In the years between 2008 and 2013 I ran, together with my wife Paola Pesoli, our first startup. At that time the word startup was not yet invented. Today I may have used the help of many advisors to run and build a startup, but at that time there was not yet such an availability. And, let’s say the truth, there was no need for it.

What “Professional Housekeeping” was?

The idea of our company comes out from blending our knowledge and desires. Paola is a talented and passionate hotel manager, with a lot of passion and the willing to train other people in the job. But this is not possible (remember, we are in the early years of the 21st century, not now!) without a lot of “physycal” structures. That may cost a lot. Here comes my knowledge, and the idea of creating a structure as much as virtual as possible. We delivered courses, in presence, but renting only occasionally the spaces for that, we delivered consultancy services for hotels, and in the last period we started delivering online courses as well. All of that using a really “light” structure, based on new technologies that were almost unknown at the time.

The PHSK Professional Housekeeping logo

This article is not about what we learnt in this experience, what we delivered, in other words the hotel industry experience. I will focus only on the technologies we put together, how we used them, and – that’s one important fil rouge in my career, how we managed to reduce the costs to zero or almost zero, how we used these technologies to provide an high quality service that lead more than one of our clients think we were having a structure of 20 people, while we were only 2 of us.

Being visible

The first action is, of course, being visible. And this is done with a website. Our website needs to show what we do, but also to show the calendar of our courses and other frequently updated information for our potential customers.
I choose Joomla (was version 1.5) for this, with some special developed additional components to allow readers to know about the dates and location of our courses. This was indeed our first business: selling those courses to individual people, building classrooms around Italy and at the end, renting a conference room to hold the course.

Being pretty

Along all the life of Professional Housekeeping, that we shorted in PHSK in the company logo, a detailed attention was put by us on the care of the “appearence”. Website, documents, all the company material we were producing and distributing. So I had to refresh my Desktop Publishing knowledge, because aside the logo, all the other stuff has been made in house, by me. Lowering the costs was a must, remember?
So I learnt how to create also the gadgets we were giving to customers during our lessons. Pens, pencils, bags, rulers, even a calculator-ruler.

I learnt how to create the content for the advertisement we made occasionally on printed platforms.
All of this using Adobe Illustrator and other programs.

We also created a YouTube channel, using my knowledge of videomaking. That is still alive here
And finally we created also interactive CDs and DVDs.

All these items designed in house, and – for the materials – ordered outside for printing.
For one year we also sponsored a volleyball team.

This materials costed a lot, but they contributed a lot in making the brand visible, and also in helping the perception of the business.

Being reachable

The idea is that the customers will reach us by sending us an email.

Unfortunately we realized this was not perfectly working. Many of our interlocutors were having a very low level of “IT alphabetization”. For many people sending an email was hard, for other, simply, email was a synonym of scam. We realized we needed to move further, to a more classical approach: the phone.

But having a phone line has a lot of fixed costs, unless… a new technology is coming on the market that is affordable and becoming simple to use also for the end user. Voice Over IP. Yes, today used almost by anyone, at the time I discovered how to have for free a phone number that is in reality a virtualization to be used with an internet device. So we create the phone number, and also the fax number using Messagenet. Faxes are converted in emails, phone calls are collectable at the cost of a small phone device we bought.
It works. Potential customers are happier, they have a voice to tell them what was already written on our website.

Reachable, but not always

The idea of the VOIP line works perfectly. We have a phone in our “studio” that is a room in our apartment. Until that phone rings at 6 am of a saturday. Among our potential customers there are the hotel maids, they start their shift at that time and do not have – as all the hotel workers – the concept of weekend.
Thus, my search starts again. At that time I’m running a virualization server for all the needs of my customers and my first activity. This will become very helpful. I am looking for something a bit more elegant than “disconnecting” the phone when we don’t want to be called, and I run into Asterisk and FreePBX.
Once again, learning by myself and applying it, with zero cost. An Asterisk-FreePBX VM hosted in my “virtual farm” solved the problem, but also allowed us to increase the level of how our business is perceived. In one single shot, and again, with zero cost, I added to our startup: a powerful IVR, giving automated information 24/7. A powerful “call queue” system allowing us to never loose a call, but also organize the way we handle them. Finally we get our private extension. This is a key advantage. We have a PBX running at home, when we’re around Italy, and we were out a lot. Simply installing a software like Bria in our laptops we were able to use the phone even from an hotel room. Sounds really easy, now, but in 2010 it was really innovative.

