Brandon Harker - Sebae Data Solutions and Auction Flex
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AuctioneerTech – Hello and welcome to the ninth episode of the AuctioneerTech Auction Podcast for the week of 27 October, 2008. My name is Aaron Traffas, and with me today is Brandon Harker from Sebae Data Solutions, makers of Auction Flex and the guys behind Bidopia. Hi, Brandon, and thank you for joining me.
Brandon Harker – Hey, thanks for having me.
AT – Before we get to Auction Flex – and tell me, is it Bid-opia? Is it Bid-o-pia? How do you pronounce your bidding platform?
BH – We pronounce it Bidopia, kind of like a derivative of utopia.
Sure, and that’s how I pronounced it but I want to check and be sure that I wasn’t going to make a fool out of myself by pronouncing it incorrectly. Tell us a little about Sebae and how you became a vendor for the auction industry.
About ten years ago I had the fortune to get introduced to the live auction industry. It was about that time I was kind of ending my job before I was starting this. So a few years after, I was introduced to it and just came to survey the software that was available at the time and kind of decided that we could build a better moustrap. So that’s what we set about doing and here we are eight years later now.
What is Auction Flex?
Auction Flex is full auction management software for the live auction industry. We work for cataloged, non-cataloged, Internet and multi-parcel auctions, and we do all that without modularizing the software which was kind of one of our basic tennants when we got started.
Right. Because other solutions will charge a base price and then if you want to add, for example, inventory exporting and importing capabilities or your multi-parcel – they will piece it out and charge accordingly, which has its benefits, but it also certainly gets a little frustrating as an auctioneer having to, once you’ve decided to add something to your business model, then you say oh now I have to go and buy the software in addition to what I already have, so that’s certainly impressive. Talk a little about the inventory management capabilities of Auction Flex, as far as the integration with Bidopia, your Internet bidding platform, as well as other platforms and how you can get inventory in and inventory out.
One of the reasons we decided to call the software product Auction Flex was, you know, flex stands for two things which was flexibility and power. And so we actually have a bunch of different ways that you can get inventory into and out of the system. You can get into fully detailed inventory management where you’re managing inventory outside of auctions with bar-coded labels. You can have user-defined fields where you could capture information, like in the case of antiques it might be providence, dimensions, weight. In automobiles you would collect VIN, year, make, model. In heavy equipment it would be hours, model, you know, et cetera. The whole point is that you can create your own inventory types and the types of information that you want to collect and get as detailed with that as you want to. Or, for the other side, you can just start entering a catalog with a lot number and a quick description and leave it at that. You can import as many images as you want or attach images directly to the inventory or to the catalog. We actually have a really cool tool that will actually read bar codes off of an image. So that means that if you take a picture of a barcode on a piece of inventory, our software can actually recognize that barcode and assign the subsequent images to that particular lot automatically. So we have a bunch of really cool tools to get as detailed as you want to be or as quick and brief as you want to be.
So you can, for example, based on a category – in other words if I go in and say that for antiques I want to capture these three specific data types – I can specify that so that anybody entering inventory in the system is then required to enter those custom types?
Exactly. And that’s a good point you bring up. A lot of times, in larger auction companies especially, you have more than one person entering your inventory. And what the inventory types help you to do is kind of standardize the information you’re collecting. So instead of ending up with three variations of how somebody enters, let’s say an automobile and maybe one person enters it 2000 Ford F150 but the next person enters it Ford F150, 2005, and you can imagine all the different variations.
Well by standardizing those user-defined fields, it then forces those descriptions into whatever you’ve defined. So it really helps the catalog be more professional looking.
Very nice. While we’re still on inventory entry and management, what kind of user tracking abilities, if any, do you have. In other words, can I tell what user logged in and entered these items or maybe the last person who edited them?
I’d have to dig in. I want to say a workstation is recorded. A lot of our customers actually don’t even force users to log in so we have mechanisms behind those things to track what workstation things happened at too. I’d have to dig into that some more to know exactly to what detail you could get that.
