Home Automation Unplugged Episode #233: An Industry Q&A with Nick DeClemente
In this weeks home automation show of Automation Unplugged, Nick DeClemente, Founder & CEO at Elevated Integration shares his point of view on the ongoing debate of one-app control solution vs a multi-app approach.
This week's home automation podcast features our host Ron Callis interviewing Nick DeClemente. Recorded live on Wednesday, December 28th, 2022, at 12:30 pm. EST.
About Nick DeClemente
Nick is a 20-year Industry Veteran. He started in CI in 2001 while studying Fine Arts in College. Nick pioneered CI in the MDU market for seven years with Concierge Direct. Afterward, in 2012, Nick started Elevated Integration.
Elevated has always been focused on high performance, high reliability, and a high level of service. Company culture and training investments in their team are paramount in achieving those goals.
- Managing the holiday season crunch.
- One-app control solution vs a multi-app approach
- Bringing on consultants
- How to close big deals
- Company Culture
Ron: Nick, how are you, sir?
Nick: I am good. How are you?
Ron: I am good. How was Christmas, for you and your family?
Nick: It was great. It was a good not too crazy, hosted a bunch of family over the course of the weekend. I have little kids 8 and 5, so it's mayhem, Christmas morning. So it was a good time.
Ron: At 8 and 5, you have to do the Santa thing where they think Santa, because Santa did come the night before. So is there the big unveiling in the morning?
Nick: Oh yeah. And then, you know, in a month of elf on the shelf and the whole, the whole program, you know, so yes, it's the whole show.
Ron: Love it. And are you, I see some Legos over your, at least for our audience here. It'd be over your left shoulder, but on screen, it's to our right. Are you a LEGO fan?
Nick: I do it with my kids. My daughter and I built that the LEGO death star during COVID during the lockdown. So I think she was, I guess, 6 at the time, or just turning 6. So we built the LEGO death star.
Ron: That is awesome! And I want to give a shout out. We have Wes. He's actually on team One Firefly. And on LinkedIn, he says, hey, Nick, welcome to Automation Unplugged.
Nick: Thank you, sir.
Ron: Appreciate you, Wes, tuning in. And if you are out there on LinkedIn or YouTube, don't be shy, drop into the comments, say hello, and we're going to make sure we touch on a whole litany of controversial topics today. So don't be shy out there and let Nick know what you think about these. Nick, for those that may not know you, why don't you get us introduced? Tell us about the business Elevated Integration and your role within the business.
Nick: Yeah, so Elevated Integration. I founded it in 2012, so I'm the founder and CEO. Metro New York based, but work all over the country. I guess all over the world to some degree, but mostly in the U.S., obviously. I still do most of the selling. A fair amount of the engineering is part of the business. We have 8 people and primarily ultra high end luxury residential is our market.
Ron: So Paul Bochner just posted on LinkedIn.
Nick: Here we go.
Ron: He says that there is a scotch in the death star.
Nick: It's entirely possible, Paul. Thank you. Thanks, bud. This is entirely possible. Those who spend time know that I enjoy scotch from time to time.
Ron: Got it. And by the way, Jason Saiyan also stopped in and says hello, happy holidays. Appreciate that, Jason. Thanks for stopping in. Nick, lots of fun things to talk about. Actually, you and I have had the opportunity to get to know each other a bit just over the last few years participating in the Azione board. So I've been on the board for a little bit. You've been on the board. And I've enjoyed spending that time and kind of learning about your approach to business and your outspoken in a great positive way. You don't mind sharing your thoughts and ideas with members of the board and with folks that are out there in the industry, and you know in many ways, you wear your heart and thoughts, I want to say at the end of your sleeve, I don't even know if that's the right anecdote, but you speak freely about the trials and tribulations of running a business. And the trials and tribulations of participating in this industry. It's not always roses. One of those challenges, I'll just speak to it maybe folks that are tuned in will appreciate this. This time of year, the holidays can be particularly tough. How are you staying sane? Are you staying sane? And what's it like right now for you?
Nick: You know, it's always the wild lead up from you know about the second week in November through the Christmas holiday where everybody's deadlines, you know, obviously magically aligned in the universe. And then there's always the flurry of other things of last minute ads, you know, of all that stuff and everything breaks right before the holidays, that's always how it is, right? It doesn't break on Tuesday morning. It breaks, you know, 45 minutes before the Super Bowl. So I think, you know, when we've become accustomed to the chaos that leads up to that. I think the way that we stay sane is being prepared for it, knowing it's coming instead of this idea that it's not going to come, but also process you know. I think that was really something that we've worked on a lot is being efficient and being organized and following our process to make sure that things are done well and it minimizes the amount of chaos. But man, you know, there's always something. There's always something. I storm on Friday before Christmas.
Ron: We'll jump into some process stuff and Jason, who is an adviser for you guys. He's actually tuned in listening. But was this year 2022, we're still in the middle of it. So I can't really speak about it being past tense. Is this year a little bit better in terms of a lot of the stress and the demands on you and your team as compared to maybe years past because of some of that work that you've put into the business?
Nick: 100%, 100%. I mean, I think the fact that we have a map to follow makes a huge difference in how we operate. I think that it does as much as you possibly could do to minimize the chaos that comes around this time of year. Again, obviously, you're still dealing with Christmas shopping and all of the other things that go on in and around the holidays. So then you double the amount of service and double the deadlines and so on and so forth. So I think it makes a big difference.
