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Internet disruption has turned the economy upside down. From taxi drivers to travel agents to ticket scalpers, nearly every profession has been transformed by the digital revolution. In fact, modern entrepreneurship mostly amounts to asking the question: How can I use the Internet to make this (product, service, transaction) faster, cheaper, more precise and more convenient?
Two new companies, pHin and Sutro, have asked that question of the pool service trade, and responded with a business model that uses the Internet to offer remote water testing with a subscription service that delivers chemicals directly to the customer's door.
For service professionals and retailers, this concept may raise some concerns. If a sensor connected to the Internet is keeping an eye on a customer's pool, what do they need a service tech for? And if a pool's chemical needs are calculated from these sensor inputs and delivered to the customer's door, won't retailers see fewer customers?
"When you first talk to people and they first hear about it, they have the same kind of reaction you had [in posing that question], which is like, 'Woah, this seems like it could be detrimental to my business,'" says Justin Miller, president of pHin. "But when you start looking at it and you start looking at all of the benefits, they far outweigh the negatives," he says.
For the homeowner, pHin and Sutro offer much in the way of convenience. The homeowner merely tosses a pHin or Sutro device into his/her pool or spa. Then, through a smartphone or desktop app, he or she can easily check the water balance and receive notifications when the water should to be treated — and what it needs. pHin measures pH, ORP, free chlorine, total alkalinity, total hardness, cyanuric acid and temperature. Sutro measures the same parameters as well as UV load.
pHin has partnered with chemical manufacturers to create pre-measured, single-dose, water-soluble pods — containing chlorine (or bromine for hot tubs), shock, pH increaser and pH decreaser — that are shipped to the homeowner in a subscription plan. pHin is not compatible with other chemical brands, so users are required to purchase chemicals through the company.
"When your mobile phone notifies you that you need to add chemicals, what it'll say is, 'Hey, just toss in two red pods and a green pod this week.' And that's it, you toss in the pods and you're done; the pool is maintained from a chemical balance perspective," Miller says.
"There's no need for you to know, 'Oh, this is sodium bisulfate,' or 'This is trichlor' (or dichlor or whatever) because most consumers don't want to have to deal with the chemistry, they just want to swim and have fun with their families," he adds.
Pool techs know water chemistry isn't that easy. Conditions change; problems arise. When it storms, for example, you might suggest a water clarifier to customers in your area. So what do pHin customers do for specialty chemicals?
"Customers can either order them from us and we'll ship them out, or if they need them right away, they can run down to the local store and pick them up there," Miller says.
Sutro will also have its own proprietary line of chemical pods, but its technology is compatible with any chemical line, so customers can continue using their preferred brand. Sutro CEO Ravi Kurani says this universal approach will only help the pool and spa industry.
"We actually work with consumers and the way they currently buy chemicals," he says. "Sutro is trying to be a team player; we're trying to work with everyone in the industry including retail stores, distribution, all the way up to manufacturing, and really providing a necessary product for the end consumer."
Working alongside industry pros is a key goal for Kurani as he was raised in the pool and spa industry. For more than 30 years, his father owned a chain of pool and supply stores in Southern California, providing decades of experience for him to draw upon when creating Sutro.
"I remember sitting in the back of my dad's pickup truck and we'd run routes, install Pentair filters and do pool cleanings, and I learned how to test chemicals at a very early age," he says. "In the 30 years my father has owned the pool and spa business, there haven't been any sort of waves in terms of technology, so I wanted to help the industry move forward and help the end user understand their chemistry better."
In addition to the consumer-oriented aspects of these products, both Miller and Kurani say their products will serve another purpose: connecting customers and service technicians through their respective service networks.
"At any time, a consumer can tap a button on the mobile app that says, 'Send me someone to help me out.' And when they do, we'll automatically ping our network to find who's local and wants to take on the job, and this gets them to the customer's house to take care of the work," Miller says.
Kurani likens Sutro's professional network to Uber, in which drivers can pick up riders, all of whom use the same app to communicate. And like Uber, anyone who wants to join the Sutro professional network will be vetted first, a process that helps homeowners avoid disreputable companies.
"You can kind of think of Sutro as almost this liability/service ware for both the service professional and the homeowner as well," he says.
Joining the pHin service network, for example, requires an application with details about how long a company has been in business, its Yelp score, industry association memberships, insurance and more.
The rates for work within pHin's professional network will be pre-negotiated, making the process transparent for both the homeowner and service tech, Miller says.
So far, he says he's seen a lot of interest.
"We've had a lot of service technicians, hundreds of service technicians call us and email us already because they want to get involved," Miller says.
In addition to the professional network each device offers, Miller and Kurani say there's another reason service techs are interested in pHin and Sutro: They want to use them professionally. By installing the pHin or Sutro system at each home on a tech's route, for example, an entire route can be monitored remotely.
