Home Automation Podcast Episode #136: An Industry Q&A With Josh Willits
In this weeks home automation show of Automation Unplugged, Josh Willits of Portal, shares thoughts on the rest of 2020 and the future of our industry.
This week's home automation podcast features our host Ron Callis interviewing Jeff Brewer. Recorded live on Wednesday, September 9th at 12:30 p.m. EST.
About Josh Willits
With over 16 years in CI industry, Josh got his start in AV by selling speakers online out of his college dorm room. He spent years running operations at an integration firm before taking on the role of Director of Operations at Jetson Systems, a Crestron CSP.
Later in 2012, he founded Invenshare, a website for dealers to buy, sell, and trade excess inventory, before merging his business with SupplyStream two years later.
After the merger, Josh helped rebrand the company that is now known as Portal and was part of their turnaround in 2019, where they shifted business models into a subscription based SAAS model.
Portal has also won multiple industry awards for customer service thanks to their Dealer Happiness team.
- Josh experiences in the CI industry that ultimately led to his role as President of Portal.
- Portal’s turnaround strategy deployed in May 2019 that saved the company
- Proposal trends during that last 6 months including the amazing growth since June
- Josh’s thoughts on the rest of 2020 and the future of our industry
Ron: Josh, there you are.
Josh: Hey Ron.
Ron: How's it going , man?
Josh: It's good. Going great. Thanks for having me.
Ron: Yeah. Thanks for coming on the show. Yeah , it's been a while. I know we've talked about doing this so I'm excited to be on as you run a busy schedule and we all have a lot going on so I'm glad we were able to cross paths and make this happen. Let's first of all start with family. There's this virus running around. How is family and then how's everyone at Portal doing?
Josh: They're doing good. My kids are two girls seven and twelve seven and they went back to school today actually. Sent them off, at the house to myself which was the first time since March generally. That was good. Everybody at Portal is doing well working hard.
Ron: Was the Portal team already virtual? I don't know. Were you guys a virtual company before this happened or was that that happened after COVID.
Josh: We are 100 percent virtual. We started virtual. I've been virtual since 2008 when my oldest was born. As far as virtual goes it's really business as usual for us for our whole team.
Ron: Yeah same here at One Firefly. We weren't always virtual.
Josh: No I was at your office a long time ago.
Ron: Many moons ago I think you visited us in our office there in downtown Hollywood.
"We made the move [to remote work] in 2015. We heard a rumor that in 2020 the world was going to shut down and working from home would be the hip thing to do."
Ron: We made the move in 2015. We heard a rumor that in 2020 the world was going to shut down and working from home would be the hip thing to do.
Ron: We just made the move five years early.
Josh: You're always ahead of the curve Ron.
Ron: Ahead. Not always sometimes to a fault. And where is home for you? What city and state are you in?
Josh: I'm in Mechanicsburg Pennsylvania which is just outside of Harrisburg and Hershey.
Ron: OK. And for those that are listening that don't know what Portal is. I'm speaking a foreign language. They're like Ron what is this Portal thing you speak of? What what is Portal and then what is your role within Portal?
Josh: Yeah so Portal is a proposal tool specifically built for dealers in CEDIA channel. I'm the President so I'm mostly responsible for our revenue channels customer service team. Most things dealer facing really falls under my umbrella. .
Ron: Kirk Chisholm is the founder and CEO. And how does if you don't mind. Like how for example what do you do in the business or what are you doing day to day. For those that may have heard of Kirk or have run into him versus his roles within the company?
Josh: Right. I primarily work on everything dealer facing so dealers support team you'll see me jump into the chat and helping dealers live our engagement team which works to onboard dealers and do demos. I also do demos with dealers every now and then. I work with the suppliers and the vendors to as they interact with our data team to keep their data up to date and then those are really where I spend most of my time. I also crossover a little bit into development, help the developers in terms of what you see and testing and things like that. And then Kirk owns the roadmap basically.
He's a great designer in terms of the look and the feel of the site and how it should function what dealers want to need and then managing that roadmap of the features that we're gonna build out. Also , design falls under his umbrella and then all the administrative stuff that nobody likes to do, he gets his hands dirty and he's willing to take on.
Ron: Awesome. I want to learn about all the things that you're doing over there at Portal I'm hearing all sorts of good things I know you're growing and you're bringing on new customers every month. But before I go there, I always love to learn about you and your background and how you actually landed where you're at because I know you've done a lot. You've had some different roles in this industry. Do you mind taking us taking us in the way way back machine?
Josh: Yeah. Well it depends on how far back you want to go.
Ron: Well we can go to birth or we could just go to high school. I don't know you could tell us where you want to start.
Josh: I really got into electronics when I was a kid so used to ride my bike to RadioShack and get those little motors and then build the cars out of Lego kits and stuff like that. I liked tinkering and electronics. That put me on the path to going to college for electrical engineering. When I was in college, I got interested in speakers and AV gear and that was when UBid was big and eBay had just really started up. I think Paypal was just starting to link into eBay and so I ended up from my dorm room, buying speakers on UBid and then reselling them on on eBay and I started to do
a little business there. We also in my my dorm room we connected up 5.1 surround sound system to an old Kenwood surround receiver and that wasn't really industry stuff that was just me figuring out.
