When I first started my business, I did estimates by hand on a yellow legal pad. But when something changed, it meant adding or erasing line items, then manually recalculating the total price. In 1977, I spent the princely sum of $119 for a Texas Instruments programmable calculator just to help speed up these calculations.
By 1982, I had my first computer and started using a spreadsheet called Multiplan, a Microsoft product that eventually evolved into Excel. Not only could I automatically recalculate an entire column of numbers with a single keystroke, I could create estimating templates that would automatically look up prices in tables that I could customize to reflect my actual costs. After the legal pads, it was like magic.
But output was limited. It was possible to create the reports I wanted, but that would require programming that I didn’t have time to learn. So in 1986, I started looking for estimating software. As it happened, my search coincided with the release of Timberline’s Precision Estimating, which set the standard for years to come.
Of course, this is all ancient history … isn’t it? Surely, estimating software has improved in 30 years. Surely, today’s successful remodeling companies are using sophisticated software that lives in the cloud and integrates sales and marketing software with accounting and estimating software. Surely, they have implemented systems that virtually eliminate duplicated effort and create daily dashboards that can give mangers up-to-the-minute data-driven views into their business.
... The More They Stay the Same
It turns out that many of the issues I faced as a small, growing remodeling company in the 1980s haven’t changed much in 30 years—and not just for today’s small, growing remodeling companies, but for companies of all sizes and at all stages of development. I recently attended two events organized by remodelers to discuss common problems and explore solutions. On the surface, the companies seem very different: In one group, the largest company had revenue of about $4 million; in the other, $34 million. Look a little deeper, though, and the issues they face are not only similar to each other, but are almost identical to issues that I and other remodelers faced 30 years ago.
Take estimating, for example. Almost all companies in both groups still use spreadsheets, either because they haven’t found anything that works better, or they don’t want the disruption that changing systems would cause, or they don’t want to increase their IT budget to set up and maintain something new.
What’s the Difference?
But progress has been made. Compared with companies of 30 years ago, the owners in these groups are more self-aware about their shortcomings and are proactive about finding solutions. They mostly know what they don’t know, but they have the courage to welcome peer review and the honesty to admit that there’s still room for improvement.
Size and sophistication do not exempt any remodeling company from problems with technology, design, estimating, marketing, sales, accounting, production, or personnel. What makes the difference is how accurately owners and managers identify the problems, how honestly they face the alternatives, and how quickly they implement solutions.
It’s a group effort.