Home Automation Podcast Episode #194: An Industry Q&A With Ron Wanless
In this weeks home automation show of Automation Unplugged, Ron Wanless, Owner and Founder at Technology Design Associates shares lessons learned over the 40 years in the CI industry.
This week's home automation podcast features our host Ron Callis interviewing Ron Wanless. Recorded live on Tuesday, November 23rd, 2021, at 12:30 p.m. EST.
About Ron Wanless
Ron Wanless is a lead systems engineer who has been designing custom electronic systems throughout the Western US since 1982. In 2005, Ron founded Technology Design Associates a smart home automation design and integration firm with offices in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, and Arizona. TDA specializes in turning a house into a home by simplifying the control of the many integrated systems. Ron holds multiple credentials including Designer, Installer, Certified Outreach Instructor, and Network certification from CEDIA as well as a low voltage electrical license. Currently, Ron is working on a lighting designer certification through the American Lighting Association.
- Lessons learned over the 40 years in the CI industry
- How to build a business model to withstand economic recessions
- The importance of updating and communicating price changes
- The benefit of certifications and credentials in the CI space
Ron C.: Hello. Ron Callis is here with another episode of Automation Unplugged. Today is Tuesday, November 23rd. It is Thanksgiving week here in the United States. What does that mean? That means many businesses, including ours here at One Firefly, will be closed Thursday and Friday in honor of the national holiday of Thanksgiving. Hopefully, you all have a nice week of activities with friends and family planned, and you really celebrate all that you are thankful for. What's been going on around here? It's been a crazy, busy time. Lots of fun things are happening at One Firefly, but one of those things.
Last week I attended, along with a couple of my teammates, the Total Tech Summit that took place in Orlando. It was my first time as a vendor at that show. I'd spoken a few times at the show, and I had the honor on Wednesday of last week speaking. I think it was on the evening of the 17th, and I was able to join a panel with Mark from AVIQ and Tim from D-Tools. That was fun. I had a lot of fun giving a 25-minute talk on web design best practices. We even gave everyone in the audience a report card grading the performance of their website. Ron, our guest here, was one of the recipients of one of those report cards. We'll actually put his up. I've asked Ron's permission, and Ron said we could put his report card on the screen, but it was overall an awesome event, and I can say confidently One Firefly will do this again. As a vendor and as a participant. It was well-done, organized. It was a small event, but it was very nice, very professionally managed. Kudos to Jason Knott and the team at Emerald. It was well done.
You are all here to listen to Show No. 194. We have a special guest, Ron Wanless, CEO and Founder of Technology Design Associates. I can tell you that I've had the pleasure of getting to know Ron over the years, really, when One Firefly joined Azione back in 2016. Ron has always been a very active member of that group, always sharing and leading sessions, helping others, and I've really admired him from afar. And then, in the last couple of years, we actually started doing some things together, and we did build Ron's website. Ron will remind me when we did that, but I want to say maybe in the last year, year and a half, we built his website, and we do some marketing for them. Full disclosure, Ron and the company are a client of One Firefly.
As you all know, certainly not a prerequisite for anyone being on the show, but on the occasion, that does happen, and that's great. Ron comes to the table with 40 years of A.V. industry experience, and he is going to share with us today some of the lessons learned over those 40 years. I appreciate everyone that's tuning in. If you are tuning in, I see some people tuning in from Facebook right now. If you are here, give us a like give us a share. If you're willing, maybe jot down in the notes. Just tell us where you're coming to us from. Without further ado, I am going to bring Ron on. Let's get this party started. Ron, how are you, sir?
Ron W.: Good, Ron, about yourself?
Ron C.: Another day in paradise, actually, my son is sick. I think he has a cold, and my wife just informed me as I walked down to freshen up my water that she's pretty sure she has a cold too, which means I probably have a cold coming on in the next few days. Fingers crossed that isn't the case.
Ron W.: Whether you like it or not. I just got a call this morning from one of my project managers, who says he's been trying to stick it out for his entire family is sick. And his wife said he couldn't go to work anymore because he's been sick as well. So it is that time of the year.
Ron C.: It is that time of the year! Ron, where are you coming to us from? Where are you sitting right now? What city and state?
Ron W.: I'm in Bend, Oregon, currently.
Ron C.: OK. Give our audience a high-level overview of your business. Do you do resi or commercial? How many locations? What's your role within the company? I know you're a hard worker, and you work. I think you and I were chatting at a recent event. Maybe it was Nashville when we were there for the Azione event, and you were telling me, 'Yeah, Ron, I still work.' I don't want to put words in your mouth, but many hours every week as I'm flying from one location to the next.
Ron W.: Yeah, I tell my team that when I finally retire, retirement looks like about a 50 or 60-hour workweek would be really nice. Yeah, I'm typically I'm still with the way we're building this company. I'm still a seven-day-a-week nonstop guy. I'm putting in well over 100 hours a week, but it has a great opportunity at the end. So I'm willing to do that, and I really love this industry have been doing it forever my entire life, and I still enjoy it to this day, so it's been a great opportunity. Technology Design Associates is my fourth company in my career, incorporated in 2011 as an opportunity to try and learn from all of my recession lessons and things that I've learned in the past that have cost me situations with other companies.
