July 27, 2011

Ernie Crawford – the making of Crawford Technologies; Part 2


We’ve already heard about the entrepreneurial spirit ingrained into Ernie Crawford’s early life, and how various programming roles started him on the route to creating Crawford Technologies. But what career move really made the difference?

Ernie joined Xerox Canada in 1983, where electronic printing was still a fledgling business. He took on a role as the National Technical Manager, building an organization to provide technical support to analysts and customers. Ernie also provided marketing support to the Canadian sales organization, and participated in many of the program teams in the USA.

Ernie also had the responsibility of building a software development lab in Canada where his team built a number of products, some marketed around the world. One interesting project was building a distributed font centre, which he later used as a model to build Xerox font centres around the world.

After leaving Xerox in 1987 to provide consulting work in partnership with Art Parker and Romeyn Stevenson, one of the projects led to Ernie co-founding CDP Communications Inc. with Ted Dunlop. There, they marketed Tyrego forms design and i-data protocol converters and conversion products in Canada, and built some software products of their own.

After a total of 12 years in the HVTO industry, it was then that Ernie decided to start Crawford Technologies Inc. to develop and market software products.

The catalyst? Some of the consulting projects Ernie was working on involved the development of conversion software components. His decision to start CrawfordTech came after many of his consulting clients and associates urged him to develop a complete print stream transform solution. Those contacts explained that the market was not being well served by the small group of unfocused companies, all of which had their own problems.

With several software components ready for marketing, and a commitment from numerous customers and partners to buy the conversion software, Crawford Technologies was born.

The first customer wanted a Xerox metacode/LCDS to PCL conversion to run on their IBM MVS mainframe and drive printers across their network. Developing an MVS solution was challenging for a start-up company, but Ernie was up to the challenge. Developing the software on a Windows platform with a target platform of MVS gave the CrawfordTech development team a great understanding of software portability. The project was a success and the customer still runs the software today.

Next up, BlueGill Technologies, one of the major innovators in the Electronic Bill Presentment and Payment (EBPP) market, came to CrawfordTech for conversion solutions they could market in their products. They had been through many issues with their previous supplier and were looking for a supplier they could depend on.

CrawfordTech designed an API around the print stream conversions for easy integration, and added drivers to meet BlueGill’s needs. CrawfordTech’s portability expertise was put to the test, as BlueGill needed the software to run on a wide range of UNIX and Linux platforms. Together the two companies took the preeminent solution to the market with resounding success.

One technological challenge we faced in the early days was caused by the fact that Xerox LCDS and Metacode files are sequential in nature. When a file contains 100,000 statements, the entire file needs to be read and processed sequentially in order to read any given statement from the file. However, when doing EBPP processing, the customer needs to look at statements randomly.

One approach which many of our customers used was to convert each statement into a self-contained file in PDF. However, this is time-consuming, and the resulting PDF files can be large and unwieldy to manage in large numbers.

An approach that we developed in order to provide a more efficient solution was to keep the print file in essentially its original format. When a statement needed to be viewed, software can address the statement directly by extracting the proper pages and resources and convert them into PDF or HTML. In order to do this with Xerox print files, we designed the Normalized Metacode (NMC) format, which is now used by vendors and solution providers around the world.

In December of 1999 CheckFree announced the purchase of BlueGill, and continued to work with CrawfordTech to move many billers online and create many billing consolidators.

The drivers Crawford built in conjunction with BlueGill and CheckFree provided CrawfordTech with a great Xerox to PDF conversion product set to market independently and through other partners. The main market for this software was the print service provider market. These organizations were providing their major billing clients with EBPP solutions, and needed the best solution available. This demanding market loved the high quality software and helped CrawfordTech to add many innovative advanced capabilities to products.

One of the next CrawfordTech developments was an AFP driver which allowed customers to convert Xerox LCDS and metacode applications to AFP for output on any AFP compatible printers. One of the initial customers for this product was replacing its entire fleet of Xerox metacode printers with IPDS printers. However, the transform solution they were going to buy could not convert any of their applications properly and they were only a few days from committing to their purchases.

The print service provider’s new printer supplier found out about our new product and sent us ten of the customer’s most challenging applications to test. The next day we sent back AFP output for all ten applications which printed successfully. This resulted in both a happy customer who has used our products ever since, and a strong partner that is selling our products to this day.

Around the turn of the century, CrawfordTech found that many organizations wanted both Xerox and AFP solutions from a quality vendor and some approached Ernie to fill that role. In response, CrawfordTech added an interpreter interface API to the architecture, and built the PRO AFP interpreter. Thus was born the highly successful PRO AFP to PDF product.

Thanks to his upbringing in an entrepreneurial family, Ernie had the sense to keep the company profitable from the start to avoid a need for outside capital and to keep it financially stable. That went against the grain during the high tech bubble when Venture Capital was easy to come by, but Ernie stuck to his strategy.

In the next installment, we will discuss how the company grew from this exciting start-up phase to the current rising star status in the industry. We will look at many of the challenges that CrawfordTech has met over the years and innovations developed along the way, as well as many of the awards bestowed on the growing company.