Solatech can be considered both a new product and a line extension. Solatech debuted as a new company with a new product last month, but it grew from two formerly competing software developers: Suz's Software, Inc. and Innovative Software Systems, Inc. (ISSI). In the past, Suz's Software's Ray Soltis and Michelle Gabriel of ISSI, approached the sale and support of the software market for the window coverings industry in different, yet successful ways. They combined to form Solatech to incorporate the most successful parts of both ventures.
"We started talking and decided our efforts would be better if joined together, as opposed to working against each other, to benefit the industry," Soltis says. "We've taken my knowledge and experience in the industry, technical abilities and the infrastructure here and combined it with the product they had been working on."
Besides product development, Soltis and Gabriel also share a belief that the window coverings industry is ready to move into a new era. "We both feel the industry is technically very, very far behind, but the industry is poised to do something technically. I think people realize that they need to start looking in that direction," Soltis says.
CUSTOMIZE ON THE FLY
Solatech provides a series of software products and services designed to be extremely flexible, as flexible as the window coverings industry itself. The software includes both desktop and Internet applications—including an e-commerce package and a business-to-business package—for both the retailer and the fabricator.
"It is designed to allow us to handle and set up the software for pretty much any product," Soltis says. That's no small task. The window coverings industry is unique in that each product varies so much. "The options and everything change on a regular basis. We've come up with a way to customize the software on the fly without changing the basic package," Soltis says.
Because the window coverings industry is so fragmented, when it comes to developing software what often has happened in the past is that someone designs a basic package that then gets customized for a specific customer. The next customer wants the package with some of the customized options plus some other ones. "What you end up with is a bunch of customers with orphaned versions of the software—nobody's running the same version. That makes it expensive, hard to maintain and support," Soltis says.
Solatech plans on updating customers regularly, at least every quarter year, and probably will do it via the Internet. "Customers can connect to the Internet by however they normally connect, hit a couple of buttons and the software goes out through the Web and validates what version of the software they are using. If it's not the most current, it will notify them, then download and install the most current version," Soltis says.
He explains that Solatech customizes products from a data base side, so it can offer the same product to all of its customers. There are options, of course. A retail version will allow the user to place orders, receive confirmation and perhaps create invoices. A desktop version stores product information and pricing for quoting customers as well as creates invoices and packing labels and interfaces with whatever accounting software the retailer currently uses. An Internet interface will allow retailers to upload orders directly to vendors.
The idea behind Solatech is to make window coverings businesses more efficient and, therefore, more profitable. "Basically an order is rewritten, re-priced, re-quoted and re-done three, four, sometimes five times before it actually gets to the manufacturing floor. All are opportunities for mistakes or problems," Soltis says. "Anytime one of those mistakes or problems arise and doesn't get caught, then basically any profit on that product has already been lost. If a problem does get caught, it's expensive to make changes."
Many large manufacturers and fabricators in the industry are fortunate in dealing with large customers such as retail chains because they have electronic data interchange (EDI) technology already in place to allow them to submit orders directly into their vendor systems, Soltis explains. "The problem with our industry is that the majority of the manufacturing done, in my opinion, is done by independent fabricators who don't have the resources to do that kind of technology with their customers," he says.
Solatech wants to make that kind of technology available to the majority of the industry. Retailers can work directly off an Internet-based version of the software, or off a desktop version if they want more capability. They will be able to submit orders to several vendors via the Internet. If the vendors are using Solatech software the orders will merge right into their systems, if not, then the orders will be printed out or made available in a different format regardless of who's software the fabricator is using.
Initially, Solatech is targeting current customers—those of Suz's Software and ISSI—who mostly deal in hard window treatments. But customers offering soft treatments aren't being left out, even though ordering custom draperies can be very complicated. "Basically most everything comes down to options. Do you want this or do you not want this?" Soltis says. "And options can be interrelated. If you pick this option, then this other option is available, but if you don't pick that option then the second option is not available. Option C is a result of what was entered for A and B, and those are calculated by a formula. I believe we have all those possibilities covered."
"If you can handle all of the options in the window coverings industry, you can handle pretty much anything. There are very few products that are that complicated on a retail level," Soltis says.
THE NEXT GENERATION
One of the main reasons why Soltis and Gabriel believe the window coverings industry is poised to embrace technology in a big way is because a new generation of business owners is coming into their own and things are starting to change.
"This is a family-type industry and many companies get handed down from generation to generation. People who have been doing this for 20 years or longer are not typically inclined to make big changes and going from a manual to an automated process is definitely a big change," Soltis explains.
"By the same token, four or five years ago when I would call on customers I'd guess 30 to 40 percent of the people I contacted did not have a computer. Now that number is somewhere between five and 10 percent, if that. Most of them are using computers for accounting, accessing the Web and sending e-mail. They are at least aware that now they have the resources and the technology in-house.
"I really feel that the industry is ready to start moving forward. There's constant talk and complaints about margins and competition, so what retailers and fabricators need to do is to start reducing their expenses. If they can automate and if they can eliminate mistakes and if they can streamline the process, then it's going to make them much more efficient and help them keep those margins that are being whittled away.
"Margin is not the bottom line," he continues. "It's product and it's service. But a company that can use the software, look professional, give accurate information and status updates, and provide this kind of information quickly and easily to a customer is going to shine above somebody who can't do that."