July 2014
Interview

AutomatedBuildings.com

Babel Buster Network Gateways: Big Features. Small Price.
Control Solutions, Inc. - Minnesota

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Steve JonesEMAIL INTERVIEW –  Steve Jones and Ken Sinclair

The S4 Group, Inc
Steve Jones, Managing Partner

The S4 Group is a developer of gateway technology to integrate disparate technologies and systems in the building automation industry and other non-IT vertical markets. 

A Lesson in Collaboration

Another way to look at this is that the collaboratory is continuous commissioning for our business plan!


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SinclairWe have been talking for several years about reaching out and collaborating with partners in the BAS community. How has your business evolved due to your ability to collaborate with your partners in the industry?

Jones:  The S4 Group started out with a mission of enhancing and extending Metasys. The vision was that we could add value to legacy buildings quickly and cost effectively by performing integrations at the head end of JCI MetasysŪ N2 systems. We found that the integration community needed more than just our technology to help make them successful.

SinclairHow did you respond to this revelation?

Jones:  Our product presentations have evolved to address these needs. We now do a lot of coaching on how to position the product and the integration process to our integration partners, building owners, and operators. They need to be able to clearly convey this value proposition. By listening carefully, we learned that integrators needed to learn how to minimize and mitigate risk. They needed to understand how to adopt and implement best practices for both the product itself and the integration process. Successful integrations are not limited to the simple installation of a product; rather, they address, and in some ways redefine, the life cycle of the entire building infrastructure. After the product is installed it is critical to tune the entire system for optimal results and to understand the ongoing needs for monitoring and management.

SinclairWhat have you learned about or from the building owners?

Jones:  Even though we primarily work with the BAS manufacturers, their dealers, and the integration community we have learned a lot about building owners and operators along the way.  In many cases a building owner decides to make a change in direction for business or political reasons. We learned a long time ago to stay away from these discussions. Instead, we focus on the positive by introducing the S4 systems as enabling technology and set the stage for immediate success that continues into the future.

Sinclair:  How have you used collaboration to ensure that your products are what building owners want?

Jones:  Creating products with a spirit of collaboration has always been part of the fabric of The S4 Group. When the product was initially developed, Authorized Building Control Specialists (ABCS) were one of the primary targets of our outreach efforts to determine what was needed to support building owners and operators. JCI branches were another target.  In fact, the S4 group was so serious about building relationships around the JCI ecosystem that shortly after the company was formed we enrolled in the JCI MetasysŪ Compatibility Program.

SinclairDid the product launch go smoothly?

Jones:  To be honest, it didn't work out quite as was initially planned. The product got rave technical reviews when several partners exhibited it at the AHR Expo that first year. We had made the classic mistake of focusing on the technological aspects of the products, fell into the "if you build it, they will come" trap, and missed the bigger picture that considered everyone's business goals.  Collaboration to the rescue!

SinclairCan you elaborate on how you used collaboration?

Jones:  Through a collaborative effort with the BAS manufacturers their dealers, independent integrators and building owners and operators, the value proposition was changed to fit a new target market and, as a result, had a major impact on the entire industry. Building owners and operators with legacy MetasysŪ N2-based BAS systems now have a cost effective migration path to vendor independent open systems. Integration is now considered a mainstream and accepted approach to retrofits and upgrades of buildings.

SinclairAs a result of your collaboration did you have to make major changes in your S4 Open technology?

Jones:  The S4 Open Appliances did not change direction technically. But, the value proposition was re-examined and the marketing effort was broadened to reach out to all BAS manufacturers. In fact, the decision was made around the same time to develop the “S4 Open” branding. Although this change in direction caused S4 a considerable amount of anxiety, it turned out to be a fortunate turn of events. The S4 Group and its partners are now delivering solutions that enhance and extend MetasysŪ to their Integration Partners, and their building owners and operators, worldwide. Development is underway to offer several new integrations.

SinclairNow we have the cloud technology and applications sweeping the industry, how have you been able to collaborate around this development?

Jones:  The Cloud phenomenon has initiated more opportunities for integrations into legacy MetasysŪ N2 –based BAS systems so that analytics, continuous commissioning, demand response, energy management, and a host of other value added applications and services could be added to older buildings without impacting the day to day operation of MetasysŪ.  Again, the technical direction did not change, but the value proposition and marketing message was refined to re-cast the S4 Open Appliances as on-site agents supporting this new generation of value added services. Collaboration was instrumental in identifying the common needs for integration without disruption of day to day operations.

SinclairWhat happened to the ABCS relationships that you started out seeking?

Jones:  There have been some notable changes with ABCS relationships and similar franchisee relationships throughout the BAS Industry. Most independent dealers are no longer required to exclusively handle a particular BAS product line. They are free to establish as many product relationships as needed to serve their customer base with solutions that meet the building owner and operator’s needs. We are now going full circle and making an effort to bring these important players into our collaboratory.

SinclairIf you could give advice to others who are looking to create new ways to solve technology issues what would you share with them from your experience?

Jones:  The S4 Group has always focused on creating partnerships with our customers; we have always kept our ears (and minds) open to their needs and ideas.  Our most effective outreach activities are the technology presentations that are conducted over the net. These meetings have allowed us to educate our partners and receive immediate feedback, which includes ideas for changes to our technology. These presentations have grown into another offering: Integration Boot Camps which are held at our site. These boot camps have been a great opportunity for face-to-face learning and collaboration.

SinclairThis sounds like a very time consuming process. Is this the only tool you use for collaboration?

Jones:  No. We are very active on Automatedbuildings.com, the HVAC-Talk forum, on LinkedIn, and participate in traditional trade shows and industry associations to keep a finger on the pulse of the industry. The S4 collaboratory is continually expanding. BACnet PlugFest is a fantastic example of a focused collaboration among all of the BACnet manufacturers in the industry.

Reliable ControlsSinclairHow far has your collaboratory expanded?

Jones:  The S4 Group now has ongoing relationships with almost every BAS manufacturer in the industry. The original vision of playing a vital role in the solution set offered by the JCI ABCS community is still valid. It is probably even more powerful for those ABCS organizations that have either moved on to other technologies and still want to continue serving the customer base they have taken care of for many years, or just want more options to offer to building owners and operators. The S4 Open Appliances provide the enabling technology to facilitate these ongoing relationships and keep the focus on the needs of the building owner and operator.

SinclairThanks Steve, do you have any parting thoughts?

Jones:  We learned early on that business plans are most effective when treated as a target that is subject to change as more information is learned. They need to evolve continually to meet the needs of the customer through a collaborative process. Another way to look at this is that the collaboratory is continuous commissioning for our business plan! In closing, I would like to invite past and current ABCS organizations to contact us to collaborate about supporting their loyal customers and increasing business in new and exciting directions.


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