Ron: Love it. All right, well, we're going to definitely jump into some of that those discussions around some of the work you've put into your business around process. But let's go back in time. Tell us, where do you come from? How did you get into this whole crazy world?
Nick: Yeah, so I mean, I was like a lot of young young males was a car audio guy, you know, stuffing subwoofers into the back of, you know, whatever shitty car that I owned at the time. So, you know, learned about the inputs and outputs and stereos and things like that. It's actually kind of a really good way to learn the basics that you don't even learn in this, you know, in this industry, things like crossovers and frequencies and things that kind of don't always make sense don't get addressed because it's kind of all handled for you.
Ron: Low-pass and high pass filters, I was one of those early 90 car audio guys. My audio system cost more was worth more than my car.
Nick: 100%. It's a 100% true. So from there you know, actually, I went to I went to art school. For fine arts, and while I was there, I had to get a job. So I started working for a small electronic store in rye in Westchester county. Mostly because my girlfriend at the time, who I'm currently married to, had a job down the street, so I said, oh, look at this, I was going to visit her for lunch, saw a stereo store and the rest is kind of history to some degree. Worked there for about 5 years you know as they were transitioning from a small electronics into the early days of CI.
Ron: What were you doing there? What was your job or role?
Nick: I mean, there was like, you know, four of three of us. So it was, you know, everything, right? So it was some sales. There was some a lot of installation and, you know, I mean, there wasn't really programming at that time, you know, we think we were doing a lot of Philips. So kind of all things, all things integration, or AV at the time, really. Then landed, I guess what would be a big job, you know, or a big opportunity was for a company called Concierge Correct. Which was really the first or one of the first MDU focused companies in CI. As is the case sometimes, lands the biggest opportunity in the MDU space in New York City when the Plaza Hotel was turning from hotel to condos.
Ron: So for those that may not be familiar with that early 2000s period, maybe set the stage. What was happening? Because I was in the middle of it, but I was on the other side of the equation. I was with Crestron in South Florida. I was at least for a little period of time. I was the MDU guy. I was in the middle of this and I even know we went head to head with you guys. I didn't realize it was you, but now I know that. Tell our audience what was happening in New York and in South Florida and where all these buildings were going up.
Nick: Yeah, so obviously there was a construction boom, you know, it's all pre 2008. So there's a construction boom going on of high rise high rises. One of the trends in New York City was taking these old landmark style marquee properties and turning them into really high-end condos. So if you go back to 2005 and 6, you know, the Plaza had kept setting records for the most expensive residential real estate in the country, you know, which kind of is comical now because at the time, you know, 18, 20, 30, 50, 55 million, I think was the most expensive one. That's kind of like par for the course in New York City now. So it was a really interesting time. And it was also pre iPad, pre iPhone. So we weren't living in that world yet.
Ron: Paul just posted a comment. He says, back when jobs had 500K and just TVs.
Nick: Exactly. That's pretty much it. So it was the opportunity was really incredible. It was a new idea in the sense that you were concentrating ultra high net worth people and we went out and pitched a solution of virtual concierge effectively. Which, you know, between Ron and I never worked for any of the any of the two manufacturers that were involved, which we were on the AMX side of things.
Ron: But we all sold the dream.And we did. And.
Nick: It was a whole lot of vaporware. Let me tell you.
Ron: On the Crestron side, I remember the ISIS panels, the 12 and 15 inch, you know, I don't remember $10,000, $15,000 per touch panel.
Nick: So it was, you know, so there was no apps, right? There was no seamless. So what the conceptual is kind of a good idea. It was like, hey, you could provide this virtual concierge solution. You could have vendors on the back end, fulfilling requests. So part of the business was to go out and find vendors, you know, and it was, I don't remember many of them anymore. That kind of thing. And then the concept was we pitched, and it's not so far now, but you pitch a system to a developer, the developer buys it at some heavy discount and our deal was, hey, no problem, but we get to sell to the homeowners and wire during construction exclusively and it worked. I mean, we did, you know, did 25 or 30 million bucks in that building alone. And it became such a thing that, you know, it was becoming a requirement in MDU. Certainly in New York City and I know in South Florida at the time as well. So it was a big, big explosive win at the time. And at the same time, that company exploded the other way at the end.
Ron: Before we go there, what was it not to get too technical, but concierge direct? Was that an AMX solution? Or what?
Nick: AMX solution.
Ron: So for our audience, this was like head to head warfare. Crestron and AMX, The Crestron solution, there's a name I remember from, you know, back in during those years, I did not work closely with them, but I know Randy Kline, former CEO at Crestron did, and that's the Cimax guys. Does that name ring a bell? Did you guys go head to head?
Nick: Oh yeah. We did, we did. You know, there was there were a few players. There was both software guys that were involved in hardware guys and Cimax was, you know, some degree doing what we were doing in New York doing it in Florida. Warfare is a good way to put it. It was pretty wild.
Ron: Any crazy stories you can remember from that time?
