Home Automation Podcast Episode #38: An Industry Q&A With Aaron Cramer
The difference between MDU projects and home installations
This week's home automation podcast features our host Ron Callis interviewing Aaron Cramer. Recorded live on Wednesday, March 21st, 2018 at 12:30 p.m. EST.
About Aaron Cramer
Aaron has been in the CI industry exclusively in the South Florida market since 2005. He spent 6 years at HED South before coming onboard with Acoustic Architects in 2011.
Aaron started as an installer/technician with Acoustic Architects and has moved up the ranks to Director of Operations. He is also responsible for project management of all MDU development.
Typical projects Acoustic Architects take on include under outfitting new construction condos. They also have a residential division that handles high-end projects for large residences and completes some marine and commercial work as well in office spaces in the Miami art district area.
Here are some of the topics Ron had the opportunity to discuss with Aaron:
- Client perception of our industry and how we think wrong as integrators
- How to keep your employees happy
- Details on the latest MDU Projects
- Common software struggles in the CI industry
Ron: Hello out there, Ron Callis with another episode of Automation Unplugged. Episode 38. Automation Unplugged is brought to you by One Firefly. That is my day job. Hope each and every one of you are having a good day. Let me come over and check on Facebook. Let's see if our stream is coming in. Loud and clear. I'm not going to lie. I've been fighting the technology gremlins this morning and let's see if she's working. Come on baby. I actually was talking to my IT guy today and he was telling me that there are solar flares this week and that some of the internet providers around the country are having issues. Yes. It looks like we're coming in. All right. Let me go ahead and bring in our guest. Let me bring in Mr. Aaron Cramer. How are you sir?
Aaron: I'm very well.
Ron: Well, Aaron comes to us. He is the Director of Operations of Acoustic Architects. Certainly one of the largest integrators here in the state of Florida. And these guys are based out of Miami. And is that an accurate statement, Aaron? You guys are a powerhouse?
Aaron: I would say so.
Ron: And I would say so too. You guys are moving and shaking and I'm happy and proud to say I've known you and the owners. I think since the early days maybe since you guys started the business and it's pretty impressive to see where you guys have been taking it, which is pretty cool. So Aaron, you are Director of Operations. What does that mean?
Aaron: That means that besides managing the MDU division, which we'll get into later in this conversation, that just means that I have worn pretty much every hat at our company for the most part. And it really just means that people come to me more for advice. Looking for little quirks to fix here in there and managing, help managing the other managers in the other departments on just day to day operations on what can be fixed. It's more of taking looking at things from above and looking down and seeing not on people but on situations, on certain things that can be fixed here, we're always looking to grow and help make the business run better. So that's what I try to do is look on things and just to make sure that everything is running smoothly and if there's something to fix somewhere, then I give my 2 cents.
Ron: Sure. That's it. That makes sense. Just for the sake of our audience that doesn't know much about Acoustic Architects, can you inform them just a little bit about the business, kind of where you guys are exactly based and what type of projects you guys do?
Aaron: So we are based in Wynwood, it's the art district of Miami. We do MDU, which is entire condos being in the building from the ground up while it's under construction, under outfitting every condo in there. We also have a residential division that handles all the mansions that most of the CI business, same kinds of work. And we also do some marine and a little bit of commercial work, like office spaces and stuff like that.
"It's easy to say yes, I shouldn't say it's easy, but it's the hard part is not getting the job. But it's actually getting out of the job and having made the client happy and made money."
Ron: Okay. And you had well you mentioned MDU, so I know we're going to go peel the layers back on that. That just so happens to be a lot of your bread and butter. And it's funny because so many of your peers in the industry, you know, they take on tower projects or community projects and oftentimes they struggle or fumble. It's easy to say yes, I shouldn't say it's easy, but it's the hard part is not getting the job. But it's actually getting out of the job and having made the client happy and made money. Would you agree that that's kind of the hard part with these big projects?
Aaron: It is. It, you know we come from an industry where we're always catering to the rich and famous per se. And the MDU is completely different. It's when, when you're dealing with these developers and their builders, it's more of a production build. You're going from engineering to pre-wire to trim to installation relatively quickly. Whereas in homes sometimes you know you can pre-wire house and then you're not going and installing speakers and trimming TB locations in that house for a year. So it's really about having, managing the right expectations from the developer and the builders side, having staff that is always motivated because they need to be hands on and they need to be able to communicate. And that's really where I think that we strive where a lot of other people are failing as they try to treat it like any other project that they're doing. And it's not at all. It needs to be treated completely differently.
Ron: Now. And you are managing the production side of that equation? And so therefore I'm giving you credit and if it's not due there, then you can redistribute that credit. But I'm assuming you and your team figured out that it needed to be managed differently. Was that through trial and error or did you come to Acoustic Architects with that knowledge already in place?
