Auction Podcast Episode 10 – Interview with Darron Meares

Darron Meares

Darron Meares

AuctioneerTech – Joining me today for the second in the Auctioneer Interview Series is my friend Darron Meares, CAI, GPPA. Darron is Chief Operating Officer, auctioneer and lead asset appraiser for the Meares Auction Group. He is also a member of both the National Auctioneers Association and the South Carolina Auctioneers Association boards of directors. Good evening, Darron, thank you for joining me.

Darron Meares – Hey, Aaron, how are you? I appreciate the invite and I don’t know if I’ve ever had that good of an introduction anywhere.

AT – Well, introduce yourself to us. Tell us a little about your yourself and your background and how you came to be an auctioneer.

DM – Well, my name is Darron Meares. I am the Chief Operating Officer, now, of the Meares Auction Group. We had a little bit of a change in our company here lately and I don’t know if I’ve moved up the ladder or down the ladder, but still. I started in the auction business full time about six years ago. I’ve been in it all my life. My dad started a company in 1972. I think I worked my first auction about 1977-1978 running bid cards, the clerking tickets, things like that. I think I moved up from there to concession stand and then on up the ladder and I finally said, “Look, it’s time for me to get up in front of the crowd.” So, one of the first auctions he let me ring was with Ivan Broadwell and the PTL auctions. If you remember Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, that was probably one of the first auctions I stood on stage in front of a large crowd and I was probably 10 or 11 years old. I traveled the country with the NAA. Probably my first convention was Las Vegas, 1981, and then Houston and on down the line. Being from an auctioneer family, my parents followed the NAA and the South Carolina association, and throughout the time in the profession I have been able to meet, greet and work with a good number of the leaders in our profession and I appreciate the opportunity that everyone has given to me to serve on the auctioneer boards in South Carolina as well as the national association. Other than that, I just do everything that I can to advance the auction profession and try to find new ways to advance our company and the profession. I teach a lot of CE seminars. As a matter of fact, I’m leaving November 20 to go to Cabo San Lucas to speak at the Industrial Auctioneers Association convention, so I do a good bit of traveling. My wife doesn’t like that part, but I think I’m setting a firm foundation for the next generation of auctioneers coming up.

Wonderful. What kind of firm is Meares Auction Group and what kind of assets do you specialize in?
Well, the Meares Auction Group is an umbrella for three companies. We have Meares Auctions Inc. which specializes in estates and collectibles, namely coin and firearm collections. We do a little bit of commercial and industrial. The second part of that company is headed up by my father, Larry Meares. That is Meares Land and Auction Company. And then we all join forces for Southeastern School of Auctioneering. It’s the only full-time auction school in South Carolina.

Well, I tell you that was something that grew out of the CAI class that you and I attended. We had had some discussions about some directions with the company and some things like that and one of the biggest things that I had seen in our area is the benefit, fundraising and charity auctions. The bow tie came along with the southern gentleman, which I don’t know how well I fit that bill, but, still, the southern part works. I went ahead and said, and most people that know me know that I’m a little bit different from the crowd, so with everybody wearing long-neck ties I decided to go a different route and pull some of the southern roots out and learn to tie a bow tie, thanks to my wife, and start wearing those. The Bowtie Benefits end of it came about because I needed a catchy title and bowtiebenefits.com was available on the web and I just added those two together. My goal for 2008 was 10 benefit auctions. So far this year I have either booked or conducted 22. One of my favorite events I look back on was the Gary Player Invitational. Gary Player, the professional golfer, moved his golf course design devision to Greenville, South Carolina. I had a chance to work with him this summer and they hired me to become their auctioneer for 2008 and 2009 and possibly 2010. So we’ve grown by leaps and bounds, there’s no doubt about it, and I love every minute of it.

Boy, it sounds like it. With all of these different venues that you are pursuing, I’m sure that you are not the only one involved. It’s great that you come from a family business. What are some ways that you keep your sales associates and your auction managers and everybody on the same page in collaboration and communication with each other?

