Home Automation Podcast Episode #161: An Industry Q&A With Chris Worthington
In this weeks home automation show of Automation Unplugged, Chris Worthington, CEO at Personal Technology, shares his excitement around energy automation and battery storage within the custom integration space.
This week's home automation podcast features our host Ron Callis interviewing Chris Worthington. Recorded live on Wednesday, March 24th, 2021, at 12:30 p.m. EST.
About Chris Worthington
Chris’s passion for technology and electronics started from a young age where he would tear apart computers and put them back together. Chris even started working at a local computer shop at the age of 14.
It wasn’t until he took a job as an installer for a local audio/video shop after graduating with a BE in Chemical Engineering where he discovered the world of lighting control and home automation.
In 2004, Chris decided to chart his own course and founded Personal Technology out of Alhambra, California, and has grown steadily over 15 years to become a full-service integration firm.
Today, Personal Technology aims to deliver excitement and enjoyment around home technology while focusing on the client's journey from concept through construction and into support.
- The current state of the custom installation marketing in California
- Chris' excitement around energy automation and battery storage
- His move from lighting control into lighting fixtures and human-centric lighting
- How the maturation of the industry may affect the stratification of firms
Ron: Today, I am bringing you a fun guest. This is a California integration firm, business owner, and operator. I'm bringing you Chris Worthington, who is the CEO of Personal Technology. And I've gotten to know Chris over the last few years. He's actually a fellow Azione Unlimited member. He's also been one of the early adopters of battery storage technology and really finding the appropriate place for an integrator at the intersection of battery store storage, solar energy, automation, how to integrate that into a Savant ecosystem. Chris and I haven't talked in a little while. As you'll see, when we get going, Chris and I were on stage a few years ago now at CEDIA talking about this topic. It was actually at the last real CEDIA event back in 2019. Without further ado, let me go ahead and bring in Chris, and we'll get this party started. Chris, how are you, sir?
Chris: Doing great. Ron, how are you?
Ron: I am doing well. Where are you coming to us from?
Chris: I am in my office here in beautiful Alhambra, California. That is in the San Gabriel Valley, the Pasadena area, for folks not from the region.
Ron: You've still got to give me some more variables there, some more adjectives here to be closer to a city that I know.
Chris: Los Angeles is about 10, 15 minutes to the east northeast, and that's Pasadena, and San Marino is the other city near us. If you've heard of the valley, the San Fernando Valley, the north half of Los Angeles, essentially the other valley is the San Gabriel Valley to the east.
Ron: OK, well, I appreciate that geography lesson that's actually very helpful. If you don't mind, Chris, share with our audience a little bit about your business, Personal Technology. What's the size of your business? What type of stuff do you guys do in a resi or commercial focus?
Chris: Yeah, we're really focused on residential, probably 80/20, maybe 90/10, depending on the year. We've always been that way. And even the 10, 20 percent of commercial typically are projects for folks who work on their homes, and they've got a business that they need some help with. Really, we're a Residential focused company. We're seven strong right now, including me. And we've got a really tight focus geographically on the San Gabriel Valley. We basically work in four or five cities, South Pasadena, San Marino, and La Canada. Los Angeles is a big, huge metroplex. You just drive four hours in every direction and not run out of houses. Many companies go all over, and they go to big cities that you've heard of in Beverly Hills and Malibu and things like that because there are big fancy houses there. And we used to do the same thing.
But a few years ago, we decided to really scale that back and really just focus as much as possible on the community that we're in, number one. We could not spend a ton of time on the freeway every day just paying people to contribute to traffic and just because it was better for our customers and our employees staying within a smaller area and being able to serve folks better. There are tons of people, hundreds of thousands of people, that live just right here in this community. It's not as if we can't find suitable projects in this area.
Ron: In my manufacturing days, Chris, I worked with Lutron and Crestron, but I was always on the East Coast. When I started what was called Firefly Design Group in 07, I want to say pretty early in '08. I found myself flying across the country to meet with people. I remember I flew to L.A., and I had no concept of L.A. traffic or Orange County traffic. I remember I had scheduled. I'm going to say two meetings. On the map, they were about 30 miles apart. And I was like, oh, it's an hour. Should be plenty of time between meetings. It seemed so totally logical to me. I remember I arrived at my second meeting four hours later. It was impossible. Obviously, you're a local, so you know when to be on the road and when not to be on the road. But that makes sense that you're able to do business just in a pretty tight radius around your office.
Chris: Yeah. We located our office and bought our building, and moved in here a few years ago strategically to be smack in the middle of this area. And it's very near to where I live. It's very near to all of our customers, the folks that we hire. We really try hard not to bring somebody in from a long distance that's very much an outlier. Not just in integration, but in construction in general, you find people that drive two hours a day each way routinely to get to their job. It's the default. We just decided we're not going to do that a couple of years ago after having done it for a long time, too. It's not as if we didn't do the same things that other people did for a while.