Nick: I mean, we went head to head once in a meeting. We had a developer and developers, they like to argue. This particular developer decided it was going to be a good idea to put AMX and Crestron in a room together with the developer and us to argue out whose solution was going to be the best solution. After you know 45 minutes of Crestron presentation, presenting their vaporware, and you know I kept sending questions up to Randy Klein, who was in the room and asking him questions, that I knew that he couldn't answer. Or couldn't answer the way that they need to be answered for the developer. And he got so agitated, and we're talking Looney Tunes red with steam coming out of his ears. In the middle of the meeting, he walked up to me, pointed in my face, and told me that I was effing done in this industry if I didn't shut my mouth.
Ron: In front of the customer, in front of the developer?
Nick: In front of the customer, yep. And I leaned over to him, and I think I was probably 28 at the time. And I said, if you weren't so effing ancient, I would beat the shit out of you. And that was the conversation, that was my Randy Klein conversation.
Ron: So he signed you as a dealer right after, right?
Nick: Right after, usually, yeah.
Ron: That would happen.
Nick: No. No, I was on his no fly list. I remember at the following CEDIA, I walked into the Crestron booth and was politely asked to leave. So that's a story. You know, and that was the world then. It was a very different, you know, I mean, I was wearing suits to work every day. It was just a different thing.
Ron: What happened to Concierge Direct? You said it blew up. It went like, it went public and started publicly trading it.
Nick: Oh, I wish. Wow. No, no, no. As explosive as it was on the front end, being this kind of new idea in this very successful, I think we sold, you know, I don't know, 60 or 70 million bucks over like four or 5 years. It then got shut down in ten days. The owner was in Florida, came back from Florida, May 1st, 2012 by May 13th, it was shut down. He was, you know, effectively an absentee owner. Nobody knew him. I was the face. And that was, you know, summer of 2012 was a stressful time for me because, you know, I got named in lawsuits and all this stuff because everybody thought I was the owner. So it took a lot of work to kind of not, you know, following that book, and I didn't, I mean, thankfully, but and then, you know, very kind of by accident, founded Elevated Integration. I mean, I intended to go work for a friend of mine who owns a company in CI. It just wasn't ready to go. I had a couple of customers who said, why don't you just do our jobs? I said, hey, I'll do your job. I figured, hey, I'll do some work for a couple of months, make some money, and then go work for somebody and here we are ten years later.
Ron: Tell us about the business today. Are you doing work primarily in Manhattan? Do you travel around the country to follow your clients?
Nick: Yes. I mean, the majority of our work is metro, New York. So everything from the Hamptons up into Fairfield county, upstate New York. Almost none across the bridge in the Jersey, which is always interesting. That's because I want to make sure there's enough work for Paul Bochner over there.
Ron: Got to leave some work for Paul. I'm sure he appreciates that.
Nick: Exactly. We travel, you know, we'll go where our clients ask us to go. I mean, I always talk to people and say you know, follow the money. I think it was it's gotten a little more difficult, right? I mean, airfare is so much more expensive. You know, post COVID, I mean, it's just it's outrageous. So it's really tough to justify the cost. But you know, we have a very large project in Bermuda that we've been working on for, I guess since 2019. That's kind of coming to coming to the close. That's a tough one. Real difficult to get your guys to go to that one.
Ron: Yeah, like, no, don't make me go to Bermuda boss.
Nick: We're a low volume. We try to be high service, ultra high end luxury residential. And that's where we are. We're big, big Savant, you know, house that's, that's where we hang our hat.
Ron: Paul's maybe still watching, I don't know if he's still watching. We're gonna find out here real soon with this question. There's an ongoing debate, Nick. And I don't care where I go, what event, I don't even care what year it is. This debate I'm about to mention has been going on for easily ten years plus, but it seems as relevant today as it ever has. And that is, what is better for the consumer, a one app control solution, or a multi app approach? I'm trying to remember who is, Paul is on the board with us at Azione. And I know this gets under his skin. So what's your opinion? What's best?
Nick: You know, so I think everybody knows my opinion is a one app. I think it's a single app solution. I think that you pick your control system. We could argue that that'll be the other, you know, raging argument for all of eternity is which control system is best. Well, I mean, they're all the best in all the worst. So for us, it's Savant. We hang our hat on that product. We design around the flaws. And they all have them. And if you consciously design these systems, I think you can provide a really great experience through a single app solution. I mean, you know, here comes the comments.
Ron: So I'm going to ask you to argue the other side of that. This is what you do when you're in debate class, and you have to argue your point and then, all right, now put yourself in the other side. Why would someone saying a multi app solution is better?
Nick: Yeah, I think focused development of the hardware provider to make their app work the best with their hardware. So I think that's a reasonable argument to be had there. I think that people will also argue that it's easier, that relying on a single developer to control all of these other things as well as what their native app can do is tough. I see both sides of the argument. But for me at the end of the day, I think the consistency of operation is where it, where it ends up lying. Where you can interact with all these different things in the same format and in an app that looks the same. That to me is where it wins.
Ron: My opinion, and I've lived in homes with both scenarios. I think currently I'm in a home with multiple apps. But I'm going to tell you, they're both right, but it has a caveat if. So my current home, I don't have an integrator per se, that's my go to integrator. And I have a Lutron app for my lighting and shades. I have a Sonos app for my music. I'm trying to think of what else I might have. I probably have a few more apps I use. You know, my HVAC, I have a Daikin unit, so I have their app. I find that it is very nice because I'm very self sufficient as a consumer. It works. It's pretty reliable, and I feel pretty good. The version where I think it works really well with a centralized app control system, a Savant, a Crestron, a Control4, an RTI, whatever it is. Is when you have a really good integrator that knows how to provide a great design and ongoing great service.
