Taking Control4

Control4 is Asking Dealers to Consider Much More than Its Gear... TEXTAR Accepted the Challenge
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Control4 is Asking Dealers to Consider Much More than Its Gear... TEXTAR Accepted the Challenge

Mike Anderson loves a challenge. And during a recent custom project, the technology veteran and president of TEXTAR Intelligent Systems had a chance to put his brains and brawn to the test.

Last year, TEXTAR and Control4 joined forces to provide custom technology solutions for the Leonard Oaks Town Homes in Forth Worth, Texas, a collection of condominiums within a self-contained village. According to Anderson, working with Control4, a custom technology manufacturer based in Salt Lake City, Utah, showed him that there was another waya better wayto do business. Since they linked up, TEXTAR has solidified a robust business model that allows it to operate a one-stop shop instead of being the fourth trade on a construction site, like most custom dealers.

Now TEXTAR claims it has the training and breadth to tackle all of the homes electronic subsystems, including low and high voltage, HVAC, and state-of-the-art audiovisual installations.

TEXTAR was founded in August 2004, maintains 40 employees, and is expected to grow significantly in the next year. In September, 2004, Anderson and his team began installation work on the Leonard Oaks condominiums. The community comprises 18 acres within 110 acres of Westover Village in Texas, and made local headlines when it debuted with last years Kaleidoscope of Homes showcase in Fort Worth.

Each individual condominium is packed with automationfrom multi-room audio to networked security, all provided by Control4. Each home has three color touchpanels for localized control of lighting, climate, security, and distributed audio. An 80GB audio server is also included in the system that distributes music to four zones; its interface can be accessed on any TV display in the home or from any of touchpanel. Music can be downloaded into the central server via the Internet or directly ripped from CDs.

The Leonard Oaks developers were motivated by the desire to create a central hub that functioned like its own city, a self-contained community within a larger metro area so that when residents arrived home at the end of the day they didnt have to leave.

Leonard Oaks is an urban village within Forth Worth, Anderson said. It encompasses homes, multiple-dwelling units, offices, shops, and dining and entertainment venues. It offers the conveniences of city living without the traffic jams, cacophony, or local college kids moon walking for beer money.

It was our job to incorporate technology into this village, to make it advanced, Anderson said. The whole village is clouded by wi-fi with a fiber backbone. We [also] installed communication systems with touchpanels for all the residents.

According to Anderson, Control4with its line of wired and wireless automation gear designed for affordability, reliability, and installer friendlinesswas key to the project. Founders Will West, Eric Smith, and Mark Morgan have a background in Internet protocol technology and have long-been evangelists for open home automation standards. Their ethos aligned with Leonard Oaks, where the emphasis is on seamless integration. In each town home, the TEXTAR-installed Control4 solutions put the user experience first. Lighting levels are managed through touchpanels via RF remote or the various keypads peppered throughout the home. Customized scenes can be programmed and single light sources can be dimmed individually with one-button control. Additionally, the live feeds from front door closed circuit cameras can be accessed from any TV or display in the home. TEXTAR wanted residents to have total control of all the automated features with extreme ease of use. After all, if technology isnt warm, inviting, and transparent, it doesnt get used.

After the Leonard Oaks developer approached TEXTAR in July 2004 to begin conceptualizing the project, it became clear to Anderson that automation should be a standard amenity, not an optional offering. It was then that he started planning ways to maintain control of the cascading install phases, and incorporate technology that honored the traditional Coastal design philosophy.

A big problem for us is that there is an Olympiad between the trades on site, Anderson said. Everyone competes in some way. So weve become a company that does everythinghome automation, HVAC, and A/V, with electrically trained installers. This approach to residential installation solves those on-site problems and achieves better economies of scale, Anderson believes.

