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Automation Unplugged

Automation Unplugged is a Facebook Live show recorded weekly with our host Ron Callis, Owner and CEO of the digital marketing agency, One Firefly. In each Automation Unplugged episode, Ron speaks with leading industry personalities and technology professionals to discuss all things business development, technology trends, and more. These interviews are designed to help our clients and members of the custom integration industry keep up-to-date with the latest news as well as learn from experts in the field.

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Home Automation Unplugged Episode #221: An Industry Q&A with Mark Bolduc

In this weeks home automation show of Automation Unplugged, Mark Bolduc, Founder and President at Wicked Smart Homes shares the lessons learned during the Great Recession that have helped his business thrive.

Home Automation Unplugged Episode #221: An Industry Q&A with Mark Bolduc

This week's home automation podcast features our host Ron Callis interviewing Mark Bolduc. Recorded live on Wednesday, Wednesday August 24th, 2022, at 12:30 pm. EST.

About Mark Bolduc

Mark is an accomplished systems integration specialist with 18+ years of experience working with architects, builders and interior designers on large-scale residential and commercial projects for a broad client base throughout the U.S. 

Founded in 2009, Wicked Smart Homes is one of the highest-volume Lutron dealers in the country.

Interview Recap

  • Lessons learned during the Great Recession that have helped their business thrive.
  • Mark’s entrepreneurial journey
  • How and why he has focused on growing his Lutron and Ketra business

SEE ALSO: Home Automation Podcast Episode #220 An Industry Q&A with Hovik Mirzakhanian

Transcript

Ron:  Thank you, Mark, thanks for joining me. My man. And again, sorry about some of the streaming snafus. It happens.

Mark: No worries at all. Thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be on your show. Thanks for having me.

Ron:  Yeah. So why don't you tell our guests where are you coming to us from and maybe a little bit about the business.

Mark: Sure. So, sitting in the conference room here in Sarasota, Florida, a balmy 93 deg day and the dog days of summer are upon us here in South Florida. So trying to stay cool inside.

Ron:  Awesome. So folks that have not traveled to Sarasota, Florida, what is Sarasota like?

Mark: Sarasota used to be a hidden gem. I think a lot of folks now know about Sarasota, where it is on the map. I remember years ago, I had to kind of give him a little geography lesson. An hour south of Tampa, 2 hours north of Naples. Now with the influx of folks from all around the country in the world coming to Sarasota, it's on the map. But yeah, we're on the west coast of the Gulf of Mexico. It's just a beautiful, wonderful place to live, raise a family, run a business, and blessed to be here. I love it.

Ron:  Awesome! And Wicked Smart Homes. So by that name; I remember I went to a conference up in the Northeast not too long ago, and the term Wicked like a Boston slang or Boston term. So is this a reference to the northeast?

Mark: Yeah, a little homage to my New England roots. When we were thinking about naming the business, of course, we had all the kind of standard industry names, and I think a friend, maybe over a couple of cocktails, started dropping his arms and just said, why don't we just call it Wicked Smart Homes? And I loved it. So here we are many years later. I remember being a little iffy on it at first. Is it going to play? Are people going to understand what it is? We did get a phone call, I think, the first year of business, and the guy on the other line was asking me, why are you guys trying to be Wicked? You guys mean over there? And I remember thinking, he doesn't get it. But yeah, Wicked Smart Homes. Right away, the New England contingent gets it pretty quickly. And we've been in business a long time now. Everybody kind of understands the name, and it works. It's great.

Ron:  I love it. So tell us what type of work do you guys do and where do you do that work? Do you stay in Florida or do you travel?

Mark: Yes, we're primarily on the west coast of Tampa, down Naples. This is our comfort zone. We have employees that come to us kind of those geographic areas. So, yeah, we're on the primarily the west coast. Like many clients or clients that have second homes down here or a primary home, they may have a second home somewhere else. And they were always being asked to do some work in different parts of the country. A lot of times I like to rely on maybe my HTSA partners that are in those respective areas and give them a soft landing, let them know about the client, what we've done for them down here. Maybe we can mimic that in Boston, New York, Chicago, whatever it may be, we don't go too far. We stay in our comfort zone around here.

Ron:  A business that has been in business 18 years now. You haven't been in business. I'm looking here at my notes. You have 18 plus 20 years of experience or so. What year was Wicked Smart Homes founded? I'm seeing my notes here. It says 2009. Is that accurate?

Mark: Yeah, 2009. So work in the industry prior to starting the company. But, yeah, 2009. We really started kind of getting going in 2010. It was a tough time in South Florida, as you probably know, living down here with the real estate mortgage crisis. So looking back on it, like, what were we thinking? But I think those lessons that we learn as a company to be kind of lean and mean and humble in the beginning, really kind of set the foundation for who we are today.