But you think, hey, I'm going get this great job in Beverly Hills or Malibu or Pacific Palisades, and you just end up you realize at the end of the day, after you sort of look back on things, at how much time you spent just sitting in soul-crushing traffic. We just decided it wasn't worth it. It wasn't necessary. Let's just focus on all these great houses and projects and folks we can work for here in the San Gabriel Valley. It's been just a great decision for us, and something that I think has helped with the quality of life for myself, certainly, and all the folks who work for us now.
Ron: That makes a lot of sense. We have already got some people starting to jump in here and say hello. Someone that you and I know very well, Jessica Weiss, over at Sony. She says, "Hi, Chris.".
Chris: Hey, Jessica.
Ron: Let me give a few more shout-outs here. We got Wes. He says, "Welcome to Home Automation." And you have Jason, he says, "Chris, what's happening? Glad to see you on the show. Let me know if you need anything." That's it. Jason's checking in. I'm going to go ahead and share an image now because some of our audience, there's a chance that they maybe saw you and I and Jessica, and then there's Richard Gleeks, and then there's Jason Knott back a few years ago. I've got a picture on the screen for those that are watching. But if you're listening, you don't see the picture. What is on the screen here that everyone seeing?
Chris: Yeah, this is the five of us moderated by Jeff Knott at a tech talk, I think in 2019 in Denver. We talked about this burgeoning market of energy, automation, and energy storage, which was new then, I think, is still new and forthcoming now. There was a topic that I was really excited about then and still today. I think this is one of the next arenas and a big market opportunity. I think that they are well-positioned to be a big part of that.
Ron: Yeah, so that's going to be a good chunk of the questions I have prepared for you, and I haven't talked shop around that subject in some time. I'm excited to hear about the updates. But before we go there and I see that we have System Design, our East Coast friends said they're glad to listen in between consults. Thanks, guys. Appreciate you tuning in. Chris, what's your background, man? What were you doing? How did you land in this crazy business?
Chris: Yeah, I think like most people by accident, I was always into anything electronic. In high school and even before that, my parents brought home our first computer in the '90s when I was in middle school probably. Within a week or something, my mom came home, and she always tells this story to people. She came home, and the computer was all disassembled on the table. These things cost a lot of money at that point in time. She had a panic attack. But I put it back together, and I did stuff like that. I was doing all sorts of computer and electronic stuff, taking it apart and putting it back together in different ways.
Ron: Chris, you and I are a similar age. Did you go to the big computer shows in your youth, like at the convention centers where you have the vendors selling video cards and selling motherboards?
Chris: I did with one. My first job was working in a computer repair shop that was a couple of blocks from my house when I was in high school. Through that, I went to a swap meet almost of computer parts and a lot like Azione, except for people with graphics cards and other things like that. My boss at the time took me there. Most of what I knew about that, I just learned by fiddling with things and experimenting. I was into electronics of every kind from a young age. By the time I went to college, I had decided I had enough of that. I just got bored of it. I went to school for chemical engineering, which I just picked out of a hat. It seemed like a good idea at the time. But I stuck with it and graduated in 2002 and got out and came back and was looking for an engineering job, probably not really seriously looking for an engineering job.
Ron: What is a chemical engineer? If anyone's listening and is curious and they're like, alright, chemical engineering. I know what a chemist is.
Chris: It sounds fancy, and it sounds hard. And it does involve a lot of chemistry. But chemical engineers describe themselves as a glorified plumber. A chemist comes up with mixing chemical A and chemical B and coming up with product C, and the chemical engineer's job is to say, "OK, now we need to make a thousand gallons an hour, 24 hours a day of chemical C." How do I design this process? There are big giant mixing machines and heaters and separators and stuff like that and essentially design that process that you use to get that. That's what a textbook chemical engineer would do.
Ron: Did you know that going into the debate?
Chris: No, I picked it out of the hat. I was good at chemistry. I liked chemistry, and it was different than computers. And the school was an engineering school. So it's. Oh, chemical engineering. Sure, I'll do that. I figured that out around halfway through probably maybe three quarters.
Ron: Was your first job in chemical engineering?
Chris: It was not. I had some internships that were with the engineering of some sort during college, but I never really did any engineering outside of that. When I got out, my first job was working in drafting architectural stuff, and that was sort of my introduction to the construction world and building trades was measuring and drawing things. I stumbled into this opportunity to work as an installer for a local company that was an AV company. More on the AV side, a little bit less integration. That was how I fell into the AV world, really a job that I came across while working another tangential job.
Ron: Got it. Yeah, what happened next?
