While technology has helped streamline and boost productivity in nearly every field, construction projects are less efficient today than they were a half century ago.
The sector has been slow to adopt new digital solutions, but the tools available to the industry have not been particularly innovative, said Brian Saab, CEO and co-founder of the startup Unearth Technologies.
“The construction software market brims with solutions that digitally mimic outdated pen-and-paper processes, doing little to increase efficiency,” he said.
Founded in October 2016, Seattle-based Unearth takes a “place-driven” approach to helping companies manage and organize large-scale construction projects.
“The easiest way to think about any physical location is as a map,” said Nick Hertzman, Unearth’s content strategist.
In very simple terms, the startup’s software takes aerial photos and pages of construction plans and stitches them into single images. The images are then overlaid and linked with documents related to the work being done in specific locations.
“When you’re having problems with any one area, you can zoom in on that area,” Hertzman said. All of the relevant information to that piece of a project is kept in one easily-accessed place.
“Contractors are desperate to increase productivity and win more revenue,” Saab said. “And we are the only product that holistically addresses productivity.”
Unearth has 12 employees and includes some members of the team that helped build Buuteeq, a software company that tackled marketing and business management issues for the hospitality industry. In 2014, the Priceline Group bought the company, and Buuteeq was rebranded as BookingSuite within Booking.com.
After their success with Buuteeq, the team “felt ready to take on the even bigger challenge of the using internet of things (IoT), drones and mobile tech to power revolutionary construction software,” Saab said.
Future products from Unearth are expected to include the ability to stream video from construction sites in real time. That information will allow managers to track whether a project is on time and identify causes of delays.
We caught up with Saab for our Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for his answers to our questionnaire.
Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: “We digitally organize construction projects by place to enable clear communication and painless progress documentation.”
Inspiration hit us when: “In short, the drone hype inspired us. The more in-depth answer is that our real ‘ah ha’ moment came from researching all the tech companies born of this hype. Almost everyone was solving hardware problems: they were building drones, developing navigation software, trying to build all-in-one solutions, etc. No one had made a simple platform to harness the power of the data that drones created. Our data-driven focus created Unearth’s strong foundations.”
VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “The best way to go about funding is staying bootstrapped until you can raise from Angels or VCs with a good track record. Smart investors add far more value than just capital. The best ones provide insight and guidance while keeping you honest about your progress. No matter who you raise from, your primary concern should be that they’re knowledgeable and capable of helping guide your business.”
Our ‘secret sauce’ is: “Our secret sauce is simple and we pour it on liberally: it’s place. Humans naturally think and organize their lives by place. It’s how we evolved to interact with the natural world. In our initial discussions with customers, we repeatedly encountered field workers using place as an instinctive method of organization. It seemed obvious to our chief design officer to build a software system that used the customer’s mental model as a method for organization. The construction industry is filled with software vendors forcing their customers to adopt a mental model that fits the software vendor’s opinions and motives. We believe we can do better than that by using construction’s preference for place to help organize and communicate about their incredibly complex projects. The benefits of this system go well beyond construction, but they are the industry that stands to gain the most immediate results.”
The smartest move we’ve made so far: “Our inspiration was drones, and when we started out we were really focused on how to make the most out of drone data. We still focus on drone data, but the smartest move we made was realizing that we needed to move beyond just the analysis of aerial information. The real innovation is the ability to have an overhead view for organizing all your information including, photos, documents, plans, videos and more. Construction is incredibly complex, and requires sharing a variety of information among a diverse range of stakeholders. When they are organized by place in a straightforward format, it becomes incredibly simple to communicate and collaborate.”
The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “Our biggest mistake was an assumption we made when crafting our go-to-market strategy. We thought that our natural customers would be small- to mid-size general contractors, and that enterprise firms would be unwilling to work with a startup. What we found was that the large-scale firms were the ones most willing to give new things a try, while the small- to mid-size firms were more hesitant to take a risk on something so young.”
Would you rather have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “Bezos is the clear winner for us. We want to bring disruptive software to an industry notorious for thin margins and a reluctance to adopt technology. Nobody has succeeded or innovated like him when it comes to this model. His quote, ‘your margin is my opportunity’ should speak volumes to construction. The disruption is coming; the question will be who is going to embrace it.”
Our favorite team-building activity is: “We’ve had to learn some hard lessons with team-building activities. We like variety and competition, and most recently thought indoor kart racing would be a fun way to spend the day. We all had a great time, but unfortunately our principal engineer took a hard hit and fractured a rib. Luckily he was okay, but ever since then we’ve decided to take our competitive spirit to lower contact activities like drone racing.”
The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: “Our number one consideration when hiring is culture fit. Seattle is full of talent, and finding a capable person is easy. The challenge is finding someone who shares your expectations, passion and excitement. It’s especially important to us when we’re this young to find people who get along with our team and naturally inspire collaboration. The earliest team members end up creating the culture that will take hold once the company grows.”
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “There’s not really a one-size-fits-all piece of advice for entrepreneurs who are just starting out. The most common advice is probably to keep a thick skin and be comfortable working with ambiguity. These are both important qualities for a novice entrepreneur, but there’s more to starting up a business than attitude. From a practical perspective, the best thing you can do at the outset is spend as much time as possible validating your idea. Do whatever it takes to get in front of your customers and talk to them. Make certain you’re positioned to execute on a winning idea and then be confident in yourself. If you start out this way, you will be much more prepared for success when you face the inevitable challenges of starting a company.”