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Construction 2.0: How One SMB Runs Without PCs

Silicon Valley Builders Group arms its highly mobile team with smartphones and tablets for real-time productivity and collaboration. Check out the business case for leaving the PC behind.

Apple iPad 2 3G Teardown
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Slideshow: Apple iPad 2 3G Teardown
Could the iPad soon be as common a sight on construction jobs as the hard hat?

It will if the industry follows the example of the Silicon Valley Builders Group (SVBG). The 100-person construction firm's technology approach is producing what its executives believe is a true competitive advantage in an age-old industry--an edge that has helped SVBG hit the $100 million annual revenue milestone in just five years.

Roughly two-third of the SVBG team works almost exclusively in the field, and they're not toting laptops: They operate entirely with iPhones and iPads, primarily using the cloud collaboration app Soonr.

The 35 or so folks in SVBG's actual office work on thin clients; the company's infrastructure is entirely virtualized, with no desktops or latops in sight. SVBG does offer project managers an allowance to purchase a PC for home use so they can remotely access their virtual machines, though it doesn't provide any hardware support. Aside from a small server room on-site, their data is kept almost entirely in Amazon's EC2 cloud.

The mix of mobile devices, desktop virtualization, cloud applications, and cloud data allows CIO Shaun Coleman to operate as a one-man IT department, aside from outside vendors and a part-time staffer. Coleman's no stranger to virtualization: He came from VMware, and SVBG's founders previously worked at Sun Microsystems.

"We kind of accidentally fell into the construction business, but we run it very much like an enterprise," Coleman said in an interview. "We've found it's a huge advantage competitively for us in the market. That's why we went down these technology paths--to really see if we could run a very lean ship without a lot of IT staff."

Coleman points to three key business gains from his company's tech approach--all of which offer potential takeaways for SMBs in a wide range of industries.

1. The Overachieving SMB: SVBG's technology approach helps it appear larger in the public eye while retaining the edge of a trim SMB. That's particularly important in a business like construction. "A big part of this business is the trust aspect," Coleman said. "If you have two bids on the table that are both the same price, which one do you choose? The more stable of the organizations."

By applying new technology to a longstanding business, they're able to convey the same stability and prowess of larger competitors--and win the kinds of $50 million projects previously reserved for the big boys. Even in the company's founding days, it was able to secure and service $10 million deals with just five employees and a 20-person labor crew.

2. SMB Nimble, SMB Quick: SVBG's lightweight infrastructure and applications mix enables it to kick-start projects and processes. That's particularly key for the site services division of its business, which manages and maintains properties for homeowners associations and the like. They can have a new customer's Web portal and phone system up and running, for example, with the press of button (or a few of them).

3. Information Is King: The ability to access, update, and share files and information in real time via smartphone or tablet--rather than updating and sending information via email, fax, or other means--is a legitimate business boon for SVBG. That's where the Soonr app comes in; everything is shared and stored in the cloud--no local files necessary--which helps keep device security risk in check, too. Project managers on site can show customers the same information SVBG is looking at in the office.

Coleman offers up change orders, a construction-business staple, as a prime example: What used to be a slow-moving engine of paperwork, faxes, signature collection, and photographs can now be handled in real time from a customer or job site, thanks to the iPhone, iPad, and Soonr formula.

"It's much more of a collaborative environment, where in the past it was very back-and-forth and took a long time before that change order could be approved," Coleman said. That combination of mobility and productivity justifies both the Soonr subscription and the hardware costs associated with iPhone and iPad--the Apple devices hold little glamour appeal for SVBG, and have to make money like everything else.

"It's very easy for me to explain to [the CFO], who's the guy who write the checks: Hey, you wouldn't be able to do these projects if we didn't have it," Coleman said. "It's a pretty easy case to make from that perspective."

Coleman would like to entirely outsource his infrastructure--including hosting of SVBG's virtual machines--but said there isn't a reliable, all-in option for SMBs yet. In the meantime, he's looking at outsourcing other tech functions, such as replacing the company's internal private branch exchange (PBX) phone system with a hosted VoIP platform.

"We don't want a full-time IT staff, yet we want to be high-tech," Coleman said. "I'd love to put myself out of a job."

See the latest IT solutions at Interop New York. Learn to leverage business technology innovations--including cloud, virtualization, security, mobility, and data center advances--that cut costs, increase productivity, and drive business value. Save 25% on Flex and Conference Passes or get a Free Expo Pass with code CPFHNY25. It happens in New York City, Oct. 3-7, 2011. Register now.

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