Home Automation Unplugged Episode #195: An Industry Q&A with Bill Simpkins
In this weeks home automation show of Automation Unplugged, Bill Simpkins, Founder and CEO of IGS Homeworks shares some information on working on international projects and the potential industry changes in 2022.
This week's home automation podcast features our host Ron Callis interviewing Bill Simpkins. Recorded live on Wednesday, December 8th, 2021, at 12:30 p.m. EST.
About Bill Simpkins
Bill Simpkins is a technology integrator with 30 years of CI industry experience. He began his career in the UK entertainment industry, working as an audio and lighting designer. He also worked as an engineer for well-known artists such as Moby, The Prodigy and Gil Scott Heron. After spending 15 years designing and installing systems for both residential and commercial markets globally, Bill relocated to the United States. In 2014, he founded IGS Homeworks in Magnolia, Texas specializing in luxury residential technology solutions.
- Customer focused marketing vs custom builder driven lead generation
- Working on international projects
- Potential industry changes in 2022 and how to plan for the new normal supply chain challenges
- After-sales service business model and how it relates to customer relations and happiness
Ron: Hello, this is Ron Callis with another episode of Automation Unplugged. Today is Wednesday, December 8th. It's just a little bit after 12:30 p.m. I know it's been a couple of weeks since we did a show; I promise we did try very diligently to get a show in last week. I traveled Wednesday and Thursday over to Lutron headquarters in Coopersburg, PA. So we tried to do a show on Tuesday, and long story short, technology was not behaving. We're going to bring that guest, our very own Brenna, she is a writer and an SEO specialist, and she's going to come on the show Friday. So if you want to learn more about marketing and SEO from a practitioner here at One Firefly, you want to make sure to tune into that.
What else? It's December; I hope you all have a good couple of weeks of hard work planned and some good relaxation planned for the end of the month with friends and family. I know I've got some of that scheduled myself, but hey, the year is not over. We run a fiscal January to December, and we have goals to hit. So we're all hands on deck here at one Firefly; we're hustling our butts off.
So let's go ahead and let's jump in. This week, we are recording Show #195, and my guest is Bill Simpkins. He is the founder and CEO of IGS Homeworks, and he's based in the Houston, Texas, market. And he'll tell us more about specifically where he's located and what type of work he does. But let's go ahead and bring in Bill, and let's start the fun. Bill, how are you, sir?
Bill: I'm doing well Ron, how are you doing today?
Ron: I am doing super. Where are you coming to us from? Exactly?
Bill: I'm coming to you live from the Woodlands, Texas, just north of Houston.
Ron: The Woodlands is a suburb of Houston?
Bill: It's a township about 35 miles north of Houston, part of the Howard Hughes Development Masterplan Community.
Ron: Like Howard Hughes, the famous guy of...
Bill: Dallas that Howard Hughes Corporation. Yes, so the Woodlands is part of Howard Hughes Corporation.
Ron: No way.
Ron: I didn't know. I guess there are probably tremendous amounts I don't. What's coming to mind for me when you say Howard Hughes is the Leonardo DiCaprio movie that he made about Howard Hughes, and that guy was an interesting guy for sure. But, I had no idea that their business also did communities or was this a thing of the past? They don't do this anymore, correct?
Bill: They're still very active in the market. The Woodlands Township was acquired by Harry Hughes Corporation in maybe 2015 or so. I can't remember exactly the day. Before that, it was just Woodlands Township started by a guy in the 1970s that wanted to create a community for families to live, prosper.
Ron: Now you did not get that accent in The Woodlands, Texas. So, where is your family from, or where is this accent from?
Bill: I'm originally from Glasgow, Scotland. I got here via London, England and Manchester, England, and then to the Woodlands, so a bit of a journey.
Ron: Got it. We're going to go into some of that journey today. Maybe we could start. Bill, tell us a little bit about IGS Homeworks. Tell us about the business. What type of projects do you do? How big is your team? Where do you do these projects?
Bill: IGS Homeworks we founded in 2014, and our primary focus was the luxury residential market. So we work with luxury home builders, custom home builders to deploy full automation systems, control systems, audio, video, lighting, the whole gamut. We recently more got into battery and energy management as well.
Ron: Your projects are primarily there in Texas, or do you do them outside of Texas?
Bill: So originally, most of the projects were done around this local area. There was a huge growth area. Most of the Woodlands is now actually built out, so we started to look further afield. We were very fortunate to be invited onto a project at a golf resort called Blue Jack National, which is the first Tiger Woods designed golf course in the United States, which is 20 miles north of the Woodlands in Montgomery County, Texas. That got us into a golf resort work as well. So installing control systems into the developers developed a built product and also the state laws that they were selling to custom homeowners as well. And from there, that kind of expanded into we're now in three different golf resorts was one in Austin, one in Fredericksburg, and we're actually looking at another one, though in the Bahamas.
