Entrepreneur keeps a virtual edge

  • Article by: TODD NELSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 5, 2009 - 11:19 PM

Fred Badiyan uses high-tech tools in his Bloomington company to develop training and marketing solutions for clients.

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The training tool that Fred Badiyan’s company produced for Ecolab allows a dynamic conversation among 10 characters representing employees and customers. Despite the state of the economy, Badiyan Inc. is growing.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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The sales pitch wasn't going so well. As the associate struggled, the customer's disinterest became increasingly obvious.

Fortunately, in this down economy, that lost sale was only a virtual flop.

In this case, the associate will get another shot at closing the sale after some quick coaching to improve his approach and timing. That's because the scenario played out in an interactive online training application from technology aficionado Fred Badiyan and his multimedia team, Badiyan Inc.

The Bloomington-based company, marking its 35th anniversary this year, uses high-tech tools to develop creative training and marketing solutions for corporate and institutional clients.

The award-winning new training software, called Conversation Model, is the latest in a long line of Badiyan innovations.

Over the years, he's been among the earliest adopters in his industry of everything from laser-disc technology to Sony's Betacam video recording system to using Control Data Corp. supercomputers to pioneer advanced graphics and animation processes.

His also was the first firm to deliver training and marketing videos on the iPod, after previously being among the first to help design applications to deliver similar content to cell phones.

Badiyan takes pride in having been debt-free throughout his company's history and in having a client list that includes IBM, Toro and Cargill.

These days, he's counting on his knack for innovation to see his company through lean economic times. Unlike some in his field, Badiyan said, his company is hiring and expects to grow this year despite the sour economy. The company, which has 15 employees, generated about $2 million in sales last year.

"Without a doubt, every corporation in the world, when it comes to the bad economy, they cut back their budget in training and marketing both," Badiyan said. "So programs such as Conversation Model become very vitally important for them because, rather than create several programs, one program can do it for them. It's very timely in the economy that we are in."

Companies can use Conversation Model as a platform to present training scenarios covering a multitude of subjects, including sales calls, service issues and technical material.

Companies can add their own training content or in some cases use off-the-shelf programs, Badiyan said.

Past training applications typically have been far less flexible, were usually subject-specific and had to be built from scratch for each topic.

"As much as we've been looking around, we have not seen anything like it in the marketplace," Badiyan said.

Diverse "character modules" -- actors filmed in Badiyan's production facilities -- represent each party in the conversation.

In the sales example, the user chooses from a menu of statements the associate can make, the customer answers and the conversation continues. The on-screen characters respond with a wide range of emotions, moods and body language; an equally emotive virtual coach weighs in now and then with praise or constructive criticism.

Each scenario can offer users the chance to learn from mistakes as well as multiple ways to succeed.

The software won a 2008 Davey Award for innovation in training. The awards honor the creative work of smaller agencies and companies worldwide.

Badiyan has produced promotional videos and online training videos for St. Paul-based Patterson Dental, a North American distributor of dental products and equipment.

"What we like about Badiyan's skill at developing training films is they understand training and the psychology of training," said Rich Kochmann, north central region manager for Patterson Dental. "They have been effective at being able to pack a lot of learning content into one to two hours of online training modules that prepare our technicians for face-to-face, hands-on training."

Badiyan said: "Conversation Model is so dynamic and flexible that we believe it has the potential to revolutionize the way corporations address their information management needs. Rather than having to develop a special program for every application, corporations can use this software and adapt to serve multiple application needs, significantly reducing their costs."

Hollywood history

Badiyan worked in the film industry in his native Iran before he came to this country in 1965 at the invitation of the U.S. Information Office. He worked in Hollywood as a sound engineer and film editor before settling in Minnesota in 1969 and starting his own company four years later.

Beyond Conversation Model, Badiyan also is touting another high-tech learning tool that adds extra, interactive content to the more traditional training video format. In this instance, small images occasionally float down to reside in a dock below the large box where the primary video is playing.

The user can click on one of the smaller images to launch a new video that presents an expanded explanation of a specific action or technique. Another click relaunches the main video.

"Video is linear, you have to sit from beginning to end," said Badiyan, who has yet to come up with a name for this video tool. "It's a linear way to learn. What we have done is taken the linear video and made it nonlinear."

The expert says: Avinash Malshe, marketing professor at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business, said the flexibility of Badiyan's Conversation Model is a plus.

"That seems pretty innovative," Malshe said. "He may be able to target many different needs of a customer or many different customers."

That approach, however, could leave him vulnerable to competitors who might be highly specialized in a given training area such as sales, Malshe said.

The downturn, Malshe said, may be an opportunity for Badiyan to anticipate and develop new products that will be attractive when the economy improves and customers increase training and marketing spending.

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Woodbury. His e-mail address is todd_nelson@mac.com

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