Well, I believe in weekly staff meetings. There are some people that don’t believe in meetings. You know, they say that if you meet for 30 minutes in house you save an hour in the field. You meet an hour in house you save up to three hours in the field. So, I believe that if everyone is on the same page with the meeting schedule and we keep a standard operating procedure in place for different facets of the company, everybody’s on the same page. One of the things that we’ve instituted is, even though if somebody comes up and says, “Hey, I’ve got to have this auction right now”, we don’t do anything until we’ve meet at the weekly staff meeting. We bring proposals to the table, we talk about marketing, we talk about the structure of the auction – inside, outside, online, on-site, whatever it is – and everybody has a chance to voice their opinion. One thing that I like to make sure of is that anybody can voice their opinion. Now, of course, some people won’t do it. Some people like me do it more often, but everyone has a chance to do it in an open, non-threatening atmosphere where if somebody comes up with something off the wall, absolutely, let’s try it. If it’s something we’ve done in the past that hasn’t worked, we’ll bring it up and say, “Hey that didn’t work” and we’ll tweak it a little bit. But I think to keep everybody on the page you have to have standard operating procedures written down that everybody can look at and follow.

What are some of the main ways that you handle the marketing for your events? What are your favorite marketing venues? What are some things you have tried that have worked and some things that you probably won’t try again in the near soon?

Well, one that I will not try again is a billboard. It did not work for us. We got a little bit of traffic here and there to the website, a couple of phone calls – but nothing like a billboard should do. A billboard is mainly a reminder. You drive that venue every day, and – just say it’s on a main thoroughfare to somebody’s work – they see it, they see it, they see it – well, bam, it disappears. Literally and figuratively it’s still there, but in their mind it’s disappeared. It’s blended into the landscape and they don’t see it anymore. Of course – you and I have talked about this many times – the Internet. That is one of our biggest advertising medium that we use. You can stretch a dollar further…that the best way to stretch a dollar. If you got marketing dollars – just say you throw out a thousand dollar marketing campaign – you’ve got the Internet and various sources on there that are absolutely free. Craigslist is one. We advertise on realbird.com for some of our real estate auctions. I think it’s a $89-$99 dollars a year for as many listings you can put on it. The cool thing about RealBird is you take those listings and it gives you the HTML code to paste into Craigslist so that you don’t have a text Craigslist listing, you can have a RealBird flyer into your Craigslist listing. eNeighborhoods is coming up big for researching real estate neighborhoods and demographics. RealBird has a section on there that they can pull the school district information and things like that. eBay – the $150 classified listings – has worked for us. There are a thousand other websites out there that we’ve used from time to time. The AuctionServices email blast of one of the big ones that we’ve used for our collections when they’ve been online through Proxibid. We’ve also used the Proxibid slider adds that appear on the Proxibid homepage. We’ve done that and we’ve had good traffic from there. I’m trying to think. Email blasts, definitely. We try to send out at least one week. I like the way – there’s a company out there and of course I’m not going to hawk companies that don’t use – but there’s a company out there that always sends out an email blast that says there’s still time to register for you know, whatever event it is. I think that pretty cool and I’ve sort of tweaked that just a little bit, you know, registration’s open for this auction. Marketing with email. If you do it the right way and you use the first couple of lines of text that appear in Outlook and Zimbra and Eudora and however many client you have out there, that first couple of lines is the most important because that’s your attention grabbing part. You know, I could go on and on and on about this, but I don’t want to go too far because I’m teaching part of this in CAI II this year and I don’t want to go too far with it.

No worries there. What’s your position on on on print and traditional advertising – newspapers and direct mail – is that something that you continue to pursue? Are you reducing its importance?