Ron: Got it. What is construction like right now in Texas for our listeners listening around the world? What is it like there?
Bill: It's crazy right now. There are people flocking to Texas from all over the United States. Austin is absolutely blowing up right now. House prices are going through the roof. People are coming in from California. It's an exciting time to be in Texas, for sure.
Ron: Exciting time to own real estate. I would imagine.
Bill: Yeah, that too.
Ron: All right. Well, let's let's go back in time. My audience always loves to hear the origin story. What is your past? And you have a pretty fun and dynamic past doing all sorts of crazy things all over the world. What is that past that led us to the present, where you're running this very successful integration business here in Texas?
Bill: That's quite a convoluted story, but I'll summarize it for fearlessness.
Ron: Take your time. We always enjoy listening.
Bill: So I've been in this industry for 30 years, and technology various guises of technology. Started out in 1991 in Glasgow, working for a leisure company that operated leisure venues. And I got introduced to the technology there. I was actually studying computer science at college, and when the owners of the venue found out that I knew a bit about new computers, they said, "Do you know how to work this box that controls all the lighting in the venue?" I said, "It's the computer, let me have a look at it," and I had a go at it, and they're like, "Right, you need to be here every day." And that started that.
Ron: And we might even pay you.
Bill: And that's that. That was the start of it. I learned that industry, the lighting industry and the audio industry through live work, live performance work. We moved on to working for a rental company. Eventually, I got posted to London when the owners of the business opened a huge new venue in Leicester Square in London. The venue was called "Home." The address was #1 Leicester Square. Seven floors, three clubs, bars, fine dining restaurants, cafes and the whole thing. I was there looking after all the technology. We did that for a couple of years, and unfortunately, that didn't quite work out for the owners, and they decided to close down that venue.
I was 30 years old in London and wasn't quite sure what the next step would be. What I did realize is that I didn't want to be in that industry as I got older. So I took the skills I had acquired over the previous ten years and reached out to some people that I had met through the industry who had what we call C.I businesses. And the first business I went to was a corporate CI business, so I got introduced to boardrooms, designing audio conferencing systems and, funnily enough, very early into video conference systems. Today is very common, you know, Zoom. We were doing time about way back in the early 2000s, trying to educate users on the benefits of remote working, which is quite ironic now, considering everything that's happened. You know, we were 20 years ahead of that. I learned a lot. Most of our customers, just because of the price point of technology, it was enterprise customers. So, you know, we were working for some big, big companies.
Eventually, I got seconded to a large international commodity trader to take care of their global video fulfillment program, which meant traveling around the world, deploying or managing the deployment of video systems. That got me through to 2012 when I came through to Houston and met up with an old buddy from the technology company in London, and little did I know at that point that he was actually now a custom home builder in the luxury market in Houston. He said, would you like to come out here and set up a technology business? I'll help you get started. I'll give you the work that I've got, and you can grow your business from there. And I said, let me think about it. We just started a young family, had to go back to the wife and say, Hey, how you fancy moving to the states? So that took a bit of convincing and a couple of years of planning and then everything to do to get the correct visas and get the business set up. In 2014, we arrived here in The Woodlands and started a business.
Ron: It sounds like a dream almost you walked in with a flow of business all out of the gate because of your relationship.
Bill: Yes, that was extremely fortunate then. That helped us massively, for sure.
Ron: And then the business, how has the business evolved from 2014 to the present?
Bill: So we are focused on the luxury business. We've had to spread our wings slightly and venture further afield, and that takes us into different communities and to Austin, and also we started to pick up some international work. I was asked if I would be interested in international work. Some of our customers have second homes, a beach house in the Caribbean, places like that. And they said, "Would you take on a project like that?" And, of course, with my background, I don't see an issue with that. I thought, No, that's well within our capabilities, though the look in the face of the people that were working with me was completely different.
Ron: They must have had a face of fear in them.
Bill: Terrified. They'd never been exposed to something like that and never had to walk out of state. They never knew what would enter the planning and execution of international deployment. But we're doing it, and we're doing it successfully.
Ron: I want to go back. In the early 2000s, in the early days, and maybe you could clarify what your role was, but you had mentioned that you were doing in the early days setting up video conferencing for clients globally. You said you had done some work for a commodities trader, and they were setting up, I guess, commodities. I mean, that stuff you're digging out of the ground. You're digging or pumping out of the ground. And so I imagine you got sent all over the world. What were some of those adventures like?
