Home Automation Unplugged Episode #236: An Industry Q&A with Koa Wagner
In this weeks home automation show of Automation Unplugged, Koa Wagner, CEO at Blueprint Hawaii shares his perspective about The Great Recession and how diversification helped Koa keep his business open during those challenging years.
This week's home automation podcast features our host Ron Callis interviewing Koa Wagner. Recorded live on Wednesday, January 25th, 2023, at 5:00 pm. EST.
About Koa Wagner
In February 2004, Koa founded Blueprint Hawaii after making a move to Hawaii from Southern California
Blueprint Hawaii has grown from its early days of single family projects in Honolulu to a healthy mix of residential, hospitality and commercial projects on all major Hawaiian islands running. Today the Blueprint team is composed of 22 talented team members.
- Koa’s career trajectory and how he originally founded Blueprint
- The Great Recession and how diversification helped Koa keep his business open during those challenging years
- Recent changes to the business, including: his wife joining the business, bringing on an EOS consultant and making a pivot into lighting
Ron: Hello Koa, how are you, sir?
Koa: I'm good. How are you?
Ron: I am good. So for all of our guests that may not know you and or may not know exactly where you're coming to us from, give us those deets.
Koa: Well, as you said, I live in Honolulu, Hawaii, on the island of Oahu. Born and raised here. I spent most of my life here. And we have a business here, as well as the four other major islands, or three other major islands in the state. So we have offices in Kawaii, Maui, and the big island of Hawaii.
Ron: Got it. And right before we went live, you said a really cool thing that I've never said to anyone. And you're like, Ron, I heard through the weather forecast that, what'd you say, the surf is up? All right, give me all the right lingo because it sounds like you're going to go surfing. Is that what it is?
Koa: I have a meeting at a home on the north shore of Oahu. And we just had an epic surf weekend, the waves got up to 30 plus feet on the north shore. And there's a surf contest, called the Eddie Aikau contest. It's only held when the conditions are right, and the surface is over a certain size. And it's an invitation only event. You have to be known and considered good enough to not die that size surf. And so we had that contest this weekend. The north shore is just firing, but the waves are coming back up.
Ron: Do you, surf, or do you watch that, or what's your, as it affects you? That surfing event.
Koa: It's a big deal for everybody out here, whether you surf or not. I can surf, I'm not going to present myself as a surfer that goes out every day. If I could do more of it, I'd love to. But I was talking with Travis Leo, which most people watching this know, just earlier today and he was asking me about it. So I had football and that on two TVs at my house on the whole day. Both of those things were a big sports event.
Ron: How does a big surf event like that happen if it only can happen under the right conditions? Is it then only pulling local talent or do you know the weather conditions far enough people can fly in and compete in that event?
Koa: Well, so in general, every winner, most or a lot of professionals that want to compete in the competitions out here, there's a holding period, or it's the season really, but then for each competition, there's a holding period because the conditions have to be right. And so they just live out here. So they're already on the north shore waiting for these things to happen. Then the buoys and the swells give you enough information that days ahead that the conditions could be right. And then for people who aren't on island, that's their signal to hop on a plane and be here, if it's going to happen. They got to be ready to go. But I think the crowds literally was 50,000 attendees, people in person watched it. From the beaches and roadsides around Waimea bay, which is where it happens.
Ron: Holy moly. And so 30 feet, that's enough to, I mean, that could do some real damage if that thing comes down on you, right?
Koa: Oh, absolutely. Yeah. And this year though, there was like minor injuries. There wasn't anything significant. And the coolest, one of the coolest things was it wasn't a professional surfer that won. It was one of the lifeguards. The city and county lifeguard, you know, all of them are amazing surfers, but they got a job every day, he participated, and he ended up being the winner, you know, beat out all the guys that do it professionally. Yeah. It was a cool story.
Ron: So when you go surfing, how big are the waves?
Koa: They're not even over my head, you know? And we're talking about these guys are and stuff that's four stories.
Ron: Yeah, that's crazy. That's crazy. All right, what type of what type of work does Blueprint do just to kind of help position your firm, maybe tell us how long have you guys been around and just what do you do residential, commercial, I had mentioned on the opening, you know, chat with the audience that you do a lot of tower projects. So what's a normal makeup of the type of stuff you guys do?
Koa: Now it's pretty diverse. I mean, we started out, I think, like most people that do what we do, just doing a single-family residential in sort of the mid market, you know, I think that's where everybody gets into it. That was almost 19 years ago. So companies started in 2004. Just on this island, in my dad's garage, I lived at home. So we did that, and really only focused on that and kind of did more sophisticated projects over those first couple of years. And then '08 came, and the economy started to tank, and we almost went out of business. By 2010, we were, I had no more employees. Peaked at '12 and was down back to me in a storage unit.
Ron: So the Great Recession, I don't know what they're going to call our current period, but the Great Recession of '08, '09, '10 it hit you really hard.
