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SmartElectrical tools improve contractors' biz

Feb. 1, 2003
Online toolbox targets small- and medium-sized contractors.SmartContractor has launched an online toolbox for electrical contractors. SmartElectrical,

Online toolbox targets small- and medium-sized contractors.

SmartContractor has launched an online toolbox for electrical contractors. SmartElectrical, which went live at the 2000 NECA Show, offers its clients the tools they need to run a successful electrical contracting business for a subscription-based $50-per-month fee.

"We provide tools to electrical contractors to get better labor productivity, better materials productivity and improved communications with their partners, whether it's a customer or supplier," said Carl Albrecht, CEO of Seattle-based SmartContractor.

While many construction dot-coms focus on the large contractors, SmartElectrical offers Internet-based solutions to small to medium contractors.

"If you're a fairly large electrical contractor, you can buy some big estimating packages," Albrecht said. "Our target market is the sweet spot of the 50-person contracting firm."

The site offers education and training, hosted applications and procurement to its users. Paul Rosenberg, a contributing editor for CEE News, writes for the site, as does a professor of construction management from the University of Washington. SmartElectrical has also signed a deal with one of the two publishers of Educational Books.

"We're planning to put up encyclopedia-oriented content around the Code, training, design and OSHA and use that as a base to build online training programs," Albrecht said. "There are other areas of content that we plan on building out over time, but that's the one we're focusing on the most right now."

Albrecht said SmartElectrical will set up a multi-tiered pricing model for the online training and will eventually offer continuing education units.

The second part of the site, hosted applications, offers tools to boost contractors' labor and material productivity. The SmartElectrical project management system is designed for the 50-person contracting company and offers services such as task assignment, task follow-up and calendaring.

"If a contractor is doing a football stadium, they have to follow a very detailed project plan," Albrecht said. "But a small- to medium-sized contractor needs a project-coordination and collaboration system so they can interact with their customers and suppliers."

Albrecht said SmartContractor arranges the documents in an online file cabinet. The files and folders are then backed up on servers with 24/7 availability. "A really smart contractor knows installing electrical equipment and serving a customer well is how they make money," he said. "Do they really want to mess with managing servers and backups? Their documents are usually safer in an industrial-grade data center than in a computer in their basement."

Along with project management, SmartElectrical also focuses on time and material billing. Its customers can create proposals, submit them to clients with rates, record time sheets against the projects, record materials used, apply labor rates and taxes and create autographed invoices. SmartElectrical can e-mail the invoices, or for a fee of $1.65, will mail the invoice along with a return payment stub.

The Web-based community also offers e-commerce capabilities, but Albrecht said procurement is not the site's primary focus.

"We're not a purchasing site," Albrecht said. "We're an `improve your business life' site. In order to improve someone's business life, however, you've got to have purchasing and procurement."

SmartElectrical uses the ec-Content trade database, which Albrecht said is becoming a standard in the industry. Contractors can work with SmartElectrical to build their own personal catalog of frequently bought products or search through existing online catalogs. So far, the company has partnered with distributors such as WESCO, Pittsburgh, Pa.; Platt Electric Supply, Beaverton, Ore.; Walters Wholesale Electric, Long Beach, Calif.; W.W. Grainger Inc., Lake Forest, Ill.; and Lighting Universe, Kirkland, Wash.

"We're pleased with the progress," Albrecht said. "We're processing a lot of transactions."

In the future, SmartElectrical is planning on offering insurance, bonding, banking, vehicle leasing and equipment rental. Albrecht said rather than rushing out the site's features, SmartElectrical is working on developing them gradually.

"Some companies spent tens of millions of dollars on sales and marketing without having a product and blew their wad of cash on spin," Albrecht said. "We chose a different path. We spent less to do it more slowly and more incrementally and release products with partial functionality and upgrade them."

"We believe that contractors will trust a solution if they believe that the people providing it have a long-term stake in the industry," Albrecht said. "We're working very hard to make that happen."

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