SpeakEasy: Q&A With Ernie Crawford, Crawford Technologies

Founded in 1995, Crawford Technologies has grown to become a renowned provider of solutions for enterprise document management. Ernie Crawford is the founder, and I recently had a chance to speak with him at length, getting rare insight into how CrawfordTech came about and what he is excited for in the future.

Patricia Ames: I see you are one of the many executives that has Xerox on their resume from early on in their career. Xerox’s training programs are legendary. I’d love to hear a little about some of the things that you’ve learned from that training ground.

Ernie Crawford: Everything does seem to go back to Xerox. It’s amazing. I was in a unique position there. It was in the early days of digital printing with laser printers and I took on a role that consisted of both marketing and the technical side because I was managing the technical support team for Canada. I was also involved in all the project teams in El Segundo that were working on the new printers as they were being designed, built, and brought to market, so I got some very good insight. There was just so much you could learn there because they already had the technology at that time that everybody is using today. Back then the mouse and the big screens and GUIs and all that stuff weren’t in the marketplace, but they had them internally and we used them every day. We knew it was all coming to the marketplace. Xerox was way ahead of their time.

I learned from working at Xerox how to talk to a customer and understand what their real needs were. Then, when we went in and put a proposal in front of them, it would align with their needs. The problem was, there was not always a ready solution available, which meant a lot of scrambling to piece something together. Since I was part of the Canadian organization, I had a lot of flexibility and I’d go and source third parties that would have components that would fit into the solution, so sometimes we put some Frankenstein projects together. This would also involve working with different organizations within Xerox that were skunkworks type organizations. We were able to pull some amazing things together. It was really all about having a focus on customer needs, and that’s something that I think has really benefited us and everybody that works for us. We have that drive to find out what it is exactly that the customer needs.

One of the things that I picked up from Xerox centered around where the industry was going. It was already clear to me back then that while the technology was laser print technology, we knew inkjet was coming and was going to be big. It would take over. Look at the inkjet presses that people are using today — it’s amazing to see how that has unfolded and we just knew that was going to happen. So when I started my company, I wanted to prepare to be there when the technology caught up. I knew it was going to be an evolution of technology and the organizations, dealers, end users etc. were going to have to adapt as they go forward. So we built a company around the anticipated change in the marketplace, both on the technology and the market expectations side.

PA: You spoke about the importance of understanding the needs of the customer. Do you feel that the needs are getting more complicated now?

EC: The needs are definitely getting more complicated, especially when you look at the desire and need for digital delivery and all the different channels. One of our partners says there’s a new channel born every day, but the old ones don’t die. One of the things that was interesting when I started the company was that I thought that we had at least a five-year run before everybody was going to be converted off of the old Xerox technology into something new. But the reality was, there were a lot more formats and also things evolving, and it just made it more complex, but it also put us in a better position as we moved forward.

PA: So how did you go from Xerox to creating your own company? Talk a little about the genesis of Crawford Technologies and where you see yourself now.

EC: Well, I left Xerox to join a small consulting company and got a good view of what was going on in the industry because we were working with vendors, end user companies, and print service providers. Clients would keep coming to me saying that they needed to have specific technology in place but could not buy it anywhere, so they would ask us to build it. After a few years of doing that, I was convinced that there was a big need for the type of work I could provide. The internet was starting to become a reality in the market as well. It was clear that communications were going to go digital and we had a base knowledge of all of the things that really have made the technology evolve, with the different print streams, PDF, PostScript, etc. We could see how they could play out in a digital world and understood that people are going to want to have communications delivered through different channels. Some people are going to want them on paper, some are going to want them digitally. So we evolved an architecture built on being able to give customers what they want and need. And we’ve really been focused on that ever since.

PA: What are you most excited about right now?

EC: The new technologies, the new opportunities in the marketplace. Our ability to scale down the technologies or scale it up with cloud is really exciting. That we can package the capabilities for smaller organizations and provide all kinds of solutions for them because we’ve been involved in so many different areas, not just conversions. And of course, AI is another one that we’re really getting excited about.

PA: Let’s talk a little about AI. There’s lots of excitement around it, and maybe not as much understanding around it. I’d love to hear what you’re looking at and where you see some avenues of potential in your space, but also where there might be a few danger zones.

EC: Absolutely. We’ve been working with AI for a few years now. We started with accessibility applications, for instance, for the blind. We are able to take a PDF document and dissect it and figure out what everything is and then tag it for accessibility so that it will work well with a screen reader, for instance. This can work even with larger, transactional type applications. A lot of banks, healthcare companies and insurance companies use our technology for this. They still store the old print files in their archive, but when somebody wants to look at a file, it’s pulled out, run through our software to convert it into an accessible version that still looks identical to the printed version but has all of the commands in it that a screen reader can read and display for somebody who has low vision or is blind.

