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High tech helping hand
By DAVE GUSSOW, Times Technology Editor
© St. Petersburg Times, published June 19, 2000
"On-the-job training is show and tell," said Gibson, president and chief executive of KView Inc. in Tampa. He figures that what works for kids can work for adults, particularly those struggling with computers, software and the Web.
If people can see and hear demonstrations about how the technology works they're more likely to remember how to use it. KView provides custom software for companies, CD-ROMs and a Web site with free tutorials that come complete with video and a narrator. And, perhaps inevitably, the Web site has a cartoon frog as its mascot.
As computers, software and the Web grow more complicated, the companies that create them keep cutting back on customer help desks and user-friendly manuals. That leaves room for companies such as KView, Service911.com, Expertcity.com and PC-Help Online to fill the void, creating products and services to help people get more out of technology.
Gibson said he's well-suited to head KView not only because he's a techie at heart but because he can identify with the fear and frustration many people suffer in an increasingly technological world.
His resume includes time at IBM, KMPG-Peat Marwick and Sykes Enterprises, and Gibson's background ranges from sales and product management to chief knowledge officer.
"I could either embrace (technology) or get run over by the generation behind me," Gibson, 41, said.
Gibson rattles off numbers:
About a third of the questions the company receives are "how-to" ones. "The industry has made it so difficult to learn that (consumers) give up," Gibson said.
KView has a split personality, one for its corporate customers and another for consumers. The frog logo appears on KView's PC Show and Tell Web site for consumers, with the slogan "Answers on the fly."
There, Gibson and the company put their philosophy to work: free video tutorials that show people how to do a particular function and sound that tells users what's happening step by step. If consumers don't understand it the first time, they can play it again . . . and again . . . and again.
A consumer needs only to download a viewer for the software and create a free account. The company insists on an e-mail address and will hit you with weekly tips by e-mail unless you uncheck an approval box on the sign-in form. The tutorials, designed to download and play quickly, cover thousands of questions for about 100 software programs, Web sites such as Yahoo and America Online.
In one for, say, Microsoft Word, a sample document appears on the screen. The tutorial shows the cursor moving to each step of a procedure, with explanations along the way by a voice that sounds somewhat metallic. The tutorials generally run 45 to 60 seconds, and seem aimed at beginners.
Again, numbers say a lot about how complicated programs can be. Word 97 has 952 questions covered on the site, Excel 97 has 776 and PowerPoint 97 has 371. The company also sells CD-ROMs, at $30 each, for some software titles. For example, its Office 97 Personal Edition CD-ROM offers more than 45 hours of tutorials.
Soon, the company will increase titles in its online library to 400 or more, and allow people to test software on the site before they buy it.
"Our absolute end goal is to put the fun back in learning," said Gibson, who vows the Web site will remain ad-free. "I can make a very good living building out owner's manuals."
KView, which Gibson and technology officer and fellow IBM alum Fred Doyle started in 1997, makes its money working with businesses to develop customized tutorials that show employees how to use software or work with the Web.
Gibson said the idea for the company came to him when he watched call center staffers at Sykes talk people through problems. He thought there had to be a better way. Doyle created the software that makes KView's system work.
So far, it seems to be paying off. Gibson expects $7-million in revenue this year, up from about $400,000 when the privately held company started. Gibson said the company is "close to break-even" and expects to turn a profit next quarter. It has about 170 employees and could have 200 by 2001.
"I think they're a runner," said Lee Arnold, chairman of the Colliers Arnold real estate company in Clearwater and a KView customer. "They have the potential to be one of our major growth operations."
Arnold said KView came up with a solution when Colliers Arnold started Web sites for its 250 offices worldwide. He had worried that each office would have to maintain its own site, with all the support headaches that could create.
KView developed a system that Colliers Arnold offices can access to update and customize their sites from one location. It also includes tutorials on how to do various things. "I think it's a very exciting concept," said Arnold, who is well known in the area for his interest in technology. "It makes them leading edge."
Gibson isn't spending big bucks to promote the company as some dot-coms have, but business is growing through referrals. It is targeting Fortune 50 companies now, and Gibson hopes to expand eventually into Fortune 500 companies.
In addition, he sees a boom in the "B2E," or business to employee, category.
"Even on production lines, workers need computer skills," said Gibson, pointing to Ford Motor Co.'s move to provide its employees with computers. "We won't be growing if employees don't know how to embrace technology."
KView also creates custom tutorials for retailers such as Office Depot and Home Depot so their customers can understand how to use electronic products, including power tools. A demonstration for a Canon digital camera shows how the moving parts work.
To produce the tutorials, KView gets cooperation from some makers of hardware and software. In some cases, the company has had to purchase software, study it, then make the tutorial on its own. Gibson credits a creative staff that explores the products thoroughly and comes up with questions it thinks consumers would have.
Gibson recruits heavily from the University of South Florida, and he says the younger the staffer, the more tech savvy he or she is.
To accommodate its growing work force, KView is renovating warehouse space in the Channel District near the Florida Aquarium. Included in the renovation are rain forest wall murals (painted by a staffer) featuring, yes, frogs. A loading dock will be turned into a mini rain forest. One warehouse will have a basketball court and gym equipment.
The company has softball and soccer teams, pizza parties and birthday celebrations. "We're trying hard to create a culture that's fun," said Gibson, who sees the Tampa operation eventually topping out at about 400 employees.
He hopes other companies will move to nearby warehouse space to create a high-tech district there, part of the company's goal to help grow the local high-tech community. It was a founding member of the Tampa Bay Internet Forum, a group of companies that organized in May to promote the area's high-tech industry.
"We are all pulling for each other," Gibson said.
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.