Reducing it. Absolutely reducing it, and I’ll tell you this. What we found is – and you look at some of the [unknown] that are out there for print media – every everything in print media’s going down right now because people are looking more and more to their emails. You know if you carry a Blackberry or a Treo or an iPhone – something that gathers emails – you’re going to look at that and use that as a marketing tool more often than print. Now one thing that we have done, we sort of tweaked our print a little bit. We have an advertising contract with one of our newspapers here in the area and we go ahead and, you know, block off X amount of dollars per year so that we get a better rate. Problem with that is, you get a better rate per line but that means you got put in more lines to make that goal. Well, what we did, we looked into it a little bit further and found that the newspaper also does two magazines, they do fifteen different publications, four more newspapers – so what we’ve done is used our advertising contract to advertise in other areas. There’s an ad…it’s a 2×3 ad in a Wednesday paper in our main paper and it gives you a display ad for one day that you can put pictures, a whole lot more information in than any classified ad. So we’ve reduced it but we tweaked it a little bit. Postcards? We were doing the 5 1/2 by 11 size colossal post cards. We reduced those to the 8 ½ by 5 ½, and now we’ve gone all the way down to the postcard rate postcards and we get gang runs of those and send those out for $70-$80. And everything that we do, we drive it back to the electronic media. Everything that we do has our website at least two time on there so that it drives it right back to that media and we’re getting 15 to 20 to 30 new email addresses on our list every week because of things that we’re doing to drive people right back to it. I’ll tell you another thing I did at the auctions. I went out and did Vista Print – they give you 250 free business cards. I think it costs you about $7 or $8 to ship them to you or something like that. Well, anyway, we put our website on there. For free auction updates, login, put your email address on and we give those out. Another thing we do, we drop those in box lots at the auctions, in drawers in furniture just so that people will pick them up and login to our email. So to go back and answer the question, we still use print because of the age demographic here in our area, but we’ve reduced it.

You bet. Whenever you advertise, there’s always a desired action that you’re trying to get the reader to perform, and I’m squarely on your side where that action isn’t maybe necessarily anymore to come to the auction, it’s to go to the website to get more information because it’s so much cheaper to put the details on the website and use the more expensive traditional media to drive them there and to use it as lead generation for the website. Until recently, Darron, you maintained your own website. You relatively recently launched a new one. Who does it now and what prompted the switch?

Well, AuctionServices does it now. I went ahead and I gave it up. That was my baby for a while and it got to the point to where I wanted to keep up with everybody else in their websites and put some more out there and all of this. Well, I went ahead and I learned FrontPage. Well, FrontPage didn’t do what I wanted it to do, so I thought about buying Dreamweaver. Well, with the learning curve and things like that I decided not to. So with my Apple I used iWeb. I put something up, it looked good, but I still didn’t really want to maintain it. So what I’ve done is I’ve pretty much given it all over to Rick and his crew with AuctionServices. They maintain it. If I’ve got any changes I just shoot them an email, they change it. Based on the cost structure that we put in place, you know, any major changes of course we pay for those – but we went through and said this is what we want, build us a beta, let us look at it. They hit the nail on the head and it was what we wanted. Well, the main reason behind it is that you have to look at two things. You have to look at your time and your money and you got to figure out which one’s more important. Well right now, with me running the company and trying to take it in a different direction, my time is more valuable right now so I would rather go ahead and put the put the money in it, put the investment in it, and then take my time and put it elsewhere to replace that money and grow the company.

What software, Darron, are you using to clerk your auctions?

Auction Flex. We’re using Auction Flex now. We started with it after the convention in San Diego.

We’ll I won’t press you too hard about it as the last podcast episode was the interview with Brandon Harker who makes Auction Flex and you can find that at auctioneertech.com/auction-podcast or just go to AuctioneerTech and click on the links. But I am curious to know from you, as a user of Auction Flex, what were a few of the aspects that influenced your choice and what do you feel are its biggest strengths and what do you wish it would do better?

