About a year ago, Mike Winn, of Winn Design, Fairfax, Va., got serious about taking his business paperless. His most recent step in the process: a password-protected extranet Web site where clients, subs, and suppliers can access updated job information 24 hours a day. “I had heard that [larger] companies like Wal-Mart use these sites to lubricate the wheels with their suppliers and distributors,” Winn says, “and I thought I could use it to facilitate the flow of information within my own company.”

With the help of his local IT professional, Winn created a site that does just that. All documents related to a job are scanned and posted online. Copies of contracts, change orders, invoices, certificates of insurance, and purchase orders — as well as work schedules and periodic job updates — are included on the site. “All documents are available for download as PDFs, so we're not constantly faxing or dropping off forms,” Winn explains.

But just like with many new technologies, there's a learning curve involved. For Winn, that meant trying not to do too much on the site. “We were trying to post constantly updated images of our projects as well as our Gantt charts,” which are extremely detailed project schedules, he says. Now he only updates photographs if there's something specific he wants the client to look at, and he provides the client with project milestones only after hard dates are set for deliveries. “It's a constantly evolving process,” Winn adds.

And it's a process that has garnered results for his company. “It takes a lot of time in the beginning, but since it's been implemented we're all more productive and can exchange info more easily,” he says. Clients have been responsive as well. “We have a lot of homeowners where both husband and wife work, so they love to be able to check in on the project from the office.”

Winn set up separate client and subcontractor password-protected sites so that each only has access to the specific project information that pertains to them. Some subcontractors, though, have been slower to catch on than clients. “A lot of them just don't use computers. It can be hard enough to get paper invoices from them, let alone get them to post online,” he says. Because of this, Winn tends “to stick with contractors who — all other things being equal — adopt our system.”

Before implementing a system such as this one, Winn has one major recommendation. “If you're going to roll something like this out, do it on an experimental basis and try it with one client first. If you tell a client you have this capability, you better be able to deliver.”