Ep. 80: Using Mobile Data to Evaluate and Manage Your Construction Business
There is a big change happening today with the way construction workers interact with data, and it is impacting the dynamic of how work is done at the jobsite. Many contractors are already aware of this, but don’t necessarily know where to start. This podcast addresses the challenges and solutions. Isaac Barlow, founder and CEO, busybusy, joins CONEXPO-CON/AGG Radio to discuss how smartphones are changing construction technology and the best way to adopt mobile apps.
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Host Peggy Smedley: On today’s show, we’re going to be talking all about mobile apps on the construction job site. There’s a big change occurring today with all the ways that construction workers interact with data. It’s changing the dynamic of how work is done in the field. Many contractors are already aware of this but, not necessarily where to start and we hope to address a lot of that on today’s podcast.
As always, I have a great guest that is going to join me for the discussion. Our guest today has 20 years of experience in the excavation trade. He really sees the problems that come from bad job site data and this has motivated him to create a mobile technology solution. Please welcome Isaac Barlow, founder and CEO of busybusy. Isaac, welcome to the show!
Isaac Barlow, Founder & CEO, busybusy: Thanks Peggy!
PS: Isaac, I’m really excited to actually talk to you because we haven’t had you on the show before and we really haven’t talked about busybusy. I’m really excited about how you came up with, one, the name, and just the concept of what you’re really doing with this solution for the industry for construction because it’s so much in need today.
IB: The concept was out of need. It was just like you said in your intro, managing excavation companies is what I was doing and trying to get the mobile data that we need to better evaluate and manage our business is what really drove the idea of busybusy.
The name actually started out as busycontractor, but when I started meeting with branding folks to try to help brand the company they said busybusy is way better and easier to remember than busycontractor. My initial thought was hey, we’re extremely busy contractors and one of our big challenges is we’re always just overwhelmed with just systems and processes that give us the data that we need.
PS: And that’s really true if you think about contractors today who really are busy. In fact, if you think about what’s happening with the mobile services category, it’s actually the largest category according to IBC. Worldwide spending, and you probably know this way better than I, mobile solutions is forecasted to reach something like $1.72 trillion by 2021. Do you think that number is true? Is that really what is going to happen?
IB: I think so, and it is incredible. Contractors are busier today than ever.
PS: And why is that? Is it just because we see this surge in construction occurring? Is it just because they’re trying to figure out how to keep pace? What is really the cause of the busyness, so to speak?
IB: If you want my true opinion on it, it’s a perfect storm. Not only is demand up, but supply of contractors is down and this happened in a couple of parts. Because of the great recession in 2008, we lost half of our workers and half of our companies. Then we’re still trying to create a better pipeline of reskilling those workers, so right now you’ve got a really serious demand for construction and you’ve got supply probably at its lowest ratio its ever been.
PS: Because of that, you talk about this perfect storm, with supply down and the need of workers. We know there is such a work shortage, we talk about this, we don’t see a solution right away. We don’t see this worker pipeline being filled anytime soon, so the need for this type of technology is imperative, right? Something has to help them and give them the data to be able to react to the needs of the marketplace faster, quicker, and easier, more efficiency, and improving productivity. I’m throwing out all these things to you, but I think that’s what we’re talking about right?
IB: Yeah, we absolutely are. That is one way to address the shortage. If you can bring in technology, the best way to look at technology is just systems. If you bring a system into place, and yes, it makes the workers job a lot easier, it makes them be able to perform at a much more efficient level. For example, maybe one worker can do the work today with the technology advances we’ve got as two workers could have done 10 years ago. That and working to build up our pipeline, are the two solutions to the labor problem: technology efficiency and working to build the pipeline of the labor.
PS: Let’s talk about that because right now if we look at global sales of just smartphones. To end users I think we totaled 383 million units in the third quarter of 2017. That’s a three percent increase over the same period the previous year. Samsung itself, now you look at Samsung and Apple, I think they’re recording double digit increases and if you’re saying that’s almost 19 percent third quarter of 2017. Apple’s recorded sales grew 5.7 percent year-over-year. All these companies are expecting sales. Apple, I think is saying, it expects its smartphone sales to be 1.57 billion units by 2017.
