The night of March 21, 2015, seemed to be a typical quiet Saturday in the small city of Cottonwood, Ariz.—until it wasn’t. Around 11 p.m. shots rang out at the community’s only Walmart. Police Chief Jody Fanning was off-duty at his home just five miles away when he heard the terrifying news: One officer down, one suspect shot, one suspect dead. Within minutes, Fanning was one of the first to arrive at the scene. Six of eight family members in a Christian music band were in handcuffs after erupting in a brawl with two police officers, one of whom had been shot in the leg. One family member lay dead after being shot in the head by an officer.
It happened only seven months after the controversial shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., which kicked up a new wave of skepticism towards police officers nationwide. Fanning could only imagine the headlines that might soon throw his department into the fire, too. “This was nothing more than a Christian traveling band, in everybody’s eyes,” the now-retired chief recalls thinking. “A mother, father, and six kids. They were poor and just trying to make money. And that’s what would’ve been in the newspapers.”
Thanks to Allen-based WatchGuard Video, however, no such news hit. The Cottonwood patrol car was equipped with WatchGuard’s in-car video camera when officers responded to the call. The video captured every detail, including suspects beating up—and one of them shooting—a Cottonwood sergeant with the officer’s own gun. “They attacked like a pack of wolves,” Fanning said about the family. “Without the video, it would’ve been an ugly mess for everyone involved.”
It’s events like the one in Cottonwood that help WatchGuard Video executives like Stephen Coffman realize they do much more than generate sales. “We’re not just building widgets,” says Coffman, WatchGuard’s president. “We’re excited about our growth because we feel like it’s good for society.”
Growth has been nonstop since the company’s inception in 2002. WatchGuard began its foray into surveillance with in-car video systems. As police-community tensions continued to heat up, WatchGuard’s revenue grew. It helped that the company continued to funnel funds into new product lines. In 2013, the company spent nearly $13 million on research and development. That led it to release its first body-worn cameras in 2015 and, a year later, roll out an integrated Wi-Fi-enabled product, which allowed the body cameras to automatically communicate with in-car cameras. The products helped WatchGuard raise its top line by more than 50 percent, jumping from $58 million in revenue in 2015 to more than $77 million in 2016. It ended the fourth quarter with a run rate of $90 million, Coffman says.
WatchGuard, which manufacturers its own products at an onsite warehouse, has had to relocate twice in seven years. The company, originally based in Plano, moved to a 65,000-square-foot building in Allen in 2010. But now, with 250 employees and thousands more products to manufacture, it has had to move again. It will occupy a 140,000 square-foot space, also in Allen, with the ability to add 60,000 square feet over the next five years. By then, the company expects to employ up to 750. “Pretty much every agency has a need for either body worn or in-car,” Coffman says. “That has really opened up the market for us.”
WatchGuard serves 18,000 federal, state, and local agencies in the U.S., including police departments in Southlake, Mesquite, and Allen. It most recently landed the Detroit police department, which decided last June to equip its 1,500-member force with body cameras.
The company’s durability, back-end service, ease of use, automatic uploading, and video quality attracted the police department in Mesquite, where a committee of officers evaluated different options across seven criteria. “Not only did they win every single category as an average…” says Mesquite police Lt. Brian Parrish, “but every officer chose WatchGuard.”
Law enforcement agencies often have high expectations and constrained budgets. But once a deal is done, loyalty is hard to lose. “They typically won’t switch, because it’s very expensive,” Fanning says, adding that he spent more than $100,000 over the years on WatchGuard technology. “It would have to be something big to make you leave.”
But with major competitors like Taser and Panasonic, things could always change. Arizona-based Taser, for example, is hoping its acquisitions of Dextro, which uses image recognition algorithms for video, and Misfit, a Fossil company that specializes in computer vision, will help automatically categorize massive amounts of footage and make it searchable.
But, Coffman isn’t worried. WatchGuard will have its own new products, like a two-piece body camera it’s rolling out this year, allowing officers to attach the battery pack to their belts and a less-obtrusive camera on their shirt or glasses.
And that’s just the beginning, as the company starts stretching its legs into helping first responders and private companies. It all circles back to serving the core mission, Coffman says. “We’re in it with them,” he says, referring to the company’s customers. “We’ve adopted the slogan that our shift never ends.”