Ron:  Amen. As you and I were talking before we went live, I founded this business in late seven, so eight was my first full year in business and eight through, I don't know, call it ten or 11, 12 were all really weird years, but those were my foundation years. Those are your foundation years. So you learn to run a mean and lean business. What did you learn then that you carry with you now? Because now you've been in business for a while. I'm going to do the math quickly. What is that, 13 years, 12, 13 years?

Mark: Yeah, right. That's I mean, I think those lessons we learned just to be and some of this is just not unique to me. When you talk about being fiscally conservative and running a business and making sure especially as you grow and you bring on employees. Making sure you can cover overhead. You have payroll. And making sure you have money in the bank for those rainy days. I think based on what happened down here. We were a little skittish about the direction of the economy. Were things are going to pick up? By no means did we have the ability to foresee what's happened in the last couple of years. People moving here at an unprecedented rate and building beautiful homes on the waterfront again, I think just not knowing what's going to happen 12, 24, 36 months in advance. You got to live in the here and now with an eye on the future, of course, but just be smart with overhead expenditures, showroom, bringing on staff, trucks, advertising, all that stuff, really just going back to those time frames, making sure that you have some money in the bank for a rainy day.

Ron:  Actually knowing I'm going to say something and some folks listening might be offended, some might resonate with this, but actually knowing of the money that's in the bank, how much of that is actually your money versus how much of that is simply client deposits and thus a liability. I'm fearful right now for our industry in some regards that because so many businesses have moved to taking significant deposits so that you can get hardware purchases because of supply chain issues. That so many businesses that are sitting on large amounts of cash in the bank. But yet may not know the financials of their business in a real tight, organized way. A lot of times they can get confused and go. I think I'm going to go buy that boat or I'm going to go buy that second or third home. Or I'm going to go buy take that luxurious vacation. Meanwhile, it's critical to know the financials and I'm going to challenge that for those businesses born in hard times. Mine was, yours was; You just, you operate the business differently with a tight, because I remember the days when every single dollar in the business mattered, whether the ability in your case to buy product or hardware for your clients or for you to meet payroll. Does that stick with you, or am I getting that wrong?

Mark: No, it's a great point. I think you're right. We have accelerated the payment process through these products, but that money that we're collecting upfront; So we did a lot of progress payments over the years. Our contracts were very structured because we're doing new construction, of course, based on the progress of the home. But now we're asking for more money upfront, but we're also taking those funds and directly applying it to the project. So when you talk about money at the bank, is it real? Is it not? I mean, that's a function of understanding your business where you are in all these projects from an accounts receivable, or are we upside down? We try to never be in that position, of course. We're not a bank. We don't fund purchases for projects. You're right! That has fundamentally changed the accounting side of our business in the last couple of years. Knowing now, instead of ordering at the end of a new construction project, all the heavy equipment ordering at eight weeks prior to CEO or closing, now we're doing it six to eight months ahead of time, and so I can sleep well at night. Some of those lessons kind of going back to your original question about being born on a tough day. We carry very little debt as a company. Aside from the mortgage on the building that I bought, I can sleep well at night. Knowing again that money is in the bank. We're taking that money, but we're directly doing the right to buy down on equipment for those clients. The biggest challenge that's presented is inventory and warehouse space for all that inventory coming in.

Ron:  God-willing if your vendors are shipping it, because in some cases where they're not shipping it.

Mark: But when it rains, it pours, it seems like it all comes in at once. Then you're in a situation where you're having to get creative with the space you have. We don't have unlimited space. We're in a really cool Burns Court district down here in Sarasota, and it's a great walkable location. Clients love being down here, very artsy, kind of great restaurants in the area and whatnot. But when you're in that high rent district, that limits the ability to have a 10,000 square foot warehouse as well.

Ron:  All right, so what do you do? How are you fielding that?

Mark: Well, probably even just a month ago, we had to find some off site storage for Lutron shades, for example. Massive orders coming in. We've been really successful as a Lutron dealer, but shades, as you know, are a large item, especially when they're all packaged up and whatnot. So they come in. We quickly realized that we had probably, I don't know, 1000 sqft, maybe 1200 square feet dedicated just for shade. We had these nice rack systems where we could stack up multiple projects. In there not too long ago and realized this isn't going to work any longer. So I go to plan B, off site storage place that was secure, that we could put proper insurance on. But most importantly, my guys could get the vans in and out of pretty easily and that wasn't too far from our main office. So that's what we did and we're going to live with it for now. Yeah.

Ron:  I'm going to throw you a curveball and I'm going to ask you for advice, for advice for the folks that are listening and maybe you've solved it, maybe you haven't, but I'm going to be very specific and just from a conversation. I was actually on vacation last week, but I had this conversation with someone the week prior and it was a scenario where they had rewritten their contracts and were collecting larger deposits so they could place their hardware orders with their manufacturers. They're sitting on significant percentage of total project expense in collections, ie. Liabilities because they haven't delivered yet and then because some extraneous piece of gear is not coming in and is getting pushed and getting pushed, they actually can't, quote, call the project complete and the way their project and so what are they doing? They are now carrying the cost of all of their overhead, their rent, their staffing, all of their expenses, burning through cash while they're paying these expenses. But yet they aren't able to call the project done and thus collect even that final balance. When you do one project like that, it's okay. But if you have a slew of projects where you have that happen I asked this individual, I said, what do you do? And his answer was, honestly, I don't know, we're figuring it out. But he didn't have an answer. I'm fearful for many in our industry that might be put in really tough financially stressful situations right now.