Koa: It almost completely shut me down. And hard process to go through. I mean, laying off people in rounds, frankly, not laying people off fast enough, but trying to keep things going and keep the lights on and tell everybody if we get more of our job, we'll be okay. But by the end of it, it ended up just being me. And that was like 2010. So anyway, to answer your question, I was having a conversation with one of our clients, CEO of a bank here, and he said, well, how did this happen? And I said, well, we were basically catering to just two feeders. We had a general contractor that was giving us a ton of work. And we were actually three; an architecture firm and an interior design firm. And even though we were getting asked by other people to do work, I was like, no, I've already got this relationship. And so we paid really good attention to those three relationships and ignored the rest. But then '08 came and, you know, they were handing a 6, you know, half a dozen projects each. And that turned into like one project each. And I didn't know anybody else, I had no other relationships. So he said, don't do that again. You need to diversify. And actually, one of the best things that he said was, you know, the hospitality industry runs counter to the residential and general market. So when people aren't staying in hotels, that's when they renovate. They're doing all other capital expenditures when their room rates, you know, their occupancy rate is at 50%. So he's like, you should go chase that market because it'll be a counterweight to the residential market.
Ron: So this is a customer of yours giving you this business advice.
Koa: Yeah, this is the CEO of Bank of Hawaii. It's the largest retail bank in the state. And he, you know, again, all of our clients, right? They become friends and you get to have dinner and lunch and, you know, at some point you become a person to them and they to you. That was his advice. So we took it and we started looking at hospitality work. We started talking to more people. And even though we took care of current relationships, I had a fire to, or not a fire. But, you know, it was in my head now that I needed to spread out our relationships as much as possible. And even go beyond our market into something different. We have been building since 2010 to where we are now and we're pretty healthy and pretty successful.
Ron: I'm curious about the lessons learned. I didn't know that you're hearing you talk about '08 through '10, it mirrored my experience here at One Firefly so similarly, I had some philosophies where I had restricted the clients that we would do business with because I already had a relationship, so I don't you know, and I would do it geographic. I had geographic protections. When the market turned, and I was at the top of the list of things to cut, I'm like, but I said no to all these other people because I was going to be your only one. They're like, yeah, it's not a priority. Cut, cut, cut, cut. I'm like, ah. It was terrifying.
Koa: Yeah, it was, like I said, it was a hard lesson to learn, but I think it was a good one. You know, that being said, being an entrepreneur, like we all are again. I think I've gone or did go. I'm kind of recovering, finally, from taking every opportunity and diversifying into things that we should have never gone into.
Ron: What's an example? What did you go into that now you're like, what the hell was I thinking?
Koa: That's the story of you and I meeting in that bus.
Ron: Oh, okay. All right, go there. How did we meet? How did we meet?
Koa: We were at Azione in Philly on our way to dinner, and they were packing us into buses to get us to wherever we were going. And I just randomly sat next to you. And you introduced yourself, probably wanted me to buy a website from you.
Ron: Probably, maybe.
Koa: And you're like, tell me about your business and I sort of proudly said, oh, I have three. I have an AV company and a window covering company, and I have a retail showroom that sells Bang and Olufsen. And then you just gave me this look and said, that sounds terrible. Why would you do that to yourself?
Ron: I might have said something. But all right, so what was my message in that?
Koa: That the complexity of that and the muddling of all of that and distraction and not focus. The lack of focus on all those things was probably detrimental to the core business, which was the integration company. You were right!
Ron: How did that resonate with you and what did you do about it?
Koa: Well, by so I don't know when that was, but that was probably 2016, 2017, something like that.
Koa: By 2019, both those businesses were shut down. And we had pulled, we still are Bang & Olufsen dealer. We actually do more shading as a percentage of our revenue than we did when we had the formal business. But we pulled everything back together and that's actually when we rebrand it. So the company used to be called Blueprint Audio Visual. And when we merged all those things back together, we just dropped the audiovisual because we are more than that. And it became Blueprint Hawaii. And we still do all of those things. But it is managed and from one central place, one set of books.
Ron: Pat Mulligan. From Pacific Audio Communications. He says, "Hawaii in the house. Go Koa." So thanks, Pat.
Koa: Thanks, pat.
Ron: Thanks for tuning in. Tell me just a little bit more about that idea of focus, and that's where my statement would have come from. It's a hard fought, hard learned lesson from me.
Koa: I wasn't offended by it. I have always liked your candor. I mean, there needs to be more people out there telling you, you know, what's what?
Ron: When you focused, it sounds like when you focused and doubled down on integration, what changed for you from previously and to be clear, I'm going to speak from a marketing standpoint. You were focusing on a retail business brand and shading business brand, and an integration business brand, and these businesses had their own websites. And these websites had their own marketing initiatives. Their own employees, in some extent, and that it's not that that's always a bad idea. It's not always a bad idea, but there's some perspective and generally when you're a smaller business, it's something to consider, whether you could do those initiatives, whatever they are, but you could do it under your singular brand. And just from a marketing standpoint, that's often easier and less costly to manage and drive. And you get the theoretical benefit of bringing in different audiences, but to the singular brand entity, which now, you know, maybe someone finds you for shades, but they learned you could do their home theater. And that's where that essence. But how did it realize for you? I mean, was it in terms of revenue or maybe happiness? Like on the other side of that and closing those businesses down, what was like life like afterwards?