Chris: I did that for about a year and a half, and that was where I opened my eyes to what is out there and what you can do. This was a real industry and a profession and not just the tinkering that I had been doing in my house for 10 years, so was the AHA like I could have merged this engineering discipline and figuring out and building systems with something interesting that is fun. You get to go and crank up the music and have big screen TVs and then the lighting control, certainly one of the most favorite things. I realized that there was a real job there and not just a hobby.
Ron: How did you think about the entrepreneurship side of that? Because you could have gone and been an engineer or an installer or a project manager or whatnot within an integration firm, and there are many of them in Southern California. When did you land in Southern California because you're from New Jersey, correct?
Chris: I went to school in New Jersey, and I'm actually from here from Southern California.
Ron: OK. You went East Coast to school and then came back after school?
Chris: Exactly. I was working with an installer, and one of the good things about my experience at this company was that I wasn't happy with it wasn't I was intrigued by this work. Still, I wasn't happy with not having any control creatively and then the design process. I realized that the only way to have that control was to go out and do my own projects. Frankly, it had been a more well-run company that had better projects or let me have more involvement. I may have just gone into project management or sales or something else like that. But it was really a side effect because I wasn't happy there, that the company wouldn't let me do the things that I wanted to do, that I ended up starting on my own.
Ron: Today, you're a seven-person firm and primarily focused on resi. What does a typical project look like for you today? Just the size and scope of the job, what sort of technologies are in that project?
Chris: Yeah, certainly most of our projects have entertainment, audio, video, that sort of thing. I'd say 50 percent probably have lighting control and automation, and of course, everything is networking and security cameras. Our area houses are large houses that are ten million dollars and many thousands of square feet. But there's a lot more in our region: three or four or five thousand square feet and still very affluent, but not on a mega scale. We're doing a lot of mid-sized entertainment systems and a lot of lighting and shading, which is something that we do that a lot of other folks who live in the area don't do as much or at least have as much experience.
Ron: Is there an average or median price point of a project?
Chris: Probably around fifty to seventy-five thousand dollars for a remodel-type project or a new construction project. Then, there are certainly larger new construction projects that are into a couple hundred thousand dollars. But because we're focused on the area, we do projects of a retrofit nature all the time. We do a lot of projects that are ten, fifteen thousand dollars that are just going into a house that is not under construction. The homeowner has been living there for a while probably, and they're not ready to overhaul everything, and maybe they just need to update their Wi-Fi and maybe do some security cameras and things like that. We do a ton of going into houses that have had no TLC in a long time and that have never really had anyone comprehensively go in and look at what's there and figure out what that homeowner needs to solve their problems that they're having and then go clean house and bring it up to something where we've got a nice platform which we can build on it.
Actually, those are really rewarding because the homeowner goes from just putting up with existing conditions and things that maybe the cable company, phone company, or a big box installer has done for them in the past in a very piecemeal fashion and then showing them, hey, you can hire someone who just thinks about your whole home and your family and what you need and put together a solution for you and take you up to a much higher level operationally. We build on that relationship over time. We start with networking or some music. Then that customer is frequently coming back to us saying, "Hey, I heard about lighting control, and I want to be motorized shading in my bedroom, and now I'm building a pool house and that sort of thing. We really focus on just developing that relationship with people. We know that's going to be a good relationship, and that's going to continue to feed us projects for a long, long time to come if we do it properly.
Ron: You're in California, and if anyone pays attention to the news, which I generally don't advise, but if they do pay attention to the news, there are all sorts of scuttlebutt out there. I want to say your governor is being recalled. If I listen to the news, I want to say I think all businesses are closed in California, and the state is shut down. What is it really like out there on the ground? What was 2020? And what are things like right now? Are you able to work and how are things?
Chris: Well, I completely agree with you. You should not listen to the news. We never missed a day. We were open the entire time through 2020. We did for a period of time. In March, our office manager is primarily responsible for answering phones, and things that cannot be done on the computer worked from home, and people were sick. They stayed home and were doing remote service for our customers, but we were operational the entire time. We never were closed for a day. We've been very fortunate. A lot of businesses have been forced to close people in the hospitality industry, restaurants. Obviously, it's been a really tough, challenging time for them. There have been a lot of restrictions, complete closures for those industries. But in construction, it never slowed down for a day, mask-wearing and making sure you're spacing out and things like that and getting into a little bit of a new routine. But we've been very fortunate. And actually, I think that's something that certainly all my employees and I have been thankful for in this crazy time in the last year or so. Having a routine and still being able to go to work every day has just helped us enormously in terms of just feeling like the world isn't falling apart.
Ron: The mental health side of it just fortunate enough, the lucky roll of the dice that you have a place to go and you can do stuff. As you mentioned, there are many trades and industries where people are just wrong place at the wrong time, and they're out of work.
Chris: Yeah, absolutely. But we've been very fortunate, and it hasn't been enormously different from maybe the March and April time period last year than it usually has been.
Ron: Financially. 2020, were you up, down, or flat?
