Beyond PLM: We Talk with Brian Lindauer of VibeIQ

Earlier this month, Mark Harrop had the opportunity to spend some time with Brian Lindauer, Founder and CTO of VibeIQ. Brian has previously worked with Aptavis (prior to their acquisition by PTC), and happens to be the original CTO for the FlexPLM solution. Brian talks to us about his past, and our industry’s future.

Mark Harrop: Brian, before we talk about your latest venture, can we roll the clocks back to your earlier days, and can you share a little more about yourself and how you got into technology in the first place? And how you eventually arrived at Aptavis?

Brian Lindauer: Let’s see. I suppose the technology path started back in Battle Creek, MI. I grew up around people who were into computers. My uncle would tinker with ‘cassette’ driven computers in his basement, and my father bought a PC for the family well before they were commonplace. I played my fair share of video games, and even tried building one on our home computer using Basic (an old programming language). When it came time to pick a college major, I decided on computer science, graduated from Kalamazoo College in 1999, and then joined up with PTC doing Windchill implementations.

After a couple of years working PLM implementations for discrete manufacturers, I met up with Brion Carroll, who ran a PLM consulting company called Lifecycle Solutions (later Aptavis).   If you’ve ever met Brion, you know that he is high-energy, incredibly focused on customer happiness, and smart as a whip. He convinced me to join his team, and we started working together at PTC accounts.

Mark: I know from my own experience working for PTC (as the Regional Director for Europe from 2005-2007) that the Aptavis business was acquired back in 2005? This was after you and the team had developed a PDM (product data management) solution using the PTC Windchill architecture, which evolved into one of the earlier versions of FlexPLM. Can you shed some extra light on what it was that you and the team were trying to solve in those early days for customers like Reebok, Liz Claiborne, Nike, The Limited and other notable early adopters of what was then a new PLM platform?

Brian: Our first experience with the retail industry was at Timberland. We were asked to implement Windchill there as a PLM solution. It did not work at all! It became very clear that the PLM needs of discrete manufacturers were very different from the needs for retail, footwear, and apparel. This is how FlexPLM was born.

We built FlexPLM as a layer on top of Windchill, and worked with early adopters like Reebok, Timberland, Liz Claiborne and Nike to refine the product to match their needs.   At the time, most customers were using tools like Gerber’s WebPDM, Excel, and Microsoft Access. They needed a way to manage their seasonal assortments, product specifications, and sourcing processes in a centralized way. The solution was to consolidate the individual tools into a single PLM system, where the data was all connected and controlled.

This process was painstaking at times, but solved a very important business problem. Now brands could truly understand the state of their processes & data like never before.

One interesting effect of these deployments, that seems highly relevant today, is that the end user was rarely excited to adopt PLM systems. What they could do easily in Excel, becomes more difficult in PLM. The benefit was always more to the company than to the end user. Looking back, we had hoped to eliminate the use of Excel & offline documents, but definitely fell short of that goal.

Mark: We know that you held several roles at PTC during your 10-year employment, and then in 2015 you moved on to the company Mavrck, which was related to a marketing platform technology – again used by retail consumer brands. Can you share a little detail on that experience and how these recent years have influenced your latest venture into VibeIQ?

Brian: Mavrck was an incredible experience for me. I went from a global, public company to a small VC backed startup in Boston. It was exactly what I needed. Mavrck was a young, scrappy, super motivated team, working to invent a new category of SaaS solutions for brands. We developed an ‘Influencer Marketing Platform’, which is used today by 100s of brands to collaborate with creators on social platforms like Instagram, TikTok, YouTube, and Twitch.

The experience opened my eyes to how to grow and operate a startup SaaS company, how to develop a modern cloud based platform, and how to design user experiences that are appealing and easy to adopt.

VibeIQ Showcase combines the presentation capabilities of PowerPoint with the product connectivity of an e-commerce application.

Mark: In the late ‘80s I experienced the end of an era with PDM, and the beginning of a new chapter, which was the evolution from PDM to PLM (circa 1999-2003). In recent times, we’ve experienced a bit of a backlash coming from those businesses and employees who are using older PLM solutions. They complain that a great deal of their time is now spent on administration duties rather than on creatives being creative! Some of these earlier PLM solutions have in fact, over time, become great monolithic platforms (attempting to do everything) that are today too complex and incredibly difficult and slow to change. What are your thoughts and experiences with this?

Brian: I totally agree, this trend is real. As I noted earlier, even in the earlier days of PLM, this push back existed. The benefit was rarely for the user, and almost always to the company.