Mark: Yeah, I guess you can count us lucky because we've been fortunate not to have projects linger to the extent that because we're waiting on one or two pieces, we've gotten creative. We tried to source things sideways, really leaned on a vendor, maybe try to find an alternative product and that creates some inherent challenges when you're talking about, okay, we work with the same products essentially on every project and everybody's been trained on them. We know how to program them, support them and so on. We understand how the company does business and now all of a sudden we have to pivot and go to another vendor for that what we hope to be the same functioning product. We've had to do that. We've had to get some products in here quickly, vet it, understand it. We adopted, I don't want to get too far off track here, but we did adopt a brand ambassador approach for new products that we've had to bring in with our employees. So we sit down every Thursday on a staff meeting and say, okay, here's the dilemma that we're under. We can't get these X, Y and Z pieces. So based on some recommendations from people we trust, we're going to try this brand, but we're going to bring it in first, and we're going to bench test it. We're going to do this and that. Who here is interested in doing that? Our guys are great. Someone's always got a hand up trying to help the company, and we've been largely very lucky with that transition process and understanding that product so we can put it in and finish the job and move on and so on. But you're right, it's across the board. It's not one manufacturer. Everybody is going through the same thing. The general contractor understands what's going on. The client understands what's going on. If you're properly communicating with everybody in that chain, of course they want the job to be finished. We want what they want, which is a happy client and a completed job. But they also, unless they've been living under a rock, they know what's going on in the market and the world economy.

Ron:  Well, I appreciate you let me take you down throwing that curveball at you so early in our discussion. I'm going to redirect this. Why don't you take us back to how you got started? Where did you begin this journey and what did that journey look like that brings you here to running such a successful business?

Mark: Yeah, crazy story. I mean, I came to Sarasota, I think, the first time when I was really young, like seven, six, seven years old. Like most folks in New England, those long, harsh winters, we wanted to get out of there, come down to Florida. Everybody does that. But my parents ended up moving down here. 2002, 2003 time frame, we're building a house in Lakewood Ranch here in the greater Sarasota area. I had no experience in this industry at that time. I was doing something completely different. I was in advertising sales on the sports side of things. I had been living in Boston at the time and came down to visit and would wake up in the morning, the house was just being finalized, and I would see a gentleman in the corner. The first morning I woke up, he got his back towards me. I'm like, who in the world is this guy? And he ended up being, to this day, a good friend, Luke Anderson. He was programming my parents Crestron fully automated home. Again, didn't know much about technology aside from, like, most young guys growing up, love speakers and sound and all that stuff. So anyway, I got to know Luke pretty well. We hit it off, and more importantly, my stepfather and Luke hit it off and ended up becoming business partners. So I go back home, not thinking much of it. In South Florida at that time, there was a huge building boom going on. So I got a phone call, hey, come down, run the sales department. I've been in sales for years. At that point, again, not knowing the industry, I was a little reluctant. But I made the jump and came down in late 2004, early 2005, to come to work for a family owned company. It was truly a baptism by fire. I got right in there. I made my mistakes. I learned as fast as I could. And that company that I came to work for six months later was absorbed by a larger firm in Sarasota. And I had no equity stake in that company. But I was fortunate enough to get a position at the new company, a much larger, well established company. That's really where I cut my teeth. I worked there for a couple of years in the sales capacity, but got to really understand the business inside now. A year in the integration business is like dog years.

Ron:  I think by that math I must be 140 years old.

Mark: Yeah, I feel that way about it. So from there, I went to work for another crosstown integration company. It's really two main players in this area at the time. So I learned what I could learn from both of them and grateful for those opportunities. But I always had an entrepreneurial spirit. I always had like the idea of working for myself at some point in my life. And sometimes it's all about timing. I certainly didn't have the money to start a business, but finally we went through those rough times in eight and into nine and started thinking, if I'm going to do this, now is the time to do it. So put my money where my mouth was. Always thought I could do it better. It all just really fortunate. Maybe it was timing, maybe it was just bringing down some good solid work ethic and high integrity approach to business. We had immediate success right away. The funniest thing, like down here in Florida back then or even now, so it's the Wild West with some contractors. Clients call, they don't call them back. I just could never understand that I would call a client back after they reached out to us and they were so thankful that they got a return phone call. Can you imagine? So I just looked at it like Business 101. I didn't think we were doing anything special aside from being attentive really understanding our business and what kind of integration company we wanted to be from day one. So sorry to go on and on.

