The KeyLink Story

Confessions and Credits

Confessions

Truth be told, we didn’t really want to be in the hardware business. We generally believe in “sticking to the knitting” (doing what we do best) and didn't think that hardware and firmware design was something that we could be good at. After all, the founder of our company has a PhD in psychology, not in electrical engineering. And yet, here we are many years later with our first KeyLink systems already in customers’ hands, and all indications are that we have produced a winner - possibly the very best key security hardware and software solution on the market today.

The KeyLink story is a Western genre familiar to us: (a) The bully arrives in town who seems to hold all the cards and call all the shots, (b) for many years the townsfolk powerless to respond have no choice but to swallow whatever is dished out, and wait for the day when they once again have a choice. (c) motivated by the sense that “enough is finally enough”, a victorious effort is launched by an unlikely hero to topple the bully, and to return choice, dignity, victory and vindication to the townspeople. If the KeyLink story ever makes it as a movie, we would want to give credit to two individuals, who inspired this undertaking, and whose words are quoted below:

  1. “Necessity is the mother of invention”
    - Plato, 427 BC, Ancient Greece
  2. “When are you guys going to finally give us a better f***ing alternative?”
    - anonymous (but real) property manager with 20+ properties using BuildingLink, circa 2005, Manhattan

And of course, we want to thank KeyTrak. If not for their deaf ear to the complaints of their customers, we would not be where we are today, the proud parents of our spanking new invention!

2001, The Problem Surfaces

So the story begins in 2001. By that time, BuildingLink had started seeing a regular growth of its business in the Manhattan market, and in a significant number of its buildings, we would find a KeyTrak computer already set up and connected to KeyTrak drawers. The question inevitably came up, whether BuildingLink and KeyTrak could coexist on the same computer. We typically responded "sure, as long as you can plug into the Internet", and we were confident that since BuildingLink only required access to Internet Explorer it would run without a hiccup together with the software. It turned out however not to be so simple. Our customers told us that KeyTrak was adamantly opposed to having its customers run BuildingLink on the same computer, implying that the computer could not "handle" it, and that KeyTrak would therefore not be responsible for service support on their system if any problems arose. Consequently, even though the KeyTrak PCs are actually owned by the customers, nearly all of our early customers ended up purchasing and placing a second computer at the front desk for BuildingLink.

In 2001, we began talking to Ray Roller, KeyTrak’s New York representative at that time, about trying to work together so as to reduce the annoyances to our customers of having duplicate PCs and duplicate data entry work. Our initial proposition to KeyTrak was simply to have KeyTrak condone their customers’ running both applications on the same PC. Several conversations between us and Ray were started over the years, but no reply from Texas headquarters was forthcoming.

2002-2004 - Texas Headquarters, a.k.a.. The Black Hole

Frustration

(“Texas Headquarters” for the most part really means College Point, Texas, and Mr. Robert Brockman. Mr. Brockman, originally under the company name of Key Control Systems, and then under the name of UCS – Universal Computer Systems - purchased and took ownership of the original KeyTrak company and its intellectual property consisting of patents issued originally to Mr. William Mahoney from 1999 – 2002. While KeyTrak and UCS, and now under its new corporate entity of Reynolds & Reynolds initially had as its primary focus the automotive dealership market, their grip on the multi-family key-security market has nevertheless remained very strong, and in some cities was virtually a monopoly until we launched KeyLink by BuildingLink in the fall of 2009 and finally started shifting the balance of power back to you, the customer!)

Over time, and as we gained a presence in many more buildings, the issue of not wanting two computers at the front desk was joined by several new issues that our customers raised. Firstly, the KeyTrak computers were bulky and aging, and customers did not want to pay KeyTrak for upgrading when they already had a perfectly new and powerful computer at the front desk. Secondly, customers no longer wanted to have to keep up to date the resident list a second time, entering all move-ins and move-outs on the KeyTrak computer that were already up to date within BuildingLink. Thirdly, there were features that BuildingLink's key tracking functionality provided that were missing within KeyTrak, such as the ability to send e-mail notification to residents when their keys were given out, or the ability to capture identifying proof (either electronic signature or photo) regarding who a key was actually given to once it was removed from the KeyTrak box. Fourthly, customers were getting tired of the large expenses they were routinely forced to absorb (mandatory software upgrades, paying the airfare from Texas and the hotel costs when an on-site repair was needed.

2005 - The Too-Good-To-Be-True Offer that was rejected

Because of this broader range of issues, sometime around 2005 we began discussing with the then-current KeyTrak New York representative, Mike Schadler, a new idea. We proposed to write at our expense a software extension to the BuildingLink platform that would allow us to directly control from within BuildingLink the KeyTrak drawers and key tags, without the need for customers to install any separate KeyTrak software. In essence, we proposed to write software that would mimic the commands being sent to the KeyTrak boxes through the parallel printer ports used by the KeyTrak software at that time. We proposed as well to charge customers nothing for this edition, and to allow KeyTrak control over the pricing and marketing of their drawer solution without any revenue sharing to us at all. It seemed like a no-fail proposition for them, they get to keep all the revenue and all the customers, they no longer need to handle software support calls, and they no longer have to hear from BuildingLink customers complaining about the dual computers and dual data entry. We even offered the possibility that we would undertake a certain amount of on-site service Corps work for them, so that they would not need to hit up their New York area customers with expensive airfare and hotel costs when providing on-site service.