A Visio document describing the flow of our IVR – Almost all is in italian, of course.

There’s an important aspect in this. The perception of PHSK changed drastically. We’re no longer a “single person” business, we’re starting to be perceived how an organized and structured company.

Get organized

As the business was growing other needs were arising. First of all, keeping all the information about our contacts, calendars of our courses, information requests. Second, automating as much as possible all the work. It’s at that point I start developing our “CRM” application.
I start with one of the friends of my childhood. Filemaker Pro in the window version. But it will become insufficient really quickly.
So I developed a Spring application written in Java with a JQuery frontend, interacting with a mysql db. Again, all to be hosted in my virtual farm, whose cost was covered by something else. Those are the technologies I was working on daily, at the time, so for me writing that application was like is talking of it now.
I decided for a completely custom solution, because nothing on the market was giving me all we was needing. Or matching the requirement of “zero cost”.

First, we need to set our calendar of courses in our “back office” application, and the application will have to synchronize with the website. That’s easyly done customizing a Joomla component.
Then we need to keep track of the people that is asking information calling us or writing us. Sometimes people calling even 10 days per day, just for the pleasure of doing it. I created a system that basing on the email address or the calling number was collecting all the contacts we had with that person.
Later the contact may enroll in a course and become a client, and we want to keep track of the payments, of the presence at courses.
Least, but not last, we want to automate sending emails with information (they are almost standard and repetitive) and also, why not, get in touch with all the former contacts for marketing of future initiatives.
I would use something like sendgrid, today, at that time all was to be done “in house”. A template engine, allowing the application to choose a customer, choose a course date and … voilĂ ! An email with all the information is sent to the customer. Less than 10 seconds.

A sample screenshot from our Back Office
Automated emails send choosing a template and the course to which to refer

All of this, of course, had to be “mobility enabled” like I said for the phone. We’re spending more nights in hotel rooms rather than in our apartment. Our laptops have all the needed stuff to reach our servers from anywhere and we were able to work from anywhere. Again, this in 2010 was not daily seen like it is now. I get the possibility for “remote” work (or “smart working” like is called in Italy) for my own company a long before the same technical possibility has been made available in big IT companies.

The android application

For a while we had an Android application. Android version 2.4. It was, in truth, my desire of making experience with Android. I think it collected less than 10 downloads. The app was a very simple alternative frontend for our courses calendar. It was taking the information from the RSS feature of Joomla and displaying it. Has been removed from the google play marketplace, of course, in years

Remote courses

In the last phase of its life, our business opened to remote courses. We tried to reduce the costs of the courses for the customer not having the possibility to pay for a “classroom” course, also because the presence course has logistic issues for all the individuals.
We started an hybryd form, selling a DVD containing the course. The attendee may watch the DVD as he/she wants, and at the end, to have the certificate, passing an online test.

The interactive menu for our DVDs
Always from our interactive DVDs, the links to our video channel (all people featuting in the videos agreed to appear there)

Again I developed the solution to integrate in Joomla the tesing engine, and integrating it with our back office application, that meanwhile enreached its potential to generate and send via email the certifications.

What I learnt from it

PHSK has been a really interesting gym for my technical knowledge, experiencing as an architect, a customer, a programmer the needs of integration coming from putting together so many topics with the desire of having – as owner of the business – the cost for this integration to zero.

I learnt about VOIP, and in a later stage I offered this knowledge as consultancy for clients. I learnt how to organize an IVR and manage an online PBX.

I learnt how to prepare the template of printing corporate branded stuff like notes blocks, pens, bags, highlighters.

I learnt how to keep in sync different data sources, some of them hosted locally and some remotely.

The story of how innovative technologies may help in making your company bigger than it is.