I think what is amplifying this situation today is that the standards for user experience & collaboration have risen significantly. In today’s world of phone & tablet apps and collaboration tools like Google Docs, LucidChart, and Airtable, users expect more.

Young talent coming out of colleges today has a totally different expectation of what collaboration is supposed to be like. If you hire them and then train them on today’s PLM systems, they are bound to be frustrated.

Mark: Differentiating enterprise architecture versus technology architecture, how would describe the changes that are taking place right now and how would you answer the question of how we move to more agile, data-driven enterprises?

Brian: Data is definitely king. Enterprises today need to be focused on processes & technology that help them collect more data, sooner in the process. The more information you collect early on, the better decisions you can make & the less time you waste on bad ideas.

This is the essence of agile to me. Agile development in the software industry is about iterations & feedback loops. Try, test, learn, evolve.   These same principles need to be applied to the product development processes.

Unfortunately, many brands today are finding it difficult to iterate within their processes & within the technology platforms that they have in place. This hinders the early data collection needed to truly become data-driven.

Mark: Absolutely. Moving forward to the post-pandemic world – the new normal, if you like – how do you see the RFA (Retail, Footwear & Apparel) sector enabling new technologies as part of business strategy, and what will be required to help accelerate the adoption of new technologies as part of a truly integrated data-driven platform?

Brian: I see three key trends that are shaping the next chapter for technology & processes for this sector. First there is the need to become more collaborative. RFA brands need to adopt technology that allows them to share ideas and collect feedback more easily. These technologies need to be incredibly easy to use, and more similar to the tools being used outside of work. I look at applications like Google Docs, Airtable, Miro, and others as the standard for collaborative experiences.

The next trend is clearly 3D. It is already significantly impacting the cost and speed of product development, and the trend will continue. Every single customer we talk to has an initiative here, at varying stages of maturity. The next step is for all of these brands to increase the ROI of the 3D investments they are making by better leveraging those assets. Automatic specification generation, 3D showrooms, and E-commerce viewers are all good examples.

Lastly, is the continued trend around data collection, analytics, and machine learning. Most brands have made great progress on this process already, but that progress tends to be in the ‘commerce’ side of the product lifecycle. E-commerce, point of sale, floor plan analytics are all good examples. However, there is very little data capture occurring today in the processes leading up to commerce.

VibeIQ’s 3D Showroom provides a immersive virtual experience while preserving collection feedback and analytics on products within their cloud platform.

Mark: Over the last 15 years or so, we’ve both witnessed and experienced the gradual change from on-premise PLM solutions to private Cloud-SaaS and, more recently, a trend towards multi-tenant architecture models. What do you see, today, as the main business challenges related to past or current technology architecture and how do you see a new architecture platform helping to overcome these problems?

Brian: It sounds cliché, but the cloud really does change everything.

For a brand, Cloud-SaaS means significantly reducing their TCO. I can’t tell you how many conversations we’ve been a part of where ‘upgrade’ is spoken as a four letter word. It’s an unbelievably difficult situation to be in.   New features are being made available in the latest version of software, but the customer needs a six month plan and hundreds of thousands of dollars to adopt that new version. This situation, more than any other, may be what frustrates customers the most. The promise of SaaS is that new features are automatically available, at no additional costs.

Also, the cloud enables solutions that just can’t be provided by on-prem solutions. With boundless data storage, and big data processing capabilities, you can provide the type of data analytics that brands are seeking.

Lastly, as a service provider, being in the cloud allows you to service your customer in ways that you never could before. We can see what features are being used, and by who. We can detect pain points and optimization opportunities using data, and prioritize solutions based on that information. A SaaS solution unlocks the potential for optimized user experience, streamlined processes, and a more satisfied customer.

Mark: WhichPLM is much more than an educational magazine focused on PLM and related technologies; we also spend a great deal of time working together with many of the world’s leading brands and retailers, advising them on new approaches to problem solving, often involving the introduction of new technologies and processes.

The technology landscape is becoming very complicated by the day! In the past we have witnessed PLM vendors attempting to resolve these challenges by continuing to create more and more modules connected to their core PLM platforms. This approach, in many cases, has led to over complication, a tremendous amount of extra administration and, frankly, an over burden on the PLM platform – to the point that brands and retailers are now having to find new ways to work around the challenges of these monolithic systems. How do you see this problem being resolved?

Brian: I agree this is an issue. Monoliths pose many challenges.

One challenge is around user experience. Monolithic solutions tend to apply one experience to many processes, without optimizing around any one particular user or task. Compare this to an approach like Google Doc, or Microsoft Office, where each ‘app’ specializes to the task & persona involved.