Koa: Well, I mean, I think the biggest outshot of it was you just mentioned life. Again, this is fairly recent, but you know I've come to understand that there's only so much of me to go around. And I love an opportunity. I mean, we've designed another one was furniture. I mean, we sort of got into the AV furniture construction business for our luxury towers. That was another one. So there's lots of opportunities out there. But if you're not in either a financial position or emotional position, that to support all of those initiatives, and then you're just going to fail. And I did. Many times. So the growing up that I needed to do was that you have to be in a position to take advantage of opportunities. If you're not in all of those categories, again, financially, emotionally, your family life, the other people in your business. So it took kind of overextending myself and the resources of Blueprint Audiovisual, or Blueprint Hawaii the core business. And feeling that pain to kind of snap me back into being like, okay, if we're going to I was talking to you earlier, we just read Traction. The new idea, the shiny idea needs to fall in line with what you're already about. You need to have the mechanism in place to actually go do it. So like I said, I'm recovering from that and a little bit wiser on how to go after things and what not to.
Ron: Well, and like you said, we were chatting before and one of the magical answers that you had mentioned your practicing more today is knowing when to say no. Not you know less yeses and more knows that actually leads to more success. I mean, is that how you feel?
Koa: Yeah, no. I think, again, a lot of stress, right? Why do that to yourself? Doesn't really make you mean, it doesn't make you any more money necessarily, and in most cases, it costs money.
Ron: Yeah. It's not obvious. I mean, I think back to the younger version of myself, I'll go back like 12 years. Right when I was in the heart of running a marketing business and an engineering business and a programming business and a representation, frankly, I was trying to figure out what's going to work. What can I do that I love that I can be the best at that also will help me feed my family and grow and the short version of that is when I learned to focus and do what I love and what I believe I can be the best at and I can surround myself with amazing people at, you know, things get less hard. It's not that they're not hard. They just get less hard. And the better we get at that, the less hard they get because you get more and more people on your team that can carry the weight.
Ron: And you do more things. So I want to take it in the direction of kind of getting help and you and I have chatted over many years just about the idea of bringing people into our life to help you know consultancy standpoint, whether that's a family member or a friend or a professional. Can you kind of walk us through what that journey was for you of bringing people in to kind of provide counsel or advice? And is that something anyone listening should be ashamed of doing? Or is that something they should embrace?
Koa: Oh, I would say wholeheartedly embrace it. The term that you may not even know what you don't know, which was, you know, where I still am at some level. But very much true, you know, 5 or 6 years past. I started out as a bartender, you know, and I met a guy who owned an AV company. I didn't go to business school, you know, didn't have any credentials to do any of this really. But I found that person and what he did interest me. And long story short, that's what pulled me into the business. So you know, and I think a lot of us in this industry come in from the technology side, we're enamored with the gear, or we think it's cool. I like the architecture and development side too. But again, none of it's business. You just don't have those tools. So consultants who that is what they do, and that is their education coming in to make you aware of just how many holes you may or may not have in your operation. And then how to fix them ideally. Is a big help. And then we outsource HR. So we're in a PEO, meaning that myself included, all my employees are leased from a larger company. They handle workers comp, payroll, any kind of legal issues. That relieves the burden of having that skill set within my company and paying someone to do that, and they do a better job out of it. At least in our opinion. Same thing with financials. We have an accounting services company, even though we have a bookkeeper and an accountant that does our day to today bookkeeping. We're not large enough to have a CFO in the company. So we kind of lease one. And he's a fractional CFO, and he sits in a meeting with us once a week and he usually just listens. But if there's something that's sitting there looking hairier, worrisome, he has the background to kind of say, hey, what is that over there? Usually we're like, what is what?
Ron: You don't even know it should be a question.
Koa: Right, right, right. And he's like that thing. That thing that's a problem. What is that? And then we go, oh, okay. He tells us how to, he helps us deal with it. So I believe in that a 100%. I mean, I think we're really good at our team is technically awesome. We have some, I think, some of the best technicians and our delivery is amazing. But that's the work that we do. So all of those ancillary things, you know, we're not large enough to hold people who have real experience within the company. So consultants are great.
Ron: So you mentioned the book Traction and EOS and any of our listeners know that we're practitioners here at One Firefly and we believe in that system and it's a great way to level up the game. We've been practicing it since 2019. How did you get exposed to it? And where are you at on that journey?
Koa: A source of a lot of energy actually right now. I am pumped up for 2023. We had been hearing about it through, we're a member of HTSA. And as well as the Synergy Professional Development Group. There are a lot of companies in both of those groups that are some of the very long time practicing members, like Aspiring Integrated. I think he's been doing EOS, maybe he knows Gina Wickman personally. And they've been doing it, I think, at least 5 years. So I looked at a company like that that seems to be just firing in all cylinders and with a good culture and clarity of vision. And other people like George Harrison and anyway, just a lot of colleagues and peers who have been in it and have, I think, without exception said that it was transformative in their business. So my goal to myself was to read Traction over Christmas break. Introduce it to my leadership team, which we just did last week. We met with two different implementers. We did the 90 day session with each or 90 minute session with each. And we came to a conclusion this morning on which one we were going to go with. So we're looking at focus day coming up and hopefully we're off to the races. I'm extremely excited about the whole prospect of it.