Ron:  No, don't be sorry. That's awesome. Tell me, when you did start; Having the capital to start a business is always top of mind, did you go into a friends and family round of collecting some funds or a loan? Or did you cash out your retirement savings? Or you remember back then, what did you do to actually get, I guess, enough capital to have the confidence to start?

Mark: Well, first and foremost, behind every good businessman or business owner is a great wife, spouse, partner, or whatever it may be, husband. So my wife gave me the blessing on this whole thing. And again, looking back at terrible times to start a business, but once I got the approval from her to leave a paid position with some security and do this and self fund it, it was scary times, no doubt about it. They say, what a lot of small businesses fail in the first five years. Of course, I always had that kind of looming over, like a black cloud looming over me. But I believed in myself, I believed in what we were doing. And again, we had some immediate success. So just started gathering some confidence and established some partnerships with local builders and architects and interior designers. And these are people that I'm working with to this day. I mean, great. I consider these folks not only business partners, but close friends and thankful for the opportunities they gave us to talk to their clients.

Ron:  How has the business evolved since you founded it in 09? How has it evolved over the years?

Mark: Well, I don't have an MBA, I'm college educated, but I certainly didn't think we would be where we are at this point. So we're hovering around 25 employees at any given time. We have 50, 60, 70 projects going on. We really expanded the business, and again, I didn't know we would ever be this large. We have found a little bit of a comfort spot, at least for the Sarasota office. We do have an office down in Naples with a few employees down there as well. But again, I thought we would be this little boutique luxury integration company, 8, 9, 10 employees and some opportunities that presented themselves, the right kind of opportunities, and we've had the staff up to support those. It's been great.

Ron:  Now, you guys are, and correct me if I get this wrong. I forgot to put my phone on silent, so apologize for that. But you guys are Double Diamond Lutron dealers, is that correct?

Mark: Yeah. So they call it Black Diamond, which I believe is their highest honor. There may be a secret award that I'm unaware of, but...

Ron:  I might have just invented one. I don't know. Maybe Melissa and team over there are listening. They're like, hey, double diamond, let's do it. So tell me about that. You're consolidating your business there. I mean, that's an impressive throughput in your business. How did that that doesn't happen by accident. That happens through focus and purpose. How do you think about the brands you align with? And what is business like at Lutron?

Mark: Yes. The genesis of this whole partnership with Lutron really comes down to a key employee that we brought on who is celebrating his 10th anniversary with us, and that's Vancouver. He's the director of our lighting and shading department, and he's a Lutron guy through and through. He's been in the industry for many years prior to joining us. But Lutron really is the market leader when it comes to lighting control and shading solutions. So there was no mystery there about who we wanted to align ourselves with. Certainly not a low price point. So right away, you know, that okay, what kind of business we're focusing on and what kind of markets we're focusing on. But we were hyper focused on Lutron even to this day. We've done some Crestron projects, we've done some Control4 projects. I'm not certainly not sparing those guys whatsoever, but once you get in your lane and you get comfort level with a product line and your staff is trained and you have multiple people that can work on that, there's really no reason to veer away from that line unless they give you reason to, and they really haven't. So they put a great product. But what's really allowed us to achieve those numbers is obviously the residential business with the architecture of the homes we're working in. You're talking about a lot of glass waterfront homes facing the water. So shades are not a nice to have. You have to have some level of window treatments. Now, had clients come in over the years, oh, we're paying. We have an amazing window package that's going to cut down the UV layer and the heat and all this. I tell them, Listen, that's great, you should have that. But let me give you a little story here. You go on to explain how other clients have thought that same thing and quickly came back to you after they moved in and said, wow, we should have put shades in day one. So just sharing some of those anecdotal stories. But back to my original point, those shade numbers with Lutron, getting into condominium, luxury condominium and power and MDU developments has been really a great thing for this company. We're really comfortable in that space. I look at it like residential homes is just kind of stacked on top of each other. Yeah, there's a commercial approach and there's some challenges with working in a commercial environment, even just getting to the unit and all that. We understand all the nuance involved in that, but at the end of the day, when it's go time, it's home after home stacked on top of each other. Everybody's moving in at the same time. Everybody's expectations are I want you here yesterday and all this stuff. But think about that. Those are, again, condos facing the water, maximizing their views, all glass. They need shade, they need shading solutions, nutritional, solar, and room darkening shades. Right? That has really, by getting involved in those projects. Our Lutron numbers went through the roof after that. That's not really a secret sauce or hidden secret for people in this area know that's one of our comfort zones is condominiums and towers. We enjoyed being there.

Ron:  I was just in Austin last month in July. We were shooting some new video content for our website product and we were shooting down at the Ketra facility. And so I'm assuming you are also selling or representing Ketra. And if so, I was just curious, how is that going? How does the conversation with the customer go and what's been the general response?