We’ve been working with that now for a while and what we’ve done recently is adapted it to the process of indexing of applications, which is what has to happen when any company is moving to new technology or putting things into repositories or writing things online. You need to be able to go through the PDF or the print file and find the name and address fields, find the barcodes, find the account numbers and the amount due and all those kinds of fields. We are able to use AI to do that automatically in a matter of seconds and set up a configuration file that you can verify and tweak. 

When it comes to AI, my belief is that you can trust, but you need to verify. It’s not 100%. In the transactional space, when you consider HIPAA and GDPR, you have to be 100% — 99% doesn’t cut it. So we set up the configurations in a way that the organization can look at it and quickly determine if it is correct or it needs to be tweaked a little to ensure accuracy. That process creates a configuration that will be 100% accurate and can be used in production. Our process has amazed people for years now on the accessibility side with the way we do that, and we’re now bringing that to the entire printing marketplace. That’s really exciting. We were in a situation recently where a systems integrator went into a customer of ours and said that a certain project would take three years to migrate and cost a couple of million dollars. We took a look, and with AI, we can do it in a matter of months. That is revolutionizing the whole migration space.

PA: It sounds like you’re taking a solution specifically designed for a small subset that is now something that you can use everywhere. Is that correct?

EC: Yes, absolutely. When we started, it was kind of revolutionary. It was 2007 or so and the state of the art then was braille. We set up a couple of print shops, one in upstate New York and one in Canada, that produce braille and large print documents. We would take files from telecom organizations, financial companies, healthcare, etc. and run them through our solution and create the documents and print and mail them out. But we also realized that the digital side of it would be coming, because laws were being established and organizations would have to comply. 

When a company puts documents online so that customers can have online access, what happens when the customer is blind? It’s not going to work for them. So we’ve adapted our technology to seamlessly provide that capability, and it’s no longer niche because every organization has to comply. Consider content on websites as an example. We partner with a lot of companies that do website remediation and testing — we provide the software that takes care of the documents that are out there on company websites. We’re able to scan the website, find all the documents that are not compliant, and then the contractor can push a button that will bring them into compliance. Larger organizations have had to do this for quite a few years now. And it’s coming downstream as people realize they have to comply with ADA and Section 508 and the European regulations.

PA: How did you get into this specialty area? Was it a government contract?

EC: No, it was personal. As my mother was aging, her eyesight became pretty bad and she really couldn’t read the statements that she was getting. I’d have to fly to her and spend at least half a day every time I went to visit going through all her documents. I thought there had to be a better way than that. So, we started looking into what we could do about large print documents and created a solution and automated that whole process.

PA: That is fascinating. That’s where a lot of innovation comes from — trying to solve problems in your personal sphere. And my next question is about growth, and it seems your accessibility solutions are part of that. Where are you seeing growth?

EC: We’re seeing a lot of interest in mobile. PDFs just don’t cut it there, so being able to take those documents and be able to convert them into a responsive HTML without having to go and redesign the document is ideal. We’ve been meeting with customers recently who are requesting a way to have a mobile app that can get the document and bring it in as responsive HTML and display it, without the user having to go to a website.

PA: It’s amazing that hasn’t already been standardized.

EC: My theory is that people create PDFs because they have to match the printed version identically. And if you put it in HTML, it’s not going to match the printed version. So that’s why organizations have standardized on PDF. But then, as mobile comes along, that doesn’t really cut it. You end up needing a better way to display documents. So, you’ll now see a lot of forward-thinking organizations that will have the option to display as either HTML or PDF. For documents that aren’t too large, if somebody needs it for the printer, or to take it to court or a meeting, they can take the PDF and use that. But, if you just want to take a quick look at the document on your mobile phone, then it’s a whole lot easier to use HTML.

PA: If you were to give advice to somebody entering the field, what would it be?

EC: Customer communications might not be sexy, but it is a good solid area. I’d encourage them to think about what the end game is — it’s not necessarily putting ink or toner on paper, it’s communication. Customers know that they can pick up the phone and call us and get their problem solved quickly. You have to be able to provide that and it’s been the hallmark of our company from the beginning. We’re going to have the best people on the front line so we can solve customers’ challenges right away and not let them wait to figure out what to do. 

is president and senior analyst for BPO Media, which publishes The Imaging Channel and Workflow magazines. As a market analyst and industry consultant, Ames has worked for prominent consulting firms including KPMG and has more than 15 years experience in the imaging industry covering technology and business sectors. Ames has lived and worked in the United States, Southeast Asia and Europe and enjoys being a part of a global industry and community.