Nick: I think that's the key, is the service component of it.
Ron: That's where it can break down. When you aren't that integrator, then you've created in many cases a nightmare for the consumer. But when you are that person, magic happens.
Nick: I also think listen, there's a dollar amount where it makes sense. I've had this conversation with our friend Bryan Mills, you know, actively about, hey, Sonos with Lutron and Sonos app and the Lutron app and do, you know, audio control lamps and small aperture speakers is a better experience with the customer. I could see that argument. As I said, I think in the projects that we're doing, they want the service and I think it's the best service comes along with a single app solution. But we don't ever get to lead. That's true.
Ron: But to your point, you know, there's a level of customer that, you know, it's economics. It's economics, partly. In other words, the project the customer has to be I mean, this sounds bad. It has to be important enough to that business that integration business that it makes sense to sell them a solution and then ongoing provide that service. And I think there's a break point at maybe willingness to invest in technology or ability to invest in technology where there's businesses that just aren't designed or built or structured to provide that ongoing service. But yet the manufacturers do business with them and allow them to go into the marketplace and design and install systems. I think there's no other way to say it. In many cases, those businesses can leave a wake of destruction. I'm not judging people by small, medium or large, has nothing to do with size of the business. You can be a one person operation doing amazing work, loving and caring for your customers and you could be a ginormous business and you can be leaving a wake of destruction. So it's not about size. It's about service mentality and thinking of that customer as a customer for life. I don't know. I'm ranting here, but does that jive with you? Or what do you think about that?
Nick: I think it's true. Listen, I mean, every company has a bad project or two or has done a bad job, but I think that it's an interesting, you know, you almost want to hold the manufacturers responsible for allowing people to sell their products who are really shouldn't be selling their product. But I mean, I think you're right. I think that there is a certain customer and maybe it's an age thing. I think you know, listen, I'm a we were talking about this earlier, pre show about that music that was 30 years old in the 90s. When we were, you know, in high school age, now the stuff in the 90s is, you know, 30 years old today. It's like, you know, Pearl Jam is old today is The Rolling Stones where when we were in high school. So it's a little crazy when you think about it. But I find myself less willing to deal with multiple apps and the frustrations that can come along with that stuff. So I think as you talk about a bit of an older demographic, and people that want to afford and want to pay people to do things for them, they're willing to spend the money. So I think if they're willing to spend the money and you can commit to the service level that you're kind of talking about, I think that you can provide a great experience. I think you need to pick your poison, I think that's a great way to put it. I know that there are companies that do multiples, and they do it successfully. Certainly for us with 8 people doing multiple control systems. I'm going to take the two lighting manufacturers and move them to the side. We're really talking about Savant, Crestron and Control4. I think you have to pick one, you got to then, as I said earlier, conscious design around the control system and its faults because they all happen. So I think being responsible design in that perspective, and then that commitment to service. Then yes, and that's the right project. I mean, that's key.
Ron: Why do you think some integrators pick up multiple control systems? What are they trying to accomplish?
Nick: Oof. I've heard people describe themselves as the tech concierge or something along those lines that kind of. Because there's this idea that if you're selling only one that you're then bias on why the solution is right, I think that people view it as being genuine. Crestron is right for this, we're going to put it in there. Or if Control4, right, we'll put that in. I don't think that's the case. I think that you can not do them all well. I know we talked about it a little bit earlier, but people in the investment in your people, but how can mid level technicians or even good technicians know how to troubleshoot all three systems effectively.
Ron: There's a lot of similarities in you and that conversation. You as an integrator in the conversation around control systems and me as a person running a marketing agency and the similarity would be, for example, around software, that websites are built with. And there's a lot of great software out there you know. There's WordPress, there's Joomla, there's Drupal, there's a whole litany of kind of smaller sandbox, you know, simple builder website software. They're almost all really good.
Ron: So when people come to us and say, well, can you build the website in WordPress? No, but isn't WordPress great software? It's just not the software we develop in. We develop in Joomla. And well, why do you develop in Joomla? Well, ten years ago when we started on this road, we went all in on that. And we said, we're going to be really, really good at this. It doesn't diminish these other platforms. I just would rather be a focused expert than a generalist across lots of different software. And that sounds like a similar case that you're making, you know, I clearly, all the Savant plaques behind you, you're a Savant house, right? And there's good with Savant and there's challenges, but that goes with every single control system.
Nick: Yes. Yeah. I mean, you know, it's interesting. I mean, many people listening probably know Matt from Metro 18 and one of Matt's, you know, one of their things is, you know, you can have any kind of cake from us that you want as long as it's chocolate. They sell, you know, and that's a thing. So for me, I know that I can't deliver the best experience and the best support and the best service if we start selling other control systems. You know, and that's from trial and error. We've been down this path, you know. So I think you pick your poison. And I think your role with it. Assuming that the projects that you're involved with can handle it, it's a good thing.
Ron: Jason Saiyan on LinkedIn just posted, he said, selling in our industry has become a lost art. Too many companies don't qualify the customer or project. I don't know how you say project properly and try to sell out of their own pocket or just want to give the client what they ask for versus if your client is saying, I want a Savant system or I want a Lutron system or I want a Crestron system, what that might be as a synonym is I want an automation system. I want a lighting system. And I mean, what does that, do you have clients that will come to you and ask for things? And do you interpret that as simply I want this functionality? Or do you read it as I want brand X, Y, or Z? And do they demand getting that particular brand?
