By Dale Worobec
Not that many years ago, most Direct Store Delivery (DSD) truck operators were stuck in the dark ages when it came to technology.
Not that it was their fault. Today's powerful, handheld computers didn't yet exist, and if a vendor decided to equip drivers with pricey ruggedized laptop computers there was still the problem of software. Mobile vendors who wanted to use technology, early on, usually paid a premium to have software written or customized for them.
Not surprisingly, most vendors simply kept on writing invoices by hand and relied on simple figuring (or the driver's memory) to keep track of a truckload of inventory. Sure, there were inevitable errors and it was a slow process, but there wasn't any real alternative.
What a difference a few years makes. Today, thanks to software developers like Solid Innovation (formerly PalmX), increasingly more mobile sales and distribution companies are equipped with powerful, affordable and reliable technology to better serve convenience stores and other accounts.
"We specialize in something called route accounting. Really, it's the recognition that mobile business has special accounting needs, and then defining those needs and really focusing on that area," says Craig Fisher, Solid Innovation's founder and CEO.
"In fact, if five years ago you searched the term 'route accounting' on Google (Internet search engine), you'd have found that it wasn't in use to represent what we do. But if today you go and search that term, you'll find it's in general use, and we're the ones who defined the term in the DSD industry," says Fisher.
Technology Within Reach
Solid Innovation is a Canadian company that began life in 1986 when Fisher left the banking industry to create a business with his knowledge of finance and technology. His early focus was to create software for several industries including banks and auto parts management, but the point of sale accounting program he developed was flexible enough for other business users.
One of those business users was a mobile distributor who sold food items to convenience stores, and they liked the software so much they asked Fisher if he could add a mobile component.
"It was around 1992, long before the Palm Pilot-type of products were available. So, this was running on notebook computers and a little later the Symbol PPT 4600, which was essentially a 486 computer built into a brick," Fisher remembers.
Those early Symbol portable units cost around USD $5,000. But as the hardware improved and prices fell (a current Symbol handheld now sells for around USD $800), the demand began growing for the type of route accounting software Solid Innovation was focusing on.
"The two really pivotal points in our company's history are the advent of inexpensive mobile devices and the development of the Internet. It's through the Internet that we've really been able to grow our company," says Fisher.
With no need for expensive sales travel, Solid Innovation can sell its software to users across North America at more attractive prices. Even more cost savings are found in the software itself- not by cutting corners, but by making it so easy to set up and use that customers themselves can install their own system. And, the extra effort toward making the software stable means that Solid Innovation doesn't need to send expensive technicians to help customers work the bugs out.
"If you go back a little in time, our type of business software was characterized by a three-piece suit guy with a Rolex coming to show you the product, and then service technicians flying to your site to get it installed. All those added costs went into the price of the software, and larger companies were really the only ones able to afford it. But we've figured out how to drive these costs out of the system without sacrificing reliability - in fact, it forces us to a higher level of software development," says Fisher.
What's more, Solid Innovation's clientele appreciate our Remote Delivery methodology along with the convenience of not having to wait, says Bryan Shier, director of client services.
"Think of a business manager - if he can buy Solid Route Accounting™ - Integration Edition, download it off the Internet this afternoon and have it up and running in half an hour, that's something he's going to like," says Shier.
Solid Innovation's software has continued to evolve and improve upon its fundamental strengths, but one thing that hasn't changed is the company's commitment to making software that provides users with a strong return on investment. While one part of that equation means driving down the cost of purchasing and implementing the software, Solid Innovation is also committed to creating the most powerful tools available for maximizing users' profits.
Proof of the software's power can be found by looking at Solid Innovation's clientele and how they're using the systems to compete and grow. An example of this is Landmark Novelties Inc., a leading supplier of novelty items and merchandising services to convenience stores throughout the U.S. Midwest.
Landmark Novelties has grown by leaps and bounds in its four-year history and now provides over 4,000 unique items to about 1,200 convenience store customers, with a sales volume in excess of $12 million annually and plans for much more growth ahead.
According to Landmark's Greg Gartner, "We have a very simple business vision - we're in business to help our customers make money. That's it."
The company's aggressive strategy meant it couldn't afford to use anything but the most powerful software for its route accounting and inventory control. After exhaustive research, Landmark chose Solid Innovation software and never looked back.
"We use every ounce of it - if we provide the right information for our customers and our sales professionals, we're going to win big. And that's what we're doing," says Gartner.
In fact, Landmark's continual search for the competitive edge has resulted in the company becoming a beta tester for Solid Innovation - suggesting improvements and new features for the development pipeline, and then being among the first to put the newest versions into use.
"We integrate it so fast, it takes other people years to do what we do in a week," says Gartner.
It speaks volumes about the stability of Solid Innovation's software when clients like Landmark are thinking of ways to make it more powerful - instead of trying to get it to work in the first place.
"It's really great when the software is doing its job. This means our clients can focus on what is important, running their business." notes Jason Duffield, Solid Innovation's manager of software development.
"Even though the software is running behind the scenes, we do not want our clients to forget about us. Our development process depends on active client participation. We can clearly identify the business pain that they are experiencing, and decide how best to solve that pain." says Duffield.
The bottom line is that Landmark and other forward-thinking companies have a lot to gain by using the right technology to move ahead of the competition, explains Gartner. He adds that to date, more U.S. companies than Canadian ones have adopted Solid Innovation's software, which is something the Prince Albert, Saskatchewan company would like to change.
"We give our clientele the tools to unify their business operations and manage them more efficiently. Their route drivers move through customer sites up to twice as fast, and their administration costs go down by half." says Fisher.
"Overall, the business runs much more smoothly and efficiently, so there's quite a lot to gain," concludes Gartner.