I recently talked (via Skype) with Jon and Ron Antevy, respectively CEO and President of USA-based e-Builder (in Miami/Fort Lauderdale, Florida). The company recently marked its 16th birthday, making it one of the longest-established names in the world of online construction collaboration technology solutions.
Focus on facility owners
When I met Jon at a conference in Harvard in 2006, e-Builder (formerly MPInteractive) was already 11 years old, having been founded in 1995 and Jon was already earning plaudits from US trade magazine Engineering News Record for pioneering the idea of web-based construction information-sharing (five years later, in May 2000, ENR publisher McGraw-Hill took a financial stake in the business). In the early days, Jon says, e-Builder couldn’t afford to be selective about its customers and quickly accumulated a mixture of general contractors and building owners. These early adopters helped e-Builder to become profitable by 1998, but Jon had already identified that facility owners, particularly serial builders (those building a steady succession of projects), were likely to prove the most lucrative market:
“It took about ten years but e-Builder eventually became the favoured platform for many building owners and operators, and we now have strong positions in healthcare, education and government. We now work with over 60 healthcare providers, for example, and no competitor comes anywhere close to this dominance of the owners market. We now have 100s of customers working on projects involving 1000s of organisations – and user-bases for some of these can be as high as 2,500.”
e-Builder, which employs around 60 staff (one third in software development, one third in implementation – Jon rightly stresses the ‘Service’ element of SaaS – and one third sales, marketing and administration), operates mainly in metropolitan areas right across the USA and Canada, but has also supported projects in the Middle East – typically hotel projects undertaken by US-based developers already familiar with e-Builder.
When the global financial crisis struck, the flow of projects in Dubai quickly dried up, but e-Builder did not experience a downturn in its domestic market. Ron elaborated:
“We have just had the best two or three years in the history of the company. I believe the financial crisis has made owners smarter with their money. There are lower tolerances for error, and our technology and tools can help them achieve better compliance.
“e-Builder currently has around 25,000 active users of its platform, and these have helped sustain consistent revenue growth in the range of 36%-41% per year over the past three years. We expect to maintain or increase the rate of growth over the next 2-3 years.”
Asked about competitors, Meridian’s Prolog was the first name mentioned, followed by Constructware – an Autodesk product since 2006, though Jon didn’t believe that Autodesk had followed through in the development of Constructware he once anticipated (post). I asked if e-Builder had come up against Aconex, BIW, Asite or 4Projects, all now targeting the north American market. Only Aconex had begun to register on Jon’s competitive radar, and he didn’t feel it was even a direct competitor (“yes, it’s got some robust document management, but it doesn’t have the sophisticated workflow and mature cost management functionality demanded by e-Builder customers” – e-Builder launched its first cost module in 2003). He was aware of BIW’s tie-up with Sage (though the latter’s financial management applications were, in his view, mainly targeted at small-to-medium-sized general contractors, not owner/operators), but regarded the combined BIW/conject ‘infrastructure life-cycle management’ offering as more interesting.
The conversation then turned to BIM (building information modelling) and how this might be used to meet facilities management requirements. While BIM was increasingly being included in requests for pricing, it did not yet appear to be a ‘must-have’ component, Jon said:
“Currently, e-Builder customers are typically more concerned with having scheduling and cost management functionality, and maybe a link to their ERP systems. While consultants are interested in being able to create BIM execution plans and view the model in a web browser, clients simply don’t ask for it yet. I think their interest reflects the value they perceive it offers: it just has not yet reduced risk as much as they thought it would.”
In the meantime, owners’ FM needs were largely met by providing tools that allow information from e-Builder to be used in solutions such as IBM Maximo.
It was gratifying to hear another vendor talk of the value of focusing on the ultimate client, and – in particular – on ‘serial builders’. When I was at BIW, the business tried to maintain a balance between AEC businesses (contractors, consultants, etc) and their customers (the owners and operators of built assets, eg: retailers, property developers, banks, transport undertakings, etc). The latter are less prone to cyclical nature of the construction industry, and it appears e-Builder customers found its platform even more beneficial when it came to working within more constrained budgets during the global financial crisis.
e-Builder has also moved well beyond document collaboration, which has become an increasingly widely available and often low-priced commodity. Like many of its competitors on both sides of the Atlantic, it started with a focus on creating a central information repository for professionals involved in designing and delivering construction projects. However, it recognised the importance of managing more than just documents, and the extension of its functionality into detailed cost control and scheduling has reaped dividends (its 2003 cost module pre-dates the development of similar functionality by BIW by around three years). It has also sought to embrace mobile technologies from Blackberry solutions (2006 post) to iPad (10 June 2011 news release), and sees the continued delivery of workflow data via mobile platforms as an integral part of its future roadmap.