Journey of a videoconferencing missionary Featured

9:37am EDT July 22, 2002

John Rodella remembers vividly the day his father took him and his sister to an office products show at the former Civic Arena.

He was five then, and rather impressionable. He remembers what he describes as two giant televisions with small screens across the room from one another. On top of each stood a large commercial television camera that was wired to the opposite TV. In front were "big, black radial-dial" telephones.

He stood in front of one camera while his sister stood in front of the other. When they dialed each other on the phones, they could see each other on the TV screens as they talked. And laughed.

"And there was a sign that said these were going to be in every home in 10 years," Rodella says. "I thought it was really very cool."

That was in 1962. Nearly 40 years later, that lofty prognostication still hasn't transpired. But that hasn't stopped Rodella, with help from his brother, Joe, and another partner, from making it his crusading mission.

It's a mission which he says will finally position his company to capitalize on its years of effort as videoconferencing enters the Internet age.

Max Headroom

From that moment at the Civic Arena, videoconferencing remained little more than a dream, encumbered by technological shortcomings.

"What happened at that point was that there wasn't enough technology in the telephone lines to bring video over the telephone," says Rodella, a 40-something successful entrepreneur with a youthful enthusiasm and a small ponytail to solidify that image.

When the technology finally arrived for the masses around 1980, the earliest versions of videoconferencing equipment were, as Rodella suggests, "Max Headroomish," with delayed, strobe-like movements transmitted on the screen. Still, he followed the technology with a distant fascination -- even after he and three partners started a company that provided cost-recovery software systems for law firms and other professional services firms.

In 1992, Rodella wrote white papers that examined the progress of videoconferencing, and he was hooked. Shortly thereafter, his company, RoData Inc., became an early distributor of videoconferencing equipment from PictureTel.

"I liked it," he says. "I thought it was cool. I felt it was within the way RoData selected products to sell."

So he spent $87,000 on a complete demonstration package, and within a day, a company called to rent it. RoData reportedly generated $508,000 in revenue that year.

Reluctantly long term

Little did Rodella know, however, that he would have to adopt a long-term, missionary mentality approach to his new venture.

"It was just hard to sell the stuff," he admits. "It was expensive. A room could cost $100,000, and yet the quality was poor. The network was so darned expensive. So in 1992, I became the Johnny Appleseed of videoconferencing."

Unwavering ambition aside, Rodella admits he miscalculated the fortune he expected to earn in short order by selling lots of equipment. His flaw: "I thought people would buy two the first year, and then sales would explode after that. But that didn't happen."

As a result of the miscalculation, he had hired extra people to handle all of those sales.

"We stepped on our tails and overbuilt because we thought the industry was moving ahead," Rodella says. "But the industry didn't live up to what it was supposed to do, and it damned near killed us.

Higher speed, lower cost

Fortunately for Rodella, the technology went the way of most in this age, continuing to improve and drop in price. At the same time, telephone lines were becoming more advanced, allowing for faster and cheaper transmission of voice, video and data. That led to major price reductions in the equipment.

"People are paying $5,000 today and getting quality that they once paid $100,000 for," he says.

In 1997, when Rodella came to the conclusion that PictureTel hadn't been improving its technology fast enough, he forced the issue by adding other videoconferencing brands, including Polycom and Vtel, to his stable of products -- to the serious dismay of PictureTel. But he quickly eased concerns because, with the ability to virtually corner the market in videoconferencing equipment, RoData doubled the sales of its PictureTel equipment.

In 1999, RoData generated $7.5 million in revenue on the equipment. But the real growth, Rodella expects, will come soon as higher-quality videoconferencing equipment finally converges with high enough quality Internet signal transmission that will allow for professional-looking meetings in real time over the Internet.

As the Internet-driven market expands, Rodella says he expects to hit $10 million in sales this year, with the greatest reward coming in five years. That's when he expects the company to grow to $50 million in annual sales.

"As of April, we are the largest videoconferencing dealer in the domestic United States," Rodella claims.

And the Internet can only make that better, he believes.

"The videoconferencing industry will enjoy a heyday like never before." How to reach: RoData, (412) 316-8888, www.RoData.com

Daniel Bates (dbates@sbnnet.com) is editor of SBN.