Ron: You being the coolest kid in the dorm hall. Is that what that was?
Josh: My senior year I think my roommate and I had two receivers connected together with 10 speakers total plus a subwoofer and I ended up with these like club JBL or sorry Jensen speakers that sat on the floor you couldn't like they were bookshelves like literally bookshelves you could put a whole bunch of books on top of them. And so that system could really kick.
Ron: Was that allowed in the dorm?
Josh: We never really got in trouble but we weren't really doing critical listening in there either we were just trying to get it loud and enjoying movies. That kind of started for me in college. But I got my degree then in electrical engineering and my first job out of college was at an engineering firm. Commercial MEP firm actually here in Harrisburg and I knew I had a lot of friends that were doing board level design chip design stuff like that. I liked system design so I was in the Telecommunications Department of an engineering firm and so we did security and telco stuff.
Ron: Did you have to wear a suit to work every day?
Josh: I had to wear khakis and a button down shirt that was my first foray into the corporate world and it only lasted about two years. I liked it. The part I liked the most was the design. I really wanted to focus in on that but we didn't have a ton of business that was designed. And also the corporate environment just wasn't a good fit for me. The expectation that you stay late just for the point of staying late and not because you actually got your work done or didn't get your work done. Stuff like that.
Although I did take one thing away from my boss at the engineering firm. I remember and I still tell people this to this day he told me I didn't you know we were talking about something that we were learning or something that I knew or didn't know. He said I didn't hire you because of what you learned in college. I hired you because in college you learned how to learn. And so that was something that I always took with me that it's OK to not know everything just be open to learning. After two years I got introduced from a friend of a friend to an integrator here in Mechanicsburg, World Premiere. And Ken Bosley and I sat down with them and those guys were doing I want to say around 1.5 million or so a year approaching 2 and they had a sales team that was pretty well established. It was the owner and a really talented salesperson that was focused a hundred percent on sales and they had an install team but they hadn't taken that next step to hiring somebody to manage the back office and operations and make sure everything was efficient as it could be, manage the schedule with the techs, and all of that stuff. They were looking for an Operations Manager and I was a 24 year old kid who was probably too ambitious for his own good coming out of an engineering firm.
Ron: How did that happen? Because I mean you don't see many integrators hiring engineering graduates out of college.
Josh: It was I love what you guys are doing. And do you have a place for me there? And I think they sat down and said what's our biggest need? Well it's all in the system design that was the link. This guy can do system design. We were moving from at the time we were moving from Elan to Crestron so the system design was becoming more and more important. But also what else would this person do? Because it's a small company, they have to justify the cost. And so it really came down to sort of running operations. I grabbed the first 90 days book which was probably from the early 2000s and I read it and I'm ready to go.
Ron: They actually had a first 90 days book?
Josh: Yes I bought it on my shelf somewhere. What's an executive doing the first 90 days. I read it and I'm like let's do it. I had went to the interview with a ton of notes just about like how the business works and stuff like that. I showed up on my first day and Ken waslike, alright be an operations manager go do it. That's the first morning so I grabbed a legal pad and a pen and just followed people around and said OK what do you do here? What do you do this? How does this work? Where's the schedule? How do people get scheduled?
For like a week or two I just asked people questions and wrote everything down and just sort of put myself into the business wherever there was a need. This part's not working well. Can you help fix this or the guys are running out of parts on the job site. Well OK. Run them apart and then figure out how that doesn't happen again. That sort of thing. That was my introduction to the custom integration business. I was there for close to five years and I wore every hat. I learned so much on that job. I wore just about every hat that you can wear. I started off as Operations Manager. We ended up doing an implementation of Net Suite for our software and moved off of QuickBooks.
Ron: How did that go? NetSuite might be watching. I constantly am getting emailed by NetSuite sales reps.
Josh: This was right before they got acquired by Oracle so this was when they were pretty young still and we were looking for something that was that could run our our whole business on. I think we had an install of DTools but at the time, we had we had hired an engineer at that point. This was a couple of years in and he was really the only one that worked in DTools and it was just for the drawing side. And the next week was good. It worked for us but it only worked because we were a certain size. Once 2008 hit and we started to feel it a little bit and people started to leave. Then it just became too much for what we needed. But getting the buy in from everybody was a challenge because it only works when everything goes the right way. But that was my job for probably three months.
Utz Baldwin actually had NetSuite at his company in Texas and we reached out to Utz and got his NetSuite consultant and brought them in to help us. I designed the company workflow from start to finish for projects and service. She ended up it buying back from us so she could use it for other integrators who wanted to do NetSuite implementations. We just we designed that out and then we built books on how you do this and how you do that and then we automated the transition. So we keyed in on the transition points in the business so we looked at OK. When does it go from sales into admin and then what does that look like? When sales would close a job, then immediately an email would be generated that would go to the admin person that would say OK it's on your plate now these are your five steps that sort of thing. Yeah , we did that in probably 2006ish.
Ron: And then what happened in '08 when the global meltdown happened?
Josh: '08 we actually had a high end company which was World Premiere was the name of it and we did some really high-end theaters with acoustic innovations. And we were doing theater and Crestron work. We had a couple big Crestron jobs that we were doing. This is not a huge market. We were one of the only Crestron dealers around here. And then we started a sister company to bring packaged surround sound systems into mid-market homes. It was a sister store that we ran with our own staff and we only sold home theater packages TVs.