Chris: Yeah, flat to a little bit up. If we hadn't had such a sort of crash in March, we would be up pretty well. But yeah, it wasn't a bad year financially for us. It was actually a pretty good year at the end of the year. I finished up very strong. We were really lucky. We signed a couple of projects up in February, big projects that kept us really busy throughout the year. But it was good. It was nothing to complain about.
Ron: So far, how is 2021? How is Q1 finishing up for you?
Chris: Yeah. When I look at things, you just drive down the street and look at how many plywood buildings I see and how many green fences. The housing market has been undergoing a lot of churn and people selling and buying and building, and I have no apprehension about what 2021 will look like. The demand for our services, the demand for construction. People doing the normal, buying their house, moving, selling up, sizing, downsizing, etc. That's still all going on at a pretty good clip, and that drives a lot of what we do now.
Ron: It's great to hear. If you're out there listening or watching life or on replay, don't forget to drop down into the Facebook comment section and post a question. If you have a question for Chris, I'll do my best to see that or find that and ultimately raise that for him to answer live. I'm going to give a few more shout-outs. Allison says, "Great to have you on the show, Chris." Ted says, "Good to see you, Chris." Thank you, Ted. Ellie says, "Welcome to the show, Chris." Chris, I want to switch gears here, and I'm going to go back to you. We were just mentioning that you and I were on this panel together with Jessica and Richard, and Jason was moderating us over at CE Pro. We were talking about energy automation, and we were talking about solar and battery storage with Sonen.
We talked about the concept of energy automation, meaning, and you'll have the right words for me. The idea of load shedding or sending power to certain things within your home and or your property, depending on your supply of energy, whether it's from the grid or solar or battery storage. You've been on this journey, I know because you and I have talked. You've been on this journey for several years. Where are you today?
"At the time, I went on and on - is this [energy automation] really right for us? As I started to learn more about them and as they started to mature, I became really intrigued about this category and so much so that a couple of years we said, "I think this is something that we should be involved in this. This looks like it's going to be a big market opportunity in the next decade or so. Somebody is going to be out there installing a lot of these systems." I think that we are well suited to be one of those folks. And this is something that we can specialize in."
Chris: Yeah, this is something that my first exposure to this was I think it's a few years ago in San Diego. I saw Sonnen there, and Rosewater also was there and started to see that companies are coming into our industry with these storage systems. It sparked an interest. And I started to learn more about it and read more about it. At the time, I went on and on about this - is this really right for us? Are these products polished? But over time, as I started to learn more about them and as they started to mature, I became really intrigued about this category and so much so that a couple of years we said, I think this is something that we should be involved in this. This looks like it's going to be a big market opportunity in the next decade or so. Somebody is going to be out there installing a lot of these systems. I think that we are well suited to be one of those folks. And this is something that we can specialize in.
Ron: You sent me some pictures moments before we went live. I'm going to share those on the screen, and I want you to talk us through what we see here, remembering some people are listening only, but what do we see here?
Chris: This is a solar array that just commissioned in the last couple of weeks on top of our building on to our office here in Alhambra. This is the final piece of the puzzle that we have been working on for a year and a half. This feeds into an inverter in our warehouse, which is charging the Sonnen battery system that we have installed, and that is powering our entire office. There you can see our Sonnen battery in the electrical panel and inverter. We're trying to design a system as number one, a proof of concept, and to establish a bit of credibility and familiarity and expertise, frankly, of a system that can run our office largely grid-independent. We've got the energy generation to be solar energy storage via Sonnen and then load shedding energy management via Racepoint and Savant. In the center is our electrical panel. On the left, although they're very small, you can see the Racepoint breaker companion modules which meter all the electricity, they tell us how much the lights and the computers and everything is using and also allow us to cut offloads.
One of the things that you find when you start delving into this and say, "Hey, I want to run my house or my shop or whatever from renewable energy or off the grid or an independent," is that there are limits on what you can do. You can only generate so much. You can only use so much at a time. The hard thing to do is rewire your whole house or office, et cetera, and only put a few things like your lights and your refrigerator on your backup system, your storage system with Racepoint and Savant. We're able to do that dynamically so we can just electronically via an app or just via automation shut off things like our shop air compressor, which uses thousands of watts, and our air conditioning if we needed to, so that we don't see the capacity, what we can generate. That's been a great journey and a learning experience for us. We're doing it to demonstrate that it can be done and demonstrate that we understand what this is about and just purely for practical purposes.
We have power outages occasionally, and that shuts down our computers and everything. We have about five minutes on our battery backups, which obviously isn't going to help us get anything done. We're now able to just run independently of that and not lose have any downtime if we have unreliable electricity.
Ron: We have a question that just got posted, and Jordan is posing the question. He says, "What are the biggest challenges you feel personal technology faces in increasing business for energy storage solutions in the SGV area?"