Ron: I'm excited for you and the journey that you're about to go on and here I am looking back three years from when we started and I can say confidently One Firefly is a different company than we were three years ago. In every facet people process, you know, top to bottom of the business are approach to growing the business, aligning around vision, aligning around core values, the way we hire, the way we manage, it gives you a different lens. And for anyone listening or watching, you can try to self implement. It's a thing. You can read the book and try to do it. I definitely don't recommend it you know. Call it some of the wrong direct recommendation or feedback. Hire a professional and let them help you. Particularly if you're a strong willed CEO or owner or voice in your business, it's a lot more productive and frankly fun for my point of view. If you're a participant in the room and not the person that's trying to lead your team through a process or methodology that you're just learning yourself. I don't know. Did you have a similar or do you have a similar opinion code? Did you contemplate trying to self implement?
Koa: For you know ten seconds. Yeah, everything you just said. And layer on to that, the fact that I have tried to take my company through previous initiatives, whatever they were and failed. So there's a little bit of jaded kind of with the rest of my team like, okay, here we go again. Yet another one of his ideas.
Ron: We come home, we've read a book. We watched a video. We listened to a podcast. We have an idea. Bring it to our team, and then the eyes roll.
Koa: Right. Yeah. You know, they're hearing me talk and they're like, okay, yeah, you're the guy that opened the window covering company and the retail store and look at how that turned out. So what are we doing? So shifting that to somebody else who's an expert was obvious. I mean, we thought about it because there's a cost, obviously, the implementers aren't free, but I am hoping and I have believed that it's going to be worth every penny.
Ron: That's awesome. I have to mention my mind is going to this I recently was reading Simon. I was listening to a podcast, Simon Sinek's podcast. And he does these 20 or 30 minutes, what is something like moments of happiness or thoughts of happiness or something? I'll look up the exact name of the podcast. And it led to an article. Now, of course, I've said it, so I have to scan my podcast and get the exact name of Simon Sinek's podcast. There it is. A Bit of Optimism. I had the theme right. I just had the name completely butchered. So it was A Bit of Optimism. One of the articles that he recently was talking about are these ideas. Was this idea that we as leaders, we as people were operating within the awakened mind or the conscious mind with the in terms of brain processing and life experiences. And he gives an analogy, a visual analogy, I think you and everyone listening can appreciate. He talks about when you are making a decision, you're operating with about two feet of information around you. Think of like a visual two feet. It's not a lot. It's not a big circle. But when you are ultimately letting your subconscious, which is what you said, that's how I feel. You hear this concept of gut feeling or gut decisions. But when you allow your subconscious to process into the decision making, and a lot of time, that happens in what you could call moments of creativity or self contemplation or you're taking a shower or you wake up in the morning and you have this crazy idea. When you allow your brain to tap into the subconscious, real estate of life experience, you actually get access to about 11 acres worth of information. That's buried deep inside your head. You know, you've had a lot, you've purchased a lot of lessons along the way. So have I, by the way, countless. Anybody that knows me knows they've been countless, and I still purchase them daily.
Koa: The cost of my education is significantly more than had I gone and gotten a degree in business, for sure.
Ron: But that's why the older we get and the longer we survive, we get to lean on both that conscious and subconscious set of life experiences and learnings to then make more informed decisions. That's why with clarity now, I would suppose you'd said, clearly, I'm not going to self implement. Clearly, I'm going to bring in an outside adviser. I can imagine a younger version of you go, no, I could do this. I'm going to self implement. So not to beat a dead horse, but there's a lot of value in bringing in outside consultants. And I want everyone listening to know that and don't be shy about that. It's a smart thing. I'm going to jump topics real quick because I want to get into something that's fun and it's now, and I know it's top of mind for you. You, in fact, we're just telling you about your wife and how she's joined the business and is participating in this conversation. So I'll start out by saying, next month, is the Lightapalooza conference. It's in Phoenix. And when is it? It is...
Koa: 20th to the 25th?
Ron: 20 to 23rd. You're going to be there. So why are you going to be at Lightapalooza?
Koa: Well, we went last year in Dallas. And we have not been in the fixture business. We've been doing Lutron forever, but you know always stayed on that side of it. But again, kind of HTSA and Synergy and talking to a lot of peers about the benefits and how the addition of that line of business has been very helpful to their overall business. We're like, okay, we got to do it. So we went to Dallas, met David, and Peter, right there on the screen. Was impressed with both of them. We signed on with Light Can Help you, we are one of their partners. And that was a great first year. And then being an HTSA member and talking to Tom and John and the guys who were putting that on, this year is going to be magnitude times bigger and better the amount of content the amount of vendors. So we're still early in our journey in the picture business and it's going to be exciting to go there and both see how the show has grown, but just digest even more. Which is what was so great about last year.