Ron: Like a brick and mortar retail?
Josh: Brick and mortar retail packaged. You walk in and it was like here's your surround sound system package starts at $2,000 installed and then we have a $3,000 package and a $5,000 package and then you pick your TV and the install package which includes your remote is $1000. We made it really easy for people and everything was included so we weren't doing these custom bids and that sort of thing. That did OK. I think that was a little before his time and plus it was like right when the market crashed. That was challenging, for a while I ran that store. Ken and the partner at the time got it up and running and then we had a need to go in there and work on that at some point during World Premiere I got CEDIA certified to train architects. For about six months I was meeting and giving credits to architects for doing lunch and learns and that sort of thing.
Like I said, I wear a lot of different hats but we had this sister store and actually that's the sister store was called Genius Home Theater and that is how I got introduced to Jay down at SNAP. We found out about them when they were selling plasma pop up furniture which was the first product that they sold and these cabinet cinema walls that you would put a projector screen in and then you'd have this cabinetry and that was the first pieces that they sold. Ken and I jumped in a car and their sister store they actually came out of a company called Zobo TV for those in North Carolina. They probably all have heard of Zobo, they had about three locations they were pretty much all beside a Tweeter store but they were selling things in packages similar to what we were doing. We were like, let's go down and check it out. We drove down and got a tour from Jay of Zobo and he's like oh I got this other cool thing that I'm doing now it's called SNAP and this is what we're doing and we're gonna do speakers soon. Do you want to order the first speakers?
Ron: Wow you were right there at the beginning.
Josh: This was before they hired Adam or maybe right when they hired Adam and Jay was really excited about what they were doing and we ended up selling some of their speakers in our packages, ingenious. That was that timeframe, i t was probably '05, '06, '07 when we were doing that. And then the market crash we ended up shutting down Genius, moving everything back into World Premiere which continued so they're still going pretty strong today. Ken still a good friend. I was just talking with him a week or two ago. We keep in touch but it got to the point where he had to scale back the business didn't need anything that I was working on at the time I was working with the architects and designers but that business wasn't really ramping up because the business was dying so it was time for me to move on. And that's when I went to to Jetson Systems and that's when I met you.
Ron: Yeah that's right. Yes. Tell everyone who and what Jetsons was.
Josh: Jetson Systems was a primarily Crestron programming firm. We did some AMX as well we had some guys trained in AMX and then a little bit in Savant. I actually got trained in Savant when Savant launched, but mostly Crestron. We were outsourced Crestron programming and system design. They're based in San Francisco. I telecommuted so that's when I said I've been telecommuting working from home since 2008. When I started with Jetson we had a couple projects on the East Coast that I had to drive to them. We did the Comcast headquarters in Philly which was a cool project. A couple big residences outside of Washington D.C. We had an integrator down there that we worked with. I did a lot of the QC on those projects, after the programmer was done I would come in and make sure everything worked to spec. I helped develop the specs for every job. Requirements, documents that went into every job so they knew what we were delivering with the programming and there weren't any, hey I thought it was gonna work this way or that way at the end. I did that for a couple years that's when I met you. I think just through the industry and I was with Jetson at the time and that went great. And then Jetson got acquired by Engineer Environments. I worked for Engineer and Randy Stearns who now runs DTools. I worked remotely I ran their programming and design team remotely.
We were there, we had a couple really big projects which at the time because of those big projects it made sense for Randy to acquire the business. And the former owner had moved on to something else. I did that for I don't know about I would say a year to 18 months before Randy spun it off to our biggest client at the time who was a private equity company. He was American but he's based in Europe. And we basically became their technology division and I actually reunited with the original founder of Jetson Systems there. We had a team of developers we had the intellectual property and then we just standardized on Crestron for control across all the properties. We built a lot of the racks in Alameda in partnership with Engineer Environments. We would ship them to different job sites around the world so we were on Long Island, in Florida.
Ron: Sounds like very complicated logistics.
Josh: Yes it was and shipping three full-sized racks.
Ron: How do you ship a three full size racks across the world without them falling apart or the liability?
Josh: It was pretty intense. Some of them did fall apart a little bit but we made it work. There were some bent rack rails by the time they got to London but we made it work. Yeah we had properties all over and it was really fun. It was a great opportunity to just own the technology in these houses and standardize and we had connected I.T. systems on Cisco backbone so they were everything was all connected together. We were putting VoIP Cisco VoIP in around the time that I left. And it was our job to own the technology and make sure it worked. Whenever somebody showed up to the site we had some really amazing properties in Colorado in a ski town Crested Butte. There were a couple projects when I left there were some in the works that people were like why did you leave? I loved doing it and it was great work. It was cutting edge. We were doing some really cool things. We were tying in oxygen deliveries sensors in Crested Butte in a ski lodge and tying it into alarm that you'd set to wake up in the morning.
Ron: You'd pump the room full of oxygen to wake up?
Josh: Yeah. One of the things is when you're at high altitude serving oxygen in the room helps your brain wake up from sleep state. We had oxygen delivery ports in the rooms and we tied in. We figured out how to control them and tied them into an alarm app that we built on the Crestron panels so they would say OK I'm gonna wake up at 8 a.m. and then 7:30 would start delivering oxygen pure oxygen.
