K2 logo

With this third installment of this article on selling design services, we are now half-way through our journey.  In Part One I discussed why doing design work for free was a bad idea and introduced the concept of charging for your services.  In Part Two I discussed what is, and more importantly, what is not a system design.  Now it is time to ask yourself a very important question – Do you have the skills/ability/software/hardware/time to create system designs within your own company?

The answer is probably not as clear as you might think…

Skills & Ability

This one seems simple to most integrators – “of course we have the skills and abilities to complete a system design!  We are complete rockstars of our trade and know everything about everything.”  OK, so maybe the last part would not be something that would come out of your mouth, but admit it- you were thinking it!

While it is great to be confident in what you do, one of the biggest weaknesses a company can have is being overconfident.  If you don’t have the needed skills and abilities, no problem, as G.I. Joe says, “Knowing is half the battle!”  You have a few different options, and they may seem rather obvious:

  • You can gain the skills needed.
  • Hire someone with the needed skills.
  • Outsource the work to a design & engineering firm.

If you are just starting out and have the available time to learn the skills needed to be able to create a proper system design, that is a great option.  Look to your suppliers and manufacturers to gain valuable (and most-of-the-time free) training.  This is however not something that can be learned overnight or that can be learned by watching a 5 minute video on YouTube.  Learning the skills needed can take weeks, months, or years, depending on the level of system that you are designing.  The normal progression in learning (and the path that I took many years ago) is to start out with small systems and as your skills grow, so grows your company.  Yes I will admit that there were times when I took on projects that were out of our comfort zone, but that is how you grow.  The best story is when I was in a meeting with a builder and my Project Manager, when the builder said “…since this is a gated villa community, the company we award this project to, will need to know how to integrate gate controls in each building” – my response was “Absolutely!”.  We were awarded the project and when we walked out of the office my Project Manager asked me “what the *$!@ were you thinking taking on the gate system!?”, but I had a plan, we would contract that work to another company (oops, it looks like I got ahead of myself, more on outsourcing later).  While you may decide to either hire someone or use an outside firm, you need to understand that learning those skills is still mandatory.  I get asked all the time when I am discussing system design sales process, “how do you determine budgets?” and the tough answer is that you just need to have the experience to know what it takes to do a certain type of system.

Hiring someone to come work for your company that posses the system design skills is definitely an option.  However it is tough to find someone that not only says they have the experience but actually does. If you do not have the skills personally, you will not know if they are telling the truth until many months (and dollars) later.  Make sure that you get a “project portfolio” from a potential designer that you are looking to hire.  Also make sure that you get actual files, not just PDFs – I have seen many would be designers show PDFs of system designs that they may have been part of the installation, but not the design.  I actually had someone who was applying for a Lead Systems Designer position that submitted system designs from a few different projects that he created at the company that he currently worked for.  The problem was that he did not know that the company he worked for outsourced their design work – they outsourced it to my company.  Anyone that was actually involved with the creation of the system design would have access to source files – not a foolproof plan, but definitely a starting point.  Note to designers – protect your source files and watch who has access to those files.

Outsourcing is something that I could talk at great length about – because as a integrator I outsourced system designs on projects that were larger than we were comfortable designing and for the times when we were too busy, and also because my company provides design services for numerous integrators worldwide.  Just like the previous options, you still need to possess the needed basic skills if you are going to outsource a project – you need to be able to understand the basic concept of the system if you are going to sell it.

Software & Hardware

I get asked all the time what software and hardware is needed to be able to create a proper system design.  I have seen designs created with every possible solution out there over the past 15 years – the most creative being an integrator that used a spreadsheet to create floor plan drawings, he would use each “cell” as a square foot.  While the honest answer to the question is that there is really nothing special that you need to be able to create a system design.  However how many architects do you see today that still create hand-drawn plans?

