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An Interview with Dennis Ricks

Denis Ricks Denis Ricks is the founder and President of CrystalGraphics, Inc., based in Santa Clara, California, which is a leading developer and publisher of add-ins for PowerPoint. Prior to leading the development of the PowerPlugs product line, he lead the development of TOPAS, a pioneering 3D animation software package for the PC. Prior to that, he worked at General Electric, as a manager in the R&D department of its CAD/CAM division. While in college he invented and patented a novel 3D television system.

Geetesh: Tell me something about CrystalGraphics and how you are placed in the PowerPoint add-ins market.

Dennis: I founded CrystalGraphics in 1986 with the idea of developing the world’s easiest-to-use 3D animation software for people to use for all kinds of 3D animation projects, from movies to television commercials to architectural walk-throughs to business presentations. Our first product was called TOPAS and it was very successful in the marketplace and loved by both professional and casual animators.

As the market for 3D animation software became more crowded, we eventually decided in 1996 that it was time to narrow our focus onto just one market. We chose the business presentation market or, to be more precise, the Microsoft PowerPoint market. We made that choice because we were most interested in bringing easy-to-use 3D animation tools to a very broad audience, where we could potentially help tens of thousands of business presenters create more interesting presentations rather than just helping a few hundred professional animators create ever-more-complex 3D animations for movies or television. Coincidentally, the potentially vast business presentation market was also where we saw the most business growth opportunity, as well.

The first product we released with this new market focus in mind was PowerPlugs: Transitions, which adds TV-style 3D animated transition effects to PowerPoint presentations. This was followed by PowerPlugs: 3D Titles which adds customized, animated 3D titles to PowerPoint presentations. It is especially popular for adding an eye-catching intro slide to start a presentation off with a truly professional look. Both of these products come with synchronized sound effects and music. That marked the beginning of the PowerPlugs product line that we develop and market today.

As we learned to master the challenges of this new market focus, and our sales grew, we soon discovered an opportunity to expand our PowerPoint plug-in offerings to satisfy a range of graphical and other needs related to creating better and more interesting presentations. For example, we added a really powerful 3D charting plug-in for PowerPoint, 2D animation plug-ins for PowerPoint, and a huge line of over 20,000 reasonably priced business and other photos, over 30,000 beautiful PowerPoint templates, over 40,000 famous quotations and much more. We even added some PowerPoint enhancing products such as remote controls and projectors. Most recently we added a plug-in that lets you turn any PowerPoint presentation into a screensaver, which can be a very cost effective marketing tool.

Simply put, we offer more products for enhancing PowerPoint than any other company. And they are all top-quality, easy-to-use and affordable. At this point, we believe that the PowerPlugs name is very well known and that CrystalGraphics is the virtually undisputed leader in the PowerPoint add-ins market. And we are clearly not the only ones that think so. Presentations magazine, for example, has honored us 3 years out of the last four with their annual “Standing Ovation Award” for “Best PowerPoint Plugins” and “Best PowerPoint Templates”. We appreciate the recognition. But we aren’t stopping there. We are working hard every day to develop even more graphical tools for enhancing PowerPoint. In fact, we have some very cool things in the works!

Geetesh: How would you typically use PowerPoint - and what's your opinion about the program?

Dennis: Personally, I use PowerPoint quite a bit and for a variety of reasons. Some of those reasons include: for company presentations about past successes and goals for the company, for business presentations to investors, for meeting presentations (to help keep meetings on track), for training, for product demonstrations to press and customers, and most recently for creating personal screensavers with our newest product, PowerPlugs: Screensaver Creator.

I think PowerPoint is very easy to use and very stable. Of course, some of its ease of use comes from the fact that it doesn’t try to be all things to all people, passing up on some of the potentially most advanced features that power users may want. This, in turn, creates opportunity for people like us to fill in some of the holes that the PowerPoint development team misses, whether by choice or oversight.

Geetesh: How do you decide on a new product development - how's the research done?

Dennis: We decide on new product development in a variety of ways. Some of it is driven by suggestions by our customers, whether through casual comments to our sales people, or emails sent in by customers and potential customers, or through answers in response to surveys we occasional email out to people. Some of our new product development is also driven by ideas we come up with internally that we are excited about, and would love to use ourselves. And some of it is driven simply by opportunity: We often get independent developers calling us saying that they are working on a plugin that will do this or that. Sometimes we agree to work with them and sometimes we choose to pass, depending on how broad of an appeal we think a particular plug-in will have for our customers.

Geetesh: How prepared are you with compatibility of your add-ins with PowerPoint 2003?

Dennis: We are now totally prepared for PowerPoint 2003. For each new release of Microsoft Office, we get the first beta versions of Office from Microsoft as much as a year in advance of release time. So we do a lot of testing and tweaking of our software well in advance of the actual release. It is quite common that we need to release updates of several of our software products to provide compatibility with the latest versions of Office. And, since our software updates are free, our customers seem happy to get their new PowerPlugs updates.

Geetesh: How do you collaborate with Microsoft during or after the development of your PowerPoint add-ins?

Dennis: We collaborate with Microsoft in a number of ways. First of all, when we run into stubborn development challenges, t heir technical team is often very helpful in getting our difficulties resolved quickly, by providing development tips that are either undocumented, or well hidden in their documentation. Occasionally, we also meet with or have conversations electronically with their various Office product managers. And Microsoft also helps us promote our products through their website, in Office road shows, and occasionally through emails to their customers.

Geetesh: You have been diversifying from PowerPoint add-ins to creating similar add-ins for Excel, Outlook, FrontPage and Word. Tell me something about these new product lines.

Dennis: As we have grown, we have begun diversifying from just offering PowerPoint add-ons and starting to address similar needs in other Microsoft Office products. We are still keeping up our pace with our new PowerPoint add-ons development, releasing a new PowerPoint add-on about once per quarter. But we are now also starting to release add-ons for Outlook, Excel and FrontPage as well. For example, we now offer a line of beautiful stationery for Outlook (that comes with a plug-in that makes them very easy to select and use). We also now offer some very useful templates for Excel and some very professional-looking templates for FrontPage which have been quite well received. And we have a lot more add-ons coming for each of these Office products as well.

Geetesh: Tell me about your support infrastructure.

Dennis: Our support infrastructure is comprised, first of all, of having excellent tech support FAQs written up and available to everyone on our website. Secondly, we have two full time tech support people inhouse, with others inhouse that we may fall back on from time to time in a crunch. But, generally speaking, our tech support challenges are minimal, compared with the number of products we sell, thanks to the fact that our products are so easy to use and nearly bug-free.

Geetesh: You don't seem to have any community programs onsite like peer-to-peer forums or a features newsletter. Why is that so?

Dennis: We don’t currently offer any peer-to-peer forums on our site or feature newsletters for two reasons. One is that we are so busy doing what we do best: developing and publishing easy to use graphical add-ons for Microsoft Office. The other reason is that the people who do offer these types of things, such as Microsoft, your team and Presentations magazine, already do such a great job. Why dabble with something when there are better solutions already available to our customers?

Geetesh: What future initiatives are you looking at for new products, new updates and support systems?

Dennis: As we try to avoid speaking publicly about our future plans. Just watch our website grow over the next 6 months as we add 8 or more new products to our product line! It will be an exciting time for us and for our customers.

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