Ron: Is this a normal thing in nice resorts? Where do you go to get oxygen pumped into your room to help you wake up?
Josh: To make that work, we had to have a special design, a circuit design from Crestron. And actually that's my fun. George Feldstein story with Crestron because I was at CEDIA and we were just in the phase of design where we're trying to figure out how to control these things. And they didn't have the part that I needed coming out of the no amount of oxygen can work. Yeah. We were told back that I don't know if the science was sound or not.
Ron: I was trying to let's see here is a funny comment here.
Josh: Ted Russo said, "Colorado reporting no amount of oxygen can wake me."
Ron: Yeah. Thank you Ted appreciate that. Some reason my little buttons here aren't giving me that on the screen but I appreciate that comment. And while we're at it thanks for commenting Wes and Angel.
Josh: Yeah. Hey Wes, hey Angel. George Feltstein was up on the Crestron stage at CEDIA and he was like if we don't make a part for something if we don't do something you can come talk to me and I'll figure it out with you. He stepped down off the stage and I was like walked right up to him and I said, "Hey I'm Josh shop or for Jetson Systems we have this thing that I want to use this one part on but it doesn't quite work and I need some help." And he was like OK pulled out his business card the only thing on it was his email address and he's like this is my email. It doesn't go to my assistant. It goes to me. I see every email send me an email and we'll figure it out.
I was like alright. I sent him an email. He put me in touch with the engineering manager. They had a circuit design back to me within the week and we ended up putting it together and implementing it to control the oxygen sensor.
Ron: Wow that's amazing. That's the one and only George Felstein.
Josh: Yeah. That's what we did. This was in 2012ish. Probably. I got certified on surveillance. That was weird to pull some strings to get trained in it because they weren't really allowing programming firms to.
Ron: They had a brick wall I know I remember I tried to get my firm certified and they would not allow us into the house.
Josh: They closed it down pretty early. We were one of the first that got they got trained on. I walked through the Savant factory when they were. I think I'm allowed to say this. They took Mac Minis and they set them back down into the chassis and they locked it in place and they slid the back cover over it. The ports stuck out the back. It was literally a Mac Mini in the black box.
Ron: Oh that's hilarious.
Josh: Yeah. And that was that. Yeah. So it was 2012ish. Probably 2011 maybe. I got trained on Savant and I was sitting around. We went to dinner with a bunch of integrators who a couple of them I'm still in touch with now and they were all talking about products that they had sitting in the warehouse and the one guy was like I got this and X panel that I put in Toronto McDonald House for a year and I let them have it for sort of exposure and then now I have it back. I have no idea what I'm going to do with this. And it was a $12,000 cost huge 12 inch. Those big beasts touch panels and I'm one of the other guys at the table who was from the opposite part of the country. The guy said I'd be happy to get two grand for it now. And the other guy said I'll buy for two grand I could use it on this. He had some kind of use for it and so that's when we were like there really should be a place for dealers to be able to buy and sell this excess inventory because it breaks vendor agreements to just listed on eBay.
There should be a way for dealers to communicate with each other and buy and sell and so I don't know maybe a year or so later, I worked with a web developer buddy of mine and I spect it out and they built it and I launched Invenshare just on the side to help dealers list and sell excess inventory that was sitting on their shelves tying up cash.
Ron: If I'm remembering this was fairly controversial.
Josh: A little bit. Several manufacturers called us and said hey we've got B stock inventory that we can't do anything with it. Can you help us sell that? And I wasn't really ready for that. It wasn't really built for that but that was the direction we were headed. And I had one or two vendors that didn't like it but it was like do you want your dealers to stick with this? They're all selling sideways anyway.
Ron: Give them a more formal way to do it they're already doing right.
Josh: Put it on a platform that you can control right and you can make sure that they're all dealers on here and that they're all authorized and in fact I had a setting and I think it was per brand where. If it was a locked down brand it could only be seen by other dealers who were of that brand . I put a few things it was nothing like what Portal had at the time actually but it was a few things like that to help sort of make it work for them. I had a dealer that their customer dropped a Crestron remote that was out of production. Their daughter dropped it on the tile it exploded into a million pieces maybe she threw it who knows. Broke into a million pieces and the alternative to replace it or you know their only option to replace it was here's a new remote but it's a brand new remote.
We've got to reprogram it into the system it's going to cost two-three thousand dollars or we find this remote from another integrator and load the same control project in it and it's six hundred bucks. I had stories like that all the time happening through adventure. I started to grow that sort of on my own on the side and I started to get more dealers and I met with all the buying groups and I got buying great programs with three of the buying groups.
Ron: Invenshare became a vendor partner of three of the buying groups?
Josh: Yes and one of them was even subsidizing the cost for dealers. Yeah.
Josh: That was just me on nights and weekends calling them up and doing deals and setting stuff up for guys while I was with Jetson.
Josh: But it got to the point where I had my own time and money invested in this platform. It was growing, I had manufacturers calling me to list these B stock product.
Ron: But it wasn't enough revenue moving for you to justify quitting your job.
Josh: Correct. Yeah that's right.
Ron: And so entrepreneur dilemma of when to go all in.