Chris: Good question. My immediate and first thought is this is customer education and awareness. When you approach a customer, homeowner, maybe a business owner, and say, "Hey, are you interested in energy, automation, and energy storage?" The response is barred none, "Yeah, I want to run off the grid. I want to have my whole house off the grid." The response, if you're educated on the subject, is, "Cool. That's going to cost about two or three times the cost of your entire house. Are you sure that's what you want to do? Because it's probably not realistic. However, we can help you have some grid independence and run your most important things and reduce your total dependency on your electric provider for a much more reasonable cost and also to a lower degree of difficulty in terms of installation." Bringing people's expectations in line with what is realistic in most households, certainly in a retrofit, is the biggest challenge, and then bringing their expectations of cost in line with those expectations and getting them on the same page of what is and isn't feasible, or assuming you don't just have some unlimited budget. What is feasible?
Ron: I'm zooming in here for those that are listening. I'm zooming in on your Savant energy breakers. They were formally called Racepoint breakers. How did these play into this ecosystem? What do they enable you to do as an integrator and or, let's say, the consumer installs this gear for your house? What does that now enable you to do because you have this smart gear?
Chris: It enables you to bend the rules, to sort of bridge some of those lofty expectations and some of the hard limitations. There's an energy storage system, whether it's Sonnen or Rosewater or Tesla and any other commercial brands. They have a fixed amount of power that they can put out. That's probably much less than the total amount of power that you're using, maybe 20 or 30 percent of what your house uses. If you're building a new house, maybe you just wire your refrigerator and everything to a curtain panel. It only uses that much power. But if you're not building a new house or if you want a little bit more flexibility than that, what Racepoint does is allows you to control what's behind your energy storage system dynamically. One day I can have the master suite running on my energy storage system.
On a different day, I can have my feeder room or barroom or a kid's homework room behind the energy storage system. And I can dynamically energize one part of the house or one important load and then energize another to make sure that I keep my total usage under what the storage device can put out. That's where we think there's a huge amount of value-added because any energy storage, any manufacturer is going to come with these limitations. By using automation, the system, in our case, there are others out there. You can overcome some of those obstacles and help your customer, homeowner, or business owner achieve more of what they want and make it just a more valuable product.
Ron: On the screen, I'm showing your solar roof. I'm showing the Sonnen battery, and I'm showing the Savant energy breakers. What do you see when you make a sale, Chris, of these three components? Just the business economics. What are you selling and installing that goes within your company's revenue in that transaction versus, say, a third party?
Chris: Sure. We were very involved with Savant. Everything Savant and Racepoint Energy we're selling. Same with Sonnen, and in our system, we installed the Savant energy system in our office. We rewired all the electrical and installed all the Racepoint. We thought originally at our outset that we were going to do solar too and that that was a good avenue for us. Then we realized that this was definitely not our core competency. We were learning something that had minimal value add and that there was such an abundance of folks out there that can do solar that it made a lot more sense just to outsource solar. We decided to move away from solar as part of what we're actually selling and just bring in a partner and say we're going to work with Akabi Solar Corporation, and they're going to size your system and handle that part of it. And we're going to take it from where it hits your breaker. But our goal is to be as involved with this as possible. The reason for that is because that's never really been done traditionally by anyone on your project. Basically, you always assume that you have as much energy as you need when you're building a house. It's just up to your electrician to put in a bigger panel and more breakers and that sort of thing to accommodate whatever cool stuff you want to put in your house.
No one ever really sits there and analyzes how much electricity you're using and how much you can use it one time and all that sort of thing, because you never really have to if you just have a regular house connected to the grid, when you start having an energy storage system. There are limits on how much you can actually utilize. Somebody has to take responsibility for saying, "OK, our refrigerators use this much power lighting, other devices that I want to use. Here's my baseload. Here's my peak load. Here's how much this wing uses versus that wing. And somebody has to add that all up and make you put together something that's going to work functionally and then have good value for the folks that are the end-user of it. We decided that we are the best person to do that because no one else really is. To some extent, the solar guy is looking at how much energy to use yearly and how they will make your solar system. But no one else was really stepping into that role.
"What I've observed from the solar business is a lot of the business transaction from the B2C relationship is driven around return on investment. It's a return. It's a dollar and cents sale. Much of what we do in the integration world is not a dollars and cents sale. It's an emotional sale."
Ron: I've been to the solar the big solar trade show. I forget what it's called, but I went a few times. And what I've observed from the solar business is a lot of the business transaction from the B2C relationship is driven around return on investment. It's a return. It's a dollar and cents sale. Much of what we do in the integration world is not a dollars and cents sale. It's an emotional sale. They want this. It's the experience they're going to have on the other end of this. What are you if you've already experienced sales transactions or if you forecast some upcoming sales transactions? How does that happen? Are you going to get beat up around if I buy all this gear? When does it pay me back, or is it a different type of transaction?