Aaron: At my predecessor, I did a little bit of it. Not really entire condos, but more outfitting specific condos that were under contract directly with the client, but the buildings were still in the construction phase. This is something that has definitely been a learning curve for us. But as we progress and go through the buildings one at a time, we definitely learn and apply what we have learned into future projects and ones that are ongoing as well.
Ron: So if you don't mind just for the audience and by the way, if you're out there watching, please like this, share this, give us a comment. Say hello. Give me any questions or type in any questions you want me to read out to Mr. Cramer here. I'd be happy to do so. But Aaron, let's go back in time. Let's go into the way back machine. And how did you get started in this business? You know, I wrote in your bio that you started in 2005, but how did that happen and why have you stayed?
Aaron: I got out of the Israeli military in 2004 and dabbled in retail a little bit, did not like it. I have an uncle in the business that lives down here and works for, happens to be a competitor down here. He brought me down, threw me in an attic trying to discourage me not to get into it. I loved it. And the rest is history really. And I love it more and more every day. I'm one of the few people that are, I feel blessed that I'm able to wake up and enjoy going to work in the morning.
Ron: So you went right from the Israeli military to moving to South Florida and you essentially in terms of your professional career, were born in the CI space. Is that outside of the military? Is that accurate?
Aaron: Professionally, definitely. This is pretty much all I know. Mine is like working during high school and stuff like that and between the army and moving to South Florida, there was six, seven months that I worked in retail and I despised it quite honestly.
Ron: Retail like in a store selling stuff.
Aaron: Yeah. I was an Assistant Manager at a Rite Aid in New Jersey. New Jersey is where I'm from originally.
Ron: Yeah. That doesn't sound that fun.
Aaron: It's not.
Ron: Not as fun as what you're doing now.
Aaron: No, it is not. I love what I do right now.
Ron: That's pretty cool. And you weren't intimidated by crawling through a hot attic here in the state of Florida where it's like a million degrees in an attic?
Aaron: In August. What's to be intimidated about that?
Ron: Oh my God. Last house I had, I remember I had to do some work in my attic pulling some wires. I thought I was going to die. Like my wife's going to like, where? Where's Ron at? I'm going to be like dead up in the attic.
Aaron: I'm a hands on kind of guy. I never you know, I did well in school, but I'm not sit down, read a book and learn how to do something kind of guy on the hands on guy. I loved being a technician. So that really tickled my fancy. So to speak.
"I'm really thinking from a managerial or HR standpoint, right. And it sounds like you were given opportunities to explore or grow within the organization and that takes a bit of in my opinion, good HR management to identify that you could be a good candidate for different roles."
Ron: Now you had mentioned when you, when you were kind of describing your background at acoustic architects that you've moved up through various positions within the company. Can you talk or shed a little light on kind of how that progression happened? And I'm really thinking from a managerial or HR standpoint, right. And it sounds like you were given opportunities to explore or grow within the organization and that takes a bit of in my opinion, good HR management to identify that you could be a good candidate for different roles. And then to give you the opportunity. How did that all happen?
Aaron: Well, I was hired by the principals back in 2010, '11 and I was hired as a technician, came on board as a technician. I was a technician here for probably about 9, 10, 11 months promoted to project management and then Senior Project Manager and then moved up to operations. Did that, am still doing that. And then the MDUs fell in our lap. And kind of decided to do both just because we were growing, we hired more project managers, so we were kind of able to say, okay, let's split this up. We have two Project Managers that will handle the residential side and Aaron Cramer handled the MDU side because it really is a full time job. So that's kind of how that worked in a nutshell. I will say that I moved up pretty relatively fast, but it's really because of Acoustic Architect's growth that allowed me to do so. I have one of the longest 10 years at Acoustic Architects right now and I've seen them go through a lot. When I started with the company, we were 12, 14 of us. Now we are north of 35. So our growth has also allowed for my growth.
Ron: No, that's it. What do you attribute the growth of the organization? Is it your sales and marketing techniques? Is it being in a great market place at a great time? You know, what's your perception of you guys and your extraordinary growth? How that's come about.
"The more business we can grow, the more people we can hire, the more salesmen we can hire, the more time that the owners of the company have time to go and work on our brand and putting our name out there."
Aaron: It's definitely the two things you've mentioned. I will say that our staff has allowed for growth. Also our installation department is by far second to none. So the more work that they are able to do with the project management team allows us to take on more business and to grow our business. And the more business we can grow, the more people we can hire, the more salesmen we can hire, the more time that the owners of the company have time to go and work on our brand and putting our name out there.
Ron: From a Director of Operations standpoint, you manage people or you work alongside your project managers, is that inaccurate in terms of structure of the company?
Aaron: I try to guide them without micromanaging them.