Bill: You're absolutely right. One week, I could be working at a major financial hub in a really, really nice part of the world. You know, I've spent a lot of time in Geneva, in Switzerland, Shanghai, London, major financial hubs where they had business interests. But as you said, their core business is extracting commodities from the ground, and in some of the locations they do that, they have satellite offices. Of course, they need to bring telecommunications into their corporate offices. So, that could be South America, South Africa, remote places; you know that people don't normally travel to.
Ron: What was one of the crazier adventures you had when you were doing some of these travels? Just for our audience to kind of understand the shock and awe sometimes of landing in a foreign land and being expected to make big things happen.
Bill: A couple of things bring to mind. One of them. It was a complete eye-opener, and the other one was just truly terrifying. The eye-opening one was, you know, we were used to working in London with all the health and safety regulations that go with that, really very strict, you know, risk assessments, methods statement, PPE, all of that. When I landed in Africa, and I walked onto a job site, and there were just people everywhere, there was no PPE, there was welding going on. There were people cutting metal without any safety wear, the sparks flying everywhere, those machines without guards, and I just thought, Oh my goodness, what have I walked into? But you know, this is just how they operate, you know? And that was eye-opening for me, for sure.
Ron: What was the expectation? Were you designing the system and then shipping the gear from the U.K.? Or were you working with local talent to get the jobs done? Like what was the mechanism to get the jobs deployed and serviced?
Bill: That's a great question. It's a mixture of both. So being a Cisco reseller, we supplied all the Cisco equipment, so we would, as part of a resell agreement, ship that to the international locations. But part of my role would be to go to, for instance, I was in Montevideo, in Uruguay, and I had to basically find local vendors. And typically Cisco would assist us and say there's a couple of partners here that we'd recommend, and I would interview those guys, and I'd make a selection, take a look at their offices, make sure they were a legitimate business, and then we'd partner with those guys for the local work, and they would supply some of the generic A.V. equipment, but we'd supply the specialist video codecs from Cisco. So, it was a mixture of both, for sure.
Ron: So back in those days, and I'm going to say on the calendar, it was about 20 years ago you were making UCC unified collaboration between home offices and satellite offices and maybe even homes. And I imagine that was a bit of a science project compared to today, where zoom rooms, teams rooms. I mean, unifying the home and office, it's fairly ubiquitous. It just rolls off the tongue. Everybody's asking for it. And it seems common. Maybe help our audience understand, like what it used to be like compared to what it's like today?
Bill: It's certainly got a lot simpler. You know, we had to work very closely with the enterprise I.T. team for the company we were working with. You know, we had to have VLANs set up for the codex. We'd have to have our right down to have in their pockets and prioritize, you know, so it was quite complex and expensive.
Ron: What gear were you using? So 20 years ago, to make a job happen, what were some of the brands and models you were using?
Bill: So the video equipment back then was Tandberg. That was before they were acquired by Cisco. Control Systems, we were a big EMX user that subsequently moved to Crestron. But yeah, our main offering was Tandberg and EMX back out in the 2000s.
Ron: Got it. I haven't heard the name AMX in a long time. Are they still around?
Bill: I believe so.
Ron: But today, are you an AMX house, a Creston or what are you doing these days?
Bill: We're a Creston house.
Ron: All right, so your custom builder friend, your custom builder friend from the U.K. that set up shop in Houston. And he said, "Bill, come on, I'm going to give you my work." Is that, by the way, not that you need to mention his name, but is that relationship still intact? And how do you view doing business with custom builders versus going directly to the consumer? Do you try to build both paths for lead generation for your business, or what's your focus these days?
Bill: So to answer your first question, yes, we're still very much working with the initial custom builder who invited us over here. The relationship remains very strong.
Ron: That's impressive, so five points to you because that can't be easy over that many years.
Bill: No, it's a very good relationship. It has worked out very well for us, very happy about that. As far as our approach to growing the business has been very much engaging with the builder community. And direct to users. My preference is direct to the home users from an educational perspective. My favorite situation is when the homeowner tells the builder who their guy is because we've done our marketing, we've done our outreach, we've done our education. Some of these noticed and they like what we do, and they then want to engage with us. So, you know, they come to us, and they will introduce us to the builder relationship. I see far more value in that than going after the builders, and hopefully, they'll bring projects to you. There's nothing wrong with both approaches, they both work, and there have been people who have very successfully done both. But my preference is that I get brought into a project by the end-user.
Ron: I don't normally talk marketing on this show, but I am curious because you have this, you're mindful about wanting to appeal to the homeowner, and you want that referral from their friends and neighbors to do their projects. Is there any sort of quote-on-quote marketing that you do, or is it just a matter of doing a great job on the job site? How do you position yourself to try to get more of those referrals?