Chris: In residential, there probably is an ROI, but it's probably very long for the solar system as a standalone thing. It can be pretty reasonable and maybe in the seven to ten-year time frame, but on any sort of energy storage system, it's a very long time before this is profitable for you, even with incentives and tax credits and things. That's not what you should lead with as a core. What you said it's emotional. It's an emotional decision to put in a system like this. What you want to offer people is control. It's the same thing that we do with turning your lights on and off. I have greater control over my home's energy and energy security. I'm no longer tied to the grid one hundred percent and have no other options for when there's no power and stable power. It's a feeling of security, and it's a feeling of control. Independence, too.
Even if you're not experiencing outages and your power is pretty stable, you may be experiencing high rates during certain times of the day. You may be experiencing increasing rates over time. That's true, I think ubiquitously in the United States. You want to have some control to decouple yourself from those conditions, which you don't like. No one likes costs going up. No one likes saying, well, you can use your air conditioner now. It's going to cost you twice as much if you use it at 2:00 in the morning. No one likes that experience. And it is the feeling of having control over an aspect of your home and your lifestyle that you previously didn't. Bob and Donna from Savant talk about return on experience, and that is definitely what you are talking about here when you're talking about this with the customer. I know the business is a little different. And I'll give you a quick example.
We have a business that we're designing a system for where they do manufacturing, and they have critical computers and things like that that are they need to stay on. They reached out to us because they had frequent outages, and they had an outage that lasted all day, which they lost hundreds of thousands. I think they said six or seven hundred thousand dollars of manufacturing output because their power was shut off. For them, that pays for itself 10 times on the first day that it's used. But that's not your residential case. You may be able to go into someone in a business case and make a return on investment argument for it.
Ron: Have the outages met the disaster that is the Texas power grid and all of the events that went down last month? Has that changed the conversation or changed maybe the way you think this conversation will be received?
Chris: Yeah, I think that is the most public and possibly the hardest to ignore event in a series of events. The most recent before that is the forest fires and things in California.
Ron: The rolling brownouts throughout the state for months.
Chris: Rolling brownouts for a long, long time and blackouts planned and unplanned blackouts in central and northern California. People are familiar on a smaller scale with power instability in your neck of the woods in Florida and in parts of the northeast, sometimes due to storms.
Ron: Hurricane season comes like clockwork every year.
Chris: Hurricane season. This is maybe a turning point in public perception that this is not a one-off event, but this is routine, which will continue happening. This is not just someone in a far-flung place with a climate or some sort of conditions that caused this periodically. But this will be more and more unavoidable and will affect basically everyone at one point or another having either unreliable power or possibly very expensive power. If you want to take back control and have the reliability that you've been accustomed to probably for many years, you're probably going to need to look into something like what we're doing and folks out there that are in the same market.
Ron: What technologies have you jazzed? I know you're clearly jazzed. By the way, I guess let's make it clear. This installation at your facility, your office have been in the works for a while. Is it just now completed?
Chris: It is just now completed. The last piece of the puzzle was solar, which took a while. One of the other hurdles going back to Jordan's question with this type of thing, in general, is lead times in all this are far longer than putting in a TV or a great entertainment system or theater. You're talking months of permitting and waiting for permission from your utility and just the product's availability. It took us a long time too, and we're finally done and actually operational. Just literally last week, we got permission to turn on our solar and start generating ourselves. We're happy to say we're through and now into the fun part, which is using and testing and turning off the breaker and demoing and bringing people and demoing it down.
Ron: Of course, they'll all be fully masked.
Chris: Yeah, absolutely. Really just watch nothing happen when you turn off the power, and you're just humming along like normal. No one ever notices that anything's wrong except for this big clang of the transfer switch. We're down to the fun part, which I'm really excited about, and we just got our first couple of days of operation under our belt. I'm really excited to start testing and doing all that. But to your question, the thing that got me really most excited in this industry when I first started was lighting.
It's something that I wasn't aware of was even a thing, lighting control, and home automation. That's been my most favorite type of project. Something that's got a good lighting control system, I'm always excited to hear what Lutron and other lighting control companies and other manufacturers of fixtures and things like that are coming out with. It's one of the things that I have the most fun doing. I think is the most one of the most powerful, one of the most used. Everyone uses your lighting every day. You always use the great music system you put in, even if it's a really awesome system.
Ron: Chris, are you referencing lighting control or on the fixture side? You're a Savant dealer, more and more integrators are now starting to investigate fixture sales and whether in-ceiling or whatnot. There's the whole world of human-centric lighting that's a topic, and you need particular fixtures and light bulbs to be able to do that.
