Working at a mining site in Australia a decade ago, Kashif Saleem saw firsthand a problem that has long plagued large construction projects.
Put simply, things go missing.
On complex projects with thousands of components, materials and other parts are often misplaced. They may not make it onto shipping barges. They get left in warehouses. They're pilfered. A fabricator claims a piece was sent, but no one knows where it is. Someone uses the wrong part, mistaking it for a similar one. And while cranes sit idle and workers wait, the job grinds to a halt and costs pile up. And up.
A software developer, Saleem was working as an information technology support technician at the mining site, but he quickly saw a different need for his skills.
Bright and ambitious, he quietly got to work developing a software system for tracking materials and other assets across projects, from start to finish. When Saleem offered his solution to the job's project manager, however, the man's response was less than enthusiastic.
“He said, ‘No, I don't want to use your system. No one knows you, and what if you get hit by a bus? You're just a one-man show. I want something which is reputable,'” Saleem recalled.
He was undeterred. Saleem, now 43, grew up in Pakistan and came to Perth, Australia, as a foreign student in 1998. He couldn't speak English, so he took language classes and learned by watching Hollywood movies and CNN.
He enrolled in Edith Cowan University in Perth, studying while working three, sometimes four jobs at a time. He washed dishes and sold newspapers on street corners, working up to 50 hours a week alongside his studies. Saleem completed a degree in business information systems in 2001, finishing second in his class, and soon got a part-time programming job.
The boss' brush-off was a minor setback. After turning down Saleem's offer, the man set up a system with about 20 spreadsheets, which led to chaos, finger-pointing and scattered information, Saleem said.
The man directed his staff to find a better solution, but the only one that could accommodate the project's needs cost $1 million to implement. So the budding entrepreneur again pitched his solution to the project manager, offering it at no cost, provided Saleem retained exclusive rights to the copyright.
The project manager agreed, and Saleem's solution got rave reviews. That led to requests from other clients, and Saleem refined his software into what would become Track'em, an enterprise-level platform that tracks materials and other assets by using barcodes, GPS and radio-frequency identification.
The solution provides real-time analytics and key performance indicators using Microsoft's Power BI dashboard, enabling easy visibility of assets and quick and accurate management reporting. And Track'em can be integrated into other enterprise resource planning and proprietary 3D modelling systems, making it flexible and nimble.
The solution was followed by Time'em, which enables companies to track employee time, tasks and productivity; Store'em, designed for warehouse inventory management; and Transport'em, a supply chain management tool for shipping.
“One thing we realised very early is that our loyalty is not to the product. Our loyalty is to the solution which solves our customer's problem,” said Saleem, the company's CEO. “When we see that there is a need for the customer, we build a product that will solve that problem.
Saleem launched Track'em as a company in 2014, selling his eponymous product from $500 monthly, one-tenth of what he said comparable solutions cost.
And while other systems are fragmented — for example, using spreadsheets to track assets and GPS tracking for vehicles — Saleem said Track'em is the only solution currently available that uses both barcode and GPS tracking, accommodates different hardware protocols and works across devices.
Using their mobile phones, tablets or laptops, clients can easily tap into a centralised online asset register and see where items are at any stage of a project.
Track'em previously ran on virtual machines, but Saleem migrated the solution to Azure in 2014. The move was a game-changer, lowering operating costs and providing a much faster, more efficient, agile platform, Saleem said.
“When I found out about Azure, I was almost doing cartwheels,” he said. “It's so quick to deploy and we can just do so much more with it. It was very helpful. I can't say enough about Azure.
Track'em also uses a color-coded 3D-modeling system that the company has patented in Australia and the U.S., which shows where items are in a project and what stage they're at.
So a project manager can, for example, look at a 3D diagram of a structure under construction and easily determine whether an item has been fabricated, if it's been sent to the job site, whether it's been deployed. Each item is given a unique barcode, scanned and then tracked. And clients can use GPS tracking, Bluetooth tags or whichever system works best for them.
“We made it future-proof so you can use different types of technologies,” Saleem said.
The solution has impressed Neil Tregea, a retired project director and consultant who worked on large-scale construction projects for more than 40 years. Tregea first used Track'em in 2007 while managing an iron ore mining project in Australia that involved 12,000 tons of steel work, much of it in smaller pieces.
“We never lost a piece. We never had to ring up and get things made again,” Tregea said. “There were no delays. That is phenomenal. At that time, that was unheard of.
Also unheard of, Tregea said, is Saleem's dedication to customer service. He is willing to make adjustments based on clients' feedback, Tregea said, and while larger companies might take days to respond to an issue, Saleem is immediately responsive.
“A couple of times over the years, Kashif has worked overnight to fix a problem. By the time we start work the next day, the problem's resolved,” Tregea said. “He's so obliging that if someone comes up with something different or wants to change things, Kashif will always listen, and if he can, massage what he's doing. I've never met anyone like Kashif.
Craig Windram, a modeling and logistics engineer, used Track'em while working on a large gas plant project in Western Australia. The job included building a system of steel-frame modules with parts that were fabricated in Thailand, shipped to Australia and trucked to the job site. Track'em ensured that the parts reached the site, then tracked them as they moved from storage areas to implementation.
Windram estimates lost items can add as much as 20 percent to a project's total costs, since they must often be repurchased or fabricated again.
“I can't even tell you how much Track'em saved us on that job,” he said. “It made the job. Things would have been lost everywhere. They wouldn't have known what would have been installed, what wouldn't have been installed. Normally when something goes missing, we would get a request to buy a new one. But using Track'em, we would find the item.
With a growing base of clients in mining, oil and gas, construction and engineering, Track'em was humming along nicely by 2015. The company had half a dozen employees working out of its headquarters in Perth, and Saleem was working on bringing investors on board and raising capital to expand.
The company's reputation was growing, and after years of Saleem pitching his solution to change-resistant industry veterans, Track'em seemed to be gaining some traction.
Then a major investor pulled out. Track'em suddenly faced the possibility of going bankrupt. Feeling defeated, Saleem took his team to a lunch for the Western Australia Innovator of the Year awards ceremony.
He had entered Track'em for an award but figured the company had little chance of winning. To his astonishment, Track'em was named the overall winner, receiving the state's most prestigious innovation award and a cash prize of $75,000, which enabled Saleem to keep the company going.
“We were competing with people who were working on lifesaving technologies and innovations. I thought we had no chance of winning this thing, but we won it,” he said. “That encouraged me to keep going and keep pushing.
The award attracted other investors and companies interested in trying Track'em, along with a new challenge — how to market the solution.
Saleem, a self-described longtime “Microsoft nerd,” got to know people in Perth's Microsoft community and connected with the company's Developer Experience team, which works with developers who write software for Microsoft platforms. The team has been enormously helpful, Saleem said, offering support and bringing Track'em on board as a Microsoft partner.
“So many times as an entrepreneur, you feel alone and need someone to talk to,” Saleem said. “Microsoft's always been there. You can talk to them. And the best thing is, they don't actually realise how they're supporting you. Those kind words and guidance at the right time mean a lot for someone who's just starting a business.
Saleem sees potential for Track'em to expand into other industries, from defence to agriculture and government. But for now, he's focused on moving into other parts of Australia and the United States in the sectors Track'em is already working with.
“We are getting a lot of interest from other industries. We're trying to figure out how to handle the growth,” he said. “It's a good problem to have.