Sure. I supposed it’d probably be fairly easy if you can provide custom fields. That’s a question there in that can you specify when you’re entering inventory if one of your custom fields is displayed to the public or if it’s for internal use?
Absolutely. That’s a great feature. We actually have a few user-defined field captions that you can use that are specifically for internal use. One is a consigner item number. A lot of times, a consigner will consign a whole truckload full of inventory and they’ve already attached their own inventory numbers, if you will, to that merchandise. And so when they get their consigner settlement out, they want that information relayed back to them. Well obviously our bidders don’t care what number our consigners have assigned to an item, but we can capture that information and give that back to the consigners on the settlement sheet. Another feature like that is something called auctioneer notes which is something the house wants to record that they might want to announce during the auction but not necessarily want to put on the catalog. Well, that would show up on the auctioneers’ copy and also on the auctioneers’ screen.
Very nice. How then are those fields – when you look at exporting the data out of Auction Flex into whatever bidding platform the customer utilizes – what kind of capabilities does the auctioneer have as far as specifying the schema or the arrangement of those fields in the output files?
They have complete control over what fields should be included with an export and in what order. With that export routine you can also export the images. Our software automatically takes your higher resolution image, automatically copies that to a web-enhanced image – so it’s going to be a lower resolution, a smaller size – and so as part of that export routine you can choose whether or not to export the original, high-resolution image or the optimized web image. You can choose whether or not to export all the images or just the first one and then you have a whole slew of the standard file types – Excel, CSV, DBS, et cetera.
Right. As far as images go, first of all where are they and how are they stored? Do you have any standardized directory structure or anything like that? And secondly, when you look at exporting images – and that’s very neat, I didn’t know that it resized and batch-processed the images – in that processing, will it allow you to rename it according to a specified schema, rename those images?
We actually handle the images internally. We rename them. The software renames them internally to keep track of them. It’s not according to – it’s actually a random filename, and it does that for uniqueness. Obviously if we named the image for lot one 1.JPG then the next auction we would have a duplicate 1.JPG so we keep track of all the inventory through our own folder mechanisms and through our own internal tracking. But, when you export, it gives you the option to rename the image as the lot number or as the inventory number so it takes away all the manual renaming that people are used to doing. Obviously if you have multiple image it will give you the option of what schema to use to handle those multiple images.
So when you enter the description, and by description I mean your auctioneer-assigned item number and the category and all of the custom fields you’ve specified that are appropriate for that kind of item – when you enter that, do you then go and say let me assign the pictures and open a dialog box and select the images that you have take for that? Is that kind of how the system works, then?
You can. At that point, you can actually drag and drop images right onto the item. That would be the manual process of doing it. We also have the batch image import which tends to, I think, be used a lot more than the lot-by-lot. But certainly it’s up to you. Again, flexability is the key. Everybody has a different way that works best for them, so we accomodate all those different ways whether it’s batch image import or just one at a time.
Very nice. We’ll talk a little bit when we talk about Bidopia, and I certainly want to cover that here in a little bit, we’ll talk about how that integration process works. But one of the things that I have personally salivated over when I’ve looked at Auction Flex is the handheld capabilities. Talk a little bit about the handheld devices that you have integrated and the range and what an auctioneer can do with those handheld units.
Sure. When we were researching handhelds, probably five or six years ago now, there were a couple things that standard PocketPC-type handhelds didn’t do for you. And a PocketPC-type handheld is kind of like a smartphone. It’s got the color screen and you can get them with the little keyboards or you can get them with just numeric keypads on them, but typically they all going to be consistent in that they’re going to use Wi-Fi, which has a limited range, and secondly they have a color screen which completely washes out in sunlight. Thirdly the battary live when you are using Wi-Fi tend to not last as long as an auction, so now you have to start worring about having hot spares avaliable. So we wanted to find a hand held solution that resolved all of these issues. So the hand held that we found and that we have implemented into our software A) has a screen that does not get wash out in direct sunlight, no matter how bright it is you can still see the screen. B) It uses a RS signal that is at a lower bandwidth than WIFI which allows it ,its just a measure of physics here, that allows the signal to travel further without breaking apart. So our typical range with our hand helds is about 1000 feet. And then lastly the batteries, its just three double A batteries nothing fancy and they will last over 24 hours of continuous use. Wow. So we kind of resolved all three of the issues we have with the hand helds when we found that unit and made it work with our software.
