Plumber swaps spanner for iPad to help tradies onto the cloud

TradiePad puts an end to afterwork accounting.

Clinton Cowin had always looked for ways to manage his plumbing companies on the road but various experiments such as networking laptops always turned into “a bloody nightmare”.

Cowin was initially unimpressed with the iPad when it was first released. When a knee reconstruction forced him to stop work he used the time to test out cloud applications for scheduling and job management.

Several months down the track, Cowin had come up with a collection of cloud apps on the iPad that had made his plumbing business completely paperless.

“There is so much you can do with mobile devices on site – viewing plans, looking up specifications, communicating with contractors. Just having email communication all the time makes a massive difference,” Cowin said.

“If there are changes that get made to a bathroom layout or wiring layout you can get them straight away. You don’t have to go back to the office to do that.”

Cowin tested the solution on Waste Deep Plumbing, the business he ran with business partner Dave Robbins, and found that it practically eliminated afterhours paperwork.

“Before we had the iPads Dave was in the office every night doing paperwork and heading back to the office two to three times a day to access emails and faxes and work orders or looking up records. Now he’d be lucky to go to the office once a week,” Cowin said. “It made such a difference to the business and our personal lives that we decided we had to share it.”

Robbins kept running the plumbing business while Cowin started TradiePad, a consulting business to help tradespeople move their office from pen and paper to the cloud.

Cowin has been kept busy with word-of-mouth inquiries from tradespeople on Sydney’s northern beaches. An article in the local paper brought a big influx of work that booked out the next three weeks with builders, plumbers and maintenance businesses.

Cowin recently signed up an electrician to help him service TradiePad customers in southern and western Sydney.

TradiePad supplied the tradesperson with an iPad if they didn’t already have one, preconfigured with a suite of recommended cloud applications including Google Apps, GeoOpDropBox, Unleashed Software and Xero. (Cowin used bookkeeper Jill of all Trades to set up the Xero application.)

Cowin then trained staff on how to use the iPad and cloud applications to run the business.

“I know how long it would take a plumber and electrician to learn it on their own. We take that time out for them and in three two-hour training sessions and they’re ready to go,” Cowin said.

Apart from a few calls in the first month there is little need to provide ongoing support, he said.

Google Apps was a key component for email and calendar management. It was also an easy way to sync information across all devices.

“In the past you’d fill out a paper job card which would then go back to the office and get filed away. If someone rings up three months down the track and says there’s a problem with a job you’d have to go back to the office and find the job.

“Whereas with the Google calendar you can pull up all the job history of the customer with the click of a button,” Cowin said.

Cowin recommended invoicing and quoting program Invoice2Go for small businesses. “It’s really easy to use and that’s a key thing for tradies. It’s quite customisable and has really good apps for keeping track of time and materials for ongoing jobs,” Cowin said. “For a plumber that’s using costs plus work (including margin) it makes keeping track of that stuff really easy.”

Cowin pointed bigger companies to scheduling and job management app GeoOp.

“GeoOp is really the holy grail – it’s an all-in-one for job management, it integrates with Xero, it has invoicing and customer record management which is really valuable to have out on the road,” Cowin said.

GeoOp stored detailed notes and files and photos against a customer’s history so tradespeople could look up job records without having to return each time to the office. “It means more time out on the tools billing more hours which means making more money,” Cowin said.

TradiePad’s customers used Dropbox to share the most recent versions of plans from the builder instead of relying on the builder to send out updates.

Most companies Cowin worked with were using pen and paper for their accounting. Some were on desktop accounting software from QuickBooks or MYOB but were happy to move to online accounting program Xero because they could access it from anywhere.

TradiePad connected all the cloud applications so information could flow from one to the other.

“A plumber can pick products from the product list in GeoOp which updates the stock numbers in (inventory program) Unleashed which then talks to Xero,” Cowin said.

The choice of iPad case was an important decision. Cowin settled for the Gecko Folio Deluxe over the Otter Box because the former had a cover which flipped over the steering wheel.

“The Otter Box is a great case, it’s really tough and dustproof and splashproof. But it’s not that easy to use in a vehicle and that’s where most tradies are doing their work,” Cowin said.

Cowin’s business partner Robbins no longer used the office PC for accounts or email. It was only turned on to print the occasional document or a job ad.
“Dave’s only going back to the office to pick up tools and drop off tools, it’s certainly not for any admin tasks. Everything is done from the iPad,” Cowin said.

About Sholto Macpherson

Sholto Macpherson is a business technology journalist, consultant and analyst specialising in cloud accounting software.

Sholto is the author of the Macpherson Report, which examines the key technology trends facing accountants in Australia.

He lives and works in Sydney, Australia.

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