We currently have six locations, two in Oregon, one in Washington, one in Idaho, one in Nevada, and our most recent one is in Phoenix, Arizona. Each of those locations is a pretty small group of people that are doing super-efficient work and putting out a lot of revenue with a centralized services team that handles everything other than sales and installation, and service. Everything else, all the back office stuff, all the engineering, all the other things that you can think of that integrators have to do in this business is all handled by our central services team for them. Each of those locations is a small group. Our smallest is two in Ashland, Oregon, our biggest is only seven people, and that includes managers and project managers and so forth. It's 11 years old now, but this is the latest iteration of my company and growing at about a 30 to 35 percent clip on an annual basis. We're still continuing to do that.
Ron C.: Is that growth happening organically, Ron? Or is it happening through acquisition or both? Or what's the desired growth model there?
Ron W.: It's a combination of both. The first four locations were all organic. The last two, Reno, Nevada, and Phoenix, Arizona, were actually acquisitions. They weren't planned acquisitions. I was fine where we were with the four, and they just happened to drop into my lap, and there were opportunities I didn't want to pass up. Actually, the Phoenix one was kind of pushed through a little bit by me because my wife and I decided we wanted the winter in Arizona, and it was an excuse for me to buy a house down there and open an office in that area. It's a great market, and it can use more good high-end companies that are not just doing the basics, so it's working out well.
Ron C.: What's the split resi versus commercial across your locations?
Ron W.: Five of our six locations do almost 100 percent luxury residential, and then our Reno, Nevada location does probably about 40 percent of their business is actually commercial. The rest is luxury residential. They were one of the acquisitions, and all of that commercial business came along with the company when it acquired it.
Ron C.: I'm tempted to go into this business model, but I'm going to put a pin in that, and we're going to come back to it because I want to learn more. I've got some questions written down. But before we go there, Ron, I want to know if we can go back in time. Tell us about your start. How did you end up down this path that has had you in this industry for 40 plus years?
Ron W.: Well, as a high schooler, I decided to join the military because I was bored and needed some structure. When I went into the Air Force, I went into electronics because I really enjoyed electronics. I did avionics maintenance in the Air Force. When I got out of the military, I was looking for something in electronics. I wanted to be in that industry. Still, the only thing I was born and raised in the Napa Valley, the only thing going on there electronics wise, back then, everything was wine.
The only thing electronics-wise was an A.V. company that did a lot of satellite work and a lot of custom stuff for all the winery owners and that type of thing. I went to work for them as an install lead and an engineer, and two years later, I bought that company because the owner decided he wanted to move on and do something else. I ran that for 10 years down there, and in the early 90s, when the construction industry took a crash in California decided to move my way up to Oregon, where everything was growing like crazy. That's kind of it, and then started a new company up here, then went to work and ran a couple of companies here, been through a lot of different iterations up here in Oregon. We've been here for 30 years, so this current company happened. One of my big mistakes was growing too large and getting to a point where one location here in Bend, Oregon, which is a second home area with 25 employees plus myself do and several million dollars a year in business thinking we were doing great. Not realizing that we could do better. Then the tech bubble burst. When the tech bubble burst, also, the second homes in the country decided to stop. Literally, most of the stuff here actually went into bankruptcy because everybody had all their money in the tech stocks.
Ron C.: Let's go back in time. So this would have been around the boom would have been the late 90s, right? That's when the bubble was forming.
Ron W.: 2002. Right. When the tech stocks just totally bombed, right? And at that point, we lost $3 million worth of business in 30 days. All sign contracts, all business, we were in the middle of, every one of those clients said, Sue me, I'm bankrupt. So we struggled to keep going for about another year. Then in 2004, I finally had to close that company because it just wasn't sustainable. There just wasn't enough business going on. I did a couple of other things around a couple of other companies for a couple of years in between there and then started this company as a sole proprietorship in 2005 2006. Then we incorporated it in 2011 with the current model. And the objective of the current model was to be able to make some really efficient teams and run the central services model behind them and back them up. So that in the long run, when we hit the next recession because we all know there's always going to be another, you know, you get a boom, you get a recession, that's going to happen. I've been through four in my career already, some or worse than others. I want these guys to be a little more recession-proof. Nobody's ever completely recession-proof, but the objective is to keep their team small, make them super-efficient, give them all the back the background stuff taken care of for them so that they're able to survive when revenues aren't so high.
Ron C.: This model that you're building sounds franchise-like. Is that is that a word you use or not?
Ron W.: It's not what we currently use, however. However, it is a franchise-style model, right? We built this with the plan. In the end, having a certain number of locations help those locations become extremely strong, really efficient, and very profitable. Once we get them to that point, allow the people that I've brought on as the general managers of those locations to be able to buy them back and own them. What that looks like at the end of next year, we'll find out, but right now, that's kind of our plan. We're headed down that road.