Josh: That's right. I remember I met Kirk at CEDIA and this would have been I think 2013. I met him that CEDIA and that was their first CEDIA with an actual booth. It was supply stream at the time and it was its catalog of industry parts and an ordering tool which was a lot like what I had. This catalog of industry parts and a way to place orders it was just they were ordering from other dealers. We met and he showed me supply stream I thought it was pretty cool. And we got his contact information and then I started doing buying group shows that Spring and having to take time off to grow it.
And I was getting a lot of interest from people including a couple acquisition offers as part of distributor companies and some other stuff like that. I realized that I was at a crossroads where I had to either jump off and move in this direction or just give it all up and let it go and focus on Jetson because it was getting too big for me to do both. I called up Kirk and we ended up talking for over an hour just about our vision for the industry and the direction that we were both going and our philosophies really aligned on just about everything. I ended up going to buying group show in Las Vegas. Kirk flew in to meet with me. And by the end of 24 hours he was like, why don't I just acquire him and share you can come work for me and we'll do this thing together? I was like let's do it. I had to say goodbye to flying to the French Alps and Iceland and Bahamas.
Ron: But you get more quality face time with your family which is priceless.
Josh: That's right.
Ron: At least that's what you keep telling yourself.
Josh: Exactly. That's when I started with Supply Stream and it has been a pretty crazy time with Supply Stream which is now Portal.
Ron: Why did the name change? When did that happen and why did that happen?
Josh: That happened in I think it was 2016. When we started it was Supply Stream because it was where you went where there was a stream of your supply of products right. All of these products were in one place and when you think about getting supplied products you would go to this one web catalog and what ended up happening was as we got investor funding built around this marketplace idea and manufacturers started calling us and saying hey I would instead of spending half a million or a million dollars on a website or a web portal can we just send our dealers to you guys and have them send their orders through your platform and we'll use that as our web portal? We were getting a lot of calls from manufacturers that wanted to do that. And dealers started calling referring to us as the Portal and the way we saw it was there's a lot of different manufacturer portals that are out there somewhere. OK SNAP was notoriously the best in the industry but even they would probably admit that they were a step below what Amazon had.
There were a lot of really crappy ones that said hey look at my Portal and it was a bunch of price sheet pdfs that were loaded in behind a dealer log in and we said all right well everybody is calling us the Portal let's just adopt that name. It makes sense and Supply Stream is sort of confusing in terms of the branding and what it meant and so that's when we rebranded. We rebranded at CEDIA. By the way Oracle owned portal.com and wanted like 100 plus grand for it. That's how we ended up with portal.io.
Ron: Oh OK. Well I was going to actually ask you a branding question because that CEDIA and man do we all miss shows or events. I know we do here at One Firefly but you guys had this brilliant iconic image at every event with these orange pants and I actually have a little Lego here. I don't have yours but I have Spider-Man here. But you guys would give out the little orange panted Lego man. You're going to go get it aren't you? Folks. It's worth it. You got it? There he is, the orange panted Lego man. Where did the orange theme and just that sense of to brand around the color orange? Because it's frankly pretty brilliant.
Josh: That was all Kirk. They were Supply Stream was orange before I came on board and that was Kirk's the designer Kirk putting all of that together before me. I don't know the full story off to have him on the show and ask you to have him on the show with orange. That first CEDIA though, their whole team had orange pants and they were sort of you know they weren't quite the same color orange that they are now but that's when it all started. I came in so I was at CEDIA number two where they had a booth and so we had orange pants and it just sort of grew from there. I think it was on our third or fourth CEDIA where we started doing the Lego man with orange pants because it had taken on such a life of its own.
"I was doing a roundtable and I walked into the instructor area in my super bright orange pants and somebody else just started making fun of me because of my bright orange pants. I just had to stand there and take it. There was nothing I could say and meanwhile he's marketing for you because he's just talking about the pants.. We did orange pants and it took off from there.”
Josh: I remember I was doing a CEDIA. One of the classes I was doing a roundtable on International Project Management and I walked into the instructor area in my super bright orange pants and I think Joe Whitaker was sitting there and somebody else and they just started making fun of me because of my bright orange pants. And I just had to stand there and take it. There was nothing I could say and meanwhile he's marketing for you because he's just talking about your pants and not only that money but Amanda Wildman walked in and she goes "Whoa nice pants." I didn't even have to say anything that shut him up.
Ron: That's funny and I see Wim from Spain just posted or just made a comment he says, It was so cool to hear the story leading up to Supply Stream Portal, thanks for that Josh and Ron. Thanks for that Josh and Ron. Ah, there it is. Good to see you. Wim says, "We did orange pants and it took off from there." Great line Josh. I think that's gonna be the quote on our artwork for this podcast. Stephanie capture that. We did orange pants and it took off from there. Portal has had some amazing industry innovations and you've also tried to integrate innovation around payment models and some of it's worked and some of it hasn't worked. Where are you guys at right now? I know you guys pivoted. I want to say it was in '19 but it might have been in 2018. Could you take us through a little bit of that like what did you do and then what ultimately led you to change the model and has that model worked out?