Nick: I think there's only two brands at this point in this industry as a whole that generate that. One is Sonos and one is Lutron. People ask for those two things by name and they mean those things by name. That doesn't mean that Jason's point that you can't sell them Savant as their streaming music solution, but you have to sell it to them. You have to, and some of that, you know. I don't like it when people assume selling is a dirty word, right? It's not. It's qualifying the customer, understanding their needs, and presenting what you think is the best solution. It may be better than what they thought they needed, right? And that's true. So I think very few people actually ask. But generally, I think when people say, I mean, for years it was, you know, I hate those Crestron systems, right? And they were talking about an automation system. They weren't talking about Crestron or AMX at the time. Very often they didn't know what they had. They just said something that they thought was a Crestron system, which you know was almost like Kleenex for tissue back 10 or 15 years ago. So I think you have to qualify the customer.
Ron: I want to switch gears here. I know that over the last several years, maybe you could talk to us about your journey. You've discovered areas of your business where you sought counsel outside of your business. And so what does that mean? That means that you've brought in different types of consultant, Jason who's commenting is one of those consultants around process. But just can you maybe take us back in time? When did you realize that you wanted to get some other perspectives to help you understand your business and perhaps improve it?
Nick: So probably by year, I guess by year four, four, 5 of Elevated, we landed an MDU following the concierge direct model in New York City, and it turned out to be the it building for a while. It was 443 Grad St. We did a package for the developer, and then we pitched the idea of us selling upgrades and wiring during construction. It was a Grand Slam of a project. It was the it building, it was loaded with celebrities and smallest apartment was 2500 ft² for 7 million bucks. We did this project, which was like, again, shooting fish in a barrel. When we were kind of at the back, end of it, I was realizing that, well, this story of this project and the arc of the opportunities that should be coming from it, or not. And there's a problem here. And I had to figure out, what was the problem?
Ron: Why am I not getting the referrals that I should be getting out of these happy customers?
Nick: The problem at the end of the day, you know, and you know this is a business owner. Problem is me. It was my approach and it was, you know, the definition of insanity, which was doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. So I rolled with this, you know, from a, you know, a kind of wrestled and whined about it in my own head for the better part of two or three more years and kept cooking with the same ingredients and cooking it the same way and hoping that it would come out on the other side, you know, not burned. And it burned and it burned every single time. And it was September of 2020, so we're kind of out of the COVID lockdown in New York by a bunch of months. Busy as could be. And I just had one of those weeks, and I was like, I'm done. I can not do this anymore.
Ron: We've all been there. Every business owner listening is going, I feel you man.
Nick: I realized that I was either going to have to go work for somebody, and kind of just bring my clients and just go work for somebody and give up everything that I had built, or I had to come up with a way to solve my problem. So it happened to be that Chris Smith, who is somebody that is an industry guy, who I knew, through Azione, had just gone on his own as a business coach, consultant. So I called him one day, and I said, Chris, I need a process. He says, okay. And that started the 9 month journey, most of which was not about process. And helping to change the way that I viewed my business. So anybody that owns their own business, you're emotional about it to some degree. But I had to stop making decisions emotionally and stop treating it as a hobbyist and start making decisions that were right for the business. So he started with my team. We went through a process, as I said, it was about, and it was 9 months. Where we talked, you know, once a week for an hour, and he would do an hour of homework, and we would come up with initiatives and solve problems and it led to a renaissance ultimately for me. Then when I got to the point of saturation with Chris, I think I think I described them to you. Chris is like, when you allow him to be, he's like forced evolution. He introduced me to Jason. And I said you know, I had said I asked him for a process and I never got a process from Chris. And I said to Chris, I said, you know, what am I doing? I need a process now. We've done all this work. We've revised the team. We've changed this. We've done all these things. I need a process. He said, I mean, you have a process. I said, what? He goes you have a process. You just have to document it. And that's how I got to Jason. And Jason Saying, allows you to regurgitate what you do, how you do it with the species of software that you use. All of a sudden it comes onto this map and you have these directions that you can follow as a business. And I think I've described this before, it's like a cheat code, you know, if we all played contras kids up down, left, right, BA select start, whatever it was, to get a hundred lives. Jason's process map is like a cheat code. Every guy in your organization, every person in your organization levels up, because now all of a sudden there's accountability and people know what to do. So now we have a recipe for how we cook the food. And I don't think I don't think that that journey would have been possible. I wouldn't have been able to get to Jason without Chris. And I think the combination for me was business altering. I mean, light moon, I think it's life altering. I can't say enough, good about what the you know, how it makes you feel, how your business runs, the lower amounts of frustration, I mean, across the board you know. Ultimately, you're making more money because you're being more efficient. You're not wasting energy.
Ron: I would imagine you're better for your family on the other side of that as well.