Chris: Yeah. All of the above. Lighting control is what got me excited. But that's basically the default now that you're going to have lighting control in your project. Now the question is, how good could we make your light? That involves taking control of the fixture and saying, well, instead of this thing, we go to the hardware store for twenty dollars. How about this fixture that allows me to control color and just make that and really just take that control and that experience of living in your house up to the next level and make that better than you ever imagined it could be. That can be as simple as a bulb that screws into your table lamp on the simplest, easiest, or very expensive fixtures in your ceiling. There's obviously a degree of difficulty there in convincing a homeowner somebody's building a remodeling home to purchase something that is 5x or 10x the cost of the incumbent product from the electrician.
There's a hill to climb there. And it's been challenging for us to really get widespread adoption of that. But it's so rewarding when you do because it's so much better. It's one of those aha moments. I think people have that with lighting control when they first did some lighting control in their house, and they said, oh, I don't have to push ten buttons to get the lights on in my living room. It always looks great because the lights are always at the perfect level. When I go to sleep, just one button, the hard time overcoming that in the first place, once they got it was oh yeah, this is great. It's the same thing with something more advanced, letting human-centric lighting, but it's maybe even a steeper hill to climb just because of the system's initial cost. But it's something that we're working on every day because I really see the value in it long term for our company and our customers. Some folks are out there having great success with this, and they're in the right spot in their market. I think there are many people struggling, trying still, but I think it's one of those things. It's really worth the effort to get this in front of more people and to make this more predominant in our marketplace.
Ron: I was curious, in your own home, have you put in human-centric lights?
Chris: Yeah, and I did not think my family would come along for remodeling our house for no reason. I did the very easy version of the screw-in light bulbs and lamps and things like that. But I'll tell you just made such a difference and start with the areas where you're going to notice it the most. The bedroom is already table lamps in there. This is low-hanging fruit. This is the way you can very quickly and easily. Make a transition without having this massive hurdle. The degree of difficulty, too obviously, taking out fixtures in an existing house is a big deal. You can sort of put in front of people this improved system and hopefully start to show people the results without this high degree of difficulty in the high-cost intensive project. But I think it's really worth it if you can start to put this where people can see the value of it. I think it's really going to take off.
Ron: Yeah, I certainly hear more and more about it, and I know it's a subject that's top of mind for most of the brands out there selling lighting control. They either have their own fixture, color rendering fixture solution, or they've made partnerships with manufacturers that have those products. In some cases, like Savant has an exclusive partnership, right?
Chris: Yeah. They've got their great interfaces and control and hardware, and they have a partnership with USAI who is a manufacturer and has been around doing this forever. They have the expertise actually to manufacture all these fixtures. You realize when you get into this, this is all made-to-order stuff from pretty much any manufacturer. It's a lot different than just going in and buying a box full of cans at the electrical distributor. There's a lot of logistical things that are different about putting together a system like this. That's why they wisely chose to partner with somebody who was doing them.
Ron: Random question for you. I'm just going to say. I know you're more in the loop than I am to this. Savant bought GE Lighting. What does that mean for you as an integrator yet? What do you think that's going to mean one day? Is that known? Is that word on the street, or is that still being held close?
Chris: Yeah, my answer to that is I don't know. I'm very curious, as you are. They talked about that a bit at the most recent Savant conference a couple of weeks ago and introducing all the things that GE can do. I don't know how this immediately affects us. I don't know that it does. I think in the long term, you're going to see a cross-pollination of technology from both GE to Savant and vice versa. Hopefully, that will lead to better products, easier installation and programming, and all the above, but I don't know that this changes our lives today, and I'm not sure how long it's going to be before we start to see that. It's always intriguing when I learned that they could do that and that that whole thing happened. I'm very curious about how that's going to emerge, markets not just on the sales and retail manufacturing side, but also from the electrician to us.
Ron: The number of channels GE Lighting must be in around planet Earth. Exposure opportunity for Savant has to be, I mean, exponentially increased. But just what exactly does that mean?
Chris: Yeah, if you could ever say "buying a brand," that's it. Unless Coca-Cola is up for sale, I don't know that you're going to buy that kind of cachet. That's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Ron: Yeah. I concur. I want to jump into one last topic here. I'm mindful of time, but there's a concept around our industry maturing. We now have integrators out there that have been in business for 20 years. You're approaching 20 years. Is that a few more years? You'll be in business for 20 years. Some integrators have been in business for 20, 30, maybe cases of 40 or more years. And then there's this new crop of integrators. I don't want to slam them and say they're trunk slammers. Let's just say the smaller, more green businesses. There's an idea of differentiation. How does a consumer know what is a business that's been at this a while and has the potential doesn't mean it's guaranteed but has the potential to offer a higher quality product or service versus a company that's maybe greener and less proven? What does that mean to you, and how are you positioning your business to be received by your marketplace the way you want to be received?
