What did you do before you were in custom integration? Talk about how you got interested in doing this work – and as you gained experience, what it was that you felt you were able to offer clients that was unique in the field.
I didn’t exactly come up the “normal” way. Before I started my career in custom integration, I worked as an electrical engineer at General Motors. Growing up in Michigan, it felt like everyone I knew either worked at GM or Ford, and my family happened to be GM people. I went to school at General Motors Institute (Kettering University) and even wrote my thesis on local area networking, but my passion all along was the software machine interface. After graduation, I joined GM’s Plant Automation division and moved to different parts of the country including Syracuse, New York, which, coincidentally, was where I completed my thesis. After a short stay in Syracuse, I landed in Boca Raton, where I worked as the key technologist building GM/EDS’s development center practice at IBM. Meanwhile, at home, I was always playing around with high-end audio and using my electrical engineering background to build control systems.
After 15 years in that role, I found myself in Silicon Valley and decided to join a start-up software company as they went public. I also became a co-founder for a company that did e-commerce on websites during the “dot-com era.” Eventually I moved from Silicon Valley back to Boca and I decided I didn’t want to move again so that I could raise my family. I was finally able to fuel my passion for luxury A/V, control systems, high-end audio, and touch-screen control. As I built Boca Theater & Automation, I often looked back on my previous positions and realized how important it was to establish reliability. Everyone feels some frustration when things don’t work so I always made it a priority to incorporate enterprise-class networking. When we first started in 2003, we were doing Audio over IP, VPNs, and high-end networking which no one was really doing at the time.
As a well-respected integrator in the industry, I would guess that you have made it a priority from your very early days in business to communicate and interact with the architect, builder and interior designer communities. How did you learn to navigate those relationships well in your outreach to these disciplines? And what has been most effective for you in extending your business with the help of these partners?
In a way, I felt like my engineering background was a bit of a weakness for me when I first started Boca Theater & Automation. Being new to the custom integration space, I didn't have many relationships with designers, architects, and homebuilders. Around the time we first started the company, we just happened to be in the right place at the right time when some new homes were popping up. I introduced myself to the builder and was fortunate enough to attract some business from the new residents. I was hyper-focused on doing the best job possible in hopes that clients would be happy enough with the outcome that they’d mention us to their neighbors down the street. Sure enough, they did. Word of mouth became so valuable to us that we actually credit it with helping us through the 2008 housing market crisis. We also have our customers to thank for introducing us to their own architects and interior designers that worked on their homes. As we’ve developed in our business, we’ve begun actively trying to make these connections, though recommendations from clients remain our leading source of new business.
Having that engineering background as a technology integrator led us to some interesting relationships with manufacturers. I became known as the go-to guy for opinions on their products. I would take something home, use it, then write up an article with my feedback—and I wasn’t afraid to be 100% honest. The products I truly believed in then became the ones that I would suggest to clients. Still today, I tend to do a lot of “lab testing” to ensure that I’m offering people a product that I would use in my own home. Being able to maintain these leads with manufacturers and actually have a say with some of their products is really what has kept us on the leading edge.
Talk a bit about your physical presentation for clients. How does your showroom convey the possibilities of connected technologies to clients who may not be familiar with them?
We like to say that if there were a shower in the facility, you’d be able to live there. We have a state of the art kitchen, luxury bathrooms, a Dolby Atmos 4K home theater, a video wall, and then obviously, meeting rooms and offices. The showroom is very much like our lab and everyone that works here knows how to operate all of the different technologies that we’ve built in. My theory is that when someone calls in to our office, they shouldn’t be bounced around until they find someone that knows what they’re talking about. Everyone on our team from the accounting department to the marketing department and everyone in between is essentially living as they would in a high-end residence. Not only does this show clients that these technologies aren’t intimidating, but it also helps us to speak about products from a place of knowledge and passion.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic shifted your strategies and workflow? And on the flip side, what have you noticed your clients are prioritizing during this time?
Luckily, the whole Boca team was able to easily transition into remote work. We had all been using video conferencing phones on a daily basis before all of this started so it has become second nature to us. Realizing that this wasn’t the case for many companies, we really wanted to share our tips and tricks for working from home, so we created a seminar about how to achieve the ultimate home office. We went over topics like multi-monitor screens, video conferencing phones, motorized shades to eliminate glare, air filtration, and more.
As far as business goes, we’ve noticed that most customers are focused on replacing products out of need right now as opposed to upgrading just to have the latest technology. Since the pandemic started, we’ve received a number of call-ins from people whom we hadn’t previously done business with but who just needed little things done around their house. We wanted to come up with a solution that would help the most people while keeping prices transparent and affordable. After throwing around some ideas, we were actually inspired by our painter who offers his services on a daily basis at a fixed rate as opposed to measuring spaces and giving estimates. We came up with our own version to “rent” a technician an hour, a morning, or an afternoon for a fixed price. Customers can pre-pay for however long they think they may need and when the tech gets to their home, they just let them know what they need done. If at the end of time frame the customer feels they need more, then they can add the additional time that is needed to get the job done.
What is your next big strategy? Are you planning in the future to expand your scope of services and if so, in what ways? What don’t you offer that you might add?
After two and a half years in the making, we recently launched our Outdoor Division that will allow people to be outside for 12 months out of the year here in South Florida. We offer landscape audio and lighting, outdoor TV and projection, and motorized pergolas, and thanks to our hardscapes partner, we also do artificial turf, putting greens, and all of the A/V and entertainment systems that go along with it. The goal for the Outdoor Division was to make an outdoor space feel as comfortable as the inside with proper shelter and entertainment. We know a lot of people may not be able to go on vacation this year, but we hope that we might be able to offer a “stay-cation” to our customers that is safe and fun so that families can continue to create memories with their loved ones, even if they’re at home.