Bill: So I think initially when we set the business up, the website was quite technical, quite corporate. That was my background. That's kind of what I was used to. That's what worked in London. When we got here, it took me a while to realize that people here are like, "I don't want that kind of relationship." They want to know the guy. So it's a much more local relationship. So we softened the website, made it more appealing to homeowners and did more local advertising, got involved with the local Chamber of Commerce and, sponsored events and attended events and tried to engage with the local community. That seemed to work where we are in the Woodlands. We're now looking to replicate that in different areas that we move into. We don't want to be a faceless Silicon Valley tech corp offering technology company. You know, we want to be the local face, the local guys that you go to, not the big box store, but you know, these are the local integrators.
Ron: Tell me more about your approach to the Chamber of Commerce. I don't hear that strategy that often, so that sounds like something unique or uniquely yours. Now, if you share too much detail, there are people listening, and now the secret might get out. What are you willing to share? That is proven to be successful for you in a little more detail.
Bill: For us, the Chamber of Commerce is a way to meet other business leaders in the community. From there, it's just spread brand awareness. We got to go to local events; they put on an event every year here, "Taste of the Town," where they bring in all the restaurants and then, you can go and sample the food from all the great restaurants in the area. Well, you can sponsor that, and you can have your name on the merchandise for that event. And that's when the local community sees. These are our local technology providers, and we've engaged like that through the Chamber of Commerce. So that, again, is part of the local outreach that we do. And also, you get to meet the business community and off the back of that, you start to see some commercial jobs become a reality, the things that you never went after before. You get asked, "We're opening a new office, could you come and take care of the video system or the security system or whatever it may be?" So you opened up a number of different avenues.
Ron: Have you observed other integrators, whether they're competitors or not, practicing such strategies? Are there multiple technology companies in your Chamber of Commerce, or are you the only one?
Bill: There's a couple. There's not a huge amount. Prior to the Chamber of Commerce, we focused on the Greater Houston Home Builders Association. But when I got there, I soon realized that every integrator was there. And I thought, it's very, very hard to make an impression there when there's so many well-established people and so many well-established relationships, I quickly realized that's going to be a tough one. So, I thought about what else could we do to get into the community and with less competition?
Ron: I think that's super smart. What have you done, if anything? The answer could be zero because it's not our strategy, but I think this is a good strategy for some. Do you practice outreach to designers, interior designers or architects? Either by calling on them or doing luncheon learns or any sort of educational content, I know CEDIA has a lot of outreach or instruction, CEU type content? Have you ever practiced that technique?
Bill: We have reached out to some architects and interior design firms with very limited success. I'll be perfectly honest with you. I keep going back to we want the homeowner to bring in referrals into the project, rather than the other way around. We seem to have more traction that way. There's a lot of integrators going after those same people. So it's highly competitive.
Ron: Well, let's focus on the word competitive. You're in Texas; you're in Houston. There are many other businesses doing integration in the state and doing integration in your city. How is the manpower situation right now? I know a lot of businesses that I'm talking to on a weekly basis. They're talking about having so much work, but maybe not enough manpower or I don't want to be sexist here, human power to get the work done. Are you feeling that? And if so, how are you managing it? Maybe walk us through the pandemic from before and then up to the present. How are you handling the hiring and the maintaining of your team?
Bill: Pre-pandemic, In hindsight, I believe, our overhead was too high, and that became obvious when things started to shut down. When everybody basically froze for the first couple of months, and the sales were not coming in, and your overheads remained the same, I thought, "structurally, we're too heavy, too top-heavy." So we took some steps. We reduced headcount by a little, but it was mostly back office. We didn't lose anyone in the field, and we had a far too large office warehouse facility, which basically we shut out and moved to a smaller facility very, very quickly. We're fortunate that we could move quickly on that, and that really helped us while everybody tried to adjust to the new normal. What does this look like moving forward?
Ron: How were you able to do that? Were you just conveniently at the end of a lease?
Bill: Yes. Fortunately.
Ron: It's just a roll of the dice, isn't it?
Bill: We'd been on a three-year lease, and it just ended, and we were month to month, and I was trying to understand what was happening next, whether to renew or not pandemic hit, and I thought, No, this is it. Back in March, actually.
Ron: That's the day to buy a lottery ticket. That was a lucky draw.
Bill: Yeah, for sure.
Ron: And how is it today with hiring? And kind of, you know, are there are a lot of demands on you from, prospects and your clients. Is business good, or what's the state and how does that relate to your manpower situation?