On the software side, I suggest the following:

  • AutoCAD – In my opinion this is a requirement, we need to be working in the same software as the architects
  • Microsoft Visio – Great for graphical drawings like equipment rack drawings
  • D-Tools – cut your design time in half by using tool that simplifies your design process and allows you to save time on repeated system elements (packages).  I made the investment in D-Tools within the first 3 months of starting the company – it seemed like a no-brainer to me at the time.  I have been using D-Tools for over 10 years (for those of you who have been around for awhile that would be back in the version 1 days), and truly do not understand how any company could be successful and still have their sanity, without using D-Tools.
  • Graphics/Photo program – Adobe Photoshop or similar to be able to work with product images for line drawings, plan drawings, or elevation drawings
  • VM Software – if you are using a Mac you need a VM software like Parallels since these are PC software products

On the hardware side, I suggest the following:

  • An enterprise grade computer – the $399 special at Best Buy is not going to cut it, get the latest processor that your budget will allow.  I use a Mac with an Intel i7 2.3GHz quad-core processor & a solid state hard drive
  • As much RAM as the computer will handle – AutoCAD & Visio are memory and processor hogs so get as much as you can handle.  My Mac has 16GB
  • Multiple monitors – number and size depends on your budget, but remember you will be spending many hours staring at them so don’t go cheap.  I consider dual 27″ monitors a minimum, and as most things bigger is better (keep your mind out of the gutter)!  I use a three monitor setup with a 32″ in the center with a 27″ on both sides
  • Great mouse – this is your way to interact with the software so get something precise.  Previously I was a huge trackball mouse fan for working on drawings, but I am love my Apple Magic Trackpad

The thing to remember when it comes to software & hardware suggestions, is that they are just that- suggestions.  As I stated earlier, you do not need any of these in order to create a proper system design.  However they will not only make creating designs much easier and faster, but they will also raise the level of quality of the design product that you create.


Ah, the magic of time – we all have the same amount of time each day, the only difference is how we use it.  Here is where most integrators must concede the fight and admit that they do not have the time to spend on system design.  For those of you who have a dedicated designer or design staff, feel free to skip this section, but for the majority of you this is one of the critical issues.

Like the majority of integrators, I started my company with just myself.  I was a one man show – client and builder meetings in the mornings, pulling wire in the afternoon, nights were spent working on proposals, system designs, and accounting functions.  Beside the fact that a schedule like that wears on you very quick, this process only works long enough as you have a small amount of business (and a patient and understanding family).  When business starts to increase, problems start to occur as you still have the same amount of time in the day, just more tasks that need to be completed.  For me this was the turning point and I looked at everything that I was doing and decided that I enjoyed working with clients and designing systems more than I liked installing them (and I was a much better designer than I was a technician, but that’s a different story).  I hired a technician to not only do the install work but to also act as a Project Manager in order to allow me to continue to do the sales and design work.  As we continued to grow we added additional techs and I also adapted my process in order to work with my Project Manager on the system designs as together the skill level was much higher and we would then be able to handle not only more projects and bigger projects, but also would be creating a much better design package.

This was the moment that we were able to start charging for our design work.  Why now?  Was it the size of the company?  Was it the size of the projects that we were working on?  While I guess that these were all contributors to it, the main reason was that we finally had a standardized process for system design that was completed on each and every project and no project was started without the complete system design finalized.

It took us about three years to add the needed skills (and to continue to add new skills each day), to hire the needed staff, purchase the needed software & hardware and learn how to properly use it, setup our systems and packages, and to dedicate the time to each project for a system design.  Could we have done it in less time, maybe, but I honestly would not change the way that we did it.  While I have stressed in this series that you need to charge for all the time spent on a project (which includes your time designing a system), you need to make sure that the product that you are delivering is solid and worth the money that you are charging.  You can’t sell a client a “custom home theater” and then install a $500 home theater in a box system.

This is part three of a six part series on selling design & engineering services detailing the major aspects involved in actually charging for your design & engineering services.

About the Author

This post was written by DAVE KIRN

Dave is the President & Founder of D-Tools Certified Partner, k2 Dealer Services, a specialty consulting firm for the integration industry based in St. Louis, MO.  Dave has been in the AV industry for 18+ years and owned a successful AV integration company for 8 years prior to starting k2 in 2007.