#130 - Connectivity Everywhere, Chris Baird, CEO of OptConnect
The Sprinkler Nerd ShowAugust 04, 202332:1212.89 MB

#130 - Connectivity Everywhere, Chris Baird, CEO of OptConnect

In this Episode, Andy talks with OptConnect CEO Chris Baird, and National Sales Justin Nichols.

Learn more about cellular here: OptConnect


Andy: For those of you listening this might be the first time you've heard about OptConnect, I encourage you to go listen to Episode #73 which Justin and I recorded probably a year and a half ago.

Something like that year and a half ago, two years ago, and that'll be kind of like level one cellular connectivity intro, how it works, the benefits, all those sorts of things. What I want to do today is kind of hear from both Justin and Chris on where things, where their business has evolved since.

Entering the irrigation market.

Justin: Yeah, that's awesome. Uh, you know, we entered the irrigation market about three years ago and we knew that we had a very good value prop based on, you know, other markets that were very active in, in our market leaders. And, and over the last two and a half, three years, you know, we've really started to scale in the irrigation market.

I think today we have about. Four out of five of the large, you know, national distributors set up to be able to supply OpConnect hardware and services and about a dozen, uh, regional distributors as well. So if you haven't heard of us, chances are it is locally available at your, you know, landscape irrigation supply house.

Uh, also just recently during smart irrigation month. We launched our brand new Ascend Dura device. And what's really cool about the Ascend Dura is it basically functions like a wifi hotspot on your phone. And so for the last couple of years, you know, we've really, uh, tried to penetrate the central control market.

Uh, and now we have a new tool in our tool belt that allows us to connect to wifi only type of controllers. So you're. Your Hydra wise, your beehives, your ratios and any other type of wifi only type of gateway, uh, to be able to provide the same type of high level managed service to be able to troubleshoot.

Now, not only the cellular side of that, but also the wifi side of that. So you can now bring your own wifi solution, plug and play and let us. Hit the easy button for you.

Andy: Okay. Wow. So there's a whole bunch happening there and some of this I wasn't quite aware of. So why don't we step back? Because I had always thought of OpConnect as, as cellular, but you just said a bunch of wifi.

So how does cellular and wifi come together?

Justin: Yeah. So basically the wifi allows you to connect locally to a piece of equipment, just like you would in your house. Uh, and so we're able to make a local network connection via wifi. to that wifi only irrigation controller that allows the user to connect with a cellular device when otherwise they would have no means or way of connecting that external device.

So we collect connect locally via the wifi network. But then all the communication is done on the cellular side. So when you're trying to do remote management, uh, Monitoring of a site like this, that's using a wifi only controller, whether it's light commercial, your own personal property, a vacation rental.

We're able to manage that now remotely over the cellular network. And because of our managed service value prop, we can actually troubleshoot. Both types of those connections with the wifi.

Andy: So can we like get a tangible example? Let's name a controller just to give this some context. Could we say like a Hunter Hydrawise controller?

Would that make sense to talk about that? And just to try to, you know, have it more tangible.

Justin: Yeah, absolutely. So you have a Hunter Hydrawise controller. Uh, you know, has 48 plus zones. If I remember correctly, they can go on a lot of light commercial properties. The cost is a little bit less expensive than that commercial unit, but you're relying on that property owner or that site's wifi connection.

Perhaps they won't let you on their network. Perhaps the wifi signal isn't strong enough. We're able to put a cellular device that acts as a Wi-Fi hotspot inside that controller or right next to it and allow any type of Hydrawise user to manage that system remotely over an OpConnect cellular network.

Andy: Okay. So you bring another device, your brand new device, and let's talk about that device. Is it one device? Is it two devices? How do you get from the cellular cloud down to the Wi-Fi LAN or local Wi-Fi?

Justin: Yeah, it's all it's just one device. So basically, we have the, the Wi-Fi technology and the cellular technology baked into a single device.

It's fully plug and play, we can provide a NEMA 4x enclosure. So if it's You know, an outdoor install and you don't want to mount it inside that Hydrawise controller cabinet. We can just install it right next to it. There's no wiring that you would have to run between the two. And it's, it's very simple.

It's, it's activated, ready to go out of the box. The Wi-Fi is turned on. We give you, you know, the SSID and password to manage that. We can change that on your behalf. Uh, you really don't have to worry about anything when it comes to setting up that local Wi-Fi network or managing it over the cellular network.