We prefer to think of it as having a holistic approach to integration, Anderson added. We do it all. Anderson doesnt agree with the fourth trade concept that is currently being promoted by CEDIA, and, like Control4, thinks that by learning all of the subsystems of the home, custom dealers can maximize installation time and make systems more efficient for the homeowners. By learning how to design and install an air conditioning system alongside the integration of other systems in the house and exterior structures, we can start to think about reducing energy costs and help the homeowner maintain their comfort level. We can help educate them in a new way.

Around the time of the Leonard Oaks initial planning meetings, Control4 was getting ready to launch its home automation product line. As part of the push, it invited dozens of CEDIA dealers to its Salt Lake City headquarters for focus groups. Born from that initial meeting was a committee devoted to industry-wide business improvement. TEXTAR, and other CEDIA heavy hitters such as cyberManor, were the first wave of early companies to sign on with Control4 and participate in this fruitful committee.

We held a number of Business Initiative Focus Group sessions with long-time dealers in the industry, stated Control4s co-founder Mark Morgan. The Control4 Management Conference is one of the outputs from that focus group. We felt that we could put together a (non Control4 sales) two-day session to help dealers learn many of the key practices that can help them scale their business to three to ten times what they are today. We held sessions on strategy, finance, operation, sales, and marketing. We even had a few complaints that we didnt talk enough about Control4. The response was very positive and we have the next one scheduled for November.

Anderson is no stranger to the technology industry (his parent company HCI has been in the industry for more than a decade), and has heard his share of motivational speeches. But he recalls the nanosecond he decided to align with Control4s products and business modelduring that early focus group when company CEO Will West made a challenge to the industry.

Will West said to us, CEDIA is the premier gathering of dealers in this country. You should be pulling in 10 million per year, not one million, Anderson stated. That salvo changed his perspective and made him realize that TEXTAR needed to be a single, multi-faceted entity with multiple disciplines in its tool kit. Additionally, he agreed that there was no reason he couldnt grow to $10 million, or even $20 million company. The demand is there and so is the technology, he said. This is not a hobby, it is a business. Also, with control of more trades we have become much more important to the builder. Weve got a lot of input in the design of future projects. TEXTAR currently has four more projects planned with the same builder as the Leonard Oaks Town Homes.

Regarding Control4s sullied pastits founders were also the developers of the problematic PHAST product lineAnderson understands dealers trepidation. I was incredibly skeptical of Control4 at first, very hesitant. Like a lot of dealers at the time I embraced PHAST whole-heartedly. And when things went wrong I had to eat three systems and pay completely out of my own pocket. But even the people that were around during that time have to admit that PHAST totally changed the industry, and was the catalyst for Crestron and AMX, and efforts to convert to Java.

While it remains controversial for some, there is no debate that PHAST founders, West and Smith, the same founders of Control4, created a product that was more open than its predecessors, and could be programmed by anyone in a Windows environment. Many dealers, like Anderson, argue that this advancement fundamentally changed the industry.

There are two theories, he said. First, these guys burned me. Second, these were the guys that changed the industry. And I understand the skepticism and cynicism. At first, I too was skeptical.

Another controversial point lies in Control4 push for mid-market saturation; its widely understood that their goal is to move product into retail stores at some point in the (near or far) future. Anderson thinks that dealers should embrace this end-goal and also understands that hobbyists are concerned. Professionals know that it is inevitable and are getting prepared for it, he said. The industry is changing dramatically and CEDIA guys brag about elaborate submarine installations, but there are not enough of these boutique installations out there. The future is the mid-market projects.

Dealers should be aware of Control4s limitations; its products are not designed for 50,000-square-foot mansions, nor for the top one percent of projects for which most CEDIA dealers vie. [The Control4 product] is best in smaller homes, wired or wirelessly, Anderson added. And its feature set is compelling and unique. Its one of the best out there.

While it was the first company to use Zigbee protocol for its wireless communication, Crestron is now using a Zigbee switch in its product line, though it is selling it for more than double the list price of Control4s.

Margot Douaihy (margot.douaihy@gmail.com) is a freelance writer based in London, England.