safety leader because of our people. Their dedication, expertise and passion have helped us overcome many challenges over the years and allowed us to take advantage of new models and technologies that continuously improved our business,” Trout said. “Our reward has been the ability to make workplaces safer by giving workers quicker and better access to critical hazardous chemical information. I’m proud of the company that we’ve become and lives that we’ve made safer as a result.”

 

Headquartered in Evanston, the LiveWatch Security team is the collective mind and muscle behind a DIY home security and alarm system that's controlled via smartphone. The company's product has evolved since the the company's launch in 2002, culminating in the patented technologies it offers today. 

Responses via LiveWatch. 

Where they were:

LiveWatch has come a long way from its humble origins as a components provider for do-it-yourself home security systems. We started as just a handful of hardware-savvy guys with a passion for keeping families safe. We established relationships with different parts suppliers and maintained availability online and over the phone for people who were looking to build DIY alarm systems for their homes and apartments. At that time, LiveWatch was essentially a hub for a widely dispersed community of home security enthusiasts. The concept of self-installable home security was fairly revolutionary because all other companies sold systems that required guys in cable trucks to come to your home and put permanent wiring in your home.

How they've evolved: 

Our evolution started when we began providing alarm monitoring services for the systems we helped source. People could purchase security system components and then we’d hook them up with a central monitoring station, so police would be contacted when an alarm went off on their property. Eventually we obtained the resources to start predesigning security systems, so people with less technical backgrounds could easily self-install sensors and alarms in their homes. We called this new easy self-install technology LiveWatch Plug&Protect. Alongside Plug&Protect, we also developed an emergency response application called ASAPer, which is the now the industry’s fastest alarm reporting system. 

Where they're at now: 

Today, when customers sign up for LiveWatch, we are able to ship them complete security systems they can install in minutes. All these systems come with the ASAPer emergency response software, which is compatible with all types of phones, and puts customers in immediate contact with their emergency contacts when alarms go off. A small team of five developers maintains ASAPer, and we are set to launch version 2.0 in the coming months.

“It’s been fantastic watching this company grow from a small group of dedicated people into a full-fledged tech company providing customer-friendly, technologically-advanced and affordable home security protection for all,” says LiveWatch CEO Brad Morehead. “Innovation has been a core tenant of LiveWatch since day one, and we’re not going to give that up anytime soon.”

 

SMS Assist is a multisite property management technology company. Their technology platform, One, helps companies manage their properties and provide a better experience for their customers while also helping them cut costs and improve the quality of their services.

Responses via SMS Assist. 

Where they were: 

We hired our chief product officer, Alex Rothman, and CIO, Jianqing Zhao in 2009, and built out a small development team to launch our first online service portal. The portal helped clients, affiliates and SMS Assist managers execute and track a continually growing list of property management services, such as snow removal and facility maintenance.

How they've evolved: 

The portal evolved into our current technology platform, One, which we launched in 2015. It’s scalable, integrative and accessible from any device. It offers all users visibility to real-time data, actionable analytics, improved communication and streamlined administration. With our business model focused on a fully-managed business solution, our local operations team of 565 also offers 24/7 support through the platform. One uses an Amazon Web Services (AWS) cloud-based solution for platform stability and scalability. We use both a relational and NoSQL database for the data layer and material UI/UX design for the presentation layer. Today our team of 135 developers, led by Zhao and Rothman, focuses on continuous and rapid platform innovation.

Where they're at now: 

Our innovative business model isn’t just focused on software, but offers clients a complete business solution. As a result, we’ve been growing fast — our current employee count of 565 more than triples our size since 2012. Our network of more than 20,000 subcontractor affiliates serves more than 130,000 client locations for national and Fortune 500 companies across the U.S.

“Our technology integrates the needs of all our users on a single platform to provide a great competitive advantage in cost, quality and customer service. With our agile development team, we’re constantly exploring new technologies and solutions to continually drive savings and growth for our clients and affiliates,” Rothman said.

 

SwervePay's customer-centric technology company aims to use payment data to create better experiences for both the customer and business alike. SwervePay's data empowers their users to identify opportunities to reduce cost and discover new revenue avenues, in addition to providing customer support and increasing loyalty.

Responses via SwervePay.

Where they were: 

Co-founders Jaeme Adams and Brad Bialas had roots as entrepreneurs, starting and growing multiple previous companies.

From the beginning, they wanted to simplify and improve the consumer payment experience in multiple industries. But they also understood as entrepreneurs that you need to focus on a segment, find success and move quickly. Their requirements were that they would not require someone to download a mobile app, and that the tool must be cloud based.

SwervePay was initially built to be industry agnostic and was focused on allowing consumers to make payments in an easy manner. They wanted to build an easy-to-use tool that helped industries improve their customer service. They started with automotive as it had a clear problem for service centers. Cars would get dropped off with an idea of what was broken, but the problem still needed to be diagnosed, and the dealer would need to call on average five times to get a response to move forward with the repair.

Adams and Bialas began working on the initial business idea in 2010 and then recruited Chris Hamilton to help them build the technology. The goal was to build a platform that was universally useful and to make it as extensible as possible into any payment workflow. 

How they've evolved: 

After SwervePay developed the initial tool in 2011, they had an opportunity to pitch a multi-million dollar auto dealership. The opportunity came up quick and the team had to scramble for 24 hours straight to deliver a product that helped them solve the auto work flow problem.

Once the auto product was up and running, someone from a large healthcare company used the tool in his local dealership and realized how effective it would be in healthcare. Two years later, the SwervePay team started to innovate around revenue cycles in the healthcare area. 

Where they're at now:

SwervePay allows patients to pay their medical bills via text message. In doing so, they increase convenience for consumers and reduce administrative costs for healthcare providers. SwervePay utilizes the following technologies to deliver its proprietary web framework: Pearl, Lennox, Apache servers and MySQL database. We choose some of these systems in the beginning because we were running lean and mean. Others were chosen for their stability.

The SwervePay team is growing rapidly, from three employees in 2011 to more than 20 in 2016. They have secured a great group of investors, partners and employees, and have attracting talent from companies like Salesforce, Optum, Accenture, Advisory Board and McDonalds.

In 2016, SwervePay raised $10 million in funding. The round was led by Garland Capital Group, an investment manager headed by Huron Consulting founder and former CEO Gary Holdren.

“At SwervePay we have a relentless focus on data quality, automation and patient engagement tools that enable medical practices and hospitals to provide a consumer-friendly payment experience to their patients with cost transparency and estimation and convenient payment options at every step of the patient journey,” said CEO Jaeme Adams.

Photos via featured companies/Shutterstock. Answers have been edited for length/clarity. 
 
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