Very nice and with the hand helds you can obviously clerk an event what other, are there any other things you can do?
There are, there are a couple applications for the hand held. The first and most often used of course is the clerking capablility. It can be very handy especially in a catalog sale to just walk around and clerk the auction, in that mobile sale where you do need that ability to walk around. It also comes with an optional built-in barcode reader. With that bar code reader you can actually scan lot labels that you have printed out with barcodes. Another function you can use the hand held for is lotting an auction. What auction houses and some heavy equipment and other types of auctions that manage inventory. What they have to do is they kind of have a multi step process that means they take the inventory in they give it an inventory number but they are doing that before they know necessarily they won’t know what lot number they are going to give the item, they may not even know what auction they are going to sell the item in. They have to have a means to track inventory. So they may go ahead and barcode the inventory stick it in the warehouse, stick it on the lot, whatever the case may be. So what the hand held allows them to do is lets say later on they get the auction lined up and in the case of let’s say an antique gallery they pull items out of the warehouse till they have enough for an auction they can walk the line, if you will, with that hand held and scan the inventory labels and assign that to a lot number for the sale, so that the catalog is in order.
Another thing you can do with that built-in barcode scanner is you can decode VINs. So as inventory is coming in, in this case vehicles and I want to say it is from ’94 on, I may be a little off with that, but there is a barcode label on newer vehicles that you can scan with a hand held, and our hand held will then decode and say hey this is a 2001 Ford F150 XLT with a V8 and the automatic transmission. So it can really make the inventory entry in the case of scanning VINs much faster, and obviously less prone to errors. And then the last option it has relates to the multi-parcel software thats is built-in to Auction Flex. The hand held allows you to what-if queries on the fly, so that your ringman can be walking around if somebody wants to know “what-if” for a new contination the ringman can just enter it right there and tell them without walk backing and for to the computer.
Very Nice, While we are on the subject of Multi-par, a couple of the guys that I work with, who when they found out that I had an interview with you, made me promise to ask you if it was in your plans to ever consider releasing a stand alone mulit-par package. Is that something that has ever crossed your mind?
You know we are, again we stay away from that, if for no other reason than it lead to the perception that we offer the software in modules. We are priced competitivly and we have many customers who use Auction Flex only for multi-parcel. So you know it is one of those things that you can get the software and only use the multi parcle or you can get the software and only use the regular auction management stuff or you can use them both. Its up to you, but we won’t be spliting that out, that’s not in the plans.
Sure. Talk a little bit about your customer database, as far as possible multiple registrations per bidder, per seller, per event.
There are obviously there are certain instances where a bidder wants multiple bid cards and of course that is an option in the software that you can assign the same bidder multiple bidder numbers for the sale, but in most cases we don’t want, we want to prevent duplication and in fact when we allow a bidder to check in multiple times we’re not duplicating their information we’re allowing them to check in more than once. Like an alias. Exactly, and we do have functions in the software that when you check somebody in, if you have duplicated a record it will automatically find that duplication and ask them right then and there is this the same person. In fact one of the improvements for 6.02 was the improved, that is version 6.02 of Auction Flex, which came out probably about a month and a half ago or so. One of those improvements was an improved algarhythm for duplication checking.
Very Nice, that has been something that we have faught in the past was, when we have our internet bidders and our live bidders how we handle those. And so that is certainly something that is very near and dear to me is making sure that we, that the software has the capability of doing that. There was also a question posed recently on the NAA forum about the need to register seller under different live numbers, without the duplication. And so your software allows that on the seller as well as the buyer side.
