Brian Steele teams up with Big Fresh Media to design digital reporting system
|Doug DeVries and Mark Lee of Bellingham’s Big Fresh Media worked with Materials Testing & Consulting to create a digital system to distribute documents. The program caught on and has spread to other industries throughout Whatcom County.|
Brian Steele of Materials Testing & Consulting, Inc., was once a consumer of many trees. He mailed out hundreds of reports to thousands of clients every week, and it cost him a lot of time and money. He searched for a digital system to send out these reports, but the ones he found were far too complicated.
Mark Lee and Doug DeVries, owners of Bellingham’s Big Fresh Media, worked with Steele to design the company’s Web site, so Steele asked for help with this problem. In the summer of 2005, Steele, Lee and DeVries developed a way to eliminate the need for mailing stacks of hundreds of pages nearly every day. They created Digital Paper Route, which has now sent out more than 75,000 reports for Steele’s company, equivalent to an approximately 20-foot-high stack of paper reports.
“We were a bit of a leader in our industry,” Steele said. “Some companies would e-mail reports, but what we wanted to do is use the advantages of an online web-based system where people could not only get the reports out digitally but also log into a system and do project management.”
Two companies working together
Materials Testing & Consulting is co-owned by Steele, Curt Shear, Niall Hackett and his wife, Terri. The company has been in business for 25 years and had an office in Bellingham for the past year.
The company focuses on construction testing and inspection and geo-technical engineering, where they study the ground prior to constructing roads or buildings to ensure stability and security.
After every inspection or test, reports must go out to all the people involved in a project, such as the architect, engineer, owner, building official or contractor. Anywhere from six to 15 people will be sent a report in one day.
“In the old days, printing, stuffing envelopes, licking the envelopes, addressing, mailing and postage was all pretty expensive, material intensive and time consuming. So we were looking for a Web-based system to get our reports out,” Steele said.
Digital Paper Route allows the users to upload reports and e-mail links to that report. When someone logs in to view a report, the administrator can see the exact time it was viewed. This system is more secure than using a paper report, Lee said, because otherwise there is little proof it ever arrived at its location or was read by the appropriate person.
Materials Testing & Consulting has three offices located in Bellingham, Burlington and Centralia, so Digital Paper Route also allows all three offices to access the same reports and contact information, DeVries said. Anyone can update the information from any location.
The process of adapting
“People like to do things the same, and they don’t usually like change,” Steele said. “This was a pretty big change for our clients who were used to getting a packet in the mail, opening the packet, throwing away the envelope and putting it in a paper file. So we had to push to say that this is better than a paper file – it’s faster with better access and an easier project management tool.”
Steele said there are a few people out of 600 projects and 2,000 contacts who don’t use computers or have an e-mail address, so the company still mails off reports to those clients. But overall, clients and employees have taken well to Digital Paper Route.
After the initial adjustments, Steele said most clients and employees who now use it wouldn’t want to go back to the paper system.
Steele continues to work with Lee and DeVries to add new features to the program, such as bulk uploads for reports and eliminating as many steps as possible. Lee and DeVries formed Big Fresh Media, blending DeVries’ skills as a technical developer and Lee’s skills as a designer, and the company specializes in Web site design and features several products including Digital Paper Route.
They have also added more options for clients, such as either receiving e-mail alerts or logging onto the site on their own time. The two companies are currently working on linking Digital Paper Route to the internal accounting system, so the budget is available to see real-time.
In two to three years, the next step will be to eliminate paper work completely, Steele said. Field reports will be typed on site through a PDA of some sort, rather than retyping handwritten reports.
Lee said Big Fresh Media will be adding a desktop widget to drop files onto the Digital Paper Route site.
“We keep exploring new ways for people to use it and make it easier,” DeVries said. They have also been working to integrate the system with Outlook to merge contact information.
Steele said Digital Paper Route provides a definite competitive advantage over other companies in their industry. The company can easily and more efficiently transfer reports, and a client can view a report that shows a project that had failed a test or did not meet safety standards.
“In the olden days with paper, that report could pretty easily get lost in the shuffle,” Steele said. “And if something gets covered over, it can potentially be a life-safety issue.”
Reports can be flagged in Digital Paper Route and sorted to show which issues haven’t been addressed, Steele said.
“When we approach clients, we tell them our tracking system is unprecedented and unparalleled in the industry,” Steele said.
Lee said there are other systems similar to Digital Paper Route, but they included other features that complicate the process.
“One of our philosophies is keep it simple,” Lee said. “We could not find anything that was really simple like this and neither could MTC. So we wanted to build something that was simple and didn’t need a whole lot more than that. No matter who has to use this, from the secretary to whoever has to use the product, if it was too complicated, what is the point?”
Lee and DeVries have other industries using Digital Paper Route, including an architecture firm and a commercial real estate developer, and a market researcher is looking into using the product. Lee said most of the clients who use Digital Paper Route learned of it through word-of-mouth.
The architect firm now using it was one of the firms that had received reports via Digital Paper Route through Steele’s company. Other companies have approached Big Fresh Media with a need, and Lee said they have simply responded to that need rather than aggressively promoting the Digital Paper Route.
“We hope more and more industries adopt it,” Lee said. “It is really useful to anybody who sends out a lot of documents to a lot of people.