Mark: Yeah, I shared with you earlier, we went down to Austin, I don't know, four or five years ago before they were part of Lutron. I remember leaving that conference of that training and thought, wow, what an amazing technology. Is that someone I thought, some big player, Phillips, whoever, somebody would come in and acquire them or absorb them in some way. But it ended up being Lutron, which is a great marriage, but that circadian rhythm, human centric lighting has been a huge part of our business. I know a lot of integrators that I'm friendly with are the same boat, but that opened up that new frontier of talking about not only controlling lights, but fixture specification, which then brings us into lighting design. So now we're getting into these conversations that years ago we never had, but it's a natural extension. So here's what we ran into years ago. We are controlling lights in a home, but we don't have any control over what kind of lights are going in. So of course we smartened up pretty quickly. Hey, electrical contractor, send us a couple of those recess fixtures you're putting in. Let us bench test them. Let us find out what the dimming capabilities are, what the compatibility challenges may be, and so on. Inevitably, even though we bench tested and we run into some issues at the very end, and we finally decided, you know what, let's start looking at lighting manufacturers that have aligned themselves with the CI channel integration companies, eliminated that middle man, that specifier, and let's do something disruptive here. Let's shake it up a little bit. Let's start talking about fixture specification. Let's have a more in depth conversation about lighting in a home instead of doing the four cans and a fan approach, which is what we were so used to seeing, and I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that. That may be perfectly fine for a lot of clients, but when they're building the level of home they're building and understanding how important lighting a home is, then we started talking about layered lighting and then all of a sudden we were off and running and we brought on a professional lighting designer and that just opened up a whole new world for us. We're talking to clients on a different level earlier on in the process. Now we're selling fixtures and Ketra being one of the more recognizable ones.

Ron:  Do you mind mentioning what are some of the other brand fixtures that you've aligned yourself with that you've had good experiences with?

Mark: Yeah, DMX is a great one. They have a great price point technology. I think they have an eye on our market and understand their housing provide a lot of flexibility. So we may not have all the answers up front, but their housings allow us to make some changes through the course of construction, what kind of light it's going to be, the beam spread, angle, all that stuff. So DMX have been good Tech-Lighting, Elemental, Lucifer, I mean, there's a lot of great manufacturers of lighting out there, and I love where it's all at right now because guys in my industry and gals are embracing it. It's obviously just a whole new frontier for us. For some folks. We've been doing it for a while now.

Ron:  What was the impact when you made the decision to bring on lighting design in house and you started getting into those conversations with the architect and the designers? I'm assuming at now the very beginning of the project, did you see a change in the technology system sales that resulted because you were in so early?

Mark: I don't know if it's that or if it's we're now looked upon in a little different manner, like we are now subject matter experts on fixtures and how to light a home. I think that just lends a lot of credibility. So everything else you're talking about downstream from there, now that you've established that report and that credibility with not only the client homeowner, but again, the architect and the interior designer, now those conversations become much easier. Again, just to reiterate, that credibility is there. They know you have the expertise in house, so I think that's been a good process for us.

Ron:  I'm noticing right behind you and for the folks listening on the podcast, there's a beautiful abstract type painting behind Mark's head. Can you tell us the story of how you landed having different beautiful artwork in your showroom?

Mark: So, again, being in the community that we're in, there's a lot of galleries around us. So we just reached out one day and as we were doing our showroom over during COVID, we had the time to really focus on doing a tech refresh here in the office and the showroom. So we had a lot of open walls and thought maybe we go to a gallery, talk to them about partnering up and having some because our clients are their clients, right? These are the folks that are building beautiful homes that have the wherewithal and the means to buy beautiful pieces of artwork. So reached out, told them our story, had them come in and really give them the ability to say, hey, what do you think should go on that wall, and more importantly, check it out. We can light up with Ketra and look at the difference, the vibrancy levels and all this stuff. And they were like hook, line and sinker. They loved it. It was a great marriage or partnership, if you will, and they rotate artwork through. We've had some clients actually say, I love that piece of artwork in your conference room or your family room. How much is that? And so the gallery got smart and started putting little who the artist was, what the name of the painting was, what the cost was, and all that stuff. It's been a great partnership.

Ron:  I know you're in HTSA. Have you talked to your friends in HTSA and is this a common, it seems so obvious and brilliant to do this. Is this commonly practiced to partner with your peers, partnering with galleries and displaying art in their showrooms?

Mark: Well, I'm sure we're not the first one to do it. I don't know if we've had in depth conversations with our HTSA members, but we have our fall conference coming up, maybe worth mentioning to some.

Ron:  Yeah, it seems like such a neat idea. And then I believe in talking to integrators every day of the week that this circadian, just lighting as a category, I think is one of the hottest categories in our industry. It has been for a while, and I think it probably will be for the foreseeable future. But I'm still always keen to learn how do you engage the conversation of whether it be circadian rhythm lighting or whether it be many of the color belt benefits? And the name is escaping me, but I know with Ketra there's a vibrancy mode on the lighting and it really allows that artwork behind you to really pop.

Mark: Warm dimming is the other big technology, or feature, if you will, with some of these fixtures.

Ron:  So what do you find are the hooks that really get your clients excited that lead to that being included in the project?