This is showing you the market is ripe for the best mobility solutions on these smartphones. We’re talking about devices with the right solutions on those. Do you think construction, we used to have push-to-talk, and that provided some value in the field. I’m not sure how many people are going to understand push-to-talk, unless you’ve been in the field you get that, now we’re talking smartphones. Mobility solutions can really play a role in the market if you’re looking at those numbers that the market is showing for global sales.
IB: Absolutely. The mobility solutions for the construction industry, as far as what we need to better manage and run our businesses is incredible. I’ve said often that the construction industry should have celebrated all across the globe when Steve Jobs first introduced the iPhone. It’s the key component we’ve always been missing, is the way to collect our data on a mobile level so we can get it in real time. These mobile solutions, sometimes some companies are a little afraid to embrace them, but the reality is they can do so much for us.
Just like you’re talking about with the numbers of smartphone adoption increasing, we’ve watched that over the last five years in the construction industry especially. It used to be that employers were saying hey, its really hard because all my employees don’t have smartphones. Today, they almost all have smartphones. Now the key is to incentivize them not only to use the smartphones to benefit the business, but also to use them in a proper and safe way.
PS: So how are smartphones changing the construction industry? You talked about these past five years now, are we seeing it dramatically being used? Are they leveraging it to the best of their ability, or everybody just has it because they use it in their consumer lives, their children play games on it, their wives call them or husbands call them? Everybody is using it to communicate, but are they using it to get the information to make real-time decisions with it?
IB: I guess the best way to answer that would be, yes, with this caveat that more progressive companies are using it. Anyone can be a progressive company, any size company. People are using smartphones not only to collect data from the field, similar to what busybusy does, but also to access data. In other words to access clouds, and so forth.
I remember the days where we’re carrying muddy and tattered plans through the job site to try to look at something that we need. Today, that’s all accessed on our smartphone at the tip of our fingers if you want details on a spec or information on a plan or a change order or anything. It’s just all right there for our access and so it substantially increases efficiencies as you pointed out before.
PS: Is there a right or wrong way to adopt the right apps in mobile technology for the construction job site? If I looked and went up to the Apple store, or Samsung or any of these smartphones that are out there, and said what’s the right app for me to use in construction…just like you said, to get information, to make project management decisions, to look at the kind of data that you want because there is so much information. Yet when we’re at the job site we want information because job sites are busy things. With excavation, things are moving around and if you’re distracted by your phone you’re talking about a hazard, right? Something tragic can happen. How do you know when to get the right app to make the right decisions that’s not now going to cause a distraction that can lead to something more serious?
IB: It’s a great point and you’re exactly right. I think my recommendation is the first thing companies have to start out with is their culture. They have to establish what kind of company they are and what kind of culture they want to have.
For example, I would look at smartphones as an inevitable thing. Your people are going to have those whether you want to or not. Some of these companies put strict policies against it for hazards sake, which I totally understand, but the path I’d recommend is that companies start adopting policies regarding the proper use of smartphones. And of course when you’re in a situation where you’re operating a piece of machinery or you’re in a dangerous situation, whatever the case is, you’re not to pull your smartphone out of your pocket and look at it. That is not a good time to do it. It’s kind of like distracted driving. There are just ways to use your phone and ways not to use your phone when you’re in those kind of conditions. I’d recommend the company starts out by establishing we are a culture of innovation and we’re going to adopt these technologies to suit us and to help up, but here’s the ways we’re going to do it and here are the safety policies behind it.
As far as which apps to adopt, the key really is to identify what are the systems and processes in you’re company that you’re doing that you have to do everyday and which applications really support those and strengthen those or make those more efficient.
PS: When we were talking about the concept of busybusy, you talked about helping manage excavation. Talk to us about that because I know that’s really important and we’ll get to that in a minute, but you also have a partnership with Caterpillar and others. Let’s talk about who actually uses busybusy today and the importance of that. As you’re saying having the right policies in place is always important and we talk about companies understanding and not only having those policies in place but managing those policies is very critical. I know some companies forget that. They have the policies but they don’t do enough refresher courses on those policies because you’re constantly hiring people, getting new people in place, and you always have to remind people what are those policies. Let’s talk about who uses busybusy today and why they use it.