Josh: Yeah. We monetized around the marketplace model and remember I said that all those manufacturers were calling us and wanting to do their portals. That's when we realized hey we could keep this system or make this system at the time we can make this system free for dealers with our proposal tool and subsidize that with revenue from manufacturers on the marketplace side and for distributors to participate as well. That's what we raised funds off of. And that's what we set out to do. It didn't grow at the rate we needed it to think there were a number of factors.
We're actually working on telling more of that story soon but in an industry like ours that's so controlled and where the buying behavior is not what consumer buying behavior is. And when there are intangibles that dictate dealer buying behavior like my sales rep. He hooks me up and does systems design for all of my projects. I'm always buying from this.
Ron: I'm getting benefits so I'm going to keep moving my flow through him versus moving it over here even if I buy it for a little bit less.
"Somebody is going to come in and consolidate the industry and make purchasing a lot easier than it is now."
Josh: Sure. And not even that. We even had where they could still order from them and even send the order to that vendor but the dealer wanted to call him up and talk to them and there were too many roadblocks in terms of taking that look somebody is gonna do it. Somebody is going to come in and consolidate the industry and make purchasing a lot easier than it is now. And eventually it's going to be probably Amazon but it won't be Portal. We learned it the hard way right. We had the 10 million dollar case study. There were a number of factors, it wasn't just that factor. It was because those relationships we actually were working on trying to keep because we knew dealers valued those. There were a lot of other things that made it not work.
That's when we sat down with our investors and said look the marketplace isn't growing at the rate we need it to cover our operational costs. And we decided that the most popular part of our site was the proposal tool. It's what dealers got most excited about when we showed it to dealers they would get excited. The ones who were using it were excited and we realized that it was time to pivot and turn into a real company generate real revenue. And so we did that in May of 2019. It's been about 18 months and we told dealers Look if you love it the way you said you do, then now you'll have to support it. And so they did. And by the end of the third quarter 2019, we broke even. And we've been growing steadily even through the pandemic since then.
Ron: Did you pop a bottle of champagne on that day that you broke even?
Josh: We took a break. As you know running a business and breaking even.
Ron: When you haven't been breaking even and then you do that is it day worth celebrating.
Josh: Right. There's been a couple of days that we've been celebrating big big milestones as a company. It's definitely a better time. We were in growth phase before and just scaling back that was a big challenge for us is seeing if our support would suffer.
Ron: Scaling back is hard, it's scary. I've had to do that once or twice through my career here at One Firefly and it's never fun it's terribly stressful. You loose sleep. It's very scary.
Josh: And I'm not or not one to lose sleep but I lost some sleep in 2019.
Ron: You lost some sleep in 2019. It's good. We turn things around. What does the economic model look like today? What does a dealer pay to be a part of your your club?
Josh: Right. We have a monthly subscription fee. And we have an entry-level for really small dealers that starts at 40 bucks a month with proposal cap. Really most people find themselves paying around 90 bucks for a single user license and they get pretty much all the features of Portal in that one. And then there are more expensive plans based on number of users. That's the price range. I tell dealers $89 it's a billable hours a month.
Ron: It's a no brainer.
Josh: Most dealers tell me sort of anecdotally. They can build proposals and 25 percent of the time. We've never really been able to test that but consistently that's what people tell me I can build proposals in 25 percent of the time. If you're building proposals in 25 percent of the time, I think you can find that $89 dollar one billable hour to pay for the platform.
Ron: In simplest terms, help me understand and for those that are listening how do you accommodate? And I know a lot of these people listening are Portal veterans like "Ron you're asking such a dumb question." But how does the dealer find their pricing? Because these guys are all in different markets. They are perhaps buying at different levels. They're doing different amounts of volume maybe they have different rebate programs. All of that customization is that accounted for in the platform?
Josh: Yes. When we first built Portal and I say we but I'm talking about when Kirk launched this and met in the basement of his developer's house to initially spec it. They took two years to build the platform that would adjust all of the industry data and create the database structures that would allow them to present all the way down to a single price on a single product from a single vet from a single vendor to each dealer account. That was built originally before they ever even showed up to their first city which I think was 2012 when Kirk and Kyle walked around with iPads and just showed people and walked into booths and showed people. That was a really sort of critical piece because we knew if we didn't solve that first there would be nothing because it's an important part of a protected industry is to have those pricing channels and to keep them protected from other dealers. Building that was sort of a foundation of our catalog. And one of the reasons that Portal is so easy for dealers is because the catalog data is there.
We have a data team that runs all of those data feeds and make sure that that data comes in there for dealers so that dealers don't have to do it. When you start with Quickbooks as a dealer you've got to enter all your product information. Any proposal tool is more painful the less product data that's in it just by nature. That's sort of a key value proposition for our platform is that when a dealer logs in they don't even have to set up who their vendors are in their pricing. They can get in and build a complete proposal with the retail value on products in 15 minutes. Having never used the site and that's really what we were all about design and easy to use and get in and create a beautiful proposal with no training.
Ron: You guys I'm imagining now you can correct me if I'm wrong. You guys have super interesting lens and almost as a leading indicator of industry activity. And I'm going to put you in the same category probably as a DTools in this respect and SRS and some of these other Bid Magic and these other guys because you probably saw the impact of COVIID in March before the manufacturers did, before everyone else did and you may have seen this. Every integrator in North America anyway is busy as they can be right now. I bet you saw that before everyone else knew that we were coming back to life. What was that like? Is that the case and what are you guys able to see from your vantage point?
