I've always wondered whether successful entrepreneurs are the result of "nature versus nurture." In other words: are they only born or can they be made? Researchers and pundits have often said it's a combination of both -- a safe bet.
But with the new breed of technology entrepreneurs, who are more born out of their interest in technology than business, we're seeing a lot more nurture through tech whilst the business background is, and continues to be, inherited genetically.
So it is with these questions in mind that our story starts ...
When Tillie Abrams opened up her retail store, she risked as all those who start a small business do.
Typically, a struggle ensues -- a classic business wrestling match where the entrepreneur has to set-up a supply chain, staff, product line, manufacturing, inventory, merchandising, customers, revenue and ultimately -- hopefully, make a profit. Mistakes in any of these crucial areas can mean certain business demise.
Yes, what Tillie Abrams did was exceptional and brave and risky.
But it's even more extraordinary that she opened her business in 1947 in Toronto, Canada while mothering two small children. What must've that been like? That would take a woman of some mettle, ingenuity and great resourcefulness.
Tillie Abrams and on the right her sister, Estelle Gorman
Yes, like today -- even more so perhaps -- Abrams would've needed all these things. Along the way, she gave her business a man's name picked out of an encyclopedia, "William Ashley" (because businesses had mens' names in those days, it was said) and it was speculated that when her first landlord asked where her husband was to sign the lease, Abrams cagily replied that he was delayed and offered, "I can sign a check for you." She continued to refer to her mysterious and always delayed husband until she had one of the largest china and crystal stores in North America right in the thick of things on Toronto's Bloor Street West, Canada's version of the "Miracle Mile."
One of the key accomplishments for Abrams and William Ashley China was her quick-witted establishment of a bridal registry program -- presumably the first in Canada -- which she had first seen on a visit to Marshall Fields' department store in Chicago.
Tillie Abrams' obituary at age 98. painted a portrait of a wonderful entrepreneuress well before her time.
One nagging question on my mind: Did Tillie Abrams pass on her entrepreneurial zeal and talents to her future generations? I wondered.
Having written a previous TechScape column on identical twins who started their own business together and finding a vast amount of evidence that, yes indeed there was much to suggest that entrepreneurship is in our DNA, I thought Abrams descendants might certainly have shown such small business flair.
Well, I was right (for a change).
Dean Stark is Tillie Abrams' grandson who worked in the family business ending up as the CEO of William Ashley China. He took a very early interest in all things technology and was programming in COBOL by age 12. He was absolutely fascinated by software. Stark, who was the CEO of William Ashley China from 2002 until 2011, is the kind of guy who absolutely lights up when anything technology is discussed.
"I used to spend every Sunday with my grandmother and was very close to her," Stark recalled fondly. This closeness would seem to account for the complete transfer of the entrepreneurial stream of consciousness from Tillie to Dean.
"I was in the store all the time since I was two or three years old," Dean Stark recalled, "and as I took an increasing interest in technology and programming, I naturally started to apply technology to the family business." In his early teens, Stark began noticing a problem in the store that technology might help solve. William Ashley China was a 'personal touch' business wherein many of its staff were called for by name on the phone and then the time to find them and connect them to the customer waiting on the phone was a serious customer service problem. There was no technology (with the exception of the telephone) employed in this chaotic process.
So Stark developed one -- personally. Taking some Motorola pagers and what was then Northern Telecom (later, Canada's Nortel Networks) technology, Stark put together an advanced system of pagers-for-phone calls for the store's staff. This was to be the prescient precursor for what Dean Stark would do with his company 4D Retail Technology (4D Interactive Technology in the USA).
Working in William Ashley China as a boy, young man and adult until 2011 and now Chairman Emeritus, Stark had visions for applying the systems he developed in the family business out into the broader retail and business worlds.
Still based in his native Toronto, Stark's company has quietly developed some of the most fascinating technologies I've seen. Magical would be the word to describe some of them.
I don't know about you, but I've been chomping on the bit for automated customer service technologies to end my never-ending search for a salesperson in Home Depot or Macy's or Best Buy. It's like the law of diminishing returns and Murphy's law combined in some kind of brutal, excruciating penalty that whenever I need some information or guidance or a question answered in a retail store, I can never locate anyone to help me -- does this ever happen to you?
Kiosks looked like they might offer some relief ... about 30 years ago. But they never came fully to fruition. And the Internet itself has made the process sometimes quite a bit easier ... and other times, not so much.
The best evidence of the classic high-tech struggle between the Internet/Online retailing behemoths such as Amazon and the real-world, bricks and mortar stores is the 'showrooming' dynamic which has shoppers using the Best Buys and Barnes & Nobles of the world to touch and see and decide which product they want and then, go online to buy that product at a much lower Internet price, thus reducing the retail stores into mere showrooms not salesrooms. Big, expensive inventory rooms; staffed with trained employees ready to answer customer questions; where everybody's looking but nobody opens their wallet.
How long can that continue?
And the big retailing giants still keep watching and waiting for this Holy Grail -- a technology solution -- which will allow them to eliminate costly staff salaries, training and other profit-wrecking overhead. They want, and have wanted for decades now, a virtual sales assistant that doesn't require vacation or overtime or time off for a sick child or have a union backing them up. (Please don't misunderstand this to mean that I fully support technology replacing human jobs -- I do not. I'm just trying to realistically show where this new "Information Economy" of ours is headed.)
Enter Dean Stark, his 4D Interactive Technology Corporation and three similar but different products.
The "V Wall' (Virtual Wall) is an incredible information center for retail stores, conventions, travel centers such as train stations or airports and virtually anywhere that we today see an information booth of greeter. Watch as this Advertising Week NYC video pits the real world spokeswoman versus the virtual one in a battle for audience attention.
