Beloit’s Comply365 flying high and expanding into other industries

Kerry Frank gets apologies these days from those who doubted she could streamline the airline industry.

That’s because Frank’s company, Beloit-based Comply365, now has most of the U.S. market locked down on one of its airline software products, which digitizes flight manuals for pilots. Frank, who doesn’t have a college degree, recalls getting “laughed out of board rooms” at first, with executives telling her it’s almost impossible to innovate in such a heavily-regulated industry.

“Some people in the beginning were really tough on me,” said Frank, the company’s CEO. “They really challenged me to be better, and so today, we are one of the best companies in brand. When you go through hard times, it makes you either cave in or dig in deeper. And it made me dig in deeper, to be even better.”

The company now has about 70 employees and has raised about $15 million, much of that from Columbus, Ohio-based Drive Capital. Comply365 spokeswoman Gina Duwe said about 840,000 employees use the company’s software in several industries, most of them logging on with their mobile devices.

Comply365’s office is in Beloit’s IronTek building, a renovated industrial warehouse that city officials hope will become a tech hub. And at its entrance is a wall that lists Comply365’s wide range of customers, including 10 Fortune 500 companies.

It all started in Illinois in 2007, when Frank and her husband, Chief Technology Officer Dude Frank, were consulting for an airline. The two brought the airline’s managers together and spent about two hours whiteboarding all of the issues that they faced. They then held similar chats with other airlines.

“I took that back and I thought, ‘Wow, this is a huge opportunity,'” Frank said. “That’s how I got my idea, was simply listening.”

Frank’s first product essentially digitized the old 50-pound bag of documents, such as flight manuals, that pilots had to carry around. Comply365 is among the companies that airlines turn to so they can set up electronic flight bags equipped with tablets.

A handful players are in the EFB software space, according to an Federal Aviation Administration survey of the market last year. But Will Ware, a pilot that co-chairs the industry stakeholder group EFB Users Forum, said Comply365 has captured the majority of that market.

“There are other solutions in the marketplace, but this one seems to have taken hold,” Ware said.

That was not without its challenges, though. Frank declined to turn to investor funding early on, instead bootstrapping the company. For the first three years, Frank’s family of five was living off Kerry and Dude’s consulting revenues while they researched and developed Comply365’s solution.

But in 2010, they decided to end their consulting business and move Comply365 out of their basement. The two often worked 20-hour days and made little money, but Frank said that helped them focus even more on telling airlines that “this is the future.”

“When you’re living on $50 a week and you have to feed your family, you don’t take no for an answer,” Frank said.

After seeing success with its EFB product, Comply365 has moved onto broader solutions that allow airline executives to better track what’s happening on the ground.

That, for example, includes information on what are the most common plane delay causes and in which areas they’re happening in. Or it has a communication platform that lets the flight crew communicate with doctors if they’re having a medical emergency. Data on such issues was previously difficult to gather and often was weeks-old, Frank said.

“Now you can see all of that,” Frank said. “Businesses looking to get insight into what is really happening can make smarter decisions faster.”

As the platform is “industry agnostic,” Frank said they’ve moved into other markets, as well. They include energy, health care, retail, education, hospitality and other transportation industries such as trucking.

Comply365 moved from Roscoe, Ill. to Wisconsin in 2012 after Gov. Scott Walker personally called Frank and convinced her to come.

“That was really crazy to me because we only had 17 employees,” Frank said.

Frank, who was featured in Walker’s next State of the State address, said she was drawn by “the vision and passion for a state to support bringing high-tech companies.” WEDC also awarded the company $150,000 in tax credits, though Frank said those incentives didn’t play a significant role in her decision. Comply365 surpassed the 35 jobs it was required to add.

And though Frank acknowledged it can be a struggle to find talent, she said they “absolutely are planning to stay in Wisconsin.”

“People are leaving Silicon Valley faster than they’re coming in,” Frank said. “We’re really hoping to take advantage of that. People want to come back to the Midwest.”

— By Polo Rocha,