Ron: And here for the listeners I'm showing on the screen. I'm actually at lightapalooza2023.com. So that's the website. And on that you can find the show floor and the exhibitors, as well as the presenters, both the education and the panel discussions along with those that are going to be on the show floor. One Firefly will be on the show floor, which will be fun. We're going to be in this there's a name for it, but it's like education alley over here with Light Can Help You, which is you said you're a partner with David. One Firefly is also going to be teaching some content marketing content around driving sales and marketing around the lighting subject. As well as a panel discussion with some integrators that are leading the way and that panel discussion actually is going to be sponsored by DMF lighting. So that's going to be if you're planning to go to Lightapalooza, check this out and look at the itinerary. I think I talked to Tom maybe a week or two ago. I think it registrations were already up over 500 planned attendees.
Koa: Yeah, that hotel is booked. So rooms now need to be sought elsewhere.
Ron: Are you staying at the main hotel, or do you come in later?
Koa: Yeah, we jumped in pretty early. Again, I was happy that it's happening in its second version. And you know my wife and I are letting designer at Blueprint, we're doing a competitive bid on a lighting fixture package. And we're dealers, but they wanted to value engineer alternate. And she was like, well, how do we know how much of a value engineer is this WAC fixture? Down from the Lucifer product. And I'm like, well, you know what? One of the reasons we're going to Lightapalooza is we're going to go hold both recessed housings in our hands. And that way, when we sit in front of a client, we can say, yeah, you know, it's equal or maybe it's less here unless there, but we'll have that firsthand knowledge of, instead of just hearing, you know, reading a spec sheet or talking to a rep.
Ron: Tell me about that journey of your wife joining the business in the capacity of lighting designer. How did you guys come to that decision?
Koa: Very carefully. Very carefully. No, so my wife is an interior designer by education. She graduated with a degree in interior design from Chaminade University, which is a local four year college here. She went to work at a large architecture and design firm called Wimberly that does work in Hawaii but actually globally. They're a huge hospitality level design firm. You know, and then life continued children came into the mix. She decided to, you know, stay at home, raise kids. And that was a while ago. So they will be, they're 15 and 17 at the moment, almost 16 and 18. So a couple of years ago, as they started being somewhat self sufficient, she really wanted to get back into working world, have a career. And earlier this year, I was trying to find the person to lead our lighting division. Going home and discussing it with her and saying, well, I need someone who can do this and this, who understands design, who has CAD skills, and you know at some point in that conversation, maybe over a couple of days, she was just like, by the way, I have CAD skills. I have a degree in design. I'm interested in that. Why don't I do that? And I was like, yeah. So we had a few more conversations about me working, being the boss, and calling the shots around here, and then hopefully, that not complicating our personal life, but I think, I mean, we're both really even keeled, level headed people. So we just sort of talked it through. She said what her concerns were. And it's been great.
Ron: That's awesome. What sort of growth since you've decided to focus on the category, not that I need sales numbers, but just have you have you seen an uptick in fixture sales? How has it you know I think one of the themes of lighting from what I know in spending some time with Tom is that it gets you, the integrator into the project much earlier, and often can have an outsized impact on the totality of what you do for the project more than even just fixture sales, particularly if you're in early. So how is that kind of presented itself to you? Or what is it resulted in in the last 12 months for you? So it's certainly new, but what's exciting, it's happening on a couple different levels. So Light Can Help You have a process where we, for example, brought an architect into our showroom. We scheduled a meeting with them where they explained their process and how it dovetails with us and what the outshot for the designer or the client is. That's been received extremely well. The way they go about explaining fixtures as a cost per square foot rather than focusing on a single fixture costing $500. And if Pat's still listening, I mean, we're fortunate to have projects where the overall construction cost could be $1200, $1500 per square foot. So to explain that to a client, being like, look, we can raise your game significantly. The quality of everything will go up. And we're going to add 15 to $25 a square foot to that cost. That's a fraction of the overall construction costs in their mind. They're looking at it differently. So we've gotten a lot of successful traction with people somewhat really in talking about contractors and architects. Whereas before they would go a catch a fixture is $900, oh my God, but they're not juxtaposing that towards the total project. And then when you look at it in those terms, it doesn't seem like such a stretch. So it's gotten well there. And then on the flip side, when we're having conversations about other things, like speakers or TVs, if people are in our showroom, lighting fixtures and controls are quite prominent now. And it's just almost automatic. It's like, oh, can you do the fixtures too? And we're like, yeah, we can.
Ron: How do you handle friction, if any, with the electrician?
Koa: We haven't run into it so far. I mean, I would say in general, this is a promotion for Hawaii, and again, the Mulligans are tuning in. It's really copacetic out here. I mean, I hear stories from other parts of the country about integrator against integrator or trades against trades and I think Hawaii, in general, like our biggest competitor, Specific Audio is our biggest competitor. We know they know and we know each other's personnel, their friends, you know, we've had Sonnance, for example, has hosted a dealer days. In our facility, and they have all come. It's not weird for Pacific Audio to come in on our showroom or vice versa. And Home Automation Hawaii, Matt, same story. I mean, we're all in this together, trying to raise the game for integration. And yeah, we do compete, sometimes we bet against one another, but it's, I think, a pretty healthy friendly relationship.
