The Business of Custom Integrator Business
It’s a fairly common problem: An integrator – often a hands-on type with years (or even decades) in the field -- starts his or her own business. That transition from technician to desk, from labor to management, from order-taker to order-giver can be fraught with issues.
How does one manage their time properly? How does someone who’s never led a team learn how to lead? And how do the fundamentals of issues as necessary as keeping the books in order get addressed while a new firm is getting up and running?
The slate of courses at CEDIA 2017 in San Diego has many training opportunities that address the business side of technology integration – and some of these challenges are faced by firms both old and new.
One example: What are the qualities that one needs to develop to manage a staff?
O, Captain …
Larry Heuvelman’s logo includes a hat.
“It’s the Owner’s Hat,” explains Heuvelman, who’ll be teaching a CEDIA Course called “Being a Good Boss” in San Diego. Heuvelman’s come up with a pretty slick acronym to define the different hats members of an integration firm might wear – the roles in a company can be expressed as “MOPEDS:”
Wearing that owner’s hat correctly is key to good management, says Heuvelman. When he’s presented with the notion that no job is too little for the boss – and that the act of picking up a broom and sweeping the shop floor might inspire loyalty – Heuvelman is contradictory.
“No. You wouldn’t see a CEO mopping up the lobby of his or her building, would you? That CEO won’t be CEO long,” he notes.
It’s sometimes a tough leap for integrators who started in the field – when that individual becomes the head honcho, having a history of hands-on, in-the-field work experiences can be distracting.
“I’ve spoken to people who say they’re just going to go and cover someone else’s job at a site for one day – which turns into two, then a week – and they’re not paying attention to marshaling the sales team or keeping an eye on workflow.
“And you know what happens next, right?”
That desire to get out and pull some cable when things get busy instead of bringing in new talent dovetails into another issue that Heuvelman’s noted: firms becoming “anorexic,” too understaffed to be effective. Heuvelman cautions that a good owner-operator needs a stack of vetted candidates’ next to the phone – when the workflow turns into a flood, it’s time to bring in more help.
In addition to the advice above, the “Being a Good Boss” coursework that Heuvelman’s developed for CEDIA 2017 will include the 30,000-foot view of the characteristics that make for the best Big Kahunas:
“Owners need to be leaders,” says Heuvelman, “and to do that, they need to keep this checklist in mind.”
Be Accountable – First to oneself, then to others. Plans are great, but they’re nothing without follow-through.
Be a Role Model – But don’t become too familiar with your employees. (Heuvelman cautions that keeping work “work” is important.)
Be a Person of Character and Integrity – “I believe in practicing being the person I want to be.”
Exhibit Leadership – Simply put? Be a mentor.
Another common error that Heuvelman sees: “I’ve worked with many owners who are afraid to hire ‘A’ quality people for their organization, whether because of money or intimidation.
It’s a mistake, and Heuvelman has a pithy way to sum it up: “If you find and pay more for the right quality person and let them do their job, they will help you make money, if you hire a lesser person, they may cost you money.”
Another tidbit from Heuvelman: Find someone to handle the books. While Heuvelman suggests that hiring the proper part-timer’s a great option, there are digital versions available.
Hitting the Books
The always-entertaining Leslie Shiner has some thoughts about the accounting program called Quickbooks:
“The best thing about Quickbooks is that it’s so flexible, you can do anything at any time.
“The worst thing about Quickbooks is that it’s so flexible, you can do anything at any time.”
Shiner, who’s been teaching courses for CEDIA since the 2003 trade show, this year adds a pair of workshops to the San Diego show: Managing for Profitability with Quickbooks, 1 and 2. The courses are two of a series, both dealing with various aspects of Quickbooks. Shiner’s learned how to wrangle the platform specifically for the unique needs of the user in the CEDIA channel.
Shiner explains: “I’ve been using Quickbooks since it was introduced. A lot of it was trial and error, but a lot of it was also working backward. What do you want to know, and how can we get it to give you that information?” After reverse-engineering numerous outcomes that would be of interest to a technology integration firm, Shiner split the classes into Part 1: Accounts, Items, Jobs, and Estimates; and Part 2: Invoicing and Job Cost Reports.
“Quickbooks can be an excellent tool for accounts and project management – but only if it’s a) set up correctly, and b), you follow the rules,” she cautions.
Some common errors that can trip up unschooled users?
“Often people will try and do job costing in their chart of accounts,” says Shiner. “You end up with a P&L that’s 16 pages long and doesn’t tell you what you need to know.”
“The second class, part two, has to do with invoicing and job cost reports. What’s the best way to invoice your clients? How do you deal with CEDIA-specific issues – customer deposits, for example? How can you get job-cost reports that tell you what you want to know?”
Shiner knows all about the pitfalls: She was initially a consultant to both the construction and non-profit fields. “Unfortunately, they’re very similar,” she jokes. As for those in the CEDIA Channel, “These companies have a lot of the same issues as contractors, but some have a retail component, some have a manufacturing component – they’re all unique, complex businesses even when they’re small.”
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