Another challenge can be around ‘closed systems’, where a brand feels that they need to purchase all of their solutions from the same vendor because others are not compatible. A better approach would be to provide an ‘open platform’, where brands can adopt apps/solutions from the platform provided if they choose, but can quite easily tie in data from other solutions that may better fit their needs.

Mark: I couldn’t agree more when it comes to open APIs – and I’ve written a great deal on the subject in the past.

When we look back to the early days of PLM, we started with a tool-kit approach based on heavy customisation, we then moved to what we currently call a configurable model, that allowed super users and internal developers to configure the PLM solution to their own specific needs linked to the business use-cases. More recently, we use the terms Low Code or even No Code. How do you see Low Code modelling tools helping to improve speed and adoption of new applications?

Brian: No/Low Code simply means you have the ability to modify the features and capabilities of the application or platform without having to apply software engineers. I think that the FlexPLM typing system was a good early example of a low code system, in that it allows users to define the properties & attributes managed by the system without having to manually alter their databases or code new user experiences.

Today, that concept is taking on a broader footprint. A modern platform will let you not only define custom object models, but configure workflows, event triggers & integrations, and even custom user experiences.

For the retail, footwear, & apparel market, these sort of platforms would allow brands to take advantage of out of the box functionality, without compromising on the way they manage data and processes.

Additionally, in a robust low/no code environments, individual teams or users could further enhance their efficiency levels by adding additional personalized functionality, such as integration with calendars, messaging systems such as Slack and Microsoft teams, and productivity tools like Google Docs.

VibeIQ’s entity modeling system allows brands to configure data & processes within their platform with minimal code.

Mark: How do we make the future technology stack simpler to deal with, in connecting the growing numbers of solutions (apps) that will eventually share the same datasets, and that will help to enable the strategic visions of brands and retailers?

Another challenge is simplification. Today’s PLM architecture and integrations to other third party solutions are incredibly complex and slow, with too many obstructions including commercial agreements, ownership, and responsibility for each of the activities, and of course security. How might we build more simplistic solutions and methods of connecting the many multiple apps, developed in-house or from third parties, that we can plug into a future platform that can tap into and share data seamlessly?

Brian: The future definitely seems to be heading towards more inter-connected apps vs centralized monolithic solutions. Data is already spread out across many different platforms, and I’d see this becoming more the norm.

To help offset this increased complexity, new technology platforms need to put an emphasis on ease of data access and integration.

All solutions should ensure that their APIs are a ‘first class’ aspect of the offering, vs a secondary consideration. Vendors should consider offering SDK’s and CLI’s (command line interfaces) for their platforms to make it easier to develop custom apps and integrations.

Additionally, I think it’s important that technology solutions focus on being ‘open’ vs ‘closed’. By this I mean that a platform’s API should not be a vendor’s secret, accessible only by the customer. Rather, API’s and integration technologies should be available in an open, ecosystem friendly way, available for technology and service partners to access. This creates the most value for the customer, and ensures that they don’t feel ‘locked in’ to a single provider for all applications.

Mark: We now see businesses and process owners driving a new enterprise architecture; how do you see this developing and what is VibeIQ planning in the near and longer-term future to enable this new world?

Brian: It’s clear that businesses are looking towards the future, but it appears most are not really sure what that future will look like or how to get there. It’s this situation that inspired us to start VibeIQ.

We see a huge opportunity to address the needs of the market by introducing modern, collaborative applications that are easy to use, as well as a cloud native platform focused on go-to-market processes.

This summer, we are excited to be launching the first set of these applications, focused on the collaborative development and presentation of product assortments. These applications help make product & assortment management as easy as working with document based tools like Google Docs, Excel, or Powerpoint. We’ve also built an application for presenting products in 3D virtual showrooms.

We think that customers will love the ease of use and collaboration capabilities of these products, as well as the opportunity they produce to collect meaningful structured data, associated with these products and assortments. The applications are aimed at complimenting the PLM investments our customers have already made, to unlock increased agility and a greater ROI.

We are even more excited that these applications are built on the VibeIQ cloud platform. This platform will serve as the foundation for additional applications that we provide while also enabling our customers and the broader ecosystem of service and technology providers to innovate. We’ve focused on making the platform open and accessible, so that you can easily build custom applications and augment the data managed within the platform via various integration technologies such as our API, SDKs, and web-hooks. The platform is built in a ‘cloud native’ way, so that it maximizes the scalability and data processing capabilities of today’s most modern technology.