Going It Alone

Valerie Chan, president of Electricwork Solutions Inc., Oakland, Calif., began her business in 2005. She is a one-person operation, with 30 to 40 percent of her business being low-voltage work.

Prior to starting her own company, Chan worked for the Oakland Federal Building for about six years, beginning as the facility electrician.

“Little by little, they asked me to do more work, including network cabling,” she said. “I read about it and gradually taught myself how to do it. I ended up doing network cabling for the office where I was located.” 

From there, she expanded to doing network cabling for the other offices in the building and also began doing work on the fire alarm system.

“One reason I like low-voltage work is that it is easy for one person to do, and since I work by myself, that is important,” she said. “It is also light work, not as heavy as some other types of work.”

While most of her low-voltage work consists of network cabling, coaxial and telecom, Chan’s professional passion is fire alarm systems. She usually works with the fire alarm companies on these projects, handling the installation and troubleshooting activities for them.

“I really enjoy fire alarm system work,” she said. “It is interesting and can be challenging.”

One of her early experiences with the work involved wiring the whole fire alarm system for the Tribune Tower in Oakland from top to bottom.

“I had some help, of course, but I was in charge of it, and it turned out really well,” she said.

One appeal of low-voltage work in general and fire alarm systems specifically is the ability to be creative.

“I recently did a fire alarm system as part of an elevator project,” she said. “Besides doing the fire alarm system, I also did the electrical for the job.”

As part of the job, Chan had to figure out a lot of controls.

“I was bidding against about 20 other contractors for that job,” she said. “One of the reasons I got the job was because I had done work for that client before and was very familiar with the building. Another reason was that I thought about the project in a different way.”

As a result, she was actually able to find some ways to cut costs by relocating some components that were on the drawing.

“For example, they had the shunt trip up high,” she said. “I came up with the idea of locating it down lower, next to the fire alarm, where there was already a disconnect for the elevator anyway.” She also figured out a way to tie it into the automatic transfer switch.

While most low-voltage work appeals to Chan, she finds telecom projects challenging because they involve the telecom provider.

“Sometimes they hold me up,” she said. “They don’t always come through when they say they are going to. In addition, when they do come through, they don’t always label everything the way they say they are going to.”

Exacerbating the problem is that the telecom provider communicates directly with its customers, not with contractors, such as Chan, who are working for their customers.

“As a result, I can’t even call them most of the time ... I have no control over what they do,” Chan said.

There are some instances where Chan will schedule some work, based on the assumption that the telecom provider will be out before her to do the promised work.

“However, when I get there, they haven’t been there yet. As a result, I do what I can do and then have to come back again after they have finally come and done their work. I get used to it, but it would be nice if it could be coordinated better,” she said. 

The only option she has is to ask her clients to contact the telecom provider on her behalf.

Chan also hasn’t put any effort into maintenance contracts. One reason is if repair work needs to be done, or if customers need additional work, they usually end up calling her anyway. In other cases, some of her customers have their own IT people who will handle some repair work.

In terms of advertising and marketing, Chan has done some but plans more in the future.

“In the past, I haven’t done a lot because most of my work comes from existing clients,” she said. “For example, one project I am currently working on involves adding a data link from one end of a building to the other. This is a client I have done a lot of work for in the past. Anytime they need something, they call me.” 

Chan has found that clients in general like the convenience of only having to call one person who can do all of their electrical and data work—one-stop shopping. She also receives referrals from satisfied customers.

And Chan has a website, which she’s gotten some work from.

“However, it is pretty rudimentary and needs some work,” she said. “I plan to do that one of these days.”

As she expands advertising and marketing efforts, Chan plans to focus on the low-voltage side of her business for two reasons. First, she wants to do more of this work because she enjoys it. Second, she has found that there tends to be less competition on the low-voltage side. For example, she recently signed up with the Blue Book Building & Construction Network, which lists construction contractors (electrical, roofing, plumbing, painting, concrete, carpentry, etc.) that customers can find online.

“When I signed up with them, I decided to sign up as a low-voltage contractor,” she said. “There were over 700 electrical contractors that I would have been competing with. However, there were only 50 or so signed up as low-voltage contractors, which means I will be competing with fewer people."

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