Archive for September, 2010
A “perfect storm” is what happens when unrelated events converge to result in something great. Or awful, as the case may be, but this is about the great.
Smart Construction Software LLC makes software for construction companies. Smart Construction Software is the result of a perfect storm that developed over the entire span of my life. Or even before that.
My father grew up in a Finnish community in Vancouver Washington. His father was a builder, so my father grew up building, and built his first house when he was 17. I grew up doing construction too, and seeing first hand where that would get me, I was inspired to go to college and learn to program computers!
So I became a computer programmer and went to work for businesses designing and developing software to make the business more efficient, organized, and profitable. Over a period of about 20 years I worked for a for a number of different companies in a wide variety of industries. While the business environments varied from one to another, the basic theme was the same: design procedures to improve operations, and develop tools to automate those procedures. I had found my niche. I loved my work, and I was good at it.
Then my wife and I bought a house that needed major remodeling before we could move in. And so gathered the clouds of the perfect storm that brought us Smart Contractor.
My contractor was great, as contractors go, but… how can I say this… A 20 year veteran business organization and management analyst oversees a typical 1990’s construction contractor operation… Lets just say that I observed a lot of issues with potential for improvement in the way of organization and documentation.
OK, I’ll be blunt… My contractor was a very nice and easy going guy, but the whole thing drove me nuts. Nothing was documented, or if it was, the numbers involved were “rough” and constantly changing. I had no idea what the schedule was, what to expect when, or whether we were on track for completion in time for our impending move in date. Every time I received a request for payment, it was more than I expected, and lacked any documentation. It was like I had to re-negotiate the contract with every invoice – after the fact.
I came to understand first-hand why so many people have told me that, after having been through it once, they would never do a custom home construction or remodel project again.
And this is understandable. Major purchases are stressful for everyone. Even when what you’re purchasing is intact, standing in front of you where you can see it and touch it. Like a car.
But even more stressful is a major purchase – the largest purchase of your life – for something that’s not there yet. And you’re putting that investment in the hands of who?A contractor? A guy in a ball cap who gives you no schedule for completion, no documentation of what it will cost, or why it costs more than expected.
So I did some research to find affordable, usable software for small construction contractors that might help solve some of these issues, and I was surprised to find very little. There were programs that did bits and pieces, but the only things out there that came close to doing everything that’s needed cost tens of thousands of dollars.
A perfect storm; the convergence of my life’s two careers. I grew up doing construction into my twenties, so I new a lot about it. Then I built a career designing computer software for businesses. Then I came back to construction and found a monumental opportunity.
So I talked to my contractor about the idea of designing and developing software, and he said “How soon can you have it ready?”
So I set about working on the first version of Smart Contractor, and my contractor was my first user.
Except back then it wasn’t called Smart Contractor. We started out calling it “Contractor’s Edge”; a catchy and descriptive name I thought. It would have stuck except that neither the domain name or trademark were available. If you’ve had any experience coming up with either, you know how hard that is. But I digress.
Our original aim was to design a program to address problems I had experienced as the client of a contractor. My contractor needed an easy way to document and communicate details of the job to the customer. The reason there was a lack of documentation and accounting as the job progressed is because there was a lack of documentation of what the job entailed to begin with. So the first thing needed was a job estimate.
So the first version of the program provided a way to enter and print a job estimate. The “tree” structure of the item list allowed for flexibility in the level of detail in any particular job item.
My contractor’s first response to the program was mixed. On the one hand, he now had a way to itemize and define all of the details involved in a job. On the other hand, there are a lot of details in a job project, and entering all of that information takes a lot of time.
The solution was to make it easy to “clone” new job estimates from old job estimates. And make it easy to import job cost data from a variety of external data sources, like National Estimator, RS Means cost data, product price lists from building materials suppliers, and take-off lists from CAD design systems like Xactimate, AutoCAD, Chief Architect, Cadsoft Envisioneer, and electronic take-off systems like On-Center, Planswift, eTakeoff, and SoftPlan.
And then, OK, this is a great construction management system with all that data in it, but now do I have to enter all of that again into QuickBooks? Well, OK, we’ll integrate it with QuickBooks, so now you only have to enter the data once.
And so began the process in which Smart Contractor has lived and grown for over 7 years: Show it to a contractor; they like it, but they want something added. In the early years, a lot of that was because there’s a lot involved in the construction business, and there’s a lot that a software system needs to do to support that. But even as basic functionality was completed, it became obvious that every individual business is a little different. Either they have a little different business focus, or they do things a little differently than other companies. So it has still been necessary to add configuration options to allow users to conform the program to their specific needs.
The years of enhancing and refining Smart Contractor has been a long road, but the result is very successful program that is well liked by all of the companies who are using it.
In my last entry, I talked about how the “perfect storm” of my background in construction and business software development came together to create Smart Contractor. I’d like to mention yet another major front that has converged on top of that.
Before we started developing Smart Contractor, I wondered if it wasn’t too late to be starting a new construction software company. But the longer we worked with contractors, the more I came to realize that, if anything, we were too early. I figured out that the people who own and manage construction businesses didn’t go into construction because they wanted to use a computer. So selling and training industry specific software to contractors has been a bit like herding cats. (No offense guys.)
Another big issue is that, in the hay days of the construction boom, everyone in construction had more business than they could handle, and the last thing on their mind was what they needed to do to make their business more organized and efficient. After all, if you’re busy, you’re making money, right?
So, while the construction boom was booming, not a lot of construction businesses were interested in construction software. Then the bubble burst, and while the market was in free-fall, again, not a lot of construction businesses were investing in a business that they didn’t know would be around in a month or a year.
But eventually everything landed, somewhere. Some contractors went out of business, and some landed on their feet. In spite of the turmoil and angst, life goes on. Wealthy people are still building custom homes. Empty nesters are still moving out and selling. And young families are still remodeling older homes. And construction companies are still doing the work.
But one thing has changed. The housing boom is over, and we are not likely to see another one like it in our lifetime. So construction companies who are still in business (or new ones starting) are now living in the real world. Which means they need to do what other businesses need to do to succeed. They need to be organized, efficient, and competitive. And these days, there’s only one way to do that: by using industry specific software – software that was designed for your business.
So the third front that has converged, with perfect timing to coincide with the maturation of Smart Contractor, is the fact that there is a new market for software for small construction companies. All of those companies who surfed the wave of the construction boom without balancing a check book are now looking for new ways to tighten their belt, improve their efficiency, and serve their customers better. And Smart Contractor is right there, right now, getting the job done.
In the entries that follow, I will discuss many of the issues and details involved in the construction business. But before we get bogged down in details, I think it’s worth taking an overall look at why construction businesses need to use industry specific software in the first place.