Josh: It is. We monitor our overall proposal activity just for one of the health data points of our business. We've been monitoring for years and watching the total accepted proposal volume in general. We're in a unique channel where the integrator sits between the consumer and the manufacturer and a lot of times there's a distributor in there as well. What that does, is it limits what a manufacturer can see in terms of pipeline. Right. Amazon has it figured out for the consumer.
If Amazon signs up a new vendor they'll know how many units of that product that they'll sell in the next 30 days down to plus or minus 3 percent or something like that. We don't have that in the channel. When a manufacturer predicts how much product they're going to need for next quarter, they're really doing historical analysis and certainly, they can't predict a pandemic. In most cases and so that sort of data that is helpful to the industry in general. We were monitoring that on our own through March. And of course, we saw some crazy data and then we saw the pandemic hit.
Ron: Did you see a flatline?
Josh: We did see it flatten out never completely flatlined which we were a little surprised about. The one thing that we saw was in that sort of third week of March we hit a proposal. We were ramping in February and then in March we had a pretty big spike. And we believe what happened was as the integrators were getting ready to shut down they tried to close as many of their projects as they could going into the shutdown. And so we saw that spike hit and then and then it dipped a little bit but it did not go to zero. There were guys out there that were working. Of course, the pandemic and the shutdowns were sort of a wave across the States it didn't affect all markets the same way. I think that's probably that but you know within about four to six weeks we started to see that proposal volume growing and within about eight weeks it had hit higher than we had ever seen. And so the guys wait what month was that. That was June I believe.
Ron: June your highest peak.
Josh: Accepted proposals. Yeah.
Ron: You've ever seen. How was the whole totality of it? Was that a bump and then a drop throughout summer? Did it not plateau?
Josh: It was climbing. We look at it weekly so like weekly overall accepted proposals. And it's not just proposals built right. We want to know what's actually landing what's converting sold. And so that number was week to week the highest we had seen. And it continued to grow through July. I think it's flatlined a little bit. But it didn't go down. I would call manufacturers just to check in and we were sort of on the leading edge of that growth saying hey I'm seeing things start to rebound and they were just getting those orders in and they were saying yes.
Ron: But that intersection is what I was curious about. I'm going to juxtapose this. I was sitting at a buying group event. I want to say maybe it was an Azione event. Maybe it was a year or two ago. And Randy Stearns from D-Tools CEO of D-Tools was talking about the future of D-Tools Cloud and the ability to have data and data that would potentially be valuable or interesting to manufacturers as a leading indicator for manufacturing and production. Do you guys at Portal have relationships with manufacturers or do you feed that data to them? I would imagine they'd want that data. My goodness, it's got to be some of the best data in our industry or is that kept proprietary or how do you think about that?
Josh: Different manufacturer's value that data differently. Some you could give that data too and they could shorten their cash conversion cycle from 30 days to 29 and save a million dollars a day. Other ones wouldn't know what to do with it.
Ron: They don't have the internal ability to process it or do something with it.
Josh: We provide some of that data but only in aggregate because the dealer's privacy is our number one concern. We don't want to provide them. The last thing that we would want is aside from it not being the right thing to do. The last thing that we want is for a vendor to start calling a dealer and saying hey you didn't quote my speakers on this project or something ridiculous like that. We protect dealer privacy and we provide some of that data in aggregate . We do have an advertising piece of our catalog and that advertising piece. Those vendors who do advertise some distributors and some direct manufacturers get some aggregate reports. But it's only their products and it's only in aggregate on proposals so they can track how they're doing on a monthly basis. We don't really release certainly no individual dealer database.
Ron: How are you feeling? I realize I'm looking at my notes that I've gone through three or four of my 15 topics I want I would do this every week. It's terrible. I know why people keep watching me like Ron when are you gonna get to all the other stuff? How are you feeling we as an industry are going to finish here in 2020?
Josh: We're teetering right on the edge. Such a good edge or a bad edge. As a nation we're sort of teetering right on the edge where we're gonna go into a recession here. I think that's pretty much a foregone conclusion. And so how that affects the one thing that I remember we were discussing at the very beginning of when things were starting to lock down was we were thinking that it was going to feel a lot like it did after 9/11 where customers were hunkering down in their homes and starting to when they were ready to spend money they were spending it on their homes right to get kids out of the freaking living room and out of my office and somewhere in a basement theater where I can't hear them and I want to enjoy my pool more this summer because I'm at home all the time. We did see that's starting to happen.
I think the dealers that figured out how to shift their model to work during the pandemic and capitalize on the opportunities that were there like I.T. services and home office upgrades and around networking and a lot of those guys have really come out strong on the other end of this. I think that they'll continue to see some solid growth. I think at some point though it hit a recession and that will affect the wallets and the pocketbooks of the consumers. But so far as I can tell the people with money are still spending.
"I agree on the concept of a recession seems probable. Not guaranteed but probable."