Andy: Wow. Wow. Okay. A couple of things I'm thinking, is this a single controller device or can you connect multiple controllers or even other devices to it?

Justin: Yeah, absolutely. So just like you would with your iPhone, if you're traveling and you and your work colleague are trying to get on a Zoom call or check your email.

We can connect multiple wifi devices to this single device. Uh, it also has four ethernet ports. So if we wanted to, we could actually hardwire four controllers into it as well. Uh, but yes, any type of wifi equipment that the landscape property manager or whoever it is. Uh, is, is utilizing at that site. We can connect everything that they have at that site, uh, within a, within a reasonable distance, obviously, uh, to the wifi, to the Ascendera device.


Andy: Does that change, you know, so thinking historically irrigation controllers don't really use a lot of bandwidth, right? There's just not a lot of bandwidth. What is the bandwidth of this device? And I ask because I'm just curious. Because somebody may want to, you know, get on their phone and watch YouTube, and from an irrigation perspective, that's a lot of data that historically hasn't been required.

But how does that translate to the new device? Yeah, so the new

Justin: device is called a LTE Cat 4. So that is kind of your baseline fast type of device, uh, similar speed to, you know, web browsing or, or app browsing on an iPhone. And so it's going to have the speed and bandwidth to connect multiple controllers or pieces of, you know, equipment that, that communicate via wifi.

Simultaneously, so you're not going to have any lag, any delay, uh, any timeouts in your communication probably wouldn't, uh, advocate for them to use it as a hotspot to, to stream, you know, YouTube on just because there are data plans on the cellular side associated with that. Uh, and you don't want to, uh, get dinged for, for using a couple of gigs of data when your irrigation controllers are maybe set up for, you know.

250, 500 megabytes of data

Andy: online. And I was kind of asking, not because I think someone's gonna get out their phone and start watching YouTube, but maybe there's an opportunity for a contractor to mention this to maybe, um, a municipality or a school district, something like that, so that they, the, you know, the client can get extra usage out of the device.

Absolutely. And use it to operate other equipment that happens to be on the site. Yeah,

Justin: absolutely. And so when you get into some of these commercial installs, you know, outside of just the wifi-only type controllers, you may have four or five, six controllers in a utility room, and we could connect all of those with a single device

Andy: now.

Wow. Cool. So I'm, I'm wondering if this would be a good time to discuss if a, if a contractor or a client, you know, is thinking of a control system, you know, XYZ, let's not name any names, controller XYZ, and that. The brand manufacturer offers on their own, both wifi and cellular, you know, how, what type of decision would they make or how would they make the decision to use OptConnect and choose, you know, this device that you're talking about the wifi hotspot or just your, you know, standard cellular device.

Justin: Yeah, it would probably be a decision based on what their current infrastructure, you know, is in that area. Um, the device can support five Ethernet-based connections. No, I would probably still advocate for hardwiring it in. Um, but otherwise, yeah, uh, they would have the ability now with multiple tools in the tool belt to make an even more informed decision as to how they're going to connect their equipment or other equipment.

Uh, in their room that they want to be able to remotely manage.

Andy: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Yeah. As well as I'm just thinking, uh, you know, my brain's just turning here. I'm thinking that there's a benefit to knowing that OptConnect is, you know, supporting the brand manufacturer with the installation so that the client doesn't have to worry about how reliable is the brand manufacturer's cellular.

This takes that question away because now they can look at Your company OptConnect and see that this is what you do. So it almost like may reduce the risk of using, you know, an irrigation brand manufacturer. Cellular service.

Chris: You, you bring up a really good point, Andy. And, and in our world, you know, we think of connectivity as more than just connecting it to a, uh, to a cellular tower and then allowing that to, to roam.

If you were to use OptConnect over a different solution, say one of the brand manufacturers, there's an entire team at OptConnect that's dedicated to watching for certain events like overages and outages. We're watching to make sure that that device has a healthy connection. We're taking autonomous action.

If it doesn't, uh, we're on the back end providing support in the event that, uh, the, the installer or the end user has additional questions or needs support. You know, anybody can pick up our phone and be talking to an agent in 30 seconds or less, get live technical support, single call resolution. There's the, uh, a layer that OpConnect brings, uh, professionalism.

and satisfaction, if you will, to an operator that they might not get anywhere else so that they don't have to think about it. We know that in the world of IOT internet of things. If there is not a reliable eye, there is not a reliable tee. And we try to bring that stability so that an operator can go do what they're best.