Bill: Business is extremely good. We have lots of inquiries coming in direct to us now from homeowners all around the city. All the work for 2022 is extremely healthy. I would say Q1 is done. I mean, we are through. We are booking into Q2 now in 2022. So with that, at this time of year, we start to plan the headcount for next year. And you know, we know we need to scale back up again to cope with the demand. The demand right now is extremely high. The only saving grace in all of this is that with the supply issues that we've got going on, lead times are stretched. So it gives us a little bit of leeway to help better plan because the customers, they know that they're going to have to wait, before it was, "I want this job done next month, or I'm giving it to someone else." Now you can say, "Well, sorry, you can't have your equipment for eight to 12 weeks", and that gives me time to plan appropriately, to do the work, so in a kind of weird way, some of the supply issues have actually helped.
Ron: Well, let's talk supply issues, 2022. What are you seeing, and how are you coping?
Bill: The more I think about this, I think that we are going to have to hold some inventory of commonly used products, and I'm sure lots of other integration businesses around the country are thinking the same thing. To facilitate that, you have to look at your product offering and rationalize that and streamline that because we can't hold products, we can't hold every tray of every single thing that we offer. So we took a good look at our offering, and we streamlined it, and we've gone ahead and all that inventory most commonly used items, so that helped us. We need more space, and we're starting to look at the fact we're going to have to go to a bigger property again.
Ron: Part of your rationalization process meant streamlining vendors that you do business with?
Bill: For sure. Where would you have a couple of control system vendors, maybe to head two different price points in the market? We've just focused on one there. This is our offering; take it or leave it. This is what we do. It helps with our staff. It helps with their skill sets, helps with, as I've said before, in holding an inventory and even helps the design process and the proposal writing process because there's a lot of repetition.
Ron: I imagine you have been subject to price increases from vendors, probably in 20, probably in 2021. Is that accurate?
Ron: How are you handling that or protecting yourself when it comes to you contracting with your customer so that if a price increase does come along the way, it doesn't hit your bottom line? Or do you have protections in place?
Bill: Fortunately, our main control system vendor, has not increased pricing.
Ron: You mind sharing who that is because that's kind of a feather in their cap. Who is that?
Ron: Creston has not raised prices?
Bill: No. So that's been very helpful as far as other items. Typically, we go back to the customer, and we've been doing this for many years, and in the T.V. market, the T.V. market prices change week to week. So we typically have a budget for those that we call "remote commodity items." And we'll say to the customer that we're going to revisit this need at the time. Models may change, prices can fluctuate. And that gives us an opportunity to go back and say, okay, we're going to give you the latest and greatest model. Here's a new price. That's typically how we handle that.
Ron: Got it. Well, to wrap up 2021, did you finish this year up over 2020? And if so, do you mind sharing? Was it, on target or did it blow out your target? How did you finish the year?
Bill: So we're probably up 25 percent on 2020.
Ron: Okay, then do you have a forecast in place for 2022?
Bill: I see a 25 percent growth again next year.
Ron: Wow. So 25 percent, You're going to pretty quickly have doubled the business.
Bill: Yeah. With that shrink in 2020 with everything that was going on. I say we were probably down 30 percent that year.
Ron: Okay, so it kind of broke back, then you pulled it back to 19.
Bill: Yeah. And then next year we're seeing very strong growth.
Ron: And out of curiosity, do you say stay strictly to residential, or will you take that small commercial project? And how do you think about that?
Bill: We will take commercial projects and some not so small. I don't want to drop any names in there, but we are about to deploy all the video technology to a large police force in Texas for the command center, which is quite exciting.
Ron: That's a commercial project.
Bill: It's a proper commercial project, and we're okay with it. It's my background before I was in residential, so I'm comfortable in this space. But it's a large, large commercial project.
Ron: Wow, that sounds exciting is that this is a 2022 deployment.
Bill: 2022 Q1.
Ron: All right. Looking into 2022? What has you excited about it? I would say from technology or changes in the industry. In a high level, I would observe that a lot of people underestimate what will happen, or they overestimate what will happen in the short term and underestimate what will happen in a long term. So I'm asking you about the short term. What sort of big changes have you jazzed and that you think will affect your business?
Bill: So the work from home, I think, is here to stay. Even the corporations that have gone back to the office are mostly flexible. It's two or three days in the office and some work from home. So we see a big uptick in people wanting robust networks, for sure. And also, with our relationship with Creston, they have their C.U. products. They have their work-from-home products. So, we're seeing an uptick in that, which is great. So we get to combine our residential offering with the commercial offering all in the client's home for senior executives of large organizations. So that's a shift which I think we're quite well placed for, you know, we're positioned well for that. That I think will remain and become the new norm as we go forward.
