Start-up Buildiro is launching a mobile application aimed at independent construction contractors, and helping offline merchants get online, but faces significant marketing challenges.
According to Lukas Polach, founder and CEO of London-based startup Buildiro, the average tradesman spends a significant portion of every job in their van, traveling to the hardware store in search of supplies and tools. In traffic-snarled cities like London, time spent sourcing materials can account for as much as 30% of builders’ billable hours. Buildiro’s new mobile application for iPhone and Android users, launching this week in London, aims to expedite the procurement process, saving independent contractors time and money.
Make sourcing and procurement easier
The Buildiro app has, Polach claims, been designed, built, and tested by builders, for builders – inspired, in part, by the simplicity of other e-commerce mobile apps (“JustEast makes finding and ordering food quick and easy – we want to do the same for construction materials and products“). Polach leads a team of five, and has largely self-funded the business to date, though a Czech start-up accelerator is also providing some support.
Available in the Google Play and Apple App stores, the application locates building supplies near any job site, and will eventually give builders real-time access to merchants’ inventories. With more than 500,000 products in its menu, Buildiro is essentially a free professional procurement specialist. In line with its social media inspirations, the app is being launched via a Facebook Live event at 10 a.m. UTC on 2 March 2019.
Buildiro also helping merchants get online
“We created Buildiro to reduce the time that builders spend searching for supplies, and to help smaller, offline merchants get online. Many of the smaller building-supply stores in London – as elsewhere – don’t have an online shop, and contractors cannot see what these sellers offer without visiting. Buildiro was designed to give local merchants better online visibility, and in the process, improve the efficiency of independent contractors.”
For any builder, three factors affect the materials supply chain: availability, distance from the job site, and price. Large contractors often have teams to navigate the supply hurdles, but most small and medium-sized firms do not. That’s where Buildiro comes in. Using the app, an independent tradesman can create a list of needed supplies and search for the closest merchant stocking all of the items – viewing multiple merchants in one app is more efficient than separate website searches or using multiple vendor apps (where available), Polach says.
A graduate in civil engineering from Brno University of Technology in the Czech Republic,* Polach conceived the app two years ago when he managed a small construction firm in North London. During one job, Polach needed materials and he used his phone to search for a local merchant. According to Google Maps, the closest store was six miles away. But while stuck in traffic, Polach spotted a smaller merchant just a mile from the job site. Not only did this local supplier have everything Polach needed, the products were actually cheaper than the larger retailer. The idea for Buildiro was born.
The first phase of the Buildiro app release will be for builders and merchants in Greater London postcodes, where Buildiro staff will be working with merchants to help them connect inventories to the app’s database. By mid-2019, Buildiro will be rolled out in other cities across the United Kingdom, and eventually, worldwide. Polach adds:
“We are very excited to release the Buildiro app to builders in London, the first of many digital solutions we hope to bring to the construction industry. Globally, the building trades are among the last sectors of the economy to digitize. Our vision is to build workflow and management systems that enable the independent tradesman to improve their job-site efficiency.”
Version 2 of the application is scheduled for the second half of 2019 and will allow buyers to order materials online. Polach envisages also connecting Buildiro to the builder’s accounting system so that purchases can be easily associated with projects for invoicing purposes.
The Extranet Evolution test
Extranet Evolution tested the early stage Buildiro app on an Android smartphone. Upon opening, users are immediately prompted to search for items (cement, screws, etc) – I entered “hammer” – and a drop-down menu is quickly populated with choices.
I could then seek merchants within a mile of my southeast London location (or enter a postcode). The search then identified five merchants (Screwfix, Wickes, Topps Tiles, Selco and Travis Perkins), along with closing times, and starting prices. Clicking on a merchant – Wickes, for example – then opened up a page allowing me to call the store, plus a navigate button to guide me to its location, plus a swipe-able listing band. This start with the lowest priced “hammer” and I could quickly swipe across numerous other inventory items found in the search. I could then select an item, enter a quantity, and a priced list started. Compiling a list of, say, four different items involved entering them one by one in the field at the top of the screen – I then got a four bands of products that I could swipe to find my selections.
Encouragingly, closing the app did not mean I lost my list, but I could not see a way to manage multiple lists (if I was buying for more than one job, for example) or to keep some favourites. The application’s user profile feature is shown as “coming soon”, so perhaps this is something that will be possible “soon”. Buildiro says it will “eventually” give real-time access to merchants’ inventories; at the moment, the app accesses merchants’ catalogues – I would need to call my local store (using the app’s call button) to ensure my required items are in stock. “Click and collect is part of our vision for Version 2,” Polach told me.
If I simply wanted to find nearby merchants, I still had to enter at least one item in the search tool – though looking at some mockups shared by Buildiro (see below right), I am guessing this function might also be “coming soon”.
The Extranet Evolution analysis
Buildiro is targeting a large but very fragmented market, much of it focused on small-scale extension, refurbishment, repair and maintenance activities. This comprises about a third of all UK construction orders – worth around £53bn in 2017).
Out of around 5.5 million small businesses employing under 50 people in the UK, almost a fifth – just over a million – are construction businesses, collectively turning over around £185bn a year. But within this figure there is also a high level of self-employment. Out of 2.4 million UK construction industry workers well over a third – 37% (or nearly 900,000) are self-employed, compared to the average for the whole economy of 13%.
While many of these individuals will be working for specialist subcontractors on a wide range of new build, commercial, industrial and infrastructure projects, the domestic home improvement and alteration market across Britain (excluding Northern Ireland) is worth around £30bn (see this Barbour overview), and Buildiro’s initial focus – Greater London – is the biggest single regional market in terms of value, at around £7.5bn.
So, the market opportunity is huge, but the sector’s fragmentation makes marketing a new mobile application a huge challenge. Multiple trade associations cover both general builders and the myriad of different specialist trades, but none have saturation coverage, so marketing partnerships will only reach a fraction of the potential builder market. Buildiro has recruited someone to onboard builders’ merchants to the platform, so perhaps outlet ‘point of sale’ promotion of the app will work alongside Buildiro’s Facebook activities and a Google Adwords campaign it is running.
‘Word of mouth’ is likely to be critical in promoting Buildiro adoption, just as personal recommendations of tradespeople are often most effective for them in winning new work. SME and self-employed workers in this sector are heavy users of mobile phones, but continuing skills shortages, particularly among younger workers (and likely to be made worse if Brexit goes ahead), may limit Buildiro’s exposure to some of its ‘digital native’ targets.
Incidentally, talking about the Buildiro business model, Polach used the words “free forever” in respect of the costs to its builder users. This immediately reminded me of Copenhagen, Denmark-based GenieBelt and its 2015 launch (the company recently merged with Belgium’s Aproplan to become LetsBuild). Maybe Buildiro’s procurement technologies complement the on-site communication and scheduling specialisms of the newly merged business – particularly if day-to-day task management is constrained by delays in acquiring basic tools or materials.
[* Polach was introduced to Extranet Evolution by Ondrej Piska, co-founder of PCS – see September 2019 post.]