Ron: It's a healthy mindset. I believe in an infinite mindset, you know, people ask me about competitors or whatnot. And I'm like, it's a state of mind. There's enough work out there. There's enough people that want help, need help. It's a waste of time and energy to be focused on the competitor. Focus on how to expand the pie. How to serve more people, how to be more valuable, how to be more in demand. You focus on that and solve those problems. There's an unlimited amount of business out there.
Koa: I mean, our biggest competition collectively is people flying in and doing work in our market.
Ron: Yes, now damn those Californians and Oregonians.
Koa: I'm not naming names.
Ron: I know, I'm doing it for you. Those Coloradans and all of those people from those other markets.
Koa: And those guys are friends and we'll welcome them. But you know, I mean, if we can demonstrate that the quality of execution, the service, the design is on par with those companies that may be coming in, then ideally, contractors and clients say, hey you know, I don't need to import my integrator. I have an equal or hopefully better option locally.
Ron: Yeah. When I used to work for Crestron, I used to manage the Caribbean. And there were certainly, I think, in some occasions, valid arguments where, you know, customers would want a certain level of quality. And they would need to bring in an outside, usually a U.S. based integrator to provide that quality. And they would bring those integrators in from New York or Florida or Chicago or wherever they came from. It's not the case in Hawaii. The level of quality of local service provider is second to none. It's comparable to any state in the country. So it sounds like it might just be awareness or why is it? Why would someone the person you know, the consumer building house or modeling a business or doing a tower, what's the logical reason they would want or think they need someone else?
Koa: Well, I mean, I think there are some good reasons you know. So we're in a vacation sort of luxury market. So a lot of our projects are secondary homes. And that integrator, wherever they're from, let's just say Colorado, you know, if they've crushed it on that job, there's a level of trust and familiarity with that company and its people and its culture.
Koa: So yeah, I mean, if they have knocked it out of the park, it's obvious. And I'm a homeowner, and I don't really know what my other options are. It seems like a pretty natural thing to say, you guys did a great job here. Would you mind coming to the big island and doing my house there?
Koa: That totally makes sense.
Ron: Customer bringing their integrator to all their homes around the world. And one of those might be in Hawaii.
Koa: Right. Right. And then there's a continuity and there's just one point of communication. So there's definitely reasons for it. I think what the local guys here, though, so set that aside. If it's just an open question about like, I need someone to do my house and there's a confidence level that they're thinking maybe the local group of integrators can't do that. Then that's the story that we need to change.
Koa: Then even to the Matt Lavin, hey Matt, hopefully you're watching this. He's working out of the Bay Area. We were just talking this weekend. He's got a project out here. And I think a lot of us would be willing to help partner. Because logistically, it's very difficult. I mean, understanding this market in terms of freight and geography and resources, it's not like California. It helps to be local. It helps to be local. So you know I think another thing that we're working on, and I think some of our competitors here are friends here are doing too, is a different relationship. Come in and we will be the boots on the ground. We will help with all of that kind of stuff. It's still your client that the client feels comfortable because maybe you're steering the ship. And then after you leave, we've done we've had a heavy hand in the project, and we can take care of service and support. So there's different models there. Matt and Greg Margolis did something like that a couple of years ago. It's Greg's client, but Matt was the facilitator, and I think that worked out well for them.
Ron: No, that's cool. I'm going to share my screen and I'm going to relaunch. There you go. There's your website, your beautiful website.
Koa: One Firefly website.
Ron: Yes, thank you kindly. But my goodness, look at this stunning video. It almost looks like a rendering, but I know it's not a rendering. So there's a conversation just about the video. This is aerial drone footage, yes?
Koa: Yes. Yeah.
Ron: Okay. It looks stunning and oh my goodness, I'm jumping tabs. All right, I'm going to pull this down. I've clicked off it. But it looks absolutely stunning. And. It's aerial drone footage. And one of my comments to you was, I know you do lots of towers, which is actually the theme I want to get onto now. And so I'd love to see lots of your towers on your website. I think it would be amazing. I think we were in agreement there. But how did you get into the tower business? Now, you're in Hawaii and it's a resort state. A lot of people travel to you know vacation in Hawaii. So these buildings exist. But just tell us about the MDU business in Hawaii. It almost seems like it's quite similar, maybe to Florida here in my backyard. There's just lots of towers, lots of condos, lots of tourists. What is it like there? And how did you get into that business?