Ron: It's interesting. I just want to pull a thread there. We're doing more work here at One Firefly with pure commercial integrators. And, they by and large will consider themselves, quote-un-quote, more capable of more engineering-centric, engineered projects at scale. And a residential integrator typically is doing a whole spectrum of what it means to be a residential integrator. And then there's this small subset of residential integrators that will do commercial projects, and we'll call them "resimercial" integrators. But you just hit a point that I think is not changing, which is there are going to be these executives that are going to be working from home and need to have their technology tied to the mothership, to corporate, for all of their phone systems, video conferencing systems and technology standards. And it's a real interesting quandary because up until now, the commercial integrator would not step into the house. Who does that work?
Bill: We do. This is a perfect space for us. We are used to working within the confines of residential property. Having both worked in commercial and residential properties is two very different animals. In a commercial property, retrofitting wire and equipment is relatively simple. The building is designed in that way. Homes are not, so we have skills that we can bring into that market that I think some of the commercial guys will struggle with.
Ron: Are you seeing from your builders or your, however, you're landing in the project? Are you finding that the Home Office is being taken more seriously and that it's on floor plans? Are there conversations about the technology that's going to maybe go into that? And is there an equipment closet needed? Is that happening?
Bill: Yes, for sure. There's an understanding from the executives. We're working on the luxury projects for that. What was before the study, which was a fairly comfortable place to sit and work on your laptop, now has to be video-enabled, so all of a sudden, lighting and acoustics become an issue and good network becomes an issue. And just how that technology is going to be located and being solved becomes more of a thought process. Whereas before it wasn't, you know, Just about every custom home here has a study, but it was very rarely set up for serious office work. We've seen a change in that now; people want proper setup, proper office, home office setup.
Ron: And you think this stays?
Bill: Yeah, I think it stays. Once you know that, you can be productive from home. Why would you want to go back to the grind of the commute if you didn't have to? And if you're a senior executive, you got a lot of control over your destiny. You can create the policy for yourself?
Ron: I tell you what. I figured this out a number of years ago when One Firefly we went decentralized, work from home in 2015. Late 2015. And I found that my productivity and my team's productivity went up. Now many of our integrators are listening; they may not have the luxury they need to be in an office. You know, there are reasons to have to meet. But if you're in a situation like, for example, our business, our clients are all around the world; they're all throughout North America. They don't need to. They don't come to my office in Coral Springs, Florida, right? They don't need to come to my office, and my team doesn't need to come to my office. It's just a new world. We used to be innovative, by the way, and then the pandemic happened. And then this is like, Yeah, well, of course, everybody's doing that now.
Bill: Likewise, when I was working from the U.K. and on international projects, I was working from home. This was from 2010 to 2014. I was already working from home.
Ron: You were ahead of the game then. That was early.
Bill: And so I came into this business with the mindset that working from home is a real thing. It can be productive. You can be efficient. I've never forced an employee to come to an office just so that I can sit and watch them work nine to five. I've never done that. But, with somebody, maybe someone's working on the design team or project management, and they've got some administration to do some design work, I would be the first to say; you do that from home, less distraction. So we've always been fairly good with that and fairly open to that.
Ron: I'm mindful of time, and I want to dig in a little more, Bill. What other technologies coming around the corner have you jazzed?
Bill: Something we see and we like from the control system manufacturers is a lot of the cloud services, the remote management dashboards that they're bringing in to help us manage those clients remotely. And this is a technology that's existed in the I.T. world forever. A previous company when we worked in U.C. We had what they call "The Knock" which is the network, operation center and they had a dashboard, we could see all the clients, the 24-7 help desk, all of that stuff. So what we've tried to do is we try to bring some of that experience and that technology into our industry. So your I.T. companies and the network equipment manufacturers have had self-healing products for a while now. It will ping devices, and if it doesn't respond, it will use POE, and it will reboot. That's fairly common in the I.T. world, which is standard in the I.T. world. Now here in our industry, some control system manufacturers are latching onto that and Creston bringing self-healing into the control systems, which, frankly, is very exciting, especially with international projects. You know, we can do a lot more remotely, and the client can do a lot more from the control system.
Ron: And I might have this mixed up. I know that at One Firefly, we just developed for one of our clients some web and marketing content around Creston XIO. Is that what you're referring to, XIO? or is there a different product or family?
Bill: It's a different product. Creston XIO is a management tool for managing their video and audio over I.P. solutions. And the U.C. solutions, great product, great for large deployments, you know, college campuses, that kind of thing. That's the fantastic product I'm speaking of and more specifically around the Creston home platform and the new I.P. control Creston power distribution systems. The Creston home platform will allow the homeowner or the user to auto-reboot a device that gets locked up. That could be an Apple T.V. And by holding down the button in the user interface set the control system, send a signal to the power distribution unit to reboot that device. And that's new. We like it a lot. It gives the homeowner more control over their system, provides the homeowner with more comfort than they know they can do that. We also have access to a 24-7 Help Desk as well, which we use to give the clients the security that they can get help with this technology at any time. So now we've embraced some of the technologies that will air from the I.T. world.
