Go Mobile With Inspection Data
Sona Innovations Inc. expects its 433% increase in sales revenue this year to come mostly from software providing anywhere and anytime access to inspection data.
John Bush never saw it coming. When he joined Sona Innovations Inc. in early 2002 as an angel investor, he figured the financial market would be this software developer's focus. After all, Sona was started after its parent company, Baldhead Systems Inc., designed a real-time banking application for RBC Financial Group (Toronto). RBC and Baldhead then partnered and created Sona. But Baldhead had created some other customized software applications that were not related to the banking industry, and Bush had become interested in one. It was an application called Quick Notes that Baldhead designed for a home inspection company.
Using Quick Notes, employees completed home inspections on mobile-enabled Compaq iPaqs instead of with paper and pencil. Once data was collected, the iPaqs were placed in a cradle for a download to the company's server, thereby eliminating the need for further data entry. "I started to look more closely at Quick Notes and talk with other customers about it," Bush said. "I saw the potential for marketing the application to a much broader audience since many companies still use paper forms to conduct inspections." Evidently, Bush was right about the potential of this product - his company is expecting $5 million in sales this year from its new version of Quick Notes.
A Horizontal Market Sales Approach
In July 2002, Bush became president and CEO of Sona and initiated a redesign of Quick Notes. Initially the software worked only with Pocket PC devices and with a SQL Server or Microsoft Access back end. The new version, called Sona Mobile Inspector, is integrated with the company's Sona Wireless Platform (SWP). The SWP is designed to make the Mobile Inspector software device, database, and wireless carrier agnostic. The software now provides mobile reporting and allows remote access to and management of enterprise data. Most importantly though, its template is designed to work in many verticals. Some companies that could benefit from Mobile Inspector include those conducting:
- oil/gas/utility inspections
- health and safety inspections for wholesalers or retailers
- government-related audits/inspections
- sales reports and work orders
- research firm surveys
- shipping inventory audits.
The Many Faces Of A Mobile Inspection Application
Thus far, Sona has sold Mobile Inspector to two clients. Most of the company's expected 433% increase in sales revenue in 2003 is due to projects currently being finalized with nine enterprise customers.
One of Sona's prospective Mobile Inspector customers is a municipality with a fire department that conducts 30,000 fire code inspections each year. The municipality completed a study that revealed 33% of a firefighter's inspection time was being wasted editing and inputting data from paper forms. Furthermore, the fire inspectors didn't like the existing computer system's interface because it was designed exclusively for building inspections, not fire inspections. Instead of gutting the existing Oracle database (as the customer planned), Sona redesigned the system's front end using Mobile Inspector. Forms specifically for fire inspections have been created, the Sona team has integrated its platform with the back end Oracle database, and the fire inspectors will be equipped with Psion Teklogix (Mississauga, Ontario) netpad wireless handheld computers for transmitting data to and from the database.
In addition to the time savings for fire prevention inspections, once fire inspection data is saved, it can be used again for fire suppression purposes. For example, on the way to a fire, a fireman on the truck will use a netpad to wirelessly connect to the department's server and review the burning building's last inspection data. By doing so, the firefighters will know important information such as the location of a boiler room or what types of caustic materials are on-site.
Another prospective customer of Sona's is a petroleum company with 500 inspectors performing a hodgepodge of inspections (e.g. health and safety, inventory, quality control). As part of the Mobile Inspector project, Sona is helping them create a standard inspection policy to be used across the organization. Bush said a lot of companies lack a standard inspection nomenclature. In other words, how one inspector defines certain inspection data is different from how others define it. By standardizing a nomenclature, inspections can be equally compared and the software's training can be simplified and sped up.
Prove Mobile Inspections Save Time And Money
Currently Sona's approach to business development for Mobile Inspector consists of cold calling customers. "So far we've experienced a sales cycle between three and six months for Mobile Inspector projects," commented Bush. In addition to cold calls, Bush partners with some wireless carriers (e.g. Bell Mobility in Canada, 02 in the UK) to find more leads. Under these arrangements, he accompanies wireless carrier sales representatives on sales calls to companies that may benefit from Mobile Inspector and the carrier's services. "We're not trying to profit from the wireless carrier activation and usage fees like some integrators do," he explained. "So, the salespeople for the carriers are more willing to have us join them on sales calls."
Despite the obvious advantages of eliminating paper forms, providing data consistency, and decreasing employee downtime, Bush said customers are still skeptical of products such as Mobile Inspector. "The idea of conducting paperless inspections has been around for years, but some companies just won't believe these applications will work or they will be able to recoup their startup costs. They want you to prove it to them; they want you to project an ROI and payback period."
Bush said customers are usually most impressed by the increase in employee productivity resulting from a fully integrated mobile inspection program. For instance, say a real estate appraiser takes 1.5 hours using paper forms to complete an appraisal. If it only takes the appraiser 30 minutes to complete an appraisal with a wireless-enabled handheld, at $150 a pop, that's good news.
License Fees + Integration Services = Revenue
Sona launched Mobile Inspector in October 2002. Currently, sales revenue for this software comes from license fees and integration services. "Mobile Inspector is really like a platform," Bush said. "Out of the box it provides 80% of the functionality customers need." Most of Sona's clients still need some systems integration expertise to tailor the application to their businesses. However, Bush's vision for the future is to leave the integration up to systems integrators and the end user. To do so, the company is designing an SDK (software developer kit) for Mobile Inspector.
"With Mobile Inspector, we've switched from asking customers about professional services and customized products to offering a framework to expand their mobile inspection process," Bush concluded. "Now we just need to get our products into the customers' hands."