By 2005, we were starting to conclude that while the New York sales division (Mike Schadler, Joe DeRossi) may have been fairly supportive of this idea, especially since they were running into the above-described situation and the customer dissatisfaction nearly every day, as they encountered more and more BuildingLink customers that were also using KeyTrak, the people at the Texas headquarters seemed nonresponsive. We were perpetually unsuccessful in our attempts to speak to Robert Brockman, the founder and CEO of the company. We did manage to finally get Robert Burnet – the company Treasurer – on the phone, who after a long pause said he’d check us out and think about it, and that was a warmer response than we received from Cheryl Muncie, the product manager for the KeyTrak product line who seemed annoyed that we even managed to find out her extension#. KeyTrak seemed not to be particularly bothered by the brewing discontent in the New York market, a discontent that not only was heard regularly by the New York KeyTrak representatives, but that also started being repeated to us on a regular basis and with increased intensity by our customers. By the end of 2005 however, the only indication from KeyTrak that they understood that a problem was growing was their starting to offer within New York City a reduced KeyTrak system price to BuildingLink customers who preferred using the BuildingLink "maintenance request" module and had no need for the KeyTrak "work order" piece of the software.

2006 – Looking (again) for Alternatives

Looking...

By now, in early 2006, we at BuildingLink were feeling increasingly unsettled about the prospect of leaving our customers in this unsatisfactory situation. We therefore escalated our attempts to find other key security solutions that would be satisfactory.

Beginning in February 2006 and throughout that year, we researched and communicated with a wide range of key security solution providers, including: MorseWatchman, KeyPer Systems, KeyTracer, KeyTracker KeyRegister, Handytrac, KeyVault, KeyWarden, Cobra Key Systems, Key Kontrol, Key-Vault, KeyCabinets, CanadianTime, KeySure, and KeyGuard, We looked at drawer-style systems, wall-mount cabinet systems, and even vending machine-style or carousel-style systems, and also at some new RFID-based systems, We even spoke to international manufacturers with related products in the field. After all was said and done, however, we concluded that the level of security that KeyTrak was providing, and the drawer-style design seemed to be the best fit for our customers’ needs, and no vendor other than KeyTrak met those two criteria. And so, we girded ourselves for one last attempt to get a working relationship with KeyTrak.

At the end of 2006, KeyTrak (the company) which had previously been owned by UCS (Universal Computer Systems, headed by Robert Brockman) turned around and swallowed the much larger Reynolds & Reynolds company (a major player in automotive dealership software and products), with Robert Brockman now becoming CEO of the entire enterprise.

2007 – N.A.D.A. Trip Yields nada

Fearing that as KeyTrak’s footprint in and focus on the automotive industry kept increasing, the odds of our establishing a cooperative relationship with them in the multi-housing sector would be rapidly diminishing, we attended the NADA (National Automotive Dealer Association) convention in Las Vegas in February 2007, to try to reach out in person one last time, and also to take a final look for other satisfactory products or solutions we could work with. While we had another promising conversation at NADA in Las Vegas (this time with Richard Battle - V.P. Sales for KeyTrak), nothing came of it after that. We were also surprised to find that several of the other “competing” key security systems being advertised, or exhibiting at the show under separate names and as separate companies (Key-Vault, Key Systems, and KeyRegister) were either owned by UCS (the parent company) or were licensed by the parent company to sell their products, and we walked away feeling that the near monopoly that KeyTrak was enjoying was not going to make them motivated to work collaboratively with anyone, as in fact was their reputation. We were finally starting to accept that KeyTrak probably had no intention of working with us in any significant way, and we began to interview engineering firms and intellectual property law firms in preparation for finally having to carve our own path toward “build” versus “buy”.

2007-2008 – The Switch is Flipped!

On March 3rd, 2008, after months of preliminary engineering and legal research, we sent a final communication to all of our KeyTrak contacts to date, informing them that we will be proceeding to produce our own solution, and that if they had any wish to instead work together, this would be their last chance. Well, actually we were a bit less polite than that, saying something to the effect that if we proceed we will proceed to build a much better system than theirs, and that if over the next two years they end up receiving a flatbed truck filled with discarded and retired KeyTrak boxes that have been replaced with our systems, they’d need only look back to the March 3rd conversation to know why and they’d have only their own short-sightedness to blame for it. Okay, so maybe those were “fighting words”, but after 7 years of runarounds and listening to our (and their) clients complaints, do you blame us for feeling fed-up?