Chris: Yeah, a great question. I think that everyone who has been in business for a long time, the 2000s, the trunk slammer, and unqualified or underqualified person who somehow landed a one hundred thousand dollar job is just the bane of our existence. And it's what has sort of permeated through people's experience and their opinion of our industry. It was a real challenge. I think that finally, in the last maybe five years, our industry has matured to the point where people are our customers, or our market is recognizing that there are real professional companies. People with established brands and employees have been doing this for a long time, which takes their job and work seriously.
That's a different thing than the guy they meet in the hardware store parking lot who can hang their TV. We're finally making real progress on changing our customers' perception and our market that all AV guys are trunk slammers or that a company is just a bunch of dingbats Fly-By-Night folks who don't know what they're doing. We're going to take your money and run. I think that's finally gaining acceptance in the marketplace. I think it's a great thing. We should commend CEDIA, HTA, organizations like that, and bigger mergers like Bravas and AV Design Group. The people who are creating and presenting and reinforcing to both the specifiers and the end-users that this is a real industry and not just people like I was 20 years ago. You can have a level of trust with them that you would with your designer or any other professional you trust for a design, an architect or a big contractor or someone else like that. This is not the AV guy, but it's an integration company.
Ron: What's your case for HTA, The Home Technology Association, and whether folks that are listening should or should not investigate that for their business?
Chris: I think everyone should investigate it. I think you should find out more about HTA, whether it's something you think is right for your company to be a member of or whether you just want to know what's out there. But I think that they're doing a great job creating a set of standards and just helping put a stamp on that differentiation. You can get grades within HTA. We're in the middle of that. I think that's a great thing. I think there's room for more of this sort of thing. There are several different organizations you can be in as an architect and as a builder. The more that we have industry representation, that's a good thing for all of us. HTA is close to us.
Many folks near us in our market started right here in Southern California, which was a natural fit for us. But I'm going to applaud any other effort like this that lets people know who you're hiring and that you're not hiring a guy. You're hiring a company, and they care about what they do. They take their work very seriously. They're not the used car salesman. This is the big Lexus or Mercedes dealership on an auto row in your town. This isn't the back parking lot of the 7-Eleven, the guy selling Hondas. The more companies are brought into HTA or another group like it, the more that perception will spread, and the more those companies will take themselves seriously. I think that's a good thing for all of us to get away from walking into a house and being just a complete teardown of a system and going into something that is nicely done professionally. Called us in there to update things. That's a win for everybody in our industry.
Ron: I love it. I want to close the show here, Chris, with words of advice, if you're willing. You've been at this, as we talked about, for a little while and coming up here. And you know what? If you started in '04, we're right around 17 years as an entrepreneur and the integration space. Any words of advice if there's maybe that younger business out there listening to this, something that maybe you didn't know right away and you wish you did? Is there any direction?
"There are a hundred things that I didn't know right away, most of which I still don't know. Don't be afraid to fail."
Chris: There are a hundred things that I didn't know right away, most of which I still don't know. Don't be afraid to fail. Don't be afraid to try new things that may or may not work out. If you don't take a risk on something, whether it's business-related or just a technological thing you're working on or intrigued about. Don't be afraid that there's a chance that this might not work. Don't let that stop you try all kinds of crazy stuff. We do that all the time and did that before. We certainly wouldn't present that to a customer if we think there's a good chance of failure.
Ron: But that's another piece of advice there. Vet it in-house before you put it on that first job.
"Don't be afraid to experiment and try new things. Don't let the possibility of failure stop you from doing what you think is cool or fun or might be a good business strategy."
Chris: Don't be afraid to experiment and try new things. Don't let the possibility of failure stop you from doing what you think is cool or fun or might be a good business strategy.
Ron: I'm going to put on the screen here a comment from Chris. Chris comes in from the UK, and he says, "I just bought a cordless battery-powered lawnmower, zero-emission gardening." There you go. Chris. Chris is doing his part. Chris, how can those that are listening or watching that want to get in touch with you directly or learn more about your business? What do you recommend? What's the best way to reach you?
Ron: We'll make sure that everything you just said is dropped appropriately and accurately into the show notes. If you are listening to this via the podcast, just go over to the One Firefly website, go to the Automation Unplugged page, look up Chris Worthington and or go to Facebook. You'll see all of the accurate information there. Chris, it was a pleasure having you on the show, man, and catching up.
Chris: Thank you, Ron. Pleasure's all mine.
Chris is currently CEO at Personal Technology. His passion for technology and electronics started from a young age where he would tear apart computers and put them back together. In 2004, Chris decided to chart his own course and founded Personal Technology out of Alhambra, California, and has grown steadily over 15 years to become a full-service integration firm. Today, Personal Technology aims to deliver excitement and enjoyment around home technology while focusing on the client's journey from concept through construction and into support.
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 become the leading marketing firm specializing in integrated technology and security space. The One Firefly team works hard to create innovative solutions to help Integrators boost their online presence, such as the elite website solution Mercury Pro.
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