Nick: Yeah. I mean, you know, one of the things, I mean a 100%, it makes you available. And you know, one of the things I think in many people who are listening probably have heard me talk about it led me to understand what the business needed from a, you know, you run around to your hairs on fire, and then you decide you either need people or you need process. And what does that look like? Ultimately, going through this, going through kind of the evolution. And I think also, you know, being part of industry groups like Azione and Synergy is another one. I think that there's real value in there because you get to interact with people and it's not always the usual suspects you know. Paul Bochner, who's commenting you know, Paul and I talk all the time, we're Friends. But it's sometimes it's great to hear other perspectives from different businesses of different sizes and different markets. And I think it ultimately led me to realize what I needed was a number two person. And all of the work from Chris and from Jason you know, I had built a person in my brain and I knew who I wanted. And then when it was very clear, very easy when I met that person to hire them. And that's Olga who many people have met. That again just changes, you know, just changes your life. Change your business life, change your personal life when you have somebody good that you can rely on. It's a big deal. So I would never have gotten to Olga, if not for Jason, and if not for Chris. So super, super valuable.
Ron: Curious, with Jason, and he's documented this process for you. How has that then institutionalized or how do you then use that? You mentioned holding team members accountable, like what is that process like? The process of helping your team understand the process?
Nick: I presented it to them you know, it's a living document. I would want to say that. It doesn't stop changing and evolving. We presented it to them and said, hey guys, check this out. And it was printed out on a 24 by 36 sheet of paper. And their eyes lit up. We said, so this is how we do this. It's on our internal Slack channels and our process and we present it to all new employees. We present, this is how it operates. And what it did, you know, listen, as I know there are a lot of business owners in this industry that many of them don't have active roles. They kind of just oversee. So I have very active roles. But it gave them, it gave me accountability to them. They knew what I had to do in the different parts of the process. I think the fact that they can look at that and know when things go wrong and why they go wrong because they still go wrong. It helps they get less angry. And they get less frustrated you know. And it's very easy to go. I screwed up. I didn't do the thing that I was supposed to do. I think the fact that they can, they know that there's accountability across the board. Makes it, you know, is invaluable.
Ron: You mentioned the Olga effect. The idea that, you know, Olga is, you know, your right hand person. What is that job title? Like, what is the and how do you decide what gets delegated to her maybe that previously you would carry in terms of responsibilities?
Nick: She's our director of operations. And you know one of the things that I had to learn when listening to somebody like Chris talk about your purchasing department, everybody goes, well, I don't have a purchasing department. Well, no, but when you purchase, you're wearing the purchasing department hat, right? So it was, and again, as part of that process map, understanding what things went and what buckets, so to speak. And then assigning either the bucket or parts of the bucket to individual people. So for Olga, it was really, it was whatever it took to some degree to allow me to do the things that I'm good at at a high level. So highest and best use, right? What is my highest and best use? And it wasn't doing POs. Or it wasn't scheduling the guys, or it wasn't, you know, dealing with feedback and reorganization of process, that sort of thing. I mean, I had to sell. That's what I have to do. So it was initially not many people we didn't talk about this, but I've worked from home forever. We have a couple of warehouses. We've been remote. For long before COVID. I had an office when we first started.
Ron: You're at your home office now. Is that where you're at?
Nick: I'm at home, yep. So I had to ultimately, when Olga accepted the job, I had to make a conscious decision to move her into my office. So to my left is or your right, my left side is another desk and that is where I committed, I said, if I'm going to do this, I'm going to do this right. And she spent tons and tons in time here. She's here a couple of days a week and immersive, you know, as it relates to her onboarding and the commitment to her onboarding. We have found that we've adjusted the way we've approached things and do different things at different times and we've changed it and I think it'll continue to evolve. But I think being committed to onboarding her in a way to make her successful was a part of it. As I said, I mean, she comes to literally sits to my left and yells at me all day long, which is okay.
Ron: Ah, that's hilarious. I'll just share that to keep at high level. I had a similar epiphany in my business adding an operations person and in my business also realizing my best in most effective superpower to contribute to the business was sales. And meanwhile, prior to that, I had been trying and failing, trying and failing to hire salespeople. And my epiphany was, well, Ron, what the heck are you doing? What are you doing? You can go out and you need to keep the fish that you catch and you need to keep, you need to make them very happy so they stay with you for a long time and tell their friends about you. And that is the key. So I feel you, man. What now seems in hindsight obvious, you want to look at all those years you struggled and go, why didn't I see it earlier?
Nick: It's truth. I mean, you know, it's interesting, as I said, I think you have to be willing to it's very difficult to be willing to admit to yourself even to something that you are wrong or the way you're doing it is wrong and that I was the biggest problem you know. But as I get angry phone calls or text messages from texts who go, I don't have what I need. Because I didn't order it. Well, it doesn't happen anymore you know. That doesn't happen. I think that it's the willingness to change the willingness to kind of really be look inside of the business and not be offended by the thought, right? There's this kind of, it was interesting. I had to figure out how to not be offended by Chris all the time. But as we talk through things. You know, and I see that I see it even now with Olga, I have to you know, listen, she's going to have differences of opinion. We're not always locked step about everything. But I listen, I hear it out, and I, you know, I realize that there are places where I'm going to stand my ground and there are places I'm just going to let her run with it because she's got a better idea. So it's also, you know, it's interesting the idea to relinquish some control you know.
Ron: I mean, to learn to delegate, I mean, you've heard delegate into elevator, but that's easier said than done, especially when you've been an operating a different way for so long. Do you think you're getting better at delegating?