They're not best at sitting behind a computer screen watching for connectivity to drop. We are. They love to be out moving on to the next deal, making sure the grass is green, the client's happy and that everybody is, uh, is satisfied at knowing. That, that controller's connected reliably to the internet.

Mm hmm, mm

Andy: hmm. And I think as soon as, um, a contractor or client experiences an outage, uh, or when I say outage, I mean the controller's offline, let's, let's say it that way. The device is offline. A lot of the time, brand manufacturers can't tell the user why. It's just offline. You know, you got to roll a truck out there.

It could be, uh, the power's out. It could be it lost, uh, uh, the connection and it timed out. You got to roll your truck out there. And from what I've experienced using OpConnect, one of the greatest benefits is to be able to explain, help explain why the controller is offline. Because just because the controller is offline doesn't mean it lost its cellular connection.

Your device could be still connected and it's a great way to troubleshoot that remotely.

Justin: Yeah, absolutely. We're able to eliminate a lot of variables without having to roll that truck roll, which is very costly.

Andy: Well, Chris, since we have you joining us today, I would love for you to share, you know, I guess as much as you are willing to share in terms of how OpConnect kind of, um, got started or sort of the foundation of OpConnect, you know, before you guys entered this industry, could you share a little bit about that?

Chris: Sure. It's a, it's a good story. I'll see if I condense it, can condense it here for us. Uh, there's a really interesting part of this story, which is, uh, I think there was some timing involved here and being a little bit lucky and having some, uh, some insights that were coming. We really cut our teeth. In another industry, uh, not in, uh, in agriculture, if you will, or in irrigation, we actually cut our teeth over in the retail industry, which, uh, specifically we were serving locations that were unattended, such as kiosks, ATMs, and signage.

And what we learned in that space is that connectivity was becoming increasingly important, more and more difficult to procure and less and less reliable for people that were doing it themselves. So we set out to Perfect. A solution that ultimately became OptConnect. And over the course of a few years, we refined that and product ties that in a way that allowed us to take that same solution to dozens of industries, which we do today, we take each of these industries serious.

We try to serve those industries in meaningful capacities. We try to be good stewards and participants of trade shows and organizations. We try to be thought leaders or partner with thought leaders to help enable them. But really what we learned through it all is that we had an opportunity to become an expert at something everybody else took for granted or thought as an afterthought.

Thanks to the advent of the iPhone, everybody thinks that IOT connectivity can be as simple as an out of the box, powered on, uh, walk away solution. And we know the reality is, we've worked very, very hard to make that experience true. But otherwise, it generally doesn't happen, or it certainly doesn't scale to that, that capacity.

So, when we started, uh, serving these various industries, our goal was simple. We want to make a out of the box experience, make it as easy as possible for anybody in any industry. to open a device, plug it into power, hook up the antenna, plug in the Ethernet cable and walk away. 30 second install. Uh, or we're not doing it right.

And I'll tell you, it's taken a team pretty significant team. Uh, you know, a long time to perfect that to make that a reality. And that's what we've done today. Uh, the company really has evolved over, over the last couple of years, but we've really hit a stride as well. And we know where we provide value.

We know where we sit in the supply chain, if you will, of our customers and how critical internet connectivity is. And, uh, you know, we just come to work every day loving what we do.

Andy: That's great. I love how you mentioned, I think you use the word unmanned devices, something to that effect, and I couldn't agree more because there's a difference between something working all the time, or let me step back, there's a difference between when something fails, but there's a dude one door down that can just go, you know, restart it versus something that's unmanned.

When it's unmanned, it really needs to work all the time because there's nobody around to fix it. And I think that's a, that's a great differentiator. And if you can achieve, uh, you know, close to a hundred percent success and an unmanned environment, that's,

Chris: that's amazing. Yeah. You know, that's, that's just the reality of, uh, of where we're headed today.

And especially if you fast forward in the history of the company through the pandemic. We learned that a lot of businesses turned to technology when the workforce sort of dried up, if you will. They turned to connectivity as a means by which they could be in multiple places at once. Uh, we learned through the pandemic as a nation and as a world, the importance of connection.

And we certainly learned in the business world the importance of connectivity and OpConnect serves that and sits directly in that value proposition of being able to allow our customers to magnify their efforts and to be in multiple places at once, if you will, by essentially replacing the man on the edge with a device that allows our customers to see what's going on.