Ron C.: Out of curiosity, have you already designed other markets or cities that you want to be in, and have you how are you thinking about that?
Ron W.: Honestly, the six that I have been $100 a week for the last four years, so we haven't gone that direction yet. I mean, even Arizona was an act of accident. Then Reno, again, as I said, was one of those situations that just fell in my lap, and I couldn't pass up. There's nothing that says that I wouldn't do another location right now, but we don't have any in the plans until we get all of the current markets financially stable and efficient the way they need to be, which we've gotten about half of them there and the other half, we're growing continuously. So we suspect over the next couple of years we'll be in that position, and will we get other locations at that point? Who knows? At the moment, I'm pretty comfortable with what we've created now, but there could always be the right opportunity drop in my lap. I might take advantage of that.
Ron C.: Got it. You described how you were you had some opportunities to learn some lessons in the early 2000s from the tech boom. How did you guys manage the ' 08 '09 recession, the great, the Great Recession?
Ron W.: At that point, I was actually just prior to that I was operating another company. I was not my company. I was running somebody else's, and I had taken that company from about $300,000 a year to 2.9 million a year in the two years that I had run it. And the owner didn't want to cut me a piece of the action, so I kind of walked away during the course of a year and a half later. They were actually closed down, but that's when I started working on my own. During that time during the recession was actually a great time period for me. I was I had no employees. I was a one-man-band. I didn't do any install. I subcontracted all my business. I sold engineered and programmed, probably actually made some money. I actually made some money. That didn't last long enough, but I actually made some money is probably my most profitable years ever. Then the recession ended. I had some great subcontractors that were doing great work and everything else, and they all said, "Wow, we're really busy now, Ron, you're not quite our first priority because you get discounted rates, so we'll get to you and your equipment eventually, but not right now."
That doesn't work for my clients, right? We deal with luxury clients. They don't. They're not going to wait around for me. At that point, I had to make the painful decision to start hiring employees again, and that's when we created this new model. That was a long process for me to decide, how do I do this and actually survive the next recession? I don't have to go through the 2002 troubles I went through again. I think we've come up with some great ideas. We've obviously learned lessons along the way and improved this process as we keep growing. But we've done a pretty great job over the last 11 years, going from a small, less than a million-dollar company to an $8 million company expected to be somewhere between 12 and 16 in the next three to four years.
Ron C.: Wow. Well, so it sounds like you're when you look into your crystal ball, you look forward, you see some good years ahead from the economic standpoint.
Ron W.: Yeah, I think there are a lot of people out there, a lot of economists, and a lot of other people who are talking about how things are going to be in the next eight to 10 years. Not so great. But up until then, we should expect a pretty good boom in business. And I think with the pandemic, over the last two years, it's opened a lot of eyes to a lot of people about their residents, right? We're a luxury residential company. A lot of these people are setting up their homes to be their place, to be all the time with their family, and doing all the things they want to do because they never know what's going to happen next. So that's been the big push. And I suspect that's going to continue, certainly for the next four to six years, maybe further. But, at some point or another, I think we're going to see that downturn come back. This can't go on forever. When that downturn comes back, we're hoping that the business model that we've built here pays off, and all the efficiencies that we've built in are going to make it recession somewhat proof. Nothing was ever proved right.
Ron C.: Here actually, I just saw the brochure on the floor. I'm going to grab it. We were at this conference for the Total Tech Summit, and they had an economist that you and I both heard speak, and she talked about the 2030s. We're talking about eight years into the future. She made it sound pretty scary. And it was maybe the scariest ad I ever heard anyone talk about some time in my life from an economic standpoint. She gave a lot of reasons. She listed eight reasons why it's going to be scary. Yeah, they're a big company, and that is definitely the worst outlook I've ever had anybody give us. Looking forward to that, you have to be concerned about it, and they're saying 20, 30, and beyond. They're talking depression.
I've never heard anybody say depression before. So they're saying severe recession at that point. We're a little concerned about that. We'll be watching that moving forward. We try to try to project at least a couple of years in advance of where things are and what we're seeing in the future. And I'm in enough meetings with people like that where I'm getting feedback with economic indicators and all the leading edge stuff. But yeah, I think that people in this industry should take advantage of what they can now and build in their efficiencies, make as much money as they can, and put it away because there's going to be a point in time when we're going to run into those issues, and you've got to prepare for those things. They do happen, and they kicked my butt more than once.
Ron C.: Well, back to your language or your theme of recession-proof, a recession-proof business, or maybe our recession fortified business? What are some of those? The proof is too maybe too strong a word. Fortified, we'll run with that. What are some other ideas that maybe those that are listening may be able to take this idea and run with it? Or pull that thread of ideas that you've learned from your experiences to make a business better?
