Health Tech Comes of Age: How The SOHO Shop Determined an Aging-in-Place Tech Business Model
How one enterprising IT consultant harnessed converging technologies to create two flourishing businesses, pioneer digital health innovation, and assist seniors and their caregivers with The SOHO SHop and SmartCare.
April 24, 2015
“Necessity is the mother of invention” could not be a more perfect idiom to describe the genesis of Bryan Jefferson’s two St. Louis-area technology companies: The SOHO Shop, a full-service residential and light commercial systems integration firm, and SmartCare, a new concept in health tech designed to help caregivers remotely monitor “at risk” seniors.
Prior to 2006, Jefferson had already attained phenomenal success in the world of IT communications. He distinguished himself by creating analytics to maximize revenues on payphones. After a series of large communications projects with International Network Services, Wynn, Lucent and Avaya, Jefferson’s work began to demand more international travel.
To streamline his travel schedule, in 2007 he decided to move his wife and kids to St. Louis, but because he was still away a lot and his wife now lacked any real family support locally, he started researching technology solutions to ease their long-distance communications and help him feel confident that his family was safe when he was away.
He started by interviewing several residential system integrators but soon realized their focus was mainly on lifestyle and entertainment. He found his way to CEDIA and then Control4, and began educating himself about remote network-based systems and security solutions. Also, he was writing a blog that started attracting more than 25,000 hits a month (in 2007, network-based solutions for the home were virtually non-existent).
In much the same way he created analytics to detect payphone issues, Jefferson soon learned how to use Control4 to create and program apps that could “learn” and document trends and patterns in his family’s home activities such as when the kids should be home from school and when the sitter should arrive. Then, when events he expected to happen didn’t happen, such as the kids getting home before the sitter arrived, he and his wife would receive an alert.
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Company: The SOHO Shop & SmartCare
Location: St. Charles, Mo. (main), Des Moines, Iowa
Years in Business: The SOHO Shop – 8, SmartCare – 2
Number of Employees: The SOHO Shop – 18, SmartCare – 9
Revenues (for 2013): $3M
Speciality: Providing technology solutions that solve problem and enhance the lives of our customers.
Top Brands: Control4, Lutron, Sonance, Wyrestorm, Sonos, SnapAV
FYI: Know the technology you provide inside and out. Be the expert on one piece of that technology, and hire other experts to fill your voids.
When Jefferson opened The SOHO (Small Office/Home Office) Shop in 2008, his original plan was to only offer his proven remote programming services to other integrators, but as things evolved, SOHO started doing light commercial IT projects that led to residential referrals.
Before long, the firm was offering a full complement of residential and light commercial system integration services in St. Louis and Des Moines, Iowa (with two more branch openings planned for this year), and serving a growing roster of customers with second and third homes, plus far-flung referrals resulting in projects spanning 48 states and four countries.
“As we grew, it became clear that safety, entertainment and security all play together in people’s lives, and when you give them a real solution, they see the value and invite you to help them in all kinds of ways,” says Jefferson. “And different values become more important at different times of life.”
Remote Health Services Demand Hits Home
It so happened that not long after The SOHO Shop got up and running, Jefferson’s father in California had a car accident and developed an infection and his brother was diagnosed with schizophrenia.
“You can imagine my distress given how far away they lived, coupled with my crazy international travel schedule,” Jefferson says.
After he got them both stabilized, Jefferson found he was able to use some of the same basic solutions he had created for his own family to monitor his father and brother some 1,500 miles away.
“For my father, it was all about looking for anomalies in day-to-day behavior to be sure he hadn’t fallen or gone unconscious. For my brother, it was about tracking changes in behaviors that might suggest he had stopped taking his meds,” he notes. “As everyone knows, people lie to their doctors all the time, and doctors lack definitive diagnostic tools to interpret behaviors that might belie their patients’ deceptions. I started looking more closely at smart sensors and cloud technologies plus new ways to program sensors that could monitor motion, pressure, light and temperature.”
Eventually, Jefferson figured out how to aggregate that data to determine trends, detect anomalies, and send alerts. Once he had all the data he needed to feel comfortable about their clinical situations, Jefferson’s phone conversations with his father and brother could finally revert from clinical interrogation back to sports talk, personal updates and current events.
“For us, this was worth the whole shebang. Not only could I monitor their health situation from a distance, I could more fully participate in their lives,” he recalls.
Given that many Baby Boomers live at least 1,000 miles from their aging parents, he realized he might be onto something that could help a lot of seniors stay in their own homes longer, while helping their children feel at ease with that decision.
Around this time, Jefferson, who was still taking on high-level international consulting projects, was asked to help a major corporate communications company study and create better delivery models and business processes for its worldwide SMAs (service and maintenance agreements). What he learned about building company valuation through recurring monthly revenue (RMR) and the logistics of creating a managed services offering started the wheels turning regarding a possible business model for a health tech company based on the technology solution he had developed to monitor his father and brother.
One of The SOHO Shop clients, Scott Mosher, a business development consultant, became intrigued with his ideas for a home health tech service offering and volunteered to help work through the business logistics for what was to become SmartCare, Jefferson says. The duo also realized they would be well-served to buy a small residential security company to really learn the RMR ropes first. Jefferson and Mosher became partners and two years ago they bought a small security company with 40 accounts. They added another 150 contracts before recently selling it.
“We needed to learn about managed services as they relate to communications, automation, insurance, liability, and about seniors themselves,” Mosher says. “We also needed access to sensors that could help us drive down the price.”
Adds Jefferson, “Since security companies mostly encounter the same kinds of things every day, we understood the necessity of building fundamental business processes into our approach to home automation at SOHO and SmartCare.”
They also learned that customers don’t buy a solution unless they have a problem.
“When we solve one problem for them, we’re forming a relationship and opening the door for more. Their home systems become a portal to their lives,” says Jefferson.
Concurrently, as the housing market started to recover, The SOHO Shop made its first foray into the production home market. Mike Dolan, a long-time system sales and design associate at SOHO who is transitioning to a new position as senior solution engineer at SmartCare, explains: “We have become quite good at lean deployment, taking any business process and dissecting it from start to finish to create optimum efficiencies, without compromising customer service. It’s kind of a hobby of mine, really.
“Adapting our residential CI business model to working with production builders entailed taking a completely customized two-week, 20-hour D-Tools-based system design and sales process and condensing it to one to three hours,” he adds. “To accomplish this, we created packages whereby clients pick between $2,000 and $20,000 installed systems that we can turn into proposals in less than two hours using an Excel spreadsheet and marking up a floor plan.”
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