And, uh, to, to trust and know that somebody's behind the scenes making sure everything's working how it needs to all the time. That's fantastic.

Andy: I'd like to ask if you're willing to share how you came to the company,

Chris: Chris. Yeah, I, that's a great story. I've actually been here since the beginning, since day one.

And, uh, I was in a, an adjacent market, if you will, uh, working. Happily in that market, when the opportunity came about to take this, what we call our proverbial duct tape solution of a router, this is in 2006 when IOT wasn't even a word, right? Yeah. If you will, or even M to M it was all. what we would call telemetry, uh, and pull that together.

And over the course of a couple of months, what we found is that there was a solution out there for the oil and gas industry that allowed for that remote telemetry to be collected. via a cellular gateway and transmitted to the cloud, if you will. Uh, and I, I think even then calling in a cloud was a big stretch.

Uh, like I think about today, right? Very, very expensive solution. So I set out to, to, to find a way to get the cost down and to productize that, to standardize on what we did. And, and about two years later, after having some. Pretty phenomenal success, just word of mouth. We made the strategic decision that, that this could not only be a product, but it could actually be a business.

And not only could it be a business, it could serve dozens of industries. And not only could it serve dozens of industries, but we saw the writing on the wall years and years ago that we were going to be moving towards an ever connected world that relied on the ability to connect ubiquitously anywhere, almost anywhere that you are.

There's, we call them cellular deserts. There's very few of those that exist in the country these days. Uh, you know, connectivity is essentially everywhere. And, uh, we set out to. Find a way to to meaningfully connect our customers to the Internet, uh, and it's just it's been a lot of fun. We have had so many extreme use cases and different examples of things that have come to us over the years.

And, uh, you know, irrigation is just one of dozens, but a perfect example of where we can add value to something that may have had a legacy solution that's either old, decaying or going away. You know, radio controllers and, and, uh, you know, traditional, uh, boring of, uh, and laying cable and, and copper underground, you know, those are days of past and, uh, with everything moved to connectivity wirelessly or cellularly, you were, we're in a perfect position to help.

Andy: So over the last 15 years, has it just been smooth sailing, easy peasy, lemon squeezy, the business just grew, or were there times when. It was tough going and you questioned whether you were making the right decisions with the company. I love to hear kind of how the progression went.

Chris: Yeah, you know, as we look back, it's really clear to see that we've always been under some meaningful growth tension.

Whether we recognized it in the moment or not, uh, there were always things that we were learning and adjusting. And I've always been fond of a business that can, can look back in retrospect and make a statement, uh, something that's happened in the past. And for us, I, it's very clear to see that there were a few pivotal, what I call DNA altering moments that were make or break, lay it all on the line, uh, opportunities for the company to go after.

Uh, I remember. Uh, particularly a number of years ago, a situation that occurred globally on on the Internet. There was a a vulnerability introduced to the Internet called Heartbleed in 2014. OpConnect was not personally, uh, you know, affected by Heartbleed directly. We didn't have any vulnerabilities in our system and there was no data exfiltrations.

We never got hacked like was happening everywhere. to major companies. Uh, you know, if you had a online log in with the whether it was to an email account or social media account, almost everything was vulnerable. But what we saw as a result were a number of inbound inquiries, uh, testing our systems to see if they were vulnerable.

And it was breaking the system. It was causing things to not be able to get out. And that was a make or break moment for us where we had to make a couple of decisions to move forward. 40, 000 customers to a new platform that was protected behind a firewall. We had to do that in the course of a couple of hours, which was unprecedented.

That was like a six or a nine month effort that we, we got done in about a little over 24 hours. It's amazing what you can actually

Andy: do when you constrain time. Isn't it?

Chris: Oh yeah,

Andy: absolutely. You tell your team to do something and they're going to tell you, Oh, six months. And you say, no, can you do it in 24 hours?

Like, it's just amazing when you layer time onto something.

Chris: Yeah. We, we learned that we're best when our backs against the wall. That's when, when the best in us comes out. Uh, you know, and then fast forward a number of years, I think every organization went through this reflective moment as. The reality of the pandemic was setting in quickly and, uh, you know, as businesses were getting shut down and people were getting sent home, you know, we, we look at that very, uh, very fortuitously.