Well, a little history. Back in about ’82-’83 we started with CUS with one of their first systems. We started using it. We moved forward. We outgrew it. Now, of course, these programs have evolved, but at that point we outgrew it, went to another system. Wound up 10 years ago, I guess, with MAXA from JBS. We outgrew it and wanted something that had a little more expandability to it and actually we started talking with Brandon and Kris with Auction Flex in Madison, Wisconsin, I guess four conventions back, and trying to kick around some ideas and things like that. Well, we got to the point, we said, you know, it’s time for us to move on, we want a Windows-based system. I loved the DOS aspect of MAXA because it was a stable platform, there’s no doubt about that. But, this way we can go in and have the, you know if we decide to do multi-par, it’s on there. If we decide to catalog a different way, it’s on there. We can do the PDF catalogs and things like that are built into the system. The radios have been upgraded. We’ve got a hand-held unit we use now to clerk the auctions, and we’ve got a taller antenna mounted on our trailer now, on our clerking trailer, that allows us to move around with a handheld. So, positives? The Windows. I like the way it interacts with Windows, and I can go from from Excel and some other programs right back into it. The expandability – the ability to have a handheld. There’s a couple of cons. There’s a lot of updates that have come out here recently and, you know with each new update something changes on the interface and my clerks and cashiers have to go back in and relearn part of that and, you know, figure out what that new update is. They do a good job sending out a book, the problem is all of my support staff are not as computer literate as I am and it takes them a little bit longer and they have a steeper learning curve to to get to the point to pick up on those updates. I’m trying to think. That’s about the negative that I have seen here lately. Now I know updates are generally to make the program better to respond to a request from auctioneers, things like that, but I think that it could be expanded out, you know, two or three months or four or five months out before new update comes out. Other than that, we’ve been very happy with it. Customer service is very happy. What I wish it would do? To be honest it’s almost like the human brain. They say you use 20% of it. I would say we probably use 20 to 30, 40% of the software. There’s plenty more expandability that we haven’t tapped into yet. So at this point, I don’t know what else it would do or what else I would want it to do differently.

So you’re pretty happy with it.

Yeah, oh, absolutely.

So what then kinds of Internet bidding platforms do you use and what types of Internet bidding – as far as pre-auction only or Internet only or real time – have you used and will continue to use and how has the Internet bidding affected your business?

Well, I’ll tell you this. Proxibid is the only Internet bidding that we’ve used – of course outside of eBay. We were power sellers on eBay at one point and, you know, we went to – about five years ago, I guess, Proxibid had done an auction here in the area with another company and stopped by and justed asked us about it. We jumped on board and we’ve actually done – I believe we’ve done over 100 auctions on Proxibid now. Mainly we do live, online bidding, like we did today. I call it a hybrid where we started out with prebidding and then moved to the live platform. We did a coin auction today, about 300 lots on there. Now one thing that I have introduced a little bit in the past three or four months, I’ve been doing more than timed auctions on there for some of the ones where we don’t want to devote a full crew to  run a live auction so we’ve done timed. Another thing that I’ve done – well, actually, you and I both did – with the CAI fun auction. Putting it online, that was actually the first live benefit and fundraising auction that I had done on Proxibid and since then I’ve done three live, Internet auctions for benefits and fundraisers and I’ve got several timed auctions that we are adding to the mix now with some of the benefits of fundraisers. I’ve got an article coming out – should be in the next month or so – about how to use online bidding to sell the items that may not have sold at a silent auction in a fundraising auction. I’ve just seen that that has been a key to our business. We’re directly between Atlanta and Charlotte on I-85 corridor and we’re about 20 minutes south of Greenville, which is the second-largest city in South Carolina. The problem is, we’re in one of those areas that everybody says, “you can’t get there from here.” So even though we are really closer than people think, we don’t have as many people that come in the door. So we have to drive our marketing to get people in our door. So the Internet allows us to pull in bidders from all over the country. We’ve had bidders from Italy, Belize, Germany, Canada, Mexico – one or two more countries I can’t think of now – but that has been a key to us because, you know with real estate you look at location, location, location – well ours is country, country, country and people don’t really want come out to where our building is. We’ve been here since 1972 so we don’t really want to spend the money to move so we spend the money to do the Internet auctions and bring the people to us. I think the last coin auction we did – not the one today, but the one we did a couple weeks ago – I think we shipped to 26 different states. So that is the key to us using the Internet and it’s been a big push to our business.

What are some other cool and unique ways that you’re using technology to improve your business?

