I was on a panel last week at CEDIA as part of their Survival of the Fittest series. This was a panel discussion that focused on how integrators can continue to survive and thrive in this difficult economy. There were some distinguished names on the panel, including Ray Lepper from Home Media Stores (and past CEDIA President), Mike Bradley from Safeguard Security & Communications, and Lee Odess from Integrated Media Systems. The panel was moderated by Keith Cottrell from Kinetic Systems Conulting, who has moderated and all of the webinars in the Survival of the Fittest series. Each one of these industry luminaries had some terrific insight into how integrators should look at how they are currently operating and ways they can improve. Since I was the only one on the panel that was not from an integration company background, a) I kept wondering what the heck I was doing there, and b) it occured to me that the basics apply no matter what your particular business is.

And by basics from my perspective it comes down to understanding what it is you bring to the table. What is it that compelled you to start your company? What skills, ideas, expertise do you have that sets you apart from the competition and delivers value to your customers? In other words, what is your secret sauce?

I remember back when I was a kid in the 70s (yeah I know, I’m old) that McDonalds and Jack in the Box used to face off and each of them had their own cartoon characters. You know, Ronald McDonald, Mayor McCheese, the hamburgler…all of the McDonalds characters were supposed to be cute and cuddly. Jack in the Box, howver, took a different approach. They had Jack, of course but he looked a bit more sinister than Ronald, and they had the Onion Ring Thing, which was apparently just an onion ring with legs and tennis shoes, but they had the coolest character of all, the Secret Sauce Agent. Now we all know that the secret sauce was most likely thousand island dressing (or worse, a mixture of simply ketchup and mustard) but I bought that Secret Sauce Agent hook line and sinker. There was no competition after that in my opinion. I wanted Jack in the Box and for years they were my fast food brand of choice.

OK back to my point. It doesn’t matter what your specialty is, but what you need to do is define it, understand it, and communicate it so that both your internal teams and your prospective customers understand it. That is the basis for your entire business. It helps clarify strategic direction, determine what type of customers you plan to target, how to communicate to them, and most importantly helps differentiate you from your competitors. As Adam mentioned in a previous post, it’s not the margin you make on the products you specifiy and sell (although that’s always a factor) but it is your knowledge and expertise in designing systems (complete solutions) that a customer will choose you over a big-box low cost retailer.

Take a look at your current customer base and look for similarities. Are there jobs you have been doing just to pay the bills that are actually costing you more money and headache? Stop doing those and focus on the ones that you are most passionate about – those will most likely be the ones that you are better at and will make you more money at the end of the day.

I wear many hats at the company, and this same lesson applies for what we do here at D-Tools. When we find ourselves too far a field we look at our core competencies and look to the reasons Adam started the company 10 years ago. If we are not hitting the mark we get back to basics and focus on what’s most important for us – helping our customers streamline their business processes by tieing together estimation, system design and documentation through a single shared electronic project file. We continue to work hard to improve upon this but in the end – that is our secret sauce and we will not forget it.