Ron W.: Yes. The big thing for me is there's a lot of business for us right now. Everybody in this industry is absolutely swamped and turning away business because they can't possibly do it all. Most of the people in this industry are looking at that as an opportunity, and they're saying, "Well, I'm just going to hire a bunch more people so that we can get it done." The challenge to that is that when it's not so busy, all of those people are a huge expense. The thing that we tried first is let's make all of the people that we have super trained and super efficient so that we're not losing a lot of time with them, you know, so we've increased our efficiency significantly. But the ultimate goal is somewhere between 60 and 75 percent efficiency out of your employees, which is unheard of in this industry. But if you can accomplish that and you can get your people to where you're billing for 60 to 70 percent of the time that they're out there, that's going to make a huge difference in your business versus just saying, Well, I need for more people.
How about you take on two more people, and you make everybody else of your team more efficient and find all the processes and all the other things that are going to do that for them so that you're not eating 60 percent of their time every week because they're coming into the office and hanging out for an hour before they get out into the field, or because they're driving from the office to a job site instead of going straight to a job site and things of that sort so that you can improve those efficiencies and getting the absolute most out of your team, making your people love their job so that they're doing more to improve the company. Those types of things are going to be absolute changes in your business model to where you don't necessarily have to find all those people because they don't exist nowadays. We're all looking for people, and I mean, we have a pretty efficient group, but we're still looking for six more people, and we can't find them.
Ron C.: Yeah. Randy Stearns at that same event gave a great talk along this theme of, you know, hiring people isn't necessarily the right answer to solve this, the current state of affairs. He was speaking along many of the themes around efficiencies of the workforce. He also described the example of simply raising prices, right? The idea is if you're a $5 million business and if you're getting 10 percent, then your evidence is $5 million or 500000. Right? Well, if you simply raise your prices, 10 percent. That 500000 flows right to the bottom line, you just 100 percent increased your profit, and you didn't have to add any labor to your team.
Ron W.: Correct.
Ron C.: Do you believe or do you practice such beliefs or during this pandemic? Have you had to do some of that as well? I know that many manufacturers have raised prices.
Ron W.: Yeah, I think, you know, there's a couple of things at play there. There are two areas for that price increase that are a challenge. Number one, you've got to make sure you don't price yourself out of the market, so you got to be careful how you raise your prices. But that being said, we also heard last week six point twenty-five is our current inflation rate, and it probably won't end there before the end of the year. Your labor force is not going to be settled with a three percent cost of living increase, right? The labor forces are going to be looking for eight to ten percent raises. If you're not increasing your prices, you're not covering your costs anymore. You have to increase your prices. You have to watch how much you increase your prices. We've done it twice in the last year just to try and keep up with the current challenges. And of course, equipment prices are a real challenge because you in our industry, you're making proposals for a job today that you don't even start for three months and then you're buying equipment six months in and you've quoted a price that's not current any longer because manufacturers are.
If you haven't been through at least two rounds of price increases with manufacturers already, you're a very unique company because you're not doing much in our industry because these guys are there, are doing what they have to do to keep up with the supply chain challenges. That being said, you need to have some way to make sure that you offset that in your contracts. Right. Everybody's got to have a way to ensure that when those price changes happen, you're not getting handed the bill for that and that your customers are covering those costs.
Ron C.: Well, do you mind sharing just thematically some of those contractual elements that you've incorporated that protect you if and when those prices increase? Yes. We have an item in our contract that says prices are subject to change based on retail manufacturer changes. Anything that we can show an MSRP change, we can make a change in the contract if needed. And then we anytime that we see price changes, our sales team is is structured to where they're looking at those things. Engineering let them know that we've got a price change coming. We reached out to the clients and just let them know, "Hey if you are going to still want this product in your system, we better get you this product now. You need to purchase it today, not in three months when we really need it. Otherwise, you're going to have a price increase." We're pretty diligent about making sure that we let our customers know that those are coming and taking advantage of the current pricing, and making them buy that stuff upfront so that it's there.
Ron C.: Got it. Do you have access to any special crystal balls that tell you what's coming in the next six to 12 months in terms of the supply chain?
Ron W.: I think the next six to 12 months are still going to be a challenge. What I'm hearing currently is maybe 2023 will be back in the industry, a semi-normal supply chain situation. Some manufacturers are going to be quicker than others. But the reality is with all of the shipping challenges and the trucking challenges and manufacturing challenges, I mean, it's great that all the manufacturing is actually happening now. But how do you actually get it into your location? The overhead picture of the L.A. harbor is there's no water left anymore. It's full of ships everywhere. That's not going to change anytime fast. Really, I wasn't aware of that.
Ron C.: The harbor is full of ships that just can't come to port?
Ron W.: Yeah, they just can't get in yet. They just can't get them unloaded fast enough. And even if they get them unloaded, what do they do with it because he can't get enough trucking companies to get the stuff moving out of the port?
Ron C.: I was on the phone just I was in a conference just the other day with my friends over at Sonos, and I was like, Man, mean, I'm an industry person. I need to get some for my new outdoor audio system, and they just laughed at me. I was like, Alright, when? Are they like sometime next year? Yeah, you can't even give me a quarter.