Oh, let’s see. Well, the funny thing is, and I just put my son son into bed, I work from home four days a week now. He just moved to a new school so, in doing so, my wife teaches at that school so she can’t be at home. So I said, well I’m 500 yards from the office, if they need me I can go in, so I’ll just change my schedule and I work four days from home. So, I’m doing a lot of instant messaging, MSN instant messaging, I do some iChats every so often on the Apple iChat. I’m doing a lot of emailing, doing a lot of conference calls through remote offices, GoToMeeting, Apple eMeeting – I think that’s the title – anyway…not Apple, the Adobe platform that they’ve got out now, I’ve done it with two different companies. And then e-faxing. So I’m trying to do everything I can to reduce the amount of extra hardware items that I have to buy for my home to move my office out here because one once he gets to the point where to he goes to four-year-old kindergarten then he’s going to be there all day and I’ll be able to move back to my office. But now that I’m here at home, I had to use technology to allow me to get out of the office. The funny thing about it, I communicate. I did three coin auctions – catalog and inventory – here at home and I did every bit of my email and communication through my Blackberry. I kept my computer on Excel. I didn’t turn on my email because I didn’t want it to flash up and get me distracted, so every time I got 50 items logged in, I checked my Blackberry, send email – so I did everything as a total, remote office at that point. It was cool. I liked it. I get more work done at home than I do in the office, there’s no doubt about it.

You teach at the Southeastern School of Auctioneering. You mentioned earlier how you speak at conferences, and you and I are both slated to teach at CAI this coming year. When you ran and were elected to the NAA board of directors, I remember you running on a platform of education and that was your main driver. What drives you to be so active in the auction industry and how does being active in the industry affect your business?

