Foul proof or fool proof?

Fed up with clunky proofing and approvals processes, two Kiwi software experts worked out a way to do it better.

Proofing. Aghhh. Most of us have to do it at one time or another, whether it’s press ads, product catalogues, or a strategic plan. But research shows that many of us struggle with our proofing processes, which can involve multiple colleagues or clients and a range of mediums, from email attachments and Google Docs, to scanned PDFs and file sharing systems - or a combination of the above.

Sure, all of these work, but none of them provide an easy, secure approvals system. There is double handling, checking off one marked-up document against an original, and worrying who is working on which version. And somehow the potential for disaster always seems just around the corner.

Pretty much all of us have wondered if there wasn’t a way to do it better.

Over Christmas 2013, colleagues Gemma Hurst and Marcus Radich found themselves talking about their frustrations with proofing systems and pondering a more seamless solution. Research found other systems on the market, but none that was both secure and easy to use.

The pair, who shared a background in IT for the marketing and design industries, started playing with ideas for a cloud-based system aimed at people dealing with often complicated proofing and approvals processes.

PageProof was born.

“Anyone who’s ever been in a marketing team or a design agency understands the pain of getting sign-off from lots of departments,” Radich says. For example, one file might contain artwork from agencies, product pricing from sales, copy from various people. There might be digital banners, video, press ads, large print documents. Once everything comes together it has to be seen by a myriad of different people: marketing, legal, management, ad agency, production etc.

“You’ve got people printing it out and scribbling on it, cutting and pasting bits into position, scanning it, and emailing different versions backwards and forwards. You’ve got people phoning you up with their changes. It’s hard to get a global view of who’s proofed what and what the whole thing looks like at any one time.”

Image: PageProof co-founders Mark Radich (left) and Gemma Hurst (centre) enlisted the services of AJ Park's Hadleigh Brown (left) to help them protect the unique IP of their cloud-based proofing software solution, PageProof. 

The first priority was ease of use for the person doing the proofing. The PageProof toolkit has only three icons, and the home page is virtually blank, with a simple box and an arrow. “Go on,” it tells users, “Start proofing now. Drag and drop your file.”

Hurst says it wasn’t just a question of a minimalist aesthetic. “We realised that if you don’t design the way you want feedback to come back to you, and make it really easy to do, then you are going to get it in every which way, and it probably won’t be a way that makes it easy to work with.”

(And other people did like the aesthetic: PageProof won a 2015 Best Design award and was a finalist in two Australian design competitions.)

Hurst and Radich also worried about the security of ad hoc proofing systems companies were using. There was a risk of sensitive material being left on the printer, emailed to the wrong person or shared in a non-secure system.

Hurst says while encryption isn’t yet a high priority for many New Zealand companies, they figured it would be in 10 years’ time. Anyway, PageProof was aiming at the global market from the word go.

“We needed to allow a team of people to have encryption keys, but still able to collaborate on a document. We figured out a way to share all those encryption keys among a group of people. An encrypted line (https) isn’t good enough – that can potentially be compromised. All the information a user puts into PageProof is encrypted before it leaves their computer.”

The initial offering is for static (print) documents, but proofing for video will available this month, and users will be able to work on interactive/digital files by the end of April.

We realised that if you don’t design the way you want feedback to come back to you, and make it really easy to do, then you are going to get it in every which way, and it probably won’t be a way that makes it easy to work with. – Hurst on the problem with traditional proofing practices.

PageProof now has customers in 115 countries. (“We have money coming in from people in cities I didn’t even know existed,” Radich says.) But the first year was frustrating.

“We realised we had unique IP but we couldn't sell it because we couldn't tell people about it.” Instead the founders were working with patent lawyers AJ Park to find a way to protect their system.

AJ Park’s Hadleigh Brown says the PageProof system has scalability and global reach, but that made it particularly vulnerable.

“We wanted to ensure that the key components of the system that provided PageProof with its competitive advantage were protected. The company’s online collaboration system has intelligence spread across the system from the server side to the end user side, and we assisted the founders to identify the critical technical building blocks in their system, so that they could develop an IP protection strategy for those innovations. For some aspects, we filed patent applications. For other aspects, they are using trade secrecy.”

PageProof will need to review its IP protection strategy as it moves into new markets and develops new products - or upgrades existing ones, Brown says. And hard as it is, they need to keep mum about new features until protection is in place.

“It’s crucial to avoid public disclosure or launch of new features until an IP strategy has been formulated and executed for those features - for example, filing any new patent applications that might be needed.”

Meanwhile Hurst and Radich are just back from a big trip to San Francisco, attending two major global SaaS conferences and visiting customers, potential partners and investors.

The company has received almost $170,000 in development funding from Callaghan Innovation and has brought in some private investment. But Radich says the ability to piggy-back off infrastructure put in place by massive global tech companies means a small Kiwi start-up these days can be nimble, lean – and profitable far more quickly than in the past. PageProof should be in the black early next year.

“We don’t have massive overheads because our technology is sitting in other people’s platforms – in our case Microsoft Azure, so we can run with less than a dozen staff. Microsoft invested billions of dollars, and we can use Azure for a few hundred a month. And they are the ones getting up at night when something goes wrong.”