Mark: We made a huge concerted effort when we did the showroom over to have literally a lighting lab. So over to my left in the showroom is a lighting and shading lab. And we did a floating cloud ceiling and we put five different manufacturers of lighting over there so they could see different bezels. I think lighting is something you really need to show and tell because you can talk about it in the abstract all you want, but unless you can bring them through a lighting demo and accurately show them how lighting a room, an area, space in their home, could be artwork, could be a sculpture, it could be anything architectural. Unless you can show them again, you may not get the traction that you're hoping for. So whether it be here in the conference room where we did catch on some other lights, the family room, the main show room, and then our lighting lab, it's again, a main point of emphasis and we've created some demo scenes, some curated programming of lighting that we can go through. We're not spending 20, 30 minutes doing it. These short little 92nd, 182nd curated scenes for lighting and walking them through different types of lighting technology. And everybody on the sales staff has had the same training, so we all have the same messaging going on. It's great to see it in action because inevitably clients always are like, yes, that looks amazing, I want that for my home. Or at minimum, they're doing it maybe in the core of their home, the areas that they're going to be living and moving in on a consistent basis. Kitchen, living, dining, master bedroom, master suite, that kind of stuff. Maybe they don't have the budget to do the entire house. Maybe they do an inexpensive recess fixture in the guest bedrooms and outer baths and things of that nature. But you were earlier that lighting is a huge part right now. Everybody is on board with it, and those who are not, I know they want to be. They may be just a little scared to jump over that hurdle and get somebody on board that can get them there.

Ron:  That's awesome. Well, just to connect the dots here, I know within HTSA, lighting has been a big driver. There's been initiatives for training. Was that part of the equation that gave you the confidence or was there any contributing factors there from some of the training or the lighting push within HTSA?

Mark: Absolutely. Shout out to Tom Doherty. I mean, he came on board with HTSA, it has to be three or four years ago now. And his main role was to expose dealer integrators to lighting and help them. He's been a great mentor for me personally, a great guy with a ton of experience. He's forgotten more than probably I know, so he's seen it all. I remember being down here in the early two thousands, and even though he wasn't from here, was brought on as an expert lighting designer for this really large project that was going on on Longbow Key. So he obviously has the expertise, and now he's bringing that expertise and sharing it with everybody in the HTSA channel, which is great.

Ron:  Love it. Awesome. I'm mindful of time and I got a couple more subjects I want to dig into. So let's talk about service after sales service. Well, why don't, why don't you tell us kind of how you handled that in the past and how are you handling that right now?

Mark: Well, up until January 1st of this year, we handled it like most integration companies, which was getting blown up on your cell phone 24/7 for a variety of different technology issues, and handling it as they come in and doing our best to really manage. Even though we had a dedicated support department, it was a week, 365 days a year kind of scenario. So we aligned ourselves with Parasol and we spent many months looking at the program, strategically rolling it out to our clients. As of June 1, we hit the switch. And now all of our clients, whether they subscribe to our Live Smart Care Plan or not, the first line of defense is Parasol. They call in. They've all been communicated to. It's on our email signatures. It's on our website. It's all there. We've done some constant contact marketing campaigns to get the word out, but they call Parasol. Parasol is very transparent. They're not representing that it's Wicked Smart Homes. They're basically saying it's Parasol powered by Wicked smart homes. So anyway, that has been a huge step in the right direction for us. Company morale has gone up. The lines of responsibilities have been clearly delineated. Now, Parasol can't fix all issues, but if we deploy Parasol for our Live Smart Care Plan subscribers, they can get in. They have a pretty good insight as to what's going on, and they can power cycle products, or they can even do it proactively, which I love to see. I get alerts all the time; Client didn't call in. But Parasol proactively is reaching out to them saying, your network's offline. What's going on? Well, hey, I'm not in town. I'm seasonal. I'm back in Michigan. We'll check it out when we get back and so on. Maybe a trip breaker. It's usually not a major ordeal, but that transition has been great. So we have three people in our service department. If Parasol can't fix it remotely, ticket gets issued to us, we call the client. Usually we're out there within 24 hours, and we roll our truck to the house. I won't get into all the ins and outs of the program, but we have a couple of different plans, paid plans, and then of course, our non subscribers, they just get charged on a time basis with the roll truck they're getting invoiced for that.

Ron:  The non subscriber, just to focus on that for a moment, I think this is an idea that a lot of businesses would benefit from. And I haven't seen your plans, by the way, so it's just an idea. So I'm going to tell you what I think I know and then maybe tell me what you guys are doing. But the general concept would be that on Friday at dinner time, your customer calls and they expect service.

Mark: That never happens.

Ron:  Yeah, that never happens. I know everyone listening is nodding their head, oh my God, he understands me. And so the idea is, if you have a plan, even if it's a $0 plan, in your case you called it, would you call it a non subscriber plan?