I tell you what, you start looking back and Derek Bok, the Harvard University president, said, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance.” And on the flip side of that, Mark Twain said, “I never let my schooling interfere with my education,” so I’m seeing it from both sides. I said that in Orlando. I said that I wanted the education classes to be in all four corners of the country so that you wouldn’t have to travel all over the world just to see an education class. The Education Institute – I don’t know if I helped with that or anything, but the Education Institute has absolutely blown that up and they’re all over the country in different places. I feel that education is the key to this industry in a lot of ways. And let’s look at it from the Millennials and generation X. If you look at that, they are going to have an advantage on technology, but a disadvantage on face-to-face. Face-to-face communication right now is not going out, but it’s slowing being faded out to text messaging, emails, IMs, cell phones, things like that. So, if you go to the midrange – I said generation X, I meant generation Y – with me generation X, I’m right in the middle. You know, I’ve got my dad who’s been in this business for thirty-something years. I’ve got some of the ones coming up behind me that are the Millennials and generation Y. I’m in the middle because I grew up with technology. My first computer was a TRS-80 back in the early ’80s, and I picked up on that. But, I’m also in the middle to where I would rather sit down and record this in your office in Kansas than doing it over the phone, because I like face-to-face communication because I can read that person and see what they’re thinking, especially in negotiations. Start looking at the other end of the spectrum. You start looking at some of the more seasoned and veteran auctioneers, they are the ones – this industry is 55 to 57 years old range on average – so they are totally in face-to-face communication. They are totally into writing hand-written notes. They’re totally into a lot of these things, which is not a bad thing because I love that part of the business. But when you start looking at the education of the technology and the speed and things like that, they’re saying “Hey, wait. I got here by doing all these other things, why do I need these?” Well, the education bridges all three of those. It’s like a string of islands that are bridged together. And if you start looking at it from that point of view, you’re going to see that education is going to pull Millennials up and tell them what they don’t know and it’s going to help the more seasoned, veteran auctioneers at the other end to pick up some of these things that the Millennials know and it’s going to move back and forth. I love the fact that I’m right in the middle of all of this because I see it from both sides and I get it from both sides, which I think is great. My dad was the first one. He said, “I don’t know why in the world you want to do an auction on Proxibid.” And I said, “Look, they’re giving the first one free. If we don’t like it, if we mess up – we’re going to do our job the way we always do it – but if it doesn’t work, who cares? We’re not out any money and we go back to where we were yesterday.” Now 100 auctions later, he’s asking me, “Hey, are we putting this one online?” So the education part of it – I don’t think you can be in this business without the education part of it. There’s a lot of people out there that say, “No I’m not getting a designation,” “I don’t need it,” “I’m at the other end of the spectrum,” or “I can’t afford it” or whatever it is. Right now – and I’m not pushing anybody into spending any money on classes – but right now, as fast as this profession is moving, as dynamic as it is – I say that it looks like an anthill from the top down – you’ve got to have some type of education or some way to communicate with the other auctioneers so that you can go in and pull what they know. The way you’ve always done it may keep you at a level. It may be a baseline. You just may be at the perfect place, you’re making enough money, you’re putting enough money back, you’re giving enough money. Whatever it is, you may be there, but the education is going to tip you over that threshold and it might put you in another direction to where you might be able to accelerate some of those and also you might be able to pay it forward for the next generation that’s coming up, whether its your family or the next generation. Obviously, I’m very much in the education end of this as you can tell. But one thing that I did, I went in and I started in college in 1990, joined a fraternity – my grades and the schools grading scale didn’t match so I went home and I started working. I said, “You know what? I can work, I can work, I can work but I want something else.” So I went back 13 years later, finished up my bachelor’s degree, and I said, “Hey, I’m on this education kick.” And I went in and I went ahead and finished my master’s because I wanted to go in and figure out what the world was doing. I wanted to know what other businesses were doing. I’m reading Richard Branson’s new book, Business Stripped Bare, and it’s talking about how he’s taken the Virgin brand out there and some of these different businesses that he’s involved in, and that’s why I’m looking at taking our business in new directions. Without the education that the NAA and the South Carolina association and some of these other places I’ve been and picked up education – without them and the education they provide, I would probably be stagnant in this industry. The problem is, as fast-moving and dynamic as this industry is, if you’re stagnant somebody’s going to step right over you like a speed bump and move right on down the line. Now, I’m not saying that this is for everybody. There’s people out there – there’s auctioneers out there that are so happy with what they’re doing – that’s great, you’ve made it. And you know you’ve made it when you can say, “I can say no to this auction and still be OK,” “I can say no to this and still be OK,” “I can go for two weeks without having an auction, I don’t have to worry about it” – you’ve made it. But there’s some of us out there that feel like we need more. We need more. And it’s almost like having a pocked guide, Success Secrets of the Super Achievers and I feel like I’m writing a chapter in that because I’m trying to move forward. But the education part in my opinion is absolutely essential to what we’re doing.

Meares Auction Group logo

Meares Auction Group logo

Well that’s it for episode 10. Thank you very much Darron for joining me.

Not a problem!

My guest tonight was Darron Meares from Meares Auction Group, which you can visit at www.mearesauctions.com – that’s meares auctions dot com.

You’ve been listening to the Auction Podcast from AuctioneerTech. If you have suggestions, questions or comments, or are interested in being a guest, please let me know by going to www.auctioneertech.com/feedback and leaving a message. You can also post public comments about this or any other episode, as well as find show transcripts, on the auction podcast page of auctioneertech.com.

Thank you for listening. Now go sell something.

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W3 Schools provides quick and dirty programming education for free

W3 Schools logo

W3 Schools logo

I have a bachelor’s degree in animal science from Kansas State University. I have found myself filling the role of VP Technology for an auction firm. Having never taken a course in anything relating to computers since “keyboarding” during my freshman year of high school – which I essentially tested out of and spent my time playing Doom II and Descent – I frequently find myself needing a primer on a programming language or a protocol or a standard.

While most of the time I need to know how to build a specific kind of MySQL query or perform a specific operation with PHP or Perl – and a quick Google search usually suffices for such needs – sometimes I have the need to quickly become proficient with an entire language or standard such as PHP or XML or XHTML. For this need of learning the basic concepts quickly, I usually turn to W3Schools.

The W3C is the World Wide Web Consortium. The W3C is the standards body in charge of making sure that the languages and protocols on the web not only make sense but continue to evolve and improve in a way that lets everyone have influence. I’m not sure if W3Schools is directly associated with the W3C. If you know the answer, let me know in the comments.