Yeah absolutely, and what that topic was related is some auctioneer that do, typically it’s used a mulit-consignor non-catalog sale, non-catalog meaning we haven’t pre-entered any lots ahead of time, we are just going to clerk it on the fly as we go. So we have to tell the software what it is, who we sold it to, for how much and how many there were. In that instance it is common for customers that have multiple consignors non-catalog sales, to want to give, to want to reuse the same range of consignor codes for each auction, so let’s say they want to reuse A-Z. And they like to do that for a couple of reason, obviously the first is if we have to give every consignor that ever comes in our auction house a unique different number then pretty soon we are going to start having some very consignor codes. You can imagine if you are trying to clerk a sale with four digit consignor codes the probability of the clerk having tranposition errors goes up greatly. So the desire there is to A) keep the consignor codes short and B) alot of times we don’t want the same consignor from auction to auction to always have the same consignor code, cause our bidder for whatever reason may start to identify that code with that bidder and the consigner wants some ability to be annonoymus with what they are selling. So it serves those two functions.
Sure. You mentioned you released version 6.02 a month and a half ago or a couple of months ago, I noticed on your website that you just release 6.03 and so what’s in the latest and greatest release and maybe what are some future plans, what you’re looking forward to after that release.
Well 6.03 is pretty much, kind of just a roll up to version 6.02, 6.02 was really our last big release. A couple things came out with 6.02 is a new enhanced check out form, we also came up with this new idea we had, called an auto back up tool. I don’t know your familiar with the trail printer auctions, and what a trail printer is for those who don’t know is when an auctio is being clerked on the fly or in a cataloged format, if the auction house chooses to clerk that auction live and not keep a hard copy, the trail printer can serve as that hard copy, and what it does it is automatically prints a trail of the auction as it is being conducted and so we wanted to take that one step further and we came up with an auto-back-up tool. And what that does is every “X” minutes, obviously for flexibility purpose you define X, we recommend somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes. So every 20-30 minutes the auto-back-up tool automatically makes a back-up of all the data to that point and includes it on another machine that is not serving, that is not the server. And what that does for you if at any point in time, luckily computers are very reliable now a days, but in the instance that your server computer should die on you in the middle of an auction, you could actually re-purpose a secondary work station or a client work station as the new server, use that back-up and be up and rolling.
Very nice. Is that just the back-up of the event in progress or an entire database back-up?
It would be an entire database back-up.
Wow. Very Nice. What’s next on the development list is there anything that you’re looking at?
I’m actually working on a really cool tool right now, that we’re going to be rolling out here probably within the next week or two. One of the challenges our customers have had, particularly our auction galleries is generating a phone bid schedule. If you can imagine, higher end antiques typically have a lot of phone bidders that will want to be called when their particular lots that they are interested in come up. Well when you get a few hundred to a hundred to two hundred phone bidders that are wanting to be contacted on maybe an average of maybe a dozen or so lots each, generating a schedule for a bank of phone employees can be quite a task. And obviously your phone bidders have to have things like so many lots between phone calls so they have time to establish the phone call with the next bidder they need things like maybe some clients only speak a certain language so we have to restrict who they can talk to in the phone bank. There are alot of variables that go into the phone bids, generating the phone bid schedule, and up to now it has been a fairly tedious process to generate that schedule and I am actually almost done with a new phone scheduler that takes that multi-hour process that the auction house is manually doing now and making it completely automatic.
Wow. You had mentioned earlier about how you have a fee structure that you want to keep it all together, I know that you have a rental option, for lack of a better term, why don’t you talk one time a little bit about the fee structure for the Auction Flex product.
Sure, sure early on we, you know, I have always kind of compared buying software to getting married, in essence at the time when we got started, basically everybody wanted you to buy their multi-thousand dollar software with out really giving it a test run. And I kind of equate that to marrying somebody on the first date, you know what I mean?
Absolutely, Aaron McKee’s anology for that It’s kind of like a mother-in-law you have to take it home and learn to love it once you made the decision.
Yeah, I like that. So we kind of had a different approach to that and that was that we were going to offer our software as well as that typical out right purchase we are also going to offer it on a rental plan. And the way that that rental plan is different, is it is literally month to month which means that if we don’t make you happy for any way shape or form you can cancel and you will never get another bill from us. And essentially thats the put up or shut up mentality. And so we think if we do our job and provide the service and provide the software the rest takes care of itself.
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