Ron: I have a follow-up question on that, but I want to give Josh one of our listeners. He posted a comment, and he says, "the first thing I noticed when I started working remotely from home in 2008 was the lack of distractions. I was more productive, contrary to what most people thought would happen if you worked from home." And I agree. I found that I was exceptionally more productive from home, but I guess it's not fair because I've always worked from home. For 21 years, I've worked from home. I think there was a little bit of One Firefly where I would go to the office. Thomas posted a comment. He says, "Crestron home is great, is a great evolving platform. We've had great success since it came out."
So that is exciting that at Crestron, they are putting so much energy and engineering horsepower into that product. And I agree they have a lot of momentum. I've heard a lot of good things. Bill,. So this is Crestron investing in the software, and it's getting better, and it's enabling and empowering you to better serve your clients and serve them over the life of that relationship. How do you handle that lifelong relationship? Do you sell them a service and maintenance plan? Do they just assume that you will do these things and that the manufacturer will do these things? The business model of after-sales service? Do you mind maybe talking at a high level about how you think about that?
Bill: For sure, after-sales service is vitally important, I believe, is vitally important to a business like ours. I'll give you an example. When the pandemic hit, and everybody froze and everything shut down, I would say to the sales team that said, "Okay, you know, that new business meetings are going to be very difficult, if not impossible right now." I want you to go back through all of our client base all the way back to 2014 and touch base with every single one of these clients. Tell them we're still here, tell we are still in business, we're operating through the pandemic as an essential service. How can we help? We know you could be working from home, is your network robust? We know that your kids can't get to the movie theaters. Did you upgrade your theater to the latest 4K technology? We went through our whole client database, and we generated a lot of business from that, and we were able to do that because we believe in client retention. We don't want to install a system and then go on to the next capital project. We want to build that relationship and maintain that relationship. And part of that relationship maintenance is to do with selling service plans, selling access to help desk, which of course then generates r&r for us. That's a fundamental part of our business. And again, it proved to be successful when the pandemic hit. We had an existing happy client base that were happy to talk to us again.
Ron: You mentioned Help Desk. Do you use an off-the-shelf help desk software for ticketing that keeps you organized and helps your clients and you stay connected on the issues they submit? Or do you use an in-house-born system?
Bill: We outsource it to a third party. So we're a small business costs involved of running a 24 seven helpdesk, and the manpower involved in that is significant. And we could not support that. So we partner with One Vision for the 24-7 help desk, and we work with those guys, and we have done so for quite a few years now, and it's a great solution, and we have a great partnership with those guys.
Ron: Have you found that your customers are happier on the other end of that because of the immediate service they're getting, or at least quick response to their concerns?
Bill: Yes, the customers are happy to call up anytime, day or night. Someone's going to take a call or call them back within a certain period of time, dependent on the SLA that they have. So service level agreement, again, I'm kind of reverting back to the I.T. world. But yes, it's a service level agreement, and someone's going to try that for them; someone with a bit of knowledge will try that for them remotely. So, quite often, the success in getting that client back up and running could be a quick fix. It could be a workaround, but the client gets through the evening, and then we will then reach out to the client the next business day, schedule service if we can't fix it remotely. And that, keeps the customers far happier than the phone ringing at eight o'clock at night and trying to call one of our techs who's maybe not on a call or not working. And you know, the frustration that creates. We find the help desk solution to be very successful.
Ron: Your background, Bill, you had a background in lighting design. I know I was reading that in your bio. And so you did, I think it was maybe more pro stage stuff, correct.
Bill: Theatre and live performance lighting, things like that.
Ron: What's your take today on lighting and lighting control and smart fixtures? The I.P. addressable fixtures, the circadian rhythm style lighting? There's just tremendous buzz in the industry and the resi side of the world today around these types of technologies. What's your read on all that?
Bill: Well, we're very excited about that. You know, I'll take you back when we first come over from the U.K., I was very surprised at how simplistic lighting was over here in the residential market. It was the four recessed cans in multimillion-dollar homes, and I wasn't used to that. California's slightly different, it was a lot more creativity in the lighting design there and certainly in other parts of the country as well. But here in Texas, it was very rudimentary. It was very much the electrician dropped and full ceiling fans, and the job's done. You know, I thought that was a missed opportunity there. So I thought, well, we can bring some sophistication into this market, some different lighting technologies. And when we started to see the circadian rhythm come in, I thought, this is perfect, this is what the residential market needs. We can bring in some lighting technologies that have been more commercially used in the past, DMX driven or KNX driven type technologies and start to deploy them in the residential market. As you see that trend continuing, I think it's only going to grow more and more, and I can see more and more of that market moving to us. We're ideally situated as a specialist to blend all of the technology into one operating system, and rather than the electrician, for us, that is quite simple to take that part of the project from the electrician.