W3 Schools is a site that offers very concise tutorials on many of the current web standards and scripting languages. It gives both lessons and quizzes to ensure that you comprehend the material. It has an open source feel to it, and though while I don’t know exactly the structure behind the scenes, I feel like I’m learning from a learned community rather than a biased for-pay source.

I’ve found W3 Schools to be very straight-forward and simple; it’s a site that can quickly take you from not knowing anything about a specific topic to knowing enough to build your first ‘hello world’ printout in about 30 minutes. After the primer, mastery is up to you, but W3 Schools has always been a great starting point for me

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ShowMyPC provides free and easy remote support and collaboration

ShowMyPC logoAs a provider of tech support to users who are many miles away, one of the most valuable tools in the box is remote access. The ability to control the computer of a remote user to walk him through software installation or troubleshooting has greatly increased the accuracy and speed of support.

On the other side of the coin, as a business person it’s important to hold online meetings where multiple users can see my desktop and the programs or presentations I’m running.

There are many providers that offer these services. GoToMeeting and WebEx are two products geared to meetings, but they also charge for the services. I frequently use LogMeIn for remote access to computers on which I’ve been able to install the free client and the service allows me to remote in and control anything on that machine. It doesn’t work well for instantaneous remote access, because it requires the client be installed ahead of time. LogMeIn has other services, such as meetings and a neat VPN system, but those other services require payment.

ShowMyPC is a solution that bundles standard, open source and secure SSH and VNC software together in a single, small program that you run upon download. You don’t have to register; you don’t have to login. For remote access, simply run the small file on your machine. Have the remote user run the same small file. The remote user selects the option to show her PC and the program generates a random and secure password which she can read to you over the phone or copy and paste into an instant message. You enter that number on your computer and you’re instantly connected. It’s quck and easy and doesn’t require any software to be installed on either machine.

The meetings are just as easy. You enter your email address and a password when you create the meeting and tell the attendees that information. They can then login and see everything you’re doing on your screen. Combine the meetings with Skype, which is a voice chat package that offers free Skype-to-Skype calling, and you have an audio-video conference that doesn’t cost anything. Take it one step farther and use previously-mentioned Ustream to broadcast the audio and video, and you can have one feed that carries your face and voice and another that carries what you’re doing on your computer’s desktop.

ShowMyPC also offers the option to install a client so you can access the computer remotely without anyone being on the other end. They also have some premium services for which they charge, but most of their free services cost money when you use one of the other providers mentioned above.

Here’s the official description from the ShowMyPC website.

ShowMyPC is a Community providing tools and services for Online Meetings and Collaboration.
Users can help, present services to multiple users, or provide one on one remote support.

As we get busier and as fuel costs increase, the ability to control any computer or show your computer’s desktop to anyone is crucial. ShowMyPC makes it free and easy to do both.

Do you use something else for your collaboration needs? Leave a comment and let us know.

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Auction Podcast Episode 9 Released

Auction FlexThis week’s Auction Podcast is an interview with Brandon Harker from Sebae Data Solutions, makers of Auction Flex and Bidopia. We don’t have the transcription finished quite yet, but you can listen to the podcast on the page that will have the transcript when its done.

Mayo Auction and Realty logoThe episode from two weeks ago featured Robert Mayo from Mayo Auction and Realty and has been the most popular episode so far. Remember that you can listen to any of the podcasts, as well as find free subscription information, at auctioneertech.com/auction-podcast.

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Auction Podcast Episode 9 – Interview with Brandon Harker – Auction Flex

brandon_harker

Brandon Harker - Sebae Data Solutions and Auction Flex

You’re listening to the AuctioneerTech Auction Podcast
auctioneertech.com – Technology, auctions and auctioneers – auction tech for the auction industry

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.

Oh yes.

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.

The rest of the transcript for this podcast will be posted just as soon as we can find time to type it. For now, give it a listen and let us know what you think by posting a comment or using the form at www.auctioneertech.com/feedback

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