Ron W.: Oh no. Yeah, that's one of our biggest, that and surround sound receivers are two of our biggest challenges. You can't find those anywhere, and we get back order reports every week from Sonos, but there's nothing in there that gives us any real insight as to what is really going to happen. Nowadays, manufacturers send you back out a report, and they say this will ship in January, and then it still doesn't ship in March. And you're just like, what happened to the backorder report? They're like, Well, sorry, it's still we have all the product you need. It's all on a ship in the Pacific Ocean somewhere. Once we get it to the port and get it actually transported out of the port to our facility, we can then tell you when you'll see it. It's still going to be ugly for a while.
Ron C.: Alright, well, switching gears, you and I were in Orlando last week for the Total Tech Summit, and then in September, I think it was September. It might have been October. Everything blends together. We were in Nashville for an Azione event. In both of those locations, if you arrived in that city with a mask, I guess you had to because we came off an airplane. But as soon as you land and start walking around the city, there's not a mask to be found in. Most of Florida, much of Florida, where I live in Fort Lauderdale and certainly in Nashville, there was no mask. And I want to say that was that at that time when we were there that week, that was the hottest city in the country for COVID in terms of new cases. So I'm asking a COVID question, and I know we're all tired of COVID. I'm tired of COVID, although I'm getting my booster on Friday, so I'm probably not going to be feeling too great this weekend. What's COVID like where you're at, and how is it affecting business?
Ron W.: Well, it depends on which location I'm at. If you're talking about Oregon, California, Washington, Nevada, those states are still mandating things. They're still shutting down. Things are still challenging everybody. You're still seeing masks to go indoors. You're still seeing a lack of events, those types of things that are still a problem area. And then you go to places like my Idaho location where they don't believe in COVID. They don't think that there ever was COVID. I mean, those guys have never worn masks. So it's pretty funny in northern Idaho. Or you go down to my Arizona location where they knew it was there, and they said, Screw this, we all know how to take care of ourselves. We'll deal with it, and I'm not masking mandating anything. They haven't had masks for what it's almost been a year down there. There was a point when Phoenix was the hottest area in the country, and they still weren't making people wear masks. So I think we've all kind of learned that, yes, Covid's there. Yes, it's brutal, and it sucks. And you should get vaccinated if you're comfortable with that. But the reality is, if you're not getting vaccinated, you're probably going to get it. And if you're going to get it, OK, fine, get it and get it over with.
But I think at this point, with the vaccination rates where they are and all the people who have had COVID, we should be at a point where we're done right. I mean, I certainly know I'm done. I've been done for a while. But that being said, it's still there is still tough, and I think I think the government just needs to get out of our way and let us deal with it.
Ron C.: Do you mandate or is it required, or do you do it by state, whether your state or your technicians going into projects mask or how they kind of handle themselves from a precaution standpoint?
Ron W.: Ninety-five percent of our team is vaccinated, fully vaccinated, so we don't require it. We do. We have a COVID protocol. We allow the clients to determine whether or not we're required to wear masks in their homes. If they would like it, we will. But beyond that, we don't require it. We do require anybody who ends up getting sick to be tested at any given point in time. If they get a positive, we're making them do the standard quarantine thing so that we're not infecting anybody else. We have a pretty strong COVID policy, but at the same point, we've relaxed it as much as we possibly can without being a concern for the community.
Ron C.: Got it. Alright, I'm going to switch gears, so last week, we graded your report card, we gave your website a report card grade. Yeah. So I'm going to share this on the screen. Maybe tell the audience kind of your impression of your grade. And then I'll share your website.
Ron W.: Yeah, fair enough. I went into this kind of jaded because you guys spent the last year continually updating our website and getting it really rocking, and we're getting a lot of great performance out of it. And I was expecting a perfect score. I was like, the can't be anything missing unless they did it. It's got to be great. And it came back with two items missing, and so I still got an error. But I was only 115/125, and I was like, What the heck's wrong with this? And then I read it, and I realized that the two things that are missing are things that I'm supposed to do to give you guys the information to finish. Otherwise, we'd have been perfect. The thing that we have found over the last two years, the first year being, we're not getting anything out of our website, the second year being, we need to invest in that and get one Firefly to rebuild it and start doing some SEO and some marketing. For us, that's turned that digital marketing around and made a huge difference in our lead generation to what we're getting from it. That's helped us a lot. But yeah, I think that the whole program, by the way, the talk that you gave on the website and digital marketing, was awesome. I felt like everybody kind of you saw a lot of guys in that audience going, Oh, yeah, well, we don't do this. Oh yeah, are you doing that? No, we're not doing that. Why was I biased? Ryan did.
Did I also know you were very unbiased about the whole thing and just told everybody, Hey, these are great ideas for your website? Not that One Firefly has to do them, but they're things that you should do to your website. And I felt that that was done very well. That being said, I know all the guys that I know, all the guys that got big, the big numbers were all One Firefly websites, but many of them, not all of them. There were a couple of one of the 120s, right? Wasn't your guys? Is that was somebody else's?
Ron C.: That's right. I want to stay on this theme of marketing. And Ron, I know that Technology Design Associates, you guys are HTA members, and I would love to hear your marketing approach because I'm going to say this is a marketing strategy that can be practiced and when practice well, it helps you when jobs can. You can talk to the audience about why you're an HTA member and how that does help you secure a new business.