Ron: Do you see friction in taking that from the electrician?
Bill: There can be. But if you've already demonstrated the technology to the homeowner, the homeowner leads the conversation. It's what they want. They will tell the builder, "No, this is the technology we want to use."
Ron: Love it! Bill, I'm going to ask you. Our audience is of all shapes and sizes and years of tenure and experience. And so, what would be a word of advice or wisdom that you would share with another business operator in our space somewhere in the world? Maybe a lesson you learned along the way is that if they heard you now and took it to heart, it might make their business a little bit better or maybe their quality of life a little bit better.
Bill: I've been doing this a long time; it's a bit cliche, but... Never stop learning. Technology is marching forward, and you don't want to be left behind. Invest the time and energy in learning new technologies, embracing new technology and breaking out of your comfort zone. Continually push out your comfort zone. If you're too comfortable, you're not trying hard enough, is kind of what I like to say.
Ron: Do you hold yourself to that measure? I mean, I resonate with that statement a lot. I find if I'm comfortable, I know I'm doing something wrong, and I have to push harder because when I'm a little uncomfortable. I know I'm probably on the right path.
Bill: When I'm a little uncomfortable, I know that we're pushing the boundaries, and it can certainly make my people even more uncomfortable than I am. But I think that helps us all develop as a team and as a company, as we keep pushing the boundaries of what we offer and what we do.
Ron: Love it! Bill, thank you for joining us on Show 195 of Automation Unplugged for our listeners that want to get in touch with you directly or learn more about your business. Where would you send them?
Ron: Awesome! Bill, thank you again for joining me on the show.
Bill: Thank you.
Ron: All right, folks. There you have it. That was a lot of fun. We covered so much ground in that interview. And if you have not already done so, please subscribe to the show on your favorite podcast app. I know that I personally and you all know this because I've said this so many times, I'm addicted. Sounds bad, but I have. The lifelong learner in me has fallen in love with podcasting as a format for learning and anything under the rainbow that you had hoped to learn about. Whether it's, you know, hearing from integrators in our space and or learning about history or science or math or, you know, murder, novel murder, novellas or whatever you enjoy listening to or consuming, it's on a podcast. You really should check it out if you haven't done so already.
And I also just want to tie into that last point that Bill is making about being uncomfortable. You know, if you think about when you go to the gym and when you push yourself at the gym, or maybe you don't., I don't go to the gym, I walk, and I work out in my garage. So I haven't gone to the gym in years, but I do work out, and I do stretch. I'm about as limber as a stiff board, so I have to stretch often just to protect my back. And it's really when you hurt a little bit that you know you're doing your body good, and it's the same as it relates to business and, business is about the survival of the fittest. If you're not pushing yourself and growing and learning and challenging your team, others are going to come and eat your lunch. That's guaranteed. That's not even a maybe. And so if you're finding yourself comfortable and what I don't mean, so let me give you what I don't mean, right now. Everyone's busy. And so I don't mean because you're working 70 hours a week. That's not the sort of uncomfortableness that Bill's talking about or that I'm talking about. That's just working harder, not necessarily smarter. So the uncomfortableness is really about stretching yourself to learn new techniques, maybe to be better at delegation and bringing people on to your team to do more so that ultimately you can achieve more. Perhaps it's picking up new vendors; maybe it's trading off. Perhaps it's picking up new growth areas for your business and doing the work, rolling up your sleeves to win that new type of work. It can mean many things, and it can be very personal. But, you know, challenge yourself to be a little uncomfortable. And what you'll find on the other side of that is typically grown. So I thought that was wonderful words of wisdom.
I will sign off now. And folks, I'll see you on Friday because we will have Brenna on. Brenna is a member of our writing team, a long-time member. She's an SEO specialist. And if you want to learn about how to jazz up your ability to get found on search and or what it means to write engaging content, either tune in or have members of your team that work on such things, and there'll be a lot of wisdom shared on Friday. This is a special week. There's a two for one this week, two shows, and I will see you all there. So I'm going to say bye for now.
Bill Simpkins is a technology integrator with 30 years of CI industry experience. He began his career in the UK entertainment industry, working as an audio and lighting designer. He also worked as an engineer for well-known artists such as Moby, The Prodigy and Gil Scott Heron. After spending 15 years designing and installing systems for both residential and commercial markets globally, Bill relocated to the United States. In 2014, he founded IGS Homeworks in Magnolia, Texas specializing in luxury residential technology solutions
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.
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