Two-Man Team Outfits $300K Mancave House; Sells 90% Service Contracts
Two-person custom integrator TOAD finds the right business mix from $300K projects to subcontracted cable TV installs, while also selling 90% of clients service contracts. Here's how they do it.
Jason Knott · June 15, 2016
Even in this post-recession growth economy, Technical Operations And Development, or TOAD for short, has discovered that lean and mean is the best business model. And you can’t question their logic.
The Barnstable, Mass.-based two-person custom integration company successfully manages both over-the-top $300,000 projects and small subcontract installations for the cable company, all the while continuing to build its own reputation and value by selling 90 percent of its clients service agreements.
So how is that even possible? In a nutshell, you might say, it’s all about “command and control.”
“Commanding officer” Mark Hooper is the very definition of discipline. The former Navy SEAL drives himself to maintain focus and concentration despite suffering a career-ending injury in the military. That attention to detail can be seen vividly in TOAD’s projects, where the wiring and design are virtual perfection.
On the “control” side, systems engineer and right-hand man Peter Robbins has off-the-charts technical know-how to pull off even the most obscure client requests. Robbins’ technical prowess is so extreme he will, if necessary, hook directly into the motherboard of a particular component to get the desired control results, bypassing the available connections.
There is no better example of the symbiotic duo’s command and control business acumen than a recent $300,000 “mancave house” project that includes a golf simulator, multiroom audio, and the conversion of a regulation-size indoor basketball court into a giant theater. But we’ll get to that.
Discipline and Attention to Details Pave the Way
Hooper and Robbins “run the show” at TOAD with reliance on a team of subcontractors, but that wasn’t always the case. At one point prior to the housing collapse, TOAD had eight employees.
“I was getting projects from all across the state,” Hooper recalls. “I soon realized that I could not babysit all those projects. I ultimately had to depend on someone else to do the same level of work just like I would do. But during the course of that I found out that it’s not possible to rely on someone else. Plus, I’m a control freak, so the quality of the installation has to be something I can stand behind and put my name behind.”
Hooper humbly adds, “The reason I’ve succeeded is because I’m honest with people. I am the dumbest guy that’s ever survived in a technology company. [But] I can cut in a gangbox with a RotoZip straighter and more precise than anybody else. That’s how I get my work. Customers see how meticulous I am and wonder what else I can do for them.”
One example of his military-style discipline is that TOAD tries to install conduit on every job. “I put it behind every fireplace. I don’t even charge for it, but it allows me to service the system better,” he notes.
Hooper also focuses on using high-end products. “I want clients to know I put in the best products available for them. I offer a good/better/best on all the lines I carry,” he says.
If you are a subcontractor for TOAD, you have to meet their superior standards and expectations. Hooper estimates he has gone through 40 subcontractors over the years. He recalls one particular supervisor he hired from now-defunct Tweeter for a prewire.
“I went to the basement and he had run the cables all twisted, folded over and pigtailed, using multiple colors. I said, ‘You’re going to have to take all that down.’ He responded by saying, ‘Why? The cable is still going to work.’ I told him he was correct, ‘The cable will work perfectly, but you don’t work for me anymore because you’re the supervisor and ‘OK’ is not good enough.’
“That attention to detail has fed my business,” he continues. “I am also resourceful — I know what I know and I know what I don’t know. I know how to sell and I know how to deliver on what I say I’m going to do. Then I know how to deliver even more than what the client has asked for.”
Two-Man Team Offers Flexibility
The evolution of the company’s business model began during the recession, when it became evident that there just wasn’t enough work to go around. The project pipeline dried up, according to Hooper, and an eight-person staff did not make for a sustainable business model.
So today, TOAD is a two-man shop with heavy use of subcontractors. “We subcontract out to guys that we know in the industry, or people that have contracted on and off throughout since 1999. For example, I’ll bring in electricians to put in outlets when we install surge protection. Or I will bring in a certified Aprilaire integrator to do the HVAC,” Hooper explains. “Using a subcontractor can make my job easier, too, because I have discovered that if you do everything, you are responsible. This way, I can call the HVAC contractor to fix it if there is a problem.”
Hooper equates his use of subcontractors even for certain low-voltage needs to a general contractor hiring a plumber, roofer, or the foundation contractor.
Go Inside TOAD's $300,000 Mancave Project
“We are basically automation contractors or technology contractors. I have my ‘go-to guys’ that I bring into projects. Most clients will listen because they want a project to go smoothly and they want someone to manage it,” he adds.
Robbins is the company’s technology guru, especially for anything related to its predominant control brand of the past seven years: Savant. Hooper says many of the other systems TOAD tried involved too much programming, which he defines as “babysitting.”
“It’s very hard to justify to a client when the Blu-ray player and installation is $500 but the programming is $1,000. It didn’t make sense for me. I try to stay away from systems that are very programming intensive,” Hooper says. “Customers can’t necessarily see value in sending someone to the job to program for a month. They don’t feel comfortable with it.”
Achieving Success with Service Agreements
That striving for efficiency is also what drives TOAD to sell service agreement to customers.
“We try to implement [a service agreement] every time. When they don’t want one, I explain the costs of a service call and the replacement equipment.
“Do you want to pay $220 an hour for a service call or pay $220 a month for a service plan instead?” he asks rhetorically.
The agreements vary depending on the client’s needs. TOAD’s seasonal clients on Cape Cod don’t have need for consistent attention. But other projects, like the giant mancave house, need 24-hour response.
“Those types of clients can call me at midnight. I keep my phone on. Pete keeps his phone on,” remarks Hooper. And when those clients do call in the middle of the night, Hooper isn’t angry. Instead, he sees that as a big win.
“That’s how we have succeeded. Those customers are not going to be able to call Best Buy and say, ‘My Apple TV is not working right now. Can you talk me through it?’ We’ll talk them through a solution. Now we build systems with remote technology like SnapAV’s WattBox that will auto-reboot.”
Jason has covered low-voltage electronics as an editor since 1990. He joined EH Publishing in 2000, and before that served as publisher and editor of Security Sales, a leading magazine for the security industry. He served as chairman of the Security Industry Association’s Education Committee from 2000-2004 and sat on the board of that association from 1998-2002. He is also a former board member of the Alarm Industry Research and Educational Foundation. He is currently a member of the CEDIA Education Action Team for Electronic Systems Business. Jason graduated from the University of Southern California. Have a suggestion or a topic you want to read more about? Email Jason at firstname.lastname@example.org
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