"We wanted to find a way to differentiate ourselves from just the average installation company or luxury integration company. HTA is very adamant about the way that they get their members. You got to go through a pretty rigorous process to become HTA certified. And it is a certification that makes a difference."
Ron W.: I would say it's not just HTA, although HTA has been a big jump for us. CEDIA membership. I talked to a lot of companies that are CEDIA members. They don't let anybody know that, not that the public necessarily knows who CEDIA is, but they should know that you are a CEDIA member or CEDIA certified or things of that sort. HBA's Homebuilders Association. Things of that sort. Being members and being involved. Those are great marketing pushes for us to was the next step up. We wanted to find a way to differentiate ourselves from just the average installation company or luxury integration company.
HTA is very adamant about the way that they get their members. You got to go through a pretty rigorous process to become HTA certified. And it is a certification that makes a difference. We use their website quite often. It's connected to ours. Their budget calculator allows our clients to go in and get some pretty high budgets for what their project would be, so it eliminates a lot of the sticker shock. Typically, we're not at the level that the budgets come back, we're usually at the lower level, but that's good. At least the clients are prepared for the worst. And then when we come in, it looks better. But I think that they've done a good job of, first of all, vetting members, second of all, offering information that the public can utilize. And then, the Finder service allows them to find an active member in their area. We the way it's designed for us, if they go to our website and they use a calculator from our website, we get that information. We've got a great starting point so that works really well.
Ron C.: Now that's very cool, and what I'm looking at right now, the budget calculator, Ron, how do you use this? Do you take clients here, or do you find that they go here on their own and develop budgets?
Ron W.: You get a little of both. So we recommend people go to our website and click on the budget calculator, which takes them to the site and gives them that information. And then we have some that come in and say, Oh, I ran the budget calculator on the HAT site. This is crazy. I can't spend this kind of money. What? What can you guys do for me? And then we'll come back with something that's a little less painful and be able to keep them really happy. But you know, the state budget calculator is really kind of skewed towards the ultra-high-end. And if you click the wrong tab and say you want high-end finishes, you just doubled your budget because that's normal if you're going with a lot of high-end finishes, but it just depends on how they use it. We always tell people it's a great opportunity to start, and then we can take you from there.
Ron C.: Switching gears over to the client care membership section of your website, can you talk to the audience about how you approach after sales, service, and maintenance?
Ron W.: Yeah. We have an internal team, so there's a lot of there's a couple of companies in our industry now. They're doing 24-7 service for dealers. In our case, I was developing that process at the same time. Most of those companies were developing for themselves. So we have an internal team. We have a remote service department that actually handles all of those calls, and they're resolving about 82 percent of the incoming calls for any service without rolling a truck. Again, back to those efficiencies that you run in your company and being cookie cutter and making sure you're using the same products of the same processes all the time makes it easier for you to be able to do remote service and not have to be on-site unless something's broken. Our internal service department handles that. We have a subscription for that so that our clients can be subscribing to different levels, and they'll get different levels of service based on that. But never is the level of service a determinant in whether or not we fix their problem. It's just a question of what they get billed for it. So our service team has done a phenomenal job. We have two full-timers that do nothing but that. And then we've got, I think, seven technicians right now that rotate the after-hours phone and take those calls evenings and weekends, and that's worked out really well.
Ron C.: Ron, do you find that 100 percent of your customers are pitched a membership, and they and I'm seeing here a zero price point membership, so they acknowledge I'm making an assumption. They acknowledge there are some limitations if they don't sign up and pay. Is that a strategy there?
Ron W.: Yeah. The objective is to show them you don't have to subscribe. You have an option. But this is what it takes when you get the $0 option. You know you don't get any priority services. You don't get remote access. You know, people aren't going to be taking your phone, call it eight o'clock, nine o'clock at night or on Sunday when the game doesn't work or what have you. Or we might take that call, but it's two hundred and fifty dollars an hour when we pick up the phone because you're not subscribing, right? We give them that option. Most people don't take that option. Most of them will subscribe to at least our minimum levels if they qualify for a minimum level, or minimum levels are set on the size of the system as well as the client. You can only have so many devices monitored with our minimum levels. And then from there, you need to step up. But we for the last year and a half we have we have pitched just every client and we pretty much get I think we're getting about a 90 percent grab rate. Then the first time a client calls on a Saturday or Sunday and asks for a service call and finds out it's two hundred and fifty bucks an hour for the call. They go, "Oh yes, that might have been a good idea. Let's go ahead and get signed up for that."
Ron C.: Ron, we have a comment here from the one and only Patrick Hartman. And he says "TDA Nevada is the best branch." I don't know. Are you allowed to weigh in on that?