Mark: Right, essentially

Ron:  Then you've at least defined that if you're a non subscriber, here's how service works. And it might mean that we don't take calls after hours, or it might mean if we do take a call or run a service call, then it's at this billable rate so you can define your TNM rates. Whereas if the customer is a subscriber, there's a different set of parameters. Maybe you do take those technical support calls. So the idea is defining the zero cost package defines the rules of the game so that it then sets the foundation for the customer to understand the value add of paying for a subscription. That's what I believe. And I've coached many of my clients to at least define what service means if they're on the plan or not on the plan. How does that work for you guys if the client is not a paying monthly subscriber of a service and maintenance plan?

Mark: Well, I think some of it comes back to how we rolled out this Live Smart Care plan concept to them. We kept it really simple. It was three columns, non-subscriber and then two paid plans. One is the all in. A majority of our clients are doing the premium plan, the premier plan, which is basically a worry free that we have to roll a truck. They have all the 24/7 remote support they want. If we roll a truck, they get a zero dollar invoice. But we still obviously have record of that, what we did. The whole point of that is that maybe at the end of the year and say, hey, we've been to your house off four or five occasions, we spend a total of 16 man hours, which would have translated into $3,200 in billing and so on, and just trying to give them the emphasis to review the plan itself. But when it comes to non paid plans, we were very clear it was basically features and benefits page with amounts attached to it. While I still think we're providing excellent support for our non subscribers, everything we do, whether it be the remote support side of it or rolling a truck, clearly communicated what those costs are going to be and then they don't have the rich features and benefits that the paid plans have. So for example, I mentioned a lot of our clients are seasonal. One of the things we do prior to them coming back into town is we reach out to them via against a little marketing campaign season, if you will, November through May, whatever April is around the corner and periods of inactivity will definitely cause some problems with technology. So we are proposing, let us know when you're going to come into town. We'll come up to your home and we'll do an audit. We'll go through all the systems and make sure that everything is working. That way, when you come home or Sarasota for the season, you hit the ground running and the network's not down, the cable is working or whatever it may be. So that's just an example of one of the features that a paid client would get versus someone that's not. We still do that for that non paid client. We're just going to charge for that visit?

Ron:  Yeah, fairly charged for it. At what point in the sales cycle... I'll start at your beginning discovery interactions with the clients through the installation and through wrapping up the project. At what phases or steps is the client made aware of the service plan options?

Mark: Well, all new construction projects we're giving away all of our secrets here.

Ron:  That's what we do on this show. Everybody's secrets become public knowledge.

Mark: All new construction projects for us receive one year of our Livesmark Care Plan Premiere Package. So it's already built in, it's baked into the cake. How great is that when you're talking to a client and whether it be just that initial consultation meeting before the house is even out of the ground and tell them, hey, by the way, once everything is all said and done, you move in and we deploy that. Day one, the clock starts ticking and you have 365 days of a worry free maintenance plan. That just gives them a lot of peace of mind and I think, again, lends to differentiating who we are as an integrator versus maybe some competition and it's very well received. Then again, throughout the course of a year, we've had to fix things remotely or on site and try to give them ammunition and show value for them to hopefully renew.

Ron:  I've described this on this show maybe at some point in the past year, but I'll just describe it now. So at my home I built a pool and my pool has a Jandy system on it. I desired like as the customer that trusted this contractor to do this installation. It would have brought me pleasure and frankly, peace of mind to have been able to come onto a service arrangement with that same company and I would have happily paid them monthly to provide that level of service. They simply didn't provide it. Not only did they not ever offer it to me, when I approached them, they said absolutely not. We want nothing to do with servicing this after the fact. It's mind blowing, how many integrators do not provide their clients any plans, any options. If you put in the time to invent the plans, I would just imagine it makes everybody's life better. It makes the client, your client for life with more confidence and it allows you to build a recurring revenue stream, but also with that revenue stream, build a service team that's able to deliver at the highest level of service. Absolutely everybody wins. Why do you think more people in our industry haven't figured this out? It could be just fear of the unknown and that's maybe not an emphasis for their business.

Mark: I don't know how it wouldn't be. I mean, technology is inherently imperfect. We always start by telling clients we're going to have a long-term relationship. Even when the general contract is gone and the architect is gone and the plumber and the electrician. We're the guys that are hanging back, that will always have a long-term relationship with you. So I don't know how these guys wouldn't have the foresight to come up with a plan. It's just beyond me. I mean, I think once you grow, it's a function of growing as a company, and you almost get pushed into it, and you can go into it kicking and screaming. I wouldn't say we weren't quite there, but we were certainly maxing out some key employees with weekends and nights and phone calls, this and that. At least now that first level triage level of support is off our plate and those clients can call in anytime and so on. But back to your point, Ron. How do you move forward? How do you focus on the future when you have a base of clients that you have to support and not have a plan for that?

