I recall the hopeful era of Household Management technology. There were numerous companies developing all-in-one software intended to resolve all the managerial aches and pains of luxury households. For the individuals tasked with the management of those homes, each software package was touted by marketers as a Holy Grail that would fulfil all of a luxury household’s needs. While some companies were in the midst of developing Household Management Software, others had already gone to market with their versions and were desperately trying to sell their product to curious homeowners.
The software being developed and sold was similar in spirit and objective to the all-in-one CRMs (Customer Relationship Management software like SalesForce) of today. The idea, as with all CRMs, was that House Managers and homeowners would be able to manage their homes, staff, mechanical systems, inventories, wine cellars, calendars, contacts, event planning, menu planning, etc. through one seamless and easy-to-use platform. The objective was to simplify Household Management and these software platforms were going to be silver bullets.
As I look back on this era I am struck by the fact that most, if not all, of these forays into software failed, and in many cases failed miserably. I think there are several reasons for this:
- Instead of simplifying, the programs invariably complicated the lives of House Managers. As opposed to liberating Managers from their desks, most software packages shackled them to an office as they entered one data point after another in order to bring the platform to any semblance of functionality.
- Most companies were building software components that already existed in the market place. Ask yourself, why build a Contact Manager or Calendar Program from the ground up when the technology already exists from behemoths like Google, Apple, Microsoft, etc.? It was like racing a mule in the Kentucky Derby.
- The companies developing the software, were not software companies. Because of this they had no understanding of how to market, how to support or the logic that informs the development of software products. The companies might have been experts in the field of Household Management, but software development and marketing is an entirely different ballgame.
These days households have not given up on the Holy Grail of Household Management. More precisely, households are busy seeking out Holy Grails (plural) to address their management challenges. The all-in-one Household Management dream has been replaced by individual software platforms that address specific homeowner needs. Together, these platforms combine to create a suite of smart technologies from which Managers and homeowners pick and choose based on scope and scale of the residence.
For the most part, the strategy has worked for households and brought success to the software developers who carved a niche within the market for themselves. The developers have agilely adapted to the needs of their clients, built platforms that interface with other platforms and stuck to what they know. The outcome has been an explosion of software options and apps available to today’s homeowners.
This article identifies a handful of apps I happen to like from a large pool of software solutions currently in the market. Each app targets a specific Household Management need. The days of all-in-one are over. They have been replaced by specialty apps that interface, when required, with one another.
Larger homes with sizeable staff operate similarly to commercial businesses and yet for a long time they have been without resources to do things like manage staff hours, payroll, daily tasks, etc. If staff is paid on an hourly basis, how are those hours being logged and managed for purpose of accuracy? I have witnessed many cases where staff have free reign to inflate their hours with no checks and balances in place. This is not good Household Management.
I like professionalizing households by installing the contemporary equivalent of a time clock to help prevent this form of theft (and, let’s face it, it is theft). There is a company called uAttend.com, which tracks employee time and attendance and also offers payroll functionality. Clients pay a monthly subscription fee based on staff size and make a one-time purchase of “time clock” hardware. The technology is sophisticated and includes everything from the good, old-fashioned punch clocks to biometric devices that use either facial recognition or thumbprints. Each interaction with the system is logged and accessed via a Cloud-based interface. Reports can be produced for employers so they can see for themselves staff costs and recalibrate, if needed.
Payroll services are also evolving quickly for households. The days of families getting away with not paying employment taxes are disappearing and payroll services are quickly becoming essential tools to protect employers from government tax agency audits. In the US one of the big players for households is care.com‘s HomePay. It is easy to use, affordable and provides peace of mind that employers are kept on the right side of employment tax laws.
I like 2doapp.com as a means to create to do lists for myself and create and assign project lists for staff. The program offers a 21-day trial offer and, if you like it, the cost is cheap at a one-time charge of $49.99. Tasks that are assigned can be sent to staff members via text and include start as well as due dates. The app also provides functionality for progress reports so that House Managers and employers can be kept informed. One of the features I like most about the app is that it interfaces with most email programs. So if your employer sends you an email asking you to receive a wine shipment for the Palm Beach cellar, the task can simply be added to the app directly from the email. I also like that the app has been designed with big and small projects in mind. Large projects can be broken down into subtasks that are also assigned their own timelines.
