The clear majority of builders are ideal candidates for handheld productivity software. They run small companies with sales under $5 million and operate with a few employees and a cadre of reliable subcontractors and suppliers. These builders don't have thousands of dollars to spend on technology. That's why shrink-wrapped products such as Punch List and Etails, which list for $299 and $349 respectively for a single-user license, offer a world of value for the price.
Both products are designed with builders in mind: basically, to take paperwork and endless phone calls out of the construction process. Both products can be set up in just a few hours. And both products run on any handheld that supports the Palm operating system, including handhelds from Acer, AlphaSmart, Garmin, HandEra, Kyocera, and the Palm Solutions Group.
Punch List is a task management application that's been on the market since 1996 and is well known among builders. Dan Hampton, president of Strata Systems, developers of Punch List, says Punch List has an installed base of about 2,500 users and has signed on about 400 new licenses since the International Builders' Show (IBS) in January of this year. That's when Strata announced a marketing agreement with the Robert Bosch Tool Corp. (see Knockout Move)
The average builder using Punch List has between one and five field superintendents and builds 50 to 200 homes a year. But Punch List also attracts big customers. For example, The Ryland Group, which closed 13,145 homes in 2002, bought a corporate license in 1999 that services about 600 users, roughly 25 percent of Punch List's installed base.
Etails, which bills itself as an electronic paper trail, launched for the first time at the IBS in 2002, but didn't go very far because its developer, GlobalSoft, was a new company and funds weren't available for marketing. This year, GlobalSoft returned to the IBS with a new version of Etails that uses terminology that is easier to understand--"collections" is now "folders." The software also features the ability to assign different levels of access rights to users. GlobalSoft has signed on 86 new licenses this year, according to Kim Medlin, the company's president.
One of the main differences between Punch List and Etails is that Punch List lets users import Excel spreadsheets and Microsoft Project files, and it integrates with back-end software such as FAST, J.D. Edwards, Primavera SureTrak, and, sometime later this year, MasterBuilder. Its goal is to let users access budget and scheduling information in the field as opposed to simply tracking punch lists.
Etails, on the other hand, doesn't pretend to be anything more than an electronic paper trail. The software's goal is to help builders track the little details that "fall between the cracks," such as the notes that builders traditionally make to remind themselves to call the painter because the drywall contractor is finished, or tell the appliance supplier that a refrigerator that came in was the wrong color. Medlin's sales pitch is that every such detail typically costs builders about $100 in either lost time or cost overruns, so he says builders can make back their investment within two to three weeks.
Medlin says Etails' big selling point is that it lets builders define the data they want to collect and program it into the system. "Etails lets you do much more than punch lists," he notes. "Builders can do change orders and track mileage logs, they can collect any kind of data and categorize it the way they want.''
The efficiency factor
Brad Gregory, vice president of Dallas-based Gregory & Sons Builders, a custom home builder that builds about 10 homes a year in the $750,000 to $1.3 million range, is a good example of how a handheld program can make smaller builders more efficient.
Gregory, who runs the company with his brother Brian, has been using Punch List for about a year. He says in the past, after a walkthrough, he would go home and list the information he'd gathered on about 10 yellow legal pads, sorting it by type of sub. Then he'd fax the information to the subs. Gregory says it used to take him about three hours to rewrite all the information he collected and at least another hour to fax out the jobs. Now, he enters the information into his handheld throughout the day and once he "hot syncs"--electronically updates--the day's work with his desktop PC, the faxes go out to the subs automatically.
"By the time we do a final walkthrough with a customer, we only catch minor problems," Gregory says.
Ken Alexander, vice president and operations manager at Westport Homes in Houston, has had about five of his people using Punch List for the past two years. He says while Punch List can't be customized, the product is stable--and it works.
Along with its punch-list feature, which the Westport staff uses throughout the building process, Alexander says he creates schedules in Excel and imports them into Punch List. By getting the schedule into the super's hands in the field, the super can modify the schedule right on the jobsite and keep subs informed of the changes in real time. This saves his supers from spending the bulk of their time on the phone scheduling changes--and more time focusing on the job.
"I built 50 homes last year with three guys," Alexander says. "My houses average 4,500 square feet, there's a lot of detail, a lot of woodwork. For my supers to build 15 to 16 homes apiece is great work. My competitors have their supers building five to seven homes a year--that's a big spread."
An etails tale
Bart Zuckerman, vice president of TGL Construction in Castle Rock, Colo., which builds roughly 300 homes a year in the Denver area starting at $160,000, was one of the early users of Etails. Today, he has four managers, who are subcontracted to run jobsites, using Etails.
Zuckerman says Etails helps him track just about every aspect of a job: when it started, when it finished, the day the company ordered material, the day the material was delivered, and on through to when the construction crew put the power in and what the weather was like that day.
"Before Etails, I used to get calls all the time from the large developers who would call berating me because several things weren't completed. All I could do was apologize," he says. "Now, they will never bust me and make me feel like an idiot or make me feel bad about missing a deadline. If something's not done on time, I know why. I can send out punch lists, send out faxes or e-mails to my subs, and can set up folders to do anything I want to do--and they are all set up in my own way."
The bottom line is that both products are geared for users who are new to handhelds. And both products can make builders more efficient and help them cut costs and reduce cycle time.
Punch List 2.92
Company: Strata Systems, Robert Bosch Tool Corp.
Web URL: www.punchlist.com
Software platform: Palm OS
Price: $299 per user license
Description: Task management software
Upside: Basic punch-list application gets builders away from yellow legal pads; integration with MS Excel, MS Project, FAST, J.D. Edwards, and Primavera SureTrack a big plus; solid track record since 1996
Downside: Rigid format; plan on needing some help to integrate back-end data
Web URL: www.etails.biz
Software platform: Palm OS
Price: $349 for a single-user license per handheld; $325 each for orders over 20 copies
Description: Electronic paper trail
Upside: Lets builder customize data to fit its processes
Downside: Does not integrate with any other software; newcomer with little or no brand recognition