When one of the founders of Advolve saw a crude attempt to use a mirror surface to conceal a television monitor, he got the idea to turn that around -- making a mirror that could display digital advertising.
Advolve Media has developed the Mirage Mirror, an interactive advertising mirror that's placed inside the washrooms of high-traffic venues such as restaurants, bars, malls, sports arenas and stadiums.
The Mirage Mirror acts as the main mirror in the washroom, and when someone approaches to wash their hands or comb their hair, hidden sensors in the mirror are activated and images start appearing around the users' peripheral vision. (The device remains functional as a mirror.)
The advertisement or in-house promotion will disappear, but comes up again when the next person approaches the mirror.
"It's clean, clutter-free and really complements the venue," said Bryce North, one of the founders of Advolve.
Content is remotely controlled (Advolve has its own iPhone app) and the computer components can be easily shipped and replaced if something goes wrong.
The product has been in development a couple of years. A couple of beta-test products have been out for some time at Investors Group Stadium and Whiskey Dix nightclub, and a handful of other venues in Winnipeg are scheduled to get products installed in the next few weeks.
'It is a really cool design.
It's a brand-new way of advertising'
Bryce North and Kris Luinenburg, 26 and 27 years old respectively, are the co-founders along with two others, David Noel and Steve Couch, who handle the technology.
North and Luinenburg met and became friends as students at the Asper School of Business at the University of Manitoba and started the company before they graduated in 2012.
Both wanted to be entrepreneurs. North had already started other tech companies that failed before Advolve.
"I learned from that experience," North said. "I love the whole area of digital ad marketing and new technology."
Luinenburg figured he'd work in the corporate world to get some experience before striking out on his own, but fell for the idea when North presented it.
"The opportunity was knocking," Luinenburg said. "This is more exciting than putting in time waiting for the big moment."
The Business Model
Advolve is creating a network of partners in the media world, both on the creative and sales sides.
But for now, the partners are doing most of the work themselves, arranging the placement of the mirrors, selling third-party advertisements and even assembling the custom-designed mirrors.
Venues pay between $200 and $400 per month for the mirrors. They can run in-house promotional messages or third-party advertisements on the mirrors. Advolve shares the revenue of those third-party ads with the venue owner.
'It's clean, clutter-free and really complements the venue'
The concept works best in high-traffic locations. After a successful appearance at last month's mammoth Canadian Restaurant and Foodservices Association trade show in Toronto, Advolve made contact with potential multi-location operators and large national advertisers, the ideal kind of partners to best use the technology.
Advolve is in the digital-signage market, which is already crowded.
But North believes when it comes to in-house digital signage, Advolve has an advantage because of the elegant, sexy feel to the technology and the fact it will have a captive audience.
"I could talk for hours about how and why no one looks at other digital in-house signage," North said.
One of the early advertisers is Manitoba Public Insurance, which runs spots reminding people that drinking and driving is unacceptable.
"We are constantly looking for innovative and imaginative ways to send that message," said MPI's Brian Smiley. "People find it (the mirror) interesting and different when they first see it and that appealed to us."
The advertising market is getting more crowded every day -- people experience about 5,000 ads per days -- and the experience of in-house digital signage has not been great.
There are other very large players in the market, and there's always the risk of having interesting technology copied, although most experts will say being first in the market is a winning strategy.
The decision to do its own assembly, installation and custom design may work in the early days, but will become a challenge when the orders start rolling in.
Advolve recently landed a significant angel investment, but it has been mostly self-financed to date. It will need another more substantial round of investment fairly quickly to be able to finance its growth.
Why it might not work
Although the partners believe they have a solid product, the mirrors still need to be more rigorously tested.
It's not an essential service, and when there are economic hardships, advertising budgets are typically one of the first to get cut.
The advertising market is notorious when it comes to consolidation and aggregation. That might be good for the partners of Advolve but it could mean it might not last long as a stand-alone company.
Why it will work
Advolve operates out of the Exchange District business incubator called the Manitoba Technology Accelerator. Marshall Ring, the CEO of the MTA, has advised North and Luinenburg along the way.
He figures Advolve has an edge because of its proprietary software. As well, the user group is a captive, specified demographic (young men or women 18 to 34, for example). Combine that with a user interface that enables good reporting -- for example, on how long each user is engaged -- and that makes it something advertisers will appreciate.
It was the only product of its kind at the CRFA show in Toronto, and it has the chance to make a good first impression in a market.
What people are saying
Advolve recently received a Spirit of Winnipeg Award from the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, so it has some goodwill on its side in its hometown market.
Early advertisers, such as MPI, like it because it's unique and can capture the audience attention more reliably than a lot of other ads.
"We love it, it's really awesome," said Kristi Stoesz, the business and marketing director at Whiskey Dix nightclub, the location of one of the first installations. "It is a really cool design. It's a brand-new way of advertising."