There are so many programs to choose from for this task. One that I like is plantoeat.com since it does everything from plan meals for the week through a convenient drag and drop feature, upload and store recipes and create grocery lists (based on recipes) that can be stored for future use. The program is robust in features and a steal at a $4.95 per month subscription fee.
Budgets and following them are always a good idea, even if an employer is not budget conscious. Once again, there are a plethora of options from which to choose. The one I like is youneedabudget.com, which has significant functionality and is easy to use. It is also highly customizable allowing users to create accounts for diverse areas ranging from groceries and cleaning products to household vendors. It also features reports that can be submitted to those employers who are budget conscious. The program is available for a free trial and costs an annual subscription fee of $50.
Wine Cellar Management
The big push in wine cellar management was to turn programs into social media platforms where connections with other wine aficionados are made and information is exchanged. While there are many robust programs out there based on a premise of “be social,” I have never been much of a fan for a few reasons. For example, many of the programs make an employer’s collection visible to other users. For me this is a BIG detractor.
I prefer closed, private programs like eSommelier.com, which provides tremendous functionality to users. There is a high upfront hardware cost of $3,995 for a touchscreen interface, barcode scanner and printer that are all contained in an oak box / platform that resides in the wine cellar. Once the hardware purchase is made, an annual subscription of $500 is required. It takes seconds to add a new bottle into the system and the inventory is maintained as bottles are scanned and removed from the cellar for consumption. The database is highly searchable and information is stored in the Cloud so that the wine cellar in the Hamptons can be viewed for a dinner party prior to your employer leaving Manhattan. eSommelier.com has its own database of 350,000 wines, complete with tasting notes and “consume by” dates. The system is user-friendly and designed and marketed as “plug and play.”
Home Inventory Software
I always recommend that homeowners and / or House Managers check with insurance companies before opting for a particular home inventory program mostly because there are so many options available and an insurance company may have a preference for one over another.
With that said there are a few options that come to mind including knowyourstuff.org and whatyouown.com. The latter is reviewed well by the respected software reviewer CNET.com. It has a sleek, easy-to-use interface that permits the user to organize household inventories by room and include images, receipts or other types of attachments. Its reporting features are also robust permitting the user to get granular if needed.
knowyourstuff.org has a much “sexier” and more current look and feel if that sort of thing matters to you. Information is stored in the Cloud and boasts one of the most secure Cloud computing environments around. The interface works with desktops, tablets or smartphones. It is also highly customizable and, like whatyouown.com is freeware.
The insurance company Allstate also has an app called Digital Locker®. One might think that an insurance company can be trusted to build and sell a good app for home inventories. My research gave the app mixed reviews however. Several people complained about the app dropping content for no apparent reason. It markets itself as a “Shoot, Submit, Save” app and it does look to be highly customizable. Information is stored in the Cloud and is accessible through a desktop computer, tablet or smartphone. It too is freeware and users do not need to be Allstate clients to use it.
“Old School” Solutions
Occasionally fancy apps and hardware are not required for a home to run optimally. Sometimes a software savvy House Manager can fall back on programs like Excel. It might strike the progressive manager as “old hat” and a little “unsexy,” but Excel is a tremendously powerful program with functionality for budgeting, inventories, task management, etc. Almost anywhere a House Manager happens to find themselves in the world, there are usually intense, crash courses offered for Excel. I think it behooves Private Service Professionals to invest the time to learn this tragically underused program. Depending on the household, sometimes the simple solution is the right solution.
Technology has advanced incredibly since Isabella Beeton wrote her groundbreaking “Book of Household Management,” which was a touchstone for many generations of home managers. There are apps for almost every home-related task imaginable. The development of Household Management Technology, however, has not been without its bumps in the road. The Holy Grail all-in-one management systems of the past can, objectively-speaking, be considered both functional and sales failures. On the other hand, today’s tech culture of standalone apps – paid and free – with their user-friendly interfaces and robust features are proving to be useful tools for many House Managers.
Unlike their predecessors, the beauty of each of these platforms is that they simplify rather than complicate a House Manager’s job. And when you get right down to it, isn’t that what software should be doing for us?!
Written written by Scott Munden who is the founder of Portico Staffing