We had months earlier made the decision to enable a remote workforce. Everybody had a laptop. We had already fully adopted technology that allowed us to stay connected. Through, uh, back office systems and, and, uh, zoom and teams and, uh, and think chats, uh, chat tools. So it was a seamless transition for us that allowed us to get to a position where we could be not reactive to the situation, but actually helpful to our customers that they were trying to navigate, you know, sending remote employees home and figuring out how to keep them connected.

You know, we quickly developed a solution that allowed our customers to send their. cut their employees home using our connectivity so that they could stay connected, get their job done. Every day. So there's there. It certainly has not been smooth sailing, Andy, but as we look back, we are also grateful for those experiences because they're where we stretched and learned the most.

We have a saying on our wall that alludes to the fact that stretching is while it might be painful, it's where we learn the most. We believe that learning happens on the edge. And if we can keep our company on that edge of learning and catastrophe, but always stay to this side of it, we're always going to be in a helpful growth position.

Andy: Fantastic words of wisdom. Love that. Thank you for, thank you for sharing that. Thank you for giving us a little bit of a history of the company. And I think maybe since we have Five minutes or so left. You could tell us, uh, what's on the horizon. Let's assume you guys got great market share and irrigation.

Everybody's using your product. What's

Chris: next? You know, I love this question and I love to put it into perspective too. If we kind of zoom out of the business world and just look at what's happening globally, the electrification of everything, uh, connectivity, you know, I knew that we were onto something at OpConnect in the business world.

When I got a phone call from my parents saying they have a washer and dryer that needs to connect to the internet and needed help, I thought, okay, there's, there's the rest of the world kind of catching up and making it here. But if we look at fast forward, there's a couple of macro trends that we look at that I think are really important.

Number one is the importance of scarce resources. Uh, as a country, for example, uh, it happens to be raining outside for us today, yesterday, we got an entire summer's worth of rain and about four hours, uh, people tend to think of water as free cause it falls from the sky. We know better if we look and step back.

It's a scarce resource. We need to manage it appropriately. Where else does that happen? Well, it happens with energy. It happens, uh, in, in a number of, of different, uh, industries. It's going to happen with electricity. So if we can identify these macro trends. That are likely to either get regulated or just out of necessity be managed differently, and we can position ourselves to help facilitate the collection of data to help customers make actionable real time decisions that can be our guiding star on where we take the company next, um, as Thank you The world connects EVs.

We're going to have to do that really smartly. There's just not enough electricity to supply. If you were to replace every, every internal combustion engine with electric vehicles today, we would be kind of crippled, if you will, as a nation. So we, that has to be built out as that's built out. It needs to be managed differently.

It needs to be monitored. Uh, there may be times where it may need to be routed, certainly needs to be secure. So we know that's a macro trend that we can look at, uh, that will help, uh, drive, you know, not only growth, but meaningful adoption of connectivity and technology that allows us to use our resources better.

We look at things like security, all types of applications of security, you know, regrettably, we live in a world where Where that is more important than it's perhaps ever been. There are more and more assets being deployed to more and more unattended locations that are vulnerable to various types of nefarious activity.

Those need to be protected. They need to be monitored and, uh, and managed accordingly. So those, those are some of the ways that we try to think about. You know, macro tailwinds that could help guide us long term as an organization. Now, by no means does that mean we're willing to turn our back on some of the industries that we serve today.

In fact, our plan is to continue to land and serve those industries long term, be experts, become a trusted household name, if you will. Um, the the OptConnected and the Kleenex of the of the world, if you will. And, uh, and that's our goal to just provide meaningful connectivity anywhere possible. It's great,

Andy: uh, great plan and I think you guys are well on the way.

I know I certainly trust your devices because I've used them and have experienced with them and the people that I've suggested to use them feel exactly the same way. It's kind of like once somebody tries one, they go, all right, I'm just using this. For all my stuff. I don't, I don't want to have to worry about brand manufacturer, ABCD ease devices.

I just want one portfolio with all my devices. So I appreciate what you guys are doing and I appreciate how it is also kind of raising the bar in our industry and providing, you know, more contractors with more access to technology so that they can learn faster and maybe to use your words, you know, run their business on the edge a little bit as well.

Absolutely. Awesome. Well, thank you guys so much. Uh, we are running out of time and Justin, maybe on another, maybe we can do a, a sequel to the second episode and talk a little bit more about some particular, some other industries that, um, that you're involved with that are also, you know, water related, looking

Justin: forward to it.

Andy, thanks for having us

Andy: back. Thank you very

Chris: much.