Ron:  It's beyond me as well. So it sounds like it's just like it's a head scratcher. Last thing I want to jump into, Mark, is the concept of a power plant and the concept of energy storage in the home. I think with or without solar, but the idea that there's a battery and just smart ways to design the protection of electronics and homes, as well as full home backup. I understand that this is a part of your go-forward model. So do you mind just sharing with our audience a little bit about how you're thinking about this?

Mark: Absolutely. We have been Rosewater Dealers for a few years now, and I'm not sure if you're familiar with the product or not, but essentially it's a residential energy management product. The goal of this whole thing is to provide high quality, uninterrupted, reliable power for all of the technology we're providing. Our rack systems, networking, security, lighting control, and so on. Being in South Florida, we have some unique power challenges that I think some integrators in different parts of the country don't even have an eye on. It's constant. First of all, we have an aging infrastructure power grid down here. If you look at some of these neighborhoods that we work in, they're all beautiful waterfront neighborhoods 40, 50 years ago. Those are all ranch style, 1500, 2000 square foot homes that have all been torn down and in place are now five to 1215 thousand square foot houses. So Florida Power and Light, FPL didn't necessarily do any infrastructure or grid improvements. So what I'm getting at is just bad power. Even when it is consistent and reliable, it's still not good power. Voltage dips, spikes wreak havoc with any piece of equipment that has a microprocessor in there, a chip. We've had to overcome this. We've had a couple of projects over the years where large scale, maybe call it a Crestron deployment, video distribution, there's nothing they didn't have in the house. Where we call it gremlins, like, what is going on with this system? Why can't we get reliable results from the system? We have an unhappy client, and we would send tech out after tech and put little band aids on it and do our best and scratch our chin and figure out, what are we doing wrong here, only to realize these were power and grid related issues that have really nothing to do with us. But we didn't have a solution. We didn't have a Middle East from the power coming to the house to our AV racks, like, how do we do that anyway? In comes is Joe Picarelli with a Rosewater product. Now for us, it's a standard. If it's in a state level home with a high level of technology, we are asking the simple question, what is your power plan? I can't imagine every integrator in the country is having that level of discussion with their client, but we are, and it differentiates us, and it helps the client, helps establish from day one that power is something, a major concern that we have to get our hands around. The best way to do it is to introduce Rosewater to the project. So that's where we're at. We've had great success with it. We've installed several, and we have many, many more on coming up on future projects.

Ron:  Is there a notable difference in the service required in the project if it's a home with a Rosewater versus a home without?

Mark: Yeah. We have a job on Casey Key. Which is notoriously power challenge to community or I don't know if you're familiar with that little sliver of land that's just south of us. But we did a full blown Crestron system out there probably a year and a half, two years ago. When I say there's zero service calls, it would normally be a service call a week or once every other week, whatever, zero. We can see the data points when there is a power anomaly because Rosewater gives us great reporting tools if there does something go wrong, which doesn't happen often, but we can directly see the correlation between the two things. So we've seen that original example I was giving you about that large scale project. We put a little voltage monitoring device from Surgex on there, I forget the name of it offhand, but we saw the same data voltage dips and spikes, service call, lightning service, you know what I mean? Just like this repetitive, ongoing vortex of craziness. We tried to introduce that product to the client, and it just never worked out. So it was one of those, okay, well, we identified the issue, and now we know what we have to do to make it right. But we'll keep servicing you, and that's kind of the trap you get stuck in sometimes.

Ron:  Mark, I want to congratulate you and your entire team for running such a fantastic business. Really, with all of your success, it's quite impressive and your willingness to come on here on the show, 221, and share all your secrets, maybe not all your secrets, but some of your secrets. I think the sharing that happens on this show, I think it ultimately makes our entire industry better. That's some of the feedback that I've received from our listeners. So I want to thank you for coming on. How would you have people get in touch with you? Whether it be phone or email or any social handles, what are the ways that people that want to get in touch with you directly could do so?

Mark: Sure, our website is probably the best way. We have a lot of inquiries come in from our contact form on the website, but we're on all the major social media, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, your typical stuff phone number. We get a lot of phone calls too. 941-928-0343 we'd love to have... If there's anybody out there building or doing a heavy renovation, we'd love to talk to you.

Ron:  Awesome! I was just sharing on the screen for our listeners, Mark's website. So I appreciate you. Mark, thank you for joining me here on Automation Unplugged.

Mark: I appreciate the opportunity. Thank you.

SHOW NOTES:

Mark is an accomplished systems integration specialist with 18+ years of experience working with architects, builders and interior designers on large-scale residential and commercial projects for a broad client base throughout the U.S. 

Founded in 2009, Wicked Smart Homes is one of the highest-volume Lutron dealers in the country.  

Ron Callis is the CEO of One Firefly, LLC, a digital marketing agency based out of South Florida and creator of Automation Unplugged. Founded in 2007, One Firefly has quickly became the leading marketing firm specializing in the integrated technology and security space. The One Firefly team work hard to create innovative solutions to help Integrators boost their online presence, such as the elite website solution, Mercury Pro.

Resources and links from the interview:

Mark can be reached directly by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

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