The Beginnings of Simpro - the Acorn Software Story

By: Nolan LeSueur

Stephen Bradshaw started Quantum Electrical and Data in 1999 after selling his English contracting business and migrating to Australia. Always interested in computers, Steve was keen to find a software suite to run his business. Unable to find anything that would provide an end-to-end system, he bit the bullet and decided to write his own program.

"Quantum's needs were just as complex as they are for larger businesses: we needed to dispatch employees and contractors, generate computerized work orders, control our service expenses, track our customers and how many billable hours, parts and third party service expenses we were providing to them; however there was nothing affordable that addressed all the needs of a busy professional trade business," Bradshaw says.

Here's the rest of Stephen's story...

In the first three months, our new programmer Vaughan McKillop created a scheduler that gave our technicians easy access to the work they had to do. From a management perspective, it let me see exactly who was available, for what job, and when.

It made an immediate difference to the business because we were now able to tell our customers exactly when a job would start and who would be doing it. That alone was revolutionary. Excited by what Vaughan had achieved, yet knowing we could achieve far more, we began to take a closer look at what this new tool could be expanded to do.

For the next four years, we looked at every aspect of the business and worked out how it could be made simpler. Every process, every function the business performs, was itemised, designed and built into the program to make Quantum as efficient as we could.

We had also decided that whatever we developed had to allow us to manage the business from anywhere, not just from a PC in the office. That's why we chose a browser based, instead of a server-based, platform. It meant we didn't have to be in the office to see what was going on. We could log in from home or from a jobsite; anywhere there was an Internet connection.

From the scheduler, we added an estimating module. This allows us to estimate any job quickly and easily; it pulls prices from supplier catalogues and lets us select regular assemblies from a list of pre-builds.

To give you an idea of how easy it is for us to estimate a project; 10am one Monday morning we got an email asking us to tender for a project. The closing date was 2pm that day. We had just 4 hours. One person was able to get the necessary supplier prices, load everything into the software, work out a price and email to the client by 2pm. Two days later, we had a reply email awarding us the job. It's value? Over $150,000.

Another large tender for work across 85 Telephone exchanges came in. We were quickly and easily able to set up 85 sites within one file; put all the materials and labour into 'prebuilds' and within six hours, again with one person on the task, we had the quote - over $250,000 - prepared and sent. Again, we were successful.

Over time, we added a significant mobility capability, meaning that our technicians could log on to our site via their mobile and download their jobs for the day. When they've finished, they log on again, sign off and the invoice is sent immediately - even by email if the customer prefers. Travelling time was reduced because there was no longer the need to come back to the office at the end of the day or in the morning.

Even nicer was that cash flow improved because invoices were getting out quicker. We certainly hadn't anticipated that!

What's also nice from an admin perspective is that there are no more job cards; in fact nothing is done manually any more.

We dispensed completely with our warehouse too - whenever we need stock, we check the vans electronically and either stock-transfer what's needed or email an order to our supplier with a copy to the electrician so he knows what to pick up, and where. Stocktakes are a breeze; once they took two days, now they take a couple of hours.

The efficiencies we created were enormous and had impact way beyond what we had originally intended. One of the most significant has been that because we decreased both travelling time and paperwork, we were able to bill more hours each week.

Where previously we had billed 80 - 85% of available hours, we were now able to bill 95% and that had a significant impact on our bottom line. To this day, we still bill 95% of available hours every week.

The admin aspect of the business became easier, too. We wrote an interface to enable us to import and export data from MYOB which eliminated the need to manually transfer financial data from one package to the other.

At this stage, our team was made up of me, my co-director Graeme McNicholl, Vaughan and ten electricians. One admin support officer handled all the phone calls, did all the scheduling and all of the accounts. I didn't know of any other comparable business that was being run with just one admin person.

At this time, Quantum's main business was in project work and in sub-contracting to other larger contractors. I started talking to customers about how they could log into our site to do their own quotes, book jobs and check work in progress.

When other contractors saw our system, they wanted the same capability. This presented us with a problem... Did we want to give away this wonderful competitive edge - this tool that had cut Quantum's admin expenses by half, reduced estimating time by over 70% and saved us thousands in stock (Quantum's only warehouse was the shed in the backyard; the entire business was run from my home) or did we want to keep it to ourselves?

The financial aspect helped us decide! The development cost by this time had escalated to about $75,000 so we decided to offer it for sale.

This began our venture into the world of software sales - and we were hopeless at it! We hired a marketing manager and he helped us by writing adverts and explaining how we should go about selling the product. We set up a new Company, Acorn Software, and needed a brand name. A brain-storming session resulted in the name, "Service Industry Manager Professional" which was shortened to simPRO.

We continually consult with service and contracting industry leaders from the electrical, security, fire, air conditioning, cabling and other service provider sectors to identify exactly what they need in a management system. Their ideas and suggestions are all evaluated against the question, "Will most users benefit if we add this function?" and we incorporate those that pass the test.

Today, some 7 years later, we have installations in every state, we have expanded into a two-storey office at Coopers Plains where Quantum and Acorn exist side-by-side.

Acorn Software now employs a general manager, a project manager, a workflow specialist, six programmers and a support team of installers. Over 200 companies from a broad range of service based industries have installed simPRO. The product is in a constant and never-ending state of improvement as the result of a highly active users forum where users discuss what changes and improvements they would like to see.

The result is that in April 2007, we launched an entirely new simPRO and all of our supported users were automatically upgraded without cost. Interest in the product is spreading, with enquiries from New Zealand and the UK.

Today, Stephen's time is focused predominantly on simPRO's future. With a turnover already in excess of $1million per year, the future both here in Australia and overseas, that future is very bright indeed.

To contact us at simPRO - please call on 1300 139 467 from within Australia.

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