Ron W.: I will tell you is you can expect, another comment coming from my Vancouver, Washington branch challenging that. The two of them are going at it on a month-to-month basis, trying to turn to one-up each other. But I would say that there are Nevada branches is technically our second-largest branch because the Vancouver branch has overtaken them a little bit, but they're both pretty close. They're neck and neck all the time, and they're always beating on each other. Good for them, and I'm glad to see that Patrick's online. They are definitely our strongest financially and our strongest revenues.
Ron C.: Now it's also going to give a few more shout-outs, Lee said, "Great to have you on the show." Wes says, "Welcome to Automation Unplugged." In terms of looking forward, Ron, what sort of technologies? And I'll just I'll throw out a low-hanging fruit. Maybe get you to weigh in on it. But if there are others, just feel free to bring them in to focus on what technologies have you excited as you look forward that are new, new areas for new revenue and new growth? And I'm going to give an example. I see many businesses jumping into lighting fixtures and starting to learn how to get back to figure out the lighting design piece of that. Are you guys doing that? And or what other technologies are on the forefront that have you excited?
Ron W.: Yes, so shading and lighting are definitely at the forefront now. Some wellness has started to grow, obviously, since the pandemic. But beyond that, I haven't seen anything that's really blown me away to say that this is the next thing. But again, lighting and shading, we've only been doing shading for the last few years as far as integration firms are concerned and lighting fixtures, we've been doing lighting controls for a long time. It is a natural progression to get into supplying actual fixtures because what's happening is we're supplying lighting controls. Somebody else is an electrician, is going to Home Depot and buying six years, and the clients are saying, how come this flickers every time I turn something on and off?
In order to make sure that those clients are getting the experience that they should with their lighting controls, it makes sense for integrators to be supplying the six years now. Just supplying fixtures isn't the answer. You really need to know what you're talking about when you're talking about fixtures. Anybody who's wanting to get into it, I highly recommend you get all the training you possibly can before you start trying to be the expert so that you're not cutting off your foot just to get in the door. For me, it's a big thing, a big push. We have not started selling a lot. I mean, we're doing we're selling some fixed years at this point only on certain projects. But the thing for me is I'm getting my lighting designer certifications because I feel like somebody on this team needs to have that background and knowledge. To be able to say yes is the right direction versus just throwing things out there, because it's easy enough to get into the fixture business nowadays, but knowing which fixtures make the best sense is really important.
We'll continue to grow our team and get more people that education as well. I'm kind of the first usually leading those things. I've gotten My Lighting Associates certification, and I've just got the lighting designer certification left and that's like a six-month process.
Ron C.: Which program or organization are you going through to gain that or anything you want to share with the audience?
Ron W.: American Lighting Association They're the go-to for that, for our industry, at least there are other organizations, but they require years of experience to get certifications out of them. Whereas the ALA is really good about getting you some really solid education, getting you really good at the basics, and then handing you off to get your certification as a designer over a period of time. And when you can, you have to show your capabilities, you're basically taking blank floor plans and turning them into lighting designs and handing them in, and getting them graded by some of the best lighting designers in the country. So that's the process, and it's something you can do in a year. Right. Some of these other programs, you spend three to five years to become a really qualified designer, right? But the ALA has got it set up to where within less than a year, you can become a certified lighting designer.
Ron C.: Got it! Understood. Ron, knowing a lot of our audience are integrators like you, some of them with years last, maybe decades less experience. What's another maybe a piece of advice or two that you wouldn't mind sharing that you wish the younger version of you had known? It may have saved you from some pain?
Ron W.: Yeah. Don't do everything just because you enjoy doing it. Everything must have a purpose. Make sure that everything you do in your business has a profitability capability. I started in this business because I love the electronics industry. I've been doing it for 40 years and I still love this industry. But there's been a lot of things that I've done just because I thought they were cool and I wanted to do them. And they typically turned out to be a disaster in most cases. Make sure that you are not doing anything that you are not 100 percent sure is going to be a profitable option for your business. Don't just jump into something just because it's the next best thing because they don't actually turn out that way. And I don't know how many times I've done it in the in my years I've taken on a manufacturer or somebody who said our stuff is awesome and it's great. And two years later, they're out of their out of business and it's a proprietary system and you got 100 or 150 clients out.
There was something that you can't use and you're ripping it out and starting over and you're pissing people off and you're and you're causing yourself much more pain than is needed. Get your efficiencies up. I preach that all day long to everybody. I talked to you. Ask me because I think that that's the key to making your business successful is being efficient. You can throw a lot of people or throw a lot of money at a lot of things. It doesn't make you profitable, being efficient and getting some sort of a process down that makes sense that you can duplicate over and over and over again. We'll make all the difference in the world, not everything has to be a custom one-off.
"It's amazing what that can do to your bottom line if you simply better utilize the team that you have."
Ron C.: Yeah, I want to mirror that I hired a management consultant this summer. That's been an awesome experience the last six months, and we brought him in because he had experience with other marketing agencies knowing what some benchmarks for performance should be. We're on average what they are. And the reality is at One Firefly, I built this business with my leadership team and we've kind of built it in a bubble not knowing what anyone else in the world does. Just this is what we built, and there's now we've learned what can be done from an efficiency standpoint with our labor force. It was all newfound data for me, and now we're working on ways to try to approach some of those industry standards. It's amazing what that can do to your bottom line if you simply better utilize the team that you have. It sounds like you figured this out. You know your way. And I had to hire an expensive consultant to help us figure it out. But we're landing in the same place.