IB: It’s great points you bring up, and the primary users of busybusy today is the construction industry and other industries that are mobile centric, for instance, flood and restoration, catering, any industry where they have a mobile workforce. We track the mobile workforce. Now, our innovation is targeted specifically toward construction and with the partnership that we made with Caterpillar, even more focused on the excavation or heavy equipment owners, but the app still works for the mobile workforces in general.
PS: When you look at that mobile workforce, because that’s something that’s very critical with people constantly on the move and understanding there’s a lot going on. Talk about specifically, now, that partnership with Caterpillar because I think that’s a powerful one. CAT really does a lot and you guys are doing a lot with them. Why is finding the right partners in construction today so critical to the success and understanding what has to happen, again like I talked about on that, busy, very active job site and being aware so we reduce those fatalities, those injuries, that make it important to get the right information to make the best decisions when you’re doing things.
IB: Let me address the Caterpillar partnership first. The great thing about the Caterpillar partnership was that busybusy and CAT pretty much aligned on our vision and that is we are both after the success of the customer. As you point out, success includes a lot of things, including safety, the safety of your people and the culture of your people. Caterpillar genuinely wants the success of their customers. They want to support them and strengthen them so that when a customer is working with Caterpillar, they know that Caterpillar has their best interests at heart.
The partnership with busybusy and Caterpillar combining up was really all about collecting that variable data that’s really hard to get in the field. The variable data I mean is the time data. How long and what resources does this take for me to accomplish something. For example, if I’m installing a sewer line it’s pretty easy for me to calculate my materials and evaluate later if I did the calculation right. The thing that’s difficult is to comprehend and understand and track how much time did this take my crew? What machines did it take them and how long did it take those machines to do this work and what were the costs involved there? Really evaluating those variable costs – the partnership with busybusy and Caterpillar takes the labor technology we’re tracking and combines it with the telematics technology of Caterpillar to really bring that data back for the customer.
PS: When we talk about this machine data, because we’re talking about telematics today, it’s been so vital in actually bringing down the costs that you’re talking about, improving productivity and reducing waste. Companies are becoming more profitable. Is that what we’re seeing when you have the best information? A lot of companies don’t realize what they don’t know when you’re talking about a job site right?
IB: That’s right. We have companies that are heavy users of both us and Caterpillar’s telematics data and they have as much as two times production rate increases on their job sites because they’re just comprehending better and better how to use that data to make their job site more efficient. You’re exactly right. A lot of companies don’t know what they don’t know. The companies that are following the best practices typically are heavy adopters of mobile technologies and heavy adopters of telematics. Not only to they do they adopt the telematics from Caterpillar, straight from the manufacturer, but they upgrade the machines in their fleet that are older with aftermarket solutions and connect those all into Caterpillar as an example as well.
PS: We take this information that you have from your mobile app, you’ve got partners like Caterpillar and things like this. How do you take that information that you’re gathering at the job site and extrapolate all this information to give real-time information that’s valuable? How are we getting this information? One of the real keys that everybody is always concerned about is interoperability. We have all this information and we’re not able to access it to the right resources, the right things inside the office that we have. How does that work with the things that you’re doing with busybusy?
IB: It’s a great point and it’s always a great challenge. In today’s world, we have so much data coming at us that being able to parse that and break it down into information we can actually use is a challenge. It’s a challenge that at busybusy we work on every day.
The general thing that we focus on for the customers is basically what we call the construction triangle. That is where they estimate their projects, everyone goes out and they bid or estimate the project, then they go out and execute or perform the project onsite, and then the third step that we advocate is they evaluate the project and say after we performed this job did it work out the way we thought it would.
Those three steps don’t have to be done at the end of a project, they can be done every single day. They can be done on a continual basis. Besides just replacing their payroll tracking process, which busybusy does, we track all their time and information and transfer that to their payroll company, but it also, the thing I guess I’m most excited about, is we track the jobsite intelligence. We track and let them know, these jobs you’re winning on, these jobs your losing on, and even in the midst of a job or in real time know this job is going off course. Just like navigating a ship or an airplane, if you’re off by one degree in the beginning, you’re going to end in a very different place. For these projects, identifying and knowing in real time when they’re off course, why that is and doing something about it is key.