Ron: Yeah. So do you mind talking a little bit about that? I mean, like a lot of the folks watching this might be, you know an owner and a crew or two and an office person. And they might be looking to grow to the point where they can then, you know, say have a project manager, have a couple of project managers, what are some of the techniques you use in terms of working with your peers or managing your staff?
Aaron: Well I tried to make it fun, so I first I like to visit them on sites a lot and do their walkthroughs with them, not just as a silent person, sitting back, just watching, observing. And then I like to sit with them mostly in social settings. Whether it's going out to bar, taking them out to lunch and given them the constructive criticism as well as praise in the social setting. Because I kind of feel that people are more receptive to that when you reserve a conference room and then sit down and it kind of feels formal and I feel when it's in more of a friendly atmosphere, people tend to grasp what you're trying to say to them more. It becomes more of an open dialogue than I don't want to use the word reprimand because that's not what it is, but more than constructive.
Ron: Constructive criticism, how to get better.
Aaron: Yeah. So I really, I like to do it more socially than anything.
Ron: Yeah. In terms of reviews, I mean, I don't want to get too technical here, but do you actually do like formal reviews once a year or a couple of times a year where you might sit down?
"We like to give our project managers a lot of leeway to make the right decision. And even if they're not making the right decision we'd like to let them make the wrong decision as long as it's not something catastrophic. It's not a catastrophe. Then we like to make them listen. I believe that people learn when they fail from their experiences."
Aaron: We do annual reviews, once a year? Those are definitely not social settings. Those are sitting at the office, sitting just myself and appear upper level management peer. That's when we review project managers. We let the project managers review the technicians because ultimately they're the ones dealing with them on a daily basis, visiting them on job sites. So we like to give our project managers a lot of leeway to make the right decision. And even if they're not making the right decision we'd like to let them make the wrong decision as long as it's not something catastrophic. It's not a catastrophe. Then we like to make them listen. I believe that people learn when they fail from their experiences. That's really when the best lessons are learned
Ron: In my opinion. I think that's sage advice. Do you mind talking about some of the perks or programs that you guys have in place that are used as an incentive or a driver for performance?
Aaron: Well, so we give every employee.
Ron: Don't give away any secrets that will get you in trouble. But if you don't mind speaking publicly..
Aaron: No. We give every employee their birthday paid off. I'd like to think that that's a nice perk.
Ron: That's a fantastic perk.
Aaron: What else do we do? So we do..
Ron: I can't think of another integrator I've heard that does that. That's pretty cool.
Aaron: We also like to do social events. So we have monthly meetings. The whole company, we bring in food and beers and drinks. But every January we do a company meeting that we kind of look back at the previous year. I think most improved, most valuable. So those people that win that are on the installation team, those individuals get taken to CEDIA with us, which is a huge perk for them. And it's nice because they like to see all the things and not just think it's for management or sales. It's really a boost to morale we've seen across the board. So we just happened to be in Nashville for the Pro Source Summit a couple of weeks ago and I had three guys with me that really took a lot from it and liked it and they appreciated the experience. The reason that they did Nashville Summit is because obviously we were hit during the city around the time by Hurricane Irma. So no one from South Florida was really present at CEDIA from what I have heard, us included.
Ron: Yeah. yeah, I agree. I went of course. And one of the benefits of One Firefly, we decentralized our business back in 2015. So most of my staff is spread out throughout the country. But the few of my Florida team that did go ended up, it was bittersweet. The sweet part was they got stuck in San Diego for a week. Yes. That wasn't so bad, but they weren't home and everyone wants to be home. So it was a little bit of bitter there. Aaron, you are managing a lot of projects, your company's managing a lot of projects. Do you mind from an infrastructure or software management tools, software side of the equation, you mind sharing any of your successes or failures around tools that you guys have tried to Institute to help you run the organization?
Aaron: Well, there have been many, many growing pains and software's kind of a sore subject because I feel that our industry as a whole, there is no one platform that does everything that we need. We use, for example, Project X 360 for scheduling and service invoicing and things of that nature. And then there's another software for simply reliable for proposal building for CRM. So if there's any software people listening, this is a good opportunity to try to develop something that will integrate all that with QuickBooks, with inventory management with. Integrators would love to have something that does everything in one software. Excuse me.
Ron: Do you find that the software partners you currently have are receptive to your feedback or your group's feedback in terms of the things you need the software to do that maybe it doesn't do today?
Aaron: Receptive. Absolutely. I just don't think necessarily that their timelines, I don't think they necessarily may see the urgency as much as the integrator sees the urgency and needing something. Obviously there's more to it than just us asking. But usually when it's us asking, it's because it's been missing and we need it like now, but I guess that's how we feel when our clients ask us for now.