Ron W.: Yeah, but it took me 40 years.
Ron C.: That's true.
"I spent my first probably twenty-five to thirty years doing is doing everything myself. Never letting go of the vine."
Ron W.: I spent my first probably twenty-five to thirty years doing is doing everything myself. Never letting go of the vine. And I'll just wait for Patrick to jump in here because I know that's coming. But you have to learn that you have to be able to delegate. This industry has been built by all technicians. That said, I can do this myself and we all go out there and we all try that stuff. And you tend to be the guy who's, Oh, I need to know everything. I need to do everything. I need to be involved with everything. I learned many years ago that I don't need to be involved with anything, everything. I can have a leadership team, so I didn't have a leadership team. You mentioned leadership team in your statement and I'm like, Yeah, well, ten years ago, I didn't have a leadership team.
It's not that I didn't need one. It's that I refused to get one. Over the years, we've grown immensely based on the fact that I've delegated to different leaders throughout my group, not just my managers in the locations, but also in my Central Services team and our accounting teams and so on and so forth, and given them the ability to do their job and take over a lot of the stuff that I used to do myself that was being done miserably because I had too many things on my plate. There is a point where you have to bring in people and when it makes sense but otherwise make the team you have super-efficient and take advantage of that and take advantage of the great people you already have.
"There's a book down here on the floor called "Who Not How." The general theme of the book is you can either yourself or have a member of your team figure out how to do something, or you can inject the expert to find the person that knows how to do it, i.e. the who, and bring them in. Ultimately, you can get that mission accomplished in a much more expedited timeframe. I'm trying more and more to challenge my own personal belief systems and practice more of that."
Ron C.: There's a great book, I'm pretty sure I have a stack of books over here on the floor about 25 books. There's a book down here on the floor called "Who Not How." The general theme of the book is you can either yourself or have a member of your team figure out how to do something, or you can inject the expert to find the person that knows how to do it, i.e. the who, and bring them in. Ultimately, you can get that mission accomplished in a much more expedited timeframe. I'm trying more and more to challenge my own personal belief systems and practice more of that. And I hear Chris Piper saying, "Let go of the vine, Ron." I got it. Appreciate that, Chris.
Ron W.: My services manager.
Ron C.: That is, yeah, nice. I love that. And of course, I got to throw Patrick's comment. "Josh in Vancouver will lose." I'm letting you drop the mic there, Patrick. I love the competition here. Yeah, it's awesome, Ron. It has been a pleasure having you on Automation Unplugged, sir. This is episode 194. I'm going to thank you for coming on. And then how would you like the audience that is either watching or listening if they want to get in touch with you directly? What's the best way to do that?
Ron C.: We will drop that email, that website, that email and that phone number will put that in the show comments on social media, both on Facebook and LinkedIn. And then we'll also put this onto our show notes on the One Firefly website. So on that note, Ron, thank you, sir, for coming on the show.
Ron W.: Absolutely, anytime. Thanks for having me.
Ron C.: Awesome. Thanks, Ron. All right, folks. There you have it. Show 194 with Ron Wanless, CEO, and Founder of Technology Design Associates. And Rod means everything he just said there. Get in touch with him if you have questions. I've watched him for years at Industry Events Act as a friend and a counselor and a coach to many other business owners and operators throughout our industry. When you find people like that, you hold on to them and you hold them close. He means that sincerely, he's ready to help or offer advice if you want it or need it. On that note, I wish you all a wonderful Thanksgiving. What you can do for One Firefly is you can go to our podcast, our audio podcast, and you can subscribe if you haven't subscribed. If you're watching this and you haven't subscribed to the podcast, please do so. If you'd be so kind, you can leave a review and you can even say mean things or nice things. It's just a review actually helps boost the way the show shows up when people do searches. But it'd be I'd be more thankful if you said nice things, assuming you liked the show and liked the guest. So on that note, I'm going to sign off. I will see you all next. I think I'm going to see you next week. My team is going to let me know because I know I'm traveling. I'm traveling Wednesday and Thursday, but I think we might have a show on Tuesday, so stay tuned to social media and you'll see that. I think I think we are doing a show on Tuesday but on that note. Have a wonderful rest of your week and holiday weekend and I will see you all next time. Thanks, everybody.
Ron Wanless founded Technology Design Associates a smart home automation design and integration firm with offices in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada, and Arizona. TDA specializes in turning a house into a home by simplifying the control of the many integrated systems. Ron holds multiple credentials including Designer, Installer, Certified Outreach Instructor, and Network certification from CEDIA as well as a low voltage electrical license. Ron is currently working on a lighting designer certification through the American Lighting Association.
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. 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.
Resources and links from the interview:
- Total Tech Summit 2021
- HTA budget calculator
- Lighting Designer Certification with American Lighting Association