PS: You talk about that with margins being thin, jobs being very fast paced today, and having to try to get as many projects as you can and getting productive. We see that sometimes we’re off the mark when we complete our jobs. Have you had some great successes that you say, look, they’re using our mobile app. We’ve really helped them understand payroll. The information has helped them land better jobs. They’re able to improve their efficiency in ways they’re not seeing. Do you have some success stories that you could share with us?
IB: Yeah, we do. We have some great success stories. Probably one of my favorite quotes from one of our customers is he says he was able to grow confidently in his company. This is key because a lot of companies end up failing because of growth and falling apart because of growth. He was able to grow confidently, so he grew profitably one year by 30 percent and said busybusy allowed me to do this because they identified the projects that we want and the jobs that we used to go after that we don’t want. This is the key. Sometimes in a construction company if you’re doing a lot of work out there, and like you say, you’re busy, you’re trying to do all the projects you can, but some projects or some components within your project your making money on and other projects or components within a projects you’re losing money on. If you decide to grow, or get more aggressive about doing work out there, and you grow in the wrong direction, that’s what destroys a company. If you can identify and understand where you’re profitable at, what projects and what components of those projects you’re profitable at, and focus on targeting those areas for growth, that’s when you can realize great success.
PS: It’s funny that you say that. It’s not funny in the sense of really being funny, but some companies really think one project is profitable and they find out its really not. That’s what you’re talking about, right? Really having data changes the game sometimes when they’re seeing this information. Is that some of the things you’re seeing in working with some of these companies?
IB: Absolutely. That’s the whole key to what we’re after. We call it job site intelligence because we want to deliver to the customer the intelligence they need so they can say, you know what, when we perform this type of work it costs us this much money and, you know, certainly the data helps them optimize the performance, but in general it costs them this much money. If they go out to bid against a competitor that’s really bidding less than the job site value really is they need to just let it go and go after a job site that they can actually recognize profitability on. That’s a common mistake that’s made in the industry, to look at the job for the high-dollar value of it and say we’ve got to have that job, instead of really evaluating and saying does this job actually help us or hurt us? Giving them the confidence that they need to really comprehend those projects and negotiations is really one of the keys to our customer success.
PS: When you look at apps going forward, are there apps now that you’ve seen come on the market and you just find that they’re really not delivering. You hate to talk negative about other apps, but over time there’s a lot of apps that come. They just don’t deliver what they say, but now there’s apps really set to grow. They’re really delivering on the promise. Where do you see now, looking forward with your app, and there are others that really do a lot for the construction industry, do you see this market continuing to grow? And see the construction industry starting to settle in and say this is where we see the potential of really helping the industry improve productivity, improve efficiency, and really take it to that next level when we have that worker shortage. This is really going to be something they have to take a closer look at.
IB: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, one of our key strategic identifiers when we decided to go after and partner with Caterpillar is we said okay, 20 years from now Caterpillar is still going to be here and they’re still going to be recognizing the needs of the industry and going strong. We would like to be as well, and we will be, especially with that partnership.
I think the key to looking at some of these apps is saying where are they connected? Are they going to be here in the future? Are they really looking at the trends in the industry and comprehending where it’s going and adopting and evolving with it? That’s one of the key items because to be a successful technology app you not only have to comprehend the industry you’re working with like we talked about and specifically I reference Caterpillar. Also, you have to comprehend Apple and Google and the different technology platforms that you have to adopt and grow with so that every innovation that’s out there you keep up with. As a contractor, you don’t have time to focus on making sure that the companies you’re working with stay on the cutting edge. Make sure that you’re working with a company that has its own focus to keep itself on the cutting edge of technology.
PS: Well Isaac, it has been great spending time with you today. I want to thank you for all the time you’ve been able to share with us.
IB: Thank you, it’s been great on my side as well.
PS: All right listeners, we’re out of time. I want to thank Isaac Barlow. He’s the founder and CEO of busybusy. You can find more information by going to www.busybusy.com. As you can see, smartphones are actually changing the way we work and everything that’s done at the job site. Today construction companies actually need to identify how to tap into this amazing market. However, it can be challenging as you discovered, to decide where to start and which apps to use. Hopefully, we’ve given you some insight to help you and your business in the year ahead.