Ron: So I want to jump into another topic and I'm cognizant of time and we did get started late because of the internet issues here at my house. And so I'm appreciative of your patience, Aaron, and I know I need to get you out of here quickly or sooner than later. But you know, I teach courses at CEDIA and this particular topic I'm about to mention has been very top of mind for me for many years. And so I'm curious what your thoughts are around it. As Director of Operations for a fast growing company with a lot of moving parts, including on the sales side of the front, you know, the front end of the business, how do you or what ideas have you guys implemented to help coordinate the sales? I mean the scoping and the commitments that are made so that when those projects are in fact sold, that operations feels, they know exactly what was expected and they feel that all the appropriate labor contributions and hardware are in fact accounted for. So thus the profit could, you know, the project could be profitable. A lot of times there's a oil and water sort of hand off between sales and operations.
Aaron: So we do something called a kickoff meeting. Some companies call it a kickstart meeting. What it is, is once proposals and contracts are signed, then all the players for that project, whether it be sales, engineering, inventory management, project management, of course, sit down at a table, go through proposals with a fine tooth comb, make sure that all the equipment's there, make sure the correct labor is suspect. So everyone's on the same page. So we pride ourselves in doing that and no project gets started without it.
Ron: What about, I want to go a little bit prior to that now and I appreciate that. So you have a project kickoff meeting between sales and production. All right. So prior to that, when the sales person is out there meeting with the customer in the very first meeting, meeting, number one, don't know what the person's going to buy anything or not. How is the sales team getting an understanding of the client's willingness to commit at certain financial levels? And so what does that look like within your organization? And I know you've been a part of, you've seen a lot of different ways this can happen. So I'm curious what you recommend maybe even as the best practice there.
"A lot of a salesman get caught up in talking too much when they should be listening to what the client wants."
Aaron: Listening, listening, listening. A lot of time, in my opinion, I am not a salesperson, but in my opinion a lot of a salesman get caught up in talking too much when they should be listening to what the client wants. And at the end of the day, I don't think clients care necessarily about the black boxes that we put in a closet or they just care more about the experience and the integrator doing what they said. And then once the contract's done providing the service that they promised when they got the job
Ron: And that listening to get specific, do they then go and leave that meeting and then send, you know, get back in touch with the customer with some detailed proposal? Or are they just trying to communicate approximate budget and scope outlines?
Aaron: Probably a combination of both. I mean, there is a proposal that's generated with those black boxes on there. Because most people, let's face it they didn't get to where they are by not going, not having attention to detail. So they do want to know what they're paying for. But I really think that the items on proposals, I think we're kind of doing it all wrong. I don't think that people really care about those things. I think that people spending the kinds of money they do in our channel really care about, okay, I want music here, I want music here, I want TVs here and I want to be able to control the lighting and the temperature. And the spa jets, they don't care about if it's Harman that does it or if it's Crown Audio or if it's Sonance or Rebel, they care that it's there. Obviously they care if it costs, if it's a $200,000 audio system versus $1,000 audio system. But in the grand scheme of things, it's all about the experience and the lifestyle more than it is anything else.
Ron: So I'm going to close on this. What is some advice you have for that business that has desire to say, break out of that 5 to 10 man structure and revenue to, you know, become a 10 to 20 person company. What would be some, you know, lessons you guys have learned over the years that if they knew that right now they probably could break out.
Aaron: Customer service! Almost every integrator that I know spends most of their, most of their business is generated by word of mouth. We're not door to door salesman, focus on customer service. The better service that you can provide your customers, the more susceptible they are to telling their friends about you and about the experience that they had. And especially in a market like Miami where everyone is trying to outdo each other, it's kind of easy. But customer services by far, if it's not your number one than it needs to be.
Ron: Awesome. Aaron, short and sweet my man. I promised you I would try not to make it a long one. And this has been dense with a lot of nuggets of gold in here. So I'm glad I ran into you recently at the Pro Source Summit out in Nashville and we got to connect and I appreciate your willingness to come on Automation Unplugged.
Aaron: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
Ron: Awesome. Thank you, Aaron.
Ron: All right folks. That is going to be it for another episode of Automation Unplugged episode 38. That was Aaron Cramer with Acoustic Architects. Really an awesome integration firm based here out of Miami. I was talking to Aaron before we got started. I've watched that from kind of from their humble beginnings really become one of the dominant players here in South Florida. And they do model a lot of characteristics both from sales and marketing to operations. The way they handle multiunit buildings, may have thousands of units under contract right now in high rises. And Aaron is very humble, but he's managing quite an operation there from production and making it look easy. So a big firm believer that we can learn from each other. And it's why I have these guests on so that if you're out there listening, hopefully you found some value in this conversation. Thanks for listening and I will see you guys and gals next time. Thanks so much.
Aaron started with Acoustic Architects in 2011 and moved up the ranks. He was hired as an installer/technician and is now Director of Operations as well as PM of all MDU deployment. Aaron's background in the industry started in 2005 with HED South.
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.