And 4D's "Interactive Tower" is an amazing sales center reacting as potential customers approach while the tower's 10 video sensors triangulate and process, they can touch the display of the desired product with a QR (Quick Response) code card whereupon an employee retrieves a gift-wrapped Versace watch or iPad dock as the system instantaneously recalculates inventory. Very neat.
Additonally, like something out of Snow White, Stark's "Magic Mirror" stops people dead in their tracks -- a consumer dynamic that retailers have been searching for since the first caveman offered something for sale. Cosmetics counters are probably the first stop.
Let me introduce you to Anna.
Anna is not real. I mean, she is a real person but the photo above is of her virtual counterpart who lives in the V-Wall.
Both the V-Wall and Magic Mirror feature stunner "Anna" as the talking technology and guide, hostess or greeter. She talks, listens and "thinks." Using advanced technologies such as what Stark calls "super photo-realistic graphics;" "targeted voice recognition;" and "human-like movement;" the virtual Anna has eyes, eyebrows, lips, hands and most other physiological 'tells' of humans.
As Stark told me, Anna has a "pulse," meaning that you can see the life in her eyes and pulsing in her skin.The way she speaks also emulates human speech in that she has "dynamic cuts" in what she's saying just like a real human. "Terminator 4," anyone? Or maybe Sir Arthur C. Clarke's "Hal 9000" character from "2001: A Space Odyssey."
Anna can give you the most complete and factually correct responses to your most complex questions (which can be perfectly scripted by the client) about medicine, clothing, cars or anything you could conceivably need. She searches the inventory, provides specific product info and makes the best recommendations. The best part? No hemming and hawing or "Umms."
But let me attach a real, very human face and personality to the "Anna" technology.
AnnaMaria DeMara is a Toronto-born actress currently residing in Los Angeles. Connecting with Dean Stark fortuitously through her brother who was working with Stark at the time, she is the real-world Anna who became the "digital Anna" of 4D's V-Wall and Magic Mirror.
"I started out as a professional dancer," DeMara told me, "and then one day a friend asked me, 'Hey, do you want to be in a short film?' Then after I was in that film, I thought this is what I want to do for the rest of my life -- acting."
As far as her leaps from dancing to acting and now to being the digital face and body of Stark's virtual creations, DeMara proclaimed excitedly, "The tech world is so cool right now, it's exciting and I have so many ideas." She pursued her ideas so animatedly with Stark, she's been involved on the creative side of her alter ego Anna ever since.
I found myself craving more Anna and so found this video where she's talking only to me.
Anna could be a strong, attractive presence in the Banking sector, where she provides a complete system that 'recognizes' you; offers you appropriate services based upon your deposit levels and history; gives you current foreign exchange rates and stock market prices from the Internet while you're in line; and she can even improve the line control by counting how many customers are waiting and keeping in touch with management for the necessary staffing. One day, she may replace the traditional tellers and 'dumb terminal' ATMs we currently use:
Or be seen in car dealerships to weed out the proverbial and actual 'tire-kickers' from the ready-to-roll buyers:
In major cosmetics shops and department stores; where someday, with the advancement of facial recognition technologies, Anna might instantaneously make astute make-up suggestions for customers searching for the 'right look':
In malls, where Anna's myriad motion sensors can greet and stop passersby from taking their next step:
No more "the receptionist is at lunch" signs or waiting around to be greeted -- Anna's on the job:
Or even my aforementioned customer service nightmare:
And Anna would alleviate my grocery shopping anxiety:
Now Stark's 4D products don't just solve a nagging headache for retailers or banks but could be a major force in the future for:
**Trade Shows and Conferences: Imagine no booth expenses or staffing expenses and perhaps best of all no awkward mid-aisle confrontations with thcotchkes in hand -- just a sleek, small-footprint Magic Mirror with Anna talking to passersby when her motion-sensor picks them up and talking to them in any language while answering any possible question they might ask. She might even whistle attendees over and distribute giveaways as well. Finally, Anna can scan show badges without you even knowing it.
**Advertising & Promotion: TV commercials would never be the same with Anna. Unlike ever-present, static billboards for instance, Anna would only activate when a car whizzes by or a human comes close and then asks a question. She would be excellent for directing clueless customers to the best product for their needs and even the one that is on sale or the best value. She could use her facial recognition software to 'read' and analyze people's complexions for cosmetics or even, someday perhaps diagnose and suggest over-the-counter medications for simple human afflictions like acne, hair loss or irregularity. Who knows where Anna's skills might stop?
**Media & News: Wow, getting my news from Anna every morning online or on CNBC for that matter would be great and I wouldn't have to listen to all that mindless editorializing. She would already be pre-programmed to 'know' my interests and keep the story depth just to my liking:quick and insightful.
**Web Sites: Web site formatting hasn't really changed in the 40 years since Vint Cerf sent a message on DARPANet. We've all been looking at the same inverted L navigation bar and similar layout like mindless drones. While there have been a few bells and whistles such as streaming video greetings and music players, there's been nothing like the virtual intelligence of Anna. A greeting from Anna with with her question-answering ability would provide a refreshing way of greeting a web surfer and eliminate the need for multiple e-mails for further info.
**Law Enforcement and Anti-Terrorist: Plug-in facial recognition software and enhance her ability ability to ask tough questions while lie detecting the answers and Anna might just be a 21st century "Robocop."
But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves. I think Anna would make a tremendous alarm clock.
So ... will we all soon live in a world dominated by omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent Annas? I'm not sure ... but seeing her and getting real advice and answers to my questions at Home Depot would sure be an improvement over the kid 'helping' me the other day.