Nick: Yeah, yes. I mean, I think you know as I said, you have to try not to take everything so personally. So I think yes you know, I think generally. And I think that there are places you can give away more, you know. I think, you know, as you with all these things that we're talking about, you know, at the end of the day, the net result is your gut and my people are getting better at their jobs. So how do those guys now be able to take additional pieces that flow down hill, so to speak? So some of the stuff that Olga can do can maybe go on somebody else's plate. And then it continues.
Ron: Something prior to us going live, you mentioned that is a current focus of yours is company culture. Can you kind of speak to that and how you're thinking about that or working on that?
Nick: Yeah, I think, you know, part of the part of the Azione experience is now, you know, doing these kind of more development stuff, right? So they're looking into, how do we develop companies beyond just selling? How do we help to invest in more in the insides? So Jason and Chris are doing some of that with Azione and the third person that they have is Stacey McKibben. And Stacy is, you know, she's a business coach, consultant, and, you know, when I, when the connected clusters cube started in with Azione, I jumped at the chance to work with Stacy because I said, hey, I've already spent a lot of time with Jason and with Chris. I want to look at the next thing. People take away different things, right? You'll get something different from a coach than I'll get. What I'm getting from her is how to continue to develop the culture of the company. You know, both from an employee development perspective from a positive culture perspective, you know, one of the things we talked about earlier was, you know, how powerful it is to have women in our industry, which is so male dominated. Just the difference in having a woman as part of elevated has been really significant. So I spent a lot of time thinking about culture, thinking about what makes my people happy, why are they happy? Why aren't they happy? Because at the end of the day I believe that if you have happy employees, you're going to have productive employees. And productive employees mean happy customers and a good bottom line because that is all that's why we're here. So I take a lot of my conversation and time spent talking to Stacey into the culture side of the business. And I think you know that's another great aspect of Azione and also Synergy, which is a bit of a different approach on that. It's just all about professional development and utilizing the opportunities we have in the industry and then these different organizations that are here to help and you know I think we said it before. As a small business owner, you're struggling with the same thing that somebody else is struggling, yeah. Well, how'd you solve it? I don't know. How did I solve it? How did they solve it? So I think that perspective is really important. I think that's what a lot of these groups are doing now is providing the ability to have perspective.
Ron: That's when we go to industry trade shows or events or conferences, you know, I'll often talk to people and they're like, yeah, I'm too busy. I don't have time to go. And if you only look at a conference with the programming, it may or may not seem like it's your highest or best use of your time. But when you look at the sharing with your peers and sometimes it's when you're sitting at the bar at the end of the day and you're having that conversation with the person to your right or left that some of the biggest epiphanies or discoveries happen.
Nick: I think it's a fact. I think it's a fact. I mean, I think you know there's some of the best conversations I've had you know and I'm lucky enough to have a relationship with Bob Madonna who's the owner of Savant. Some of the best conversations that I've had with him have been after the event or that sort of thing. And I think that those times are valuable. I mean, that's where relationships are built. You don't build it sitting at a table. You may be getting introduced to people or to somebody. But the relationships are kind of forged and built after the fact. And I think that you know it's one of the reasons you do this stuff you know, do these events. I mean, listen, you know, we have a good relationship and chat all the time and we wouldn't know each other if not for Azione and that sort of thing. Even as somebody that uses some of your services you know, we wouldn't necessarily know each other, like we do. I think that's a really cool thing.
Ron: Yeah, no, I completely agree. You mentioned culture is a focus. You're working with Stacy. That's kind of the area you're directing some of the energy in that interaction or that consulting relationship. One takeaway that you could share with our audience, maybe something that you now do differently or think of differently as it relates to building a strong culture that you think might be valuable if you were sitting behind beside someone in our audience at a bar at a conference and you're like, hey, I'm doing this. I'm doing that. Anything that comes to mind.
Nick: Yeah, I think the biggest thing is reinvesting in your people. I think that's been my thing; to continually educate and continually invest in them. Whether it be training, spending time with them. It's always a tricky thing, people go to work, they don't want to spend time with their employees or their boss, so to speak. But taking a genuine interest, kind of slowing down a little bit with my interactions with them, and I think that investment of time, I think is the thing. When I look at that. I say, hey, let me have a conversation. Let me go to that job site and spend a couple hours with them. I think it's sometimes, I think that can be really valuable. And I also think that the education side, they view it as genuine. That another thing, you develop people versus buy people, so to speak, right? You're going out and hiring the most expensive guy. It's like pro sports, you know, Steve Cohen at the Mets is going to spend 350 million bucks on his payroll this year. But you can also develop those people, but you have to invest in them. And the investment is the time, both from an interpersonal relationship perspective, but also training and being willing to let them spend the time to do that. I think that's kind of where we're looking most right now.
Ron: You've been at this business thing now for a couple of decades. Do you think do you feel that you're getting better at it?
Nick: Yeah. I mean, you know, there's no replacement for experience. There's just so much more to learn you know. I mean, without sounding soupy about it, I think you have to be, if you're willing to continue to invest in getting better at what you do.
Nick: So, you know, I think we're successful. I think that the company is doing really well. We've had our biggest quarter ever.
Nick: Thank you. And that's a good feeling going into what could be a little dicey next year.
Ron: Perfect transition, by the way. That's what I want to talk about next is kind of get your thoughts on next year. But continue that thought. Sorry for interrupting.