In total honesty, we did receive one token call from the New York team, suggesting once again that we try instead to use their add-on SmartLink program, (a simple data transfer program which speeds up the process of adding new residents to the database, but does nothing to resolve our clients’ growing complaints). But we received no response of substance, and no response at all from the people in power. And so, we finally bade farewell to seven years of naiveté, goodwill, and attempts at working collaboratively, and set out to finally build and deliver to our customers what they needed – the modern, efficient and integrated key security system they deserved.

2007-2009 - Design, Redesign, & Re-redesign

Blueprint

Those of you who have read this far in the hopes of getting knee-deep into engineering and legal/patent matters, will be disappointed. But not completely disappointed. We don't want to divulge too many design details, or legal consideration details, since we would not be "shocked" to find ourselves subject to some sort of lawsuit from you-know-who. (If you don't know who we mean, what exactly have you been reading about until now?). However, here's a small glimpse as to what the past three years have been like:

Initially, we were fortunate to have found a very creative and skilled product design firm (and mechanical and electrical engineers) which helped us to select and implement the very best possible design. In terms of the major design of the drawer system, the key tags and the method of insertion and removal, we literally developed five different designs -- both for the drawer and for the key tags. Frankly, we thought that our third design was great and already had it prototyped and started showing it to customers when we discovered shortcomings in the design. That was a real blow emotionally, and our fourth design (which was our first try to work around the new issues) was not as good as we would have liked. But then came DESIGN NUMBER FIVE, which to our real delight also turned out to be the best of all the designs by far! The sun was shining for us on that day!

Of course, in a project like this there are many opportunities to get things “right” or to “miss the mark”, both in major design decisions of obvious significance as well in minor tweaks and nuances that provide an opportunity to demonstrate a fanatic attention to usability detail. In each case, we thought very carefully, explored different approaches, and in many cases actually prototyped various versions. To give you a taste of how much thought we put into every aspect of the project, below is a very small sample of the types of questions we tried to answer “right”:

  • What is the maximum key height (length) we can expect to have to accommodate? (visits to 10 buildings and inspections of a few thousand random resident key sets led us to our conclusion: 3.3 inches) What is the maximum number of keys that will typically need to be attached to a single key tag (four), and what is the maximum expected thickness of those four keys (12.7 mm, so we provide a separation of 15.8 mm between key tag slots to allow adequate clearance).
  • Which color LED light is going to be most noticeable without being annoying to the operator’s eye during recurring use in a room of average illumination? (blue, even though green is brighter) Which angle should the LED light be set at? (53) Would it be better to put the clear plastic light diffuser on the key tag itself or on the slotted row in the drawer? (the tag).
  • What height, width, thickness of pull-tab (the top portion of the SmartTag assembly) will make it easiest to grab and to release when removing the returning keys, without requiring extra tension that can cause soreness to the operator’s fingers? Is a rubberized cover for the pull-tab helpful? (We concluded that it was not)
  • How many rows of keys should our smaller drawer contain? Is it more advantageous to have a 4-row, 108-key small drawer that is 17.5” deep or a 5-row, 140-key small-drawer that is 21” deep? (We concluded that since most desktops are at least 24” deep, the extra 3.5” will be more than offset by reducing the total # of drawers some buildings will need. We also have a 30” deep drawer. Like KeyTrak, but those are hard to fit in anywhere)
  • When attaching keys to the key tags, should we prompt users to distribute keys evenly on both sides of the key tag, or should we encourage all keys to be mounted on the same side? (same side). Which side? (the right side).
  • Should the system suggest to the user which drawer(s) to return keys to? (yes) If yes, how? (one of four different algorithms can be used by the system for determining the most logical return-to drawer)

While we are very satisfied with the quality of our initial design decisions, we fully anticipate pursuing a process of continual improvement and refinement, just as you have come to expect of us regarding our BuildingLink residential management platform. On the KeyLink software end as well, we have already mapped out a path for the next two software versions, v1.2 beta, and v1.3 network.

A Final Postscript: - “New” PackageTrak announcement is too little too late

Nine years after we first began our attempts to convince KeyTrak that our and their customers wanted and were entitled to more than they were providing, the following press release has just been posted to the KeyTrak website. Rather than try to work with us to give our mutual customers a best in breed solution, KeyTrak instead chose to go it alone, and have now added some "new" functionality that brings them fully up to date with the 2002 version of BuildingLink’s package tracking module. Only nine additional modules to go and seven more years of catching up to do. A sad postscript for a company that history will credit with basically owning the U.S. multi-family key security market before they blew it.

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE, KEYTRAK, INC. COLLEGE STATION, TX
August 28, 2009
KeyTrak introduces new PackageTrak™ feature
KeyTrak announces the release of a new package tracking feature….PackageTrak™ gives KeyTrak users the option to track packages delivered to their property minimizing lost, misplaced or unclaimed packages, as well as legal suits that may result. By using a variety of flexible options, KeyTrak allows managers to track packages from the moment they arrive on the property until they are picked up by the intended recipient. The PackageTrak™ system can operate on either the KeyTrak PC or any PC using Web Plus.