"Right now, [a service tech's] biggest expense in addition to chemicals is gas and labor," Miller says. "So pHin provides a way for them to reduce their gas and labor costs; they can drive around to the houses only when they need chemicals rather than all the time."
Using a device also lessens the chance for human error, Miller says, which can be problematic in the pool industry.
"One of the concerns we've had from the retail and service companies is they hire folks, but it's really difficult to know how things are going with their employees unless they also drive out to these pools to double check, and that just wastes more gas," he says.
And just using a high-tech product can help service pros stand apart from the rest, he adds. It can transform a business from a mom and pop shop to "the smart pool solution" for their area.
Both Sutro and pHin offer a subscription service for their respective chemical systems. But if customers can simply order their required chemicals online, won't retailers feel the pinch?
Miller says no. He suggests retailers could carry pHin's starter kits that include the device and a preliminary set of chemicals. They could also carry specialty chemicals that aren't included in the standard pHin subscription, like water clarifier. In that respect, Miller believes his product can help drive customers directly to retailers.
"We'd like to offer these retailers the ability to provide a faster, quicker way for customers to come in and just get it from them," he says.
With his years of experience in the industry under his father, Kurani says he understands the plight of today's retailers, especially how the Internet has changed the sales landscape. He admits Sutro may contribute to that change, if only partially.
"Yes, it does in a sense disrupt retail, but there are also a lot of other things disrupting retail, like Amazon or eBay," he says. "I think that's the larger scale conversation we need to have."
Kurani instead considers Sutro a way of enabling industry pros to serve customers in multiple ways — and potentially grow their market share as a result.
"If you talk to homeowners, there's a plethora of different types and brands of chemical that people are comfortable with. And I think to say that as soon as we launch Sutro, there will be widespread usage of our chemicals, it's difficult to say," Kurani says. "There will be a certain population that will end up buying the Sutro chemicals. But you'll see the other side of the population that will not. So I think the real game here is to figure out how do you make the entire market happy."
Kurani and Miller say their products pose no threat to the pool and spa industry, and in fact, that the industry is excited for their offerings.
"Everyone we've talked to in the industry has been really open and welcoming," Miller says. "They're saying, 'Wow, we as an industry really need you. This is great for us.'"
pHin (phin.co) plans to ship its devices in February 2016. Sutro (mysutro.com) plans to launch by summer of 2016 at the latest.
Would you try pHin? Here's what you said:
"I read the info on the website for this product and have some concerns that it oversimplifies what really needs to be done to keep a pool properly cared for. I have concerns about how accurately it measures and whether it would keep up with the demand in excessively hot climates and accurately predict chemical needs in demanding climates. Also, I wonder about the lead time needed for the products to be shipped to the person — one big rainstorm could totally change the water chemistry of the pool before the ordered product even arrived to address a previous test. My experience in the 40 plus years I have been in the industry is that products that overpromise often underdeliver. Color me with reservations at this point."
—Merry Wise, The Woodlands, Texas
A service technician shares his experience with Sutro
Kayne Zamorano of Phoenix is new to the service industry — at 18 years old, he's only been cleaning pools for about eight months. Despite his age, he's eagerly looking forward to a career in the pool and spa industry, with plans to start his own service business and eventually break into pool construction as well.
When on Facebook, he stumbled on a sponsored ad for Sutro and gave them a call. For the past several months, he's tested the device on his own backyard pool — and so far, he's impressed.
"It's actually working really great," he says. "It's pretty dead on."
One reason he enjoys it is the possibilities it offers for better customer service.
"In Arizona, we have a lot of high phosphates, and that causes algae. If that's one of the features on there, I could see what pools need phosphate treatments and I could contact the customer in advance and have the treatment there when I go to that stop instead of waiting until the next week, and then maybe they get algae, and then I'm charging them more. It's going to save time for me and money for the customer," he says.
Testing Sutro has given Zamorano time to strategize ways to incorporate the device into his future business. For example, customers who don't want to pay the upfront cost for a Sutro device could instead lease them from Zamorano for a monthly fee.
"If I charge $15 more a month for a customer who wants this device, after a year it'll be paid off. And after that year, I make money on this," he says. "It helps me and it could help me make more money as well."
We asked him for the final verdict: Would he continue using Sutro after his beta testing trial ends?
"When I start out, one of my biggest investments would be buying one for every pool … If I buy 50, that's $10,000 out of my pocket, so that should say something about the company," he says.
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pHin is a water sensor that continually measures pH, ORP, and temperature. Once a month, the mobile app asks the customer to use a test strip, which it scans to access free chlorine, total alkalinity, total hardness and cyanuric acid.
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