Koa: Yeah, I think it's similar. I mean, I don't think we're going to get to the density of Miami or anything like that. But you know, space is limited, Oahu is the largest population. Over a million people that live on this island, but it is the third largest third or fourth largest geographically amount of space. I mean, it's relatively tiny. So there's a lot of people occupying the same space. And that is what's interesting or not interesting, but a wrinkle in my business is that we have a bi island. We do different kinds of work. So if you're on the big island or Maui, you're looking at the states and homes that are on parcels that are could be close to an acre, which is big for us. Maybe more anchors. But you don't get that in Honolulu. Everything is, Honolulu and residentially even single-family is more akin to a Los Angeles. So pretty expensive piece of land, but not a large footprint. But what we do have, unlike those other islands, is this whole urban core. For the past, maybe 15 years, it's been going through revitalization process. So it was a part of the city that 15 years ago was made up of warehouses and auto repair places, and sort of light industrial spaces. And the city grew up around that. And then, again, about 15 years ago, there were two major landholders both decided that they were going to change the look and the footprint of this relatively compact area. So that aerial shot that you're looking at is a community called word village. It's a master plan 66 acre parcel. With currently, where are we at? About 16 high rise towers planned over the next 20 years. And we're about ten years into that plan. And so in that shot, I think we've got 5 towers fully erected and open with some tower cranes in there with the next set. So and then there's another large parcel land owned by Kamehameha schools, which is sort of the extension of the monarchies, land holdings, to put it, I'm probably going to butcher that, but that's an effect of what it is. It's land that is historically been held by native Hawaiians, and kind of the same thing. Warehouse is not a really good utilization of space. And they're working on a similar goal to recreate this into a residential and retail space. So that's the opportunity that we have. And we got into it. About 15 years ago, it was just kind of like all of us. We did a penthouse in one of those first towers. And good enough of a job where we got invited to do the sales center for the next. And then it has just continued to go in that cycle where we'll do the sales center, and then we'll do the project, and we'll complete it and other developers take notice of that. And at this point, we've delivered over a dozen of these towers. And so we really have hopefully become the name on the list or hopefully one of a few names on the list when any kind of project like that starts.
Ron: What is particularly hard about tower work?
Koa: A lot. I mean, so one of the things that we learned initially, and I think it's different, there's different ways to do business in these kinds of projects. From the outside, I think of people look at it like, oh my gosh, that's a lot of units. The towers have anywhere between 204 hundred residential units in it, depending on the project. And we tried to go after the individual units in the first couple. We created packages. We had speakers and structured wiring and television packages. At least our focus, we realized that the better part of that work is on the community spaces. So most of these luxury buildings have private theaters, lounges, libraries, golf simulators. There's usually a common floor, like a 6 or 7th floor is a recreation floor. And the budgets that you'll see spent on that and the lobby and maybe the grounds are anywhere between 300 and half a $1 million or more. And they're kind of like a large luxury home. I mean, you're doing a lot of nice, really high end home, has those same features, right? They have private theaters, bars, golf simulators. So it's similar in that respect. The challenge is working on a union and general contractor scale where you are a very small part of the overall project, for example, one of the quick things that we learned early on is the elevator. The man lifts to move materials into the building are scheduled, contractors have certain days that they can move materials. And other days you can't. There are days to do deliveries and it's all organized by trade and everybody sort of fights for their time. So if you think you're just going to roll in there with your little crew with a couple of boxes of speakers and hop on an elevator and get to where you want to go quickly, we learned that very fast, that's not going to happen. So our bidding as a result since then, that's one of the things we account for is just logistics. Time to move to the place where you want to do the work is significant. But you can charge for it. I mean, my advice to people looking into these kinds of projects are and I'd be happy to talk to anybody who wants to know more. There are a lot of cost centers that we would feel are strange, like elevator time. That are in the bit of every else on that product; everybody else on that project, the HVAC guys, the electrical guys, drywallers, they all know that that's a resource suck. And that their labor hours need to encapsulate just that one aspect. And it's in there, and the developer knows it, and the client knows it. So don't be afraid to put those things into your bid. But if you don't, you will lose your bite.
Ron: You'll lose your behind. When you are winning, like I see this tower here right in the center of the shot, when you are securing a project like that, you are the sole AV integrator for the tower? Have you earned that status?
Koa: No. And frankly, I wouldn't recommend that you campaign for that. That tower that you were talking about specifically, the upgrade that we sold was just the pre wire and the data and the power and the speakers for a four to 5 zone audio system. We didn't even put a head end in. What we learned pretty early on is that, you know, and I think everyone is kind of clients will come in. And they want to customize it to some degree. Someone might think Sonos is not the right solution, and they'd rather use Blue Sound or Bose or whatever. So we kind of backed away from turnkey solutions and more towards infrastructure, things that are really hard to do post move in, like put speakers in a condo ceiling and that got traction. That building in that shot has a 172 units, 48 of the 172 got the speaker package. And then the nice thing was that when we came in and we were on a list of approved vendors, with some others, we got to outfit it, you know? And that gave you the opportunity to go, okay, well you know, if you want performance, we'll pull the speakers out of the ceilings. We'll change those out to some higher performing model. If we're going to do Sonos, maybe it's not a Sonos amp, but it's a Sonos port. Hot rodded with an audio control bijoux. So there was some flexibility. But it was also time in front of the customer because other things happened, right? You're in that space and maybe they want lighting control or shades or. So it created an opportunity to get in front of them to tell your story, whereas if it was a turnkey solution, they would move in, it is what it is, and you may or may not get called to come do anything else. So we found that to be a better way to touch the individual units than try and just figure out this perfect solution that people were going to buy.