Nick: Yeah, no, I just, no, no. I think you know I think that these are results of this kind of journey of the last two or so years for me to two plus years and kind of reinventing how we did things and who we are as a company. And I don't want to say like our branding so that we can never change. We're still kind of the same; our approach and our high level 20,000 view of how we want to do business and do integration is the same. It's just how we get there now is very different. I think yeah you know. I think it's continual. I think when you stop changing, then you become irrelevant.
Ron: Do you feel that the work you've invested, it's not only cost money, but it's cost time and energy. The last couple of years, this work you've put into the business. Do you feel today, December 28th, 2022, that you're better positioned to rock out for another 10 years, 20 years, 5 years. However long your horizon is for your business. Do you feel you're better positioned today than you were on that September day, 2020 before you begin?
Nick: A 100%. I mean, you know, we would have been gone in 6 months, I think. Not necessarily because we didn't have work, but because we were so frustrated, you know, you wouldn't want to invest the time anymore. So I think we are, 100% you know. And as I said, I think all of these little things add up to efficiency and head up to profitability. Getting the most out of our team, you know, by being as efficient as we can be. And continually developing and growing your team. I think allows you to be positioned as safely as possible when things get weird. I'm not convinced that we're on some collapse. I mean, there is, I don't see anything in the middle. There's no middle project. It's either small, like a small upgrade or small service.
Ron: What's a small project by your definition? If you put a dollar value and this isn't judgmental, but I just, I'll just give an example. I spoke to someone in the Florida keys this morning. This person said that they are and in their example, and this is for other reasons than economic reasons. They're no longer doing the $25,000 project. They're now doing the $2500 project. And that was just in their little in their universe that was what big and little met. So everyone listening, your big medium and large is going to be different. So I'm curious, your definition. I'm going to make a guess. Your big is probably half a million plus, probably 500 K up, or is it 250 or where would you draw that line?
Nick: Yeah, I think it's north of 300 you know. I think it depends, right? So a $250,000 theater is a big project. You know, a 20,000 ft² home of lighting shades and audio at 250 is not really a big, I mean, it's, you know, so but for us, it's about 250 and up, we consider that a large project. We're seeing multiples in the north of 500 area. And then the lower end is, I would call it sub 50,000 for us. And we'll do, you know, we'll do small jobs. I mean, we'll go out and do a ten or $15,000 network upgrade. I mean, that's just the world that we're in. So, but I'm seeing nothing like, you know, generally 75 to 200, there's nothing.
Ron: Why do you think that is?
Nick: So I think the people that are truly wealthy still have money. And I think the guy that's spending half a million bucks on a project, whatever that encompasses, maybe he'll spend 450, that's how he dials it back. I think the people that are developing their wealth, maybe it's the younger finance guy. Maybe it's the, I don't know, maybe it's a small business owner, you know? Who's got some money? I think those are the people that are not spending at least in our world. That's not what we're seeing. And then I'm seeing people, I think the people that are more conservative are prepared to spend 20 or 30 or 40,000 bucks. Maybe that person would spend a 100,000. If the economy was great for them.
Ron: What pivot have you made in your business due to this observed change in projects?
Nick: One thing we've focused really heavily on how we're interacting with those large project groups, right? So whether it's family offices, architects, designers, contractors, property managers, whatever it is, we're trying to be all over it. All over it. Even at a higher level than we normally would be, because I think that's where the additional future opportunity will come more easily. And then, you know, generally to be really efficient, right? I mean, it is all for me about being efficient. The least amount of wasted energy. Stacy brought a book up to a group of us that I was young called Essentialism, which was really about at the end of the day, it's about what you spend, what you choose to spend your time on. And spending any time or anything on anything is wasted energy if it's not key, right? So if you have a priority list and it's got more than about two or three items on it, it's no longer a priority list because there's no priorities. So it's about being efficient. It's organizational efficiency, job efficiency, maximizing, minimizing your cost, maximizing your output, and really focusing on things that give you the biggest return on your investment, whether it be time more money.
Ron: Awesome. Nick, for our audience. We're going to drop into the show notes, the links you mentioned Chris Smith and his company, Jason Saiyan, and Stacy, we're going to drop all those links to their website so that if any of our listeners or people watching live want to find those people. If anyone wants to get in touch with you, sir, how would you advise they do that?
Ron: Awesome. Nick, thank you, sir for being our guest on show 233 of Automation Unplugged man, I'm proud of you for all the work you've put into your business over the last couple of years. That's hard stuff, but if you do it and you do it right and you stay dedicated, there's fruit on the other side of that investment.
Nick: Definitely is, definitely.
Ron: And you're living proof of that. So happy holidays, my friend, and again, I appreciate you coming on the show.
Nick: Good to be on. Thanks, Ron.
Nick is a 20-year Industry Veteran. He started in CI in 2001 while studying Fine Arts in College. Nick pioneered CI in the MDU market for seven years with Concierge Direct. Afterward, in 2012, Nick started Elevated Integration.
Elevated has always been focused on high performance, high reliability, and a high level of service. Company culture and training investments in their team are paramount in achieving those goals.
Ron Callis is the CEO of One Firefly, LLC, a digital marketing agency based out of South Florida and creator of Automation Unplugged. Founded in 2007, One Firefly has quickly became the leading marketing firm specializing in the integrated technology and security space. The One Firefly team work hard to create innovative solutions to help Integrators boost their online presence, such as the elite website solution, Mercury Pro.
Resources and links from the interview:
Nick can be reached directly by email at