Back in 1987, Nancy Knowlton and her husband David Martin founded Smart Technologies, a collaboration technology company best known for the Smart Board high-tech classroom whiteboards.
The pair stayed with with the company until 2012, two years after a disappointing and controversial IPO that saw the company’s stock go from a $17 debut, all the way down to a low of $1.30 around the time the pair left. Foxconn ended up buying Smart in mid-2016 in a $200 million CAD deal.
In 2014, following a break, Knowlton and Martin decided they couldn’t stay away. Now, they have a new startup, Nureva, that was funded out of their own pockets – but with a similar mission to use technology to enable people to work together. Knowlton serves as CEO, and Martin is CTO.
The flagship Nureva product is Span, a spiritual successor to the Smart Board. It uses a projector to turn any flat surface into a big interactive screen for conference rooms and classrooms. This week, Nureva launches a complementary $3,000 wall-mounted microphone system that plugs into videoconferencing systems so anybody can be heard, no matter where in the room they’re standing.
Business Insider sat down with Knowlton and Martin to talk about Nureva, the changes in the tech market from 1987 to today, and what it’s like being in the tech business with your spouse.
Smart Technologies made the very first web-conference software for Windows, predating even Microsoft’s own NetMeeting. Nowdays, the buzzword for tech that helps you chat and work with colleagues near and far is “collaboration.” It’s a key part of the modern pitch at startups like Slack, bigger companies like Atlassian, and even tech titans like Microsoft.
But Knowlton remembers a time in the early nineties when a partner company warned her that Smart shouldn’t use the word “collaboration” – the partner’s marketing team insisted that the term would be more associated with the phrase “Nazi collaboration.”
“Time does heal all wounds, apparently,” Knowlton said.
The idea caught on, even though they didn’t use the word collaboration. Smart became an early pioneer in web conferencing software and hardware. Knowlton boasted that the company had 35% compound annual revenue growth over a 12-year period, a wild ride that she said was an “intense” experience. So while the ending wasn’t perfect, the pair said they’re grateful for their time there.
“We learned a lot of things through that process and valued working with the committed, capable people in the company,” Knowlton said.
The go-go days
When Knowlton and Martin left Smart in 2012, “we were in the midst of the go-go days,” as Knowlton put it. With the startup boom in full swing, and Microsoft’s $8.5 billion acquisition of Skype fresh on the industry’s minds, they decided to take another crack at the collaboration market.
Only this time, they’ve funded Nureva out of their own pockets, with an eye toward taking the time to do something different. Rather than be forced by investors into taking a short-term view, which Knowlton said played a big role in Smart’s ill-fated decision to IPO, Nureva is playing a long game.
After a few false starts, the pair eventually settled on the Span system, and the new HDL-3000 microphone system. The goal, Martin said, is to replicate and replace the experience of using physical paper or whiteboards with digital interfaces, while also hooking into modern technologies that make it easier to work with people from all over the world.
Not everyone is cut out to start one company with their spouse, let alone two. Knowlton and Martin said the secret to their long-lasting partnership comes down to boundaries.
“[Nureva] is not a family business, it’s a normal kind of business,” Martin said.
As a matter of principle, Knowlton and Martin keep their professional and personal lives largely separate.
“Dave and I never make a decision outside the office,” Knowlton said. She said it’s “unfair” to her executive team if she and Martin make unilateral decisions without consulting the people trusted with helping lead the company. It could make them feel “diminished.”
At the same time, Knolwton said, it means there’s a certain level of trust. It’s hard knowing who to go into business with, and the pair can at least be assured that they share the same values.