Ron: That's interesting. Do you staff that the tower, side of your business? Was that a different division within your company or could people be working in that? And then the next week they're working in a luxury home?
Koa: We're not big enough yet. But again, I'll use that same building that's in that shot. So that building on the developer side got radio raw in every all 172 units. A light package, it wasn't the whole unit, but it was common areas, you know, it was sort of like a starter package. The cool thing about that model, if you're able to do it is the project, the project is a two year or three year project. And it's phased, right? Because you start, you start the residential changes on the 7th floor, and you work your way up to the top. So from a financial perspective, if you can get the developer to embrace something like a radio raw or HomeWorks or Control4 solution. We did I think our radio raw number was well over $2 million of radio raw hardware that only took one of our technicians to commission it.
Koa: He just went, I mean, it was mind numbing.
Ron: And repetitive work.
Koa: He looked very sad at the end of every day.
Ron: It worn out tennis shoes.
Koa: Right. But, you know, to pull in another friend of ours, you know, Dennis Jake into it. If you're looking at something in a gross profit dollars per hour basis, you're moving a ton of material and only utilizing a small amount of your labor resource. So there are ways to turn these into very profitable projects that actually don't put strain on the rest of your operations.
Ron: That's super interesting. I want to say before you and I were going live, I had asked you about this and you had mentioned, and I'm going to be honest, I'm going to be honest, and I'm going to maybe share just my lack of knowledge on this, but you had mentioned a master service agreement. What is that? And how does it relate to this project?
Koa: So this year we were pleasantly surprised that this developer, instead of going to contract on each individual tower, and so again, our work in the towers outside of the units would be kind of all the common areas, all the entertainment areas, and then usually depending on the building, there is a grand penthouse floor, which gets outfitted by the developer at a higher level than the rest of the units. You'll see HomeWorks show up. You'll see invisible speakers and things like that. That's really I think the core of what is attractive about the projects. And then if we can go into each unit, then that's awesome. But up until this point with that developer, we went building by building. And after the completion of the last tower, this past fall in September. We were waiting on a contract for the next two. And they turned around with what they called a master service agreement. Which basically wrapped up the entire community, or that the work is still that still to be performed under one contract. And then each tower will become a work order. And it was kind of awesome moment for us and my team, especially because they knocked that last building out of the park, sort of demonstrated that we are the partner to do these things with, and that gave the CEO and his team the warm fuzzy that, you know, let's just, let's make the contracting and legal process a lot simpler. Let's just make Blueprint, you know, our guys for this. And so we have to deliver, you know, as far as to lose, but it was awesome. It's an awesome sort of recognition of how well my people executed.
Ron: Sounds like your team is doing a tremendous job of exceeding the client's expectations, which is kudos to you and your team. That's awesome.
Koa: Yeah. And they worked. I mean, the developer noticed, you know, when there was a push at the end to get things done, I had our technicians, you know, they were there to midnight. And then they were back there at 6. And we didn't have to bribe them or convince them to do that. They knew they needed to get done. And they did it willingly, which is great.
Ron: Now, that's awesome. Before we get going here, Koa, I like to wrap up my shows as often as I can with you providing advice to you could think of one or two nuggets of wisdom that you would perhaps share from your life lessons learned along the way in regards to running your business. And we are all a work in progress. So that's not to say that you've figured it all out or that you have or you haven't. But what's something that seems very obvious to you now that maybe you wish you had known when you began the business?
Koa: I mean, a big one is just asking for help. And having a recognition that there are, you know, you can't do it all or know it all. And so, you know, we talked about the consultants before, but just in general. I mean, even with your own employees, just hopefully my guys, you know, don't think I just wander around the office and you know I've got it all figured out. They see demonstrations to the contrary. But that's a big one. And I like our industry. I rarely, rarely run into people in their own businesses, similar to ours that have huge, huge egos. They may be gregarious and extroverts, but there's also a level of humility that's really awesome. So, and then same thing goes for your clients. And our clients don't expect us to know everything. And then it's almost more appreciated if you just say if they ask you a question, instead of bullshitting them or just say, yeah you know, I don't know, but I'll go find out. You know? And if you screw up, own it, and again, that goes a long way. It's more about how you react and solve a problem than the fact that you stepped into one.
Ron: Brilliant. For those that want to get in touch with you, Koa, after listening, or watching, where would we send them?
Koa: Like I said, I love talking about this stuff. So if you if anything I said has any merit at all, you want to know more about it. My email is pretty straightforward. It's
Ron: Thanks for joining me on the show 236.
Koa: Thank you for having me. It's awesome.
In February 2004, Koa founded Blueprint Hawaii after making a move to Hawaii from Southern California
Blueprint Hawaii has grown from its early days of single family projects in Honolulu to a healthy mix of residential, hospitality and commercial projects on all major Hawaiian islands running. Today the Blueprint team is composed of 22 talented team members.
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:
Koa can be reached directly by email at