Ron: I was going to say does the recession and I agree on the concept of a recession seems probable not guaranteed but probable. There's also the data and just say the proof for us in this industry that although many in society have been harmed and certainly we should all do what we can do to help them. The customer, the consumer that our industry primarily or historically has served. Let's call it 1 percent of wealth in society. Those folks they're generally doing pretty well this year and 2020. And I think a lot of the articles I've read in The Economist and Forbes and whatnot talk about them in most cases those people leaving 2020 with more wealth than they entered into 2020. And that's just wealth disparity and politics and all sorts of other topics we won't go into here that cause that. I guess the question and you don't have to have an answer it's more of a high-level question. I'm curious if you have opinions if there's a recession. Do we think it affects our industry and this consumer? Or do they keep spending?
Josh: I definitely think it affects a percentage of our industry because not all of our industry sells to the 1 percent. There's a lot of guys out there that are doing killer five to ten thousand fifteen thousand dollars systems built on the backs of Ring and Sonos and systems that work really well for mid-market consumers. And I know a lot of dealers who are doing that business. I think a recession absolutely would affect a large percentage of our industry. There are some guys that they won't they won't see it at all. Their average job is 250 to 500 thousand dollars and up. And those consumers are probably still spending. But certainly, I think the industry will feel it on some level.
Ron: I just got permission here. Kirk your CEO just messaged me. Appreciate that Kirk. He just put a comment here in the chat stream. He says you've got mail. He sent me the chart. It looks like it runs February to the present. Yeah. And oh my god there was this is volume I'm assuming this chart is not titled and it's not for distribution. I'm not going to show it but I'm going to tell everyone what I'm seeing. I see it looks like a low in proposal. I don't know if these are created proposals or closed proposals.
Josh: They are closed accepted proposals.
Ron: Closed accepted proposals. I see the chart bottoms in May. And it's pretty much I mean it is greater than a 45 degree line up to the present. It is greater than forty-five degrees. I mean it is a rocket ship up in terms of closed proposals.
Josh: It hasn't quite flatlined like I said. I don't look at it every day but it was we saw it come out. Those numbers are higher than we've had in all of 2019.
Ron: June was the highest?
Ron: And then July was the highest. And then August was the highest. And now September is the high. That's amazing news for our industry. And so Josh we are we're coming to our end of our time here today. But what has you and your team most excited as you look forward for Portal?
Josh: I think I've mentioned this before we went live. But for me I'm all about creating value. And so our team is excited about staying focused on building value for dealers around that proposal process and about running their business and winning those jobs and getting paid. We're just continuing to plug away based on identifying and creating value for dealers. I extend that to all parts of my life personally it's just how am I adding value to the people around me and to the businesses that I interact with?
Ron: I know you and Kirk well enough to know that you guys can't help but innovate. And I'm assuming you have all sorts of secrets up your sleeve. Is there anything you're allowed to say you want to break news here or just the world needs to stay tuned for the cool stuff that you guys have coming?
Josh: I can't break any news here. Some of our projects are very long term. But I will say we're in the middle of a really cool project where we're documenting dealer process not just around proposals but around every piece of their business. And we're going to share that with the industry. When it's time to figure out how to grow from a three-man shop to a nine-man shop there's one place that they can go to to see what everybody else is doing and what they're using and how they run their business. That's a really cool project that we're right in the middle of. And then there's some other ones just around making even though we're really easy to build proposals to making that even easier. Eventually I would love to see my perfect world for proposals and this isn't something that's going to happen next year or maybe even in five but certainly within the next 10 years.
I think dealers will be able to walk into a job into a customer's house plug in the rooms hit a button and have a 100 percent accurate proposal generated right away and hit another button and have it delivered on an automated vehicle labeled by room within an hour. I think eventually I would love to see that kind of and I think the infrastructure is out there and the technology is coming. And so I'd love to be on the forefront of that kind of experience in the industry.
Ron: Well, I think you and Kirk and team are absolutely on the forefront of making that happen and certainly for all of our viewers I want to thank you guys for watching and for those listening on podcasts for listening. Josh, for those that want to get in touch with you directly what would be the best forms of communication?
Ron: Awesome. Do you do any other socials? Are you an active Twitterer?
Josh: I'm not.
Ron: And neither am I. I'm not saying that's good or bad.
Josh: But I don't think I have enough to tell people that they care to hear to get on Twitter. I never I'm not Instagram either. I'm mostly on Facebook so people can find me on Facebook at some point I will probably pick up Instagram or Twitter.
Ron: You got to figure out the Gram and the Grams where it's at.
Josh: There are so many out there and yeah so Twitter. I don't know. You know I try to follow what the young kids are following and they're all over Twitter.
Ron: If you're following what the young kids are doing then you're gonna be Tik Toking. You're gonna have the Tik Toks portal dances flowing and orange actually you know what? That'd be really cool marketing. Yeah. You and Kirk and team in the orange pants doing some Tik Tok dances. Hey, you heard it here first folks. All right. The future of Portal marketing on TikTok.
Josh: There you go.
Ron: Josh pleasure to have you on my friend.
Josh: Yeah. Thanks for having me Ron. I had a good time talking with you.
Josh Willits got his start in AV by selling speakers online out of his college dorm room. He spent years running operations at an integration firm before taking on the role of Director of Operations at Jetson Systems, a Crestron CSP. Later in 2012, he founded Invenshare, a website for dealers to buy, sell, and trade excess inventory, before merging his business with SupplyStream two years later. Josh helped rebrand the company that is now known as Portal where he currently serves as President of the company.
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 within 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.
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