It was 2007, and Sai Dale sat across from the table with his two best clients.
Sai had organised the meeting to ask them both one very simple question: "Where can I take away your pain?". They both had the same answer: "Essential services!".
Every week, giant reports would thump down on these property managers' desks, cataloguing the endless testing and maintenance regimes required for essential services - fire safety measures such as smoke detection, extinguishers, sprinkler systems, emergency lighting and fire doors, among others.
"They were getting reports from these auditing companies that were just rubbish" said Sai.
It was 15 or 20 pages of gobbledegook with lists of 'door, non-compliant; sprinkler system, non-compliant'. And they'd ask 'OK, now what'? They didn't know what they had to do with this information, and they were confused and frustrated.
Sai understood what they needed, and saw the opportunity he was looking for to expand into essential services.
Sai’s instinct for an opportunity proved correct, and the next few years saw rapid growth for the new essential services business, Select Essential, that he established with his wife, Karen, and a business partner.
“But the problem right from the start was how to run it efficiently,” he said. “We had to make sure we were complying with all the record-keeping requirements for essential services”. So, faced with what they saw as a unique requirement, Select Essential built their own software to fit. They approached some software developers, and created a heavily-customised system based on the FileMaker database application. Once it was built, the new system – dubbed ESM Manager – did exactly what Select Essential wanted it to do, but as Select Essential continued to grow and the services offered to clients matured and evolved, so too did the demands on the software.
A comprehensive solution was needed
“The business kept growing and my wish list kept getting bigger and bigger,” Sai explained. “At some point, I just had to admit it was getting too hard. Our developers were trying to catch up and meet our demands, but we were spending too much of our time trying to manage this software, rather than meeting clients’ needs.”
It was time to see what else was available on the market.
Shopping for the wishlist
So, where to start? There are numerous software packages on the market that promise to help businesses manage their documentation, their job scheduling or their stock keeping. But the reason why Select Essential developed their own software in the first place remained; nothing on the market at the time fit the fire protection business model. When they first went looking, every software package they found had been developed with different businesses in mind. That changed when Sai met Rob Thomas, the founder of a company called FireMate.
By the industry, for the industry
FireMate was the culmination of Rob’s decades of experience within the fire protection industry; fire specific software designed to deliver automatic compliance reports, asset management, invoicing and defect quoting through industry based workflows and processes.
"Straight away I could see that FireMate came from our world. It wasn't someone coming in from outside saying 'sure I can do your firey maintenance stuff, it had obviously been built by someone with the same mindset as us."
Life as an émigré
If you think changing from Android to iPhone is a headache, that’s got nothing on the potential nightmare shifting your business from one database to another can be. Lost records, data reformatting, new admin processes, delays and upset customers are just a few of the potential pitfalls. The big question, of course, is whether you can bring your data across to the new system.
“Obviously, we wanted to bring all of our luggage across,” said Sai. “We had to talk about what we were going to bring across and what we wanted to leave behind.” Much of that ‘luggage’ required a clean-up – tidying up old data, or reformatting it to import cleanly into the new system. “We had a lot of help from the FireMate team, and also I knew how it all worked because the data was coming from a system that we’d built ourselves,” explained Sai.
FireMate provided training wheels until the Select Essential team had the hang of it. One of FireMate’s support team flew down to Melbourne and stayed in a nearby hotel to train the Select Essential team on the new system. FireMate has since brought on board Melbourne-based support staff, who regularly visit the Select Essential office to run training sessions and introduce new features.
"There's new features being added all the time! We suggest a feature to the support team, and they say, 'that's a good idea' and add it to their list. We also get to benefit from all the good ideas other FireMate users have."
Back in the right chair
FireMate hasn’t just replaced Select Essential’s custom asset management database, but also their old job scheduling system, and have integrated more tightly with their accounting software.
The time saved from the new system has freed up the admin staff as well as the techs out in the field, allowing them the capacity to take on new projects and new clients.
As for Sai; he’s not spending time at his desk fixing bugs in custom software anymore. He’s back in his old chair now, sitting across from his clients, asking how he can take their pain away.