Episode 27: Success in the construction industry


All Xero In episodes

Hosted by Jeanne-Vida Douglas and Rob Stone

With the rapid pace of change and increasing access to technology, it’s vital that all industries evolve. So what technology is the construction industry embracing in order to build success?

This week on Xero In, hosts Rob and JV speak to the founder of TradiePad, Clinton Cowin about how to be resilient in the construction industry. With more paperwork now than ever before, Clinton shares his insider tips on how tradies can reduce costs, save time and embrace technology.

“Instead of seeing a tradie jot something down on a wall or on a bit of a paper or on a bit of wood, we’re starting to see people using the technology to actually create a job, an appointment, and they get reminders about these things, things that the business world has had for decades,” Clinton said.

Listen in to find out how the construction industry is changing with the times.

Small business resources:

The benefits of being an independent contractor – Small Business Guide

11 technologies small businesses should adopt in 2016 – TechRadar

Episode transcript

Hosts: Jeanne-Vida Douglas [JVD] and Rob Stone [RS]

Guest: Clinton Cowin [CC]

JVD: Welcome back to Xero In, thanks for downloading the show or clicking through. I’m here with Rob Stone.

RS: Hi JV, how are you?

JVD: Not too bad at all, and today we’re delving into the construction industry which is actually a huge part of our economy.

RS: Yeah that’s right, I think today’s interview with Clinton is going to be particularly relevant given that there are more small businesses than any other sector within the construction industry.

RS: It’s a huge industry, one that’s going under a lot of disruption right now and I can’t wait to hear Clinton’s thoughts on it.

JVD: Yeah let’s switch over to him now.

RS: We’re thrilled to have Clinton Cowin from Tradiepad in the studio today talking to us about what makes success in the construction industry.

JVD: Yeah Clinton thanks so much for coming on.

CC: Absolute pleasure, thanks for having me guys.

RS: I see some really nice similarities between your old role as a plumber and now being a consultant in cloud solutions, one of which is scope. So you go in there, you have the lay of the land with a house or with a business and you have to scope out what fits and what’s the right solution going to be. But more importantly the plumbing – I mean you are basically now doing the plumbing between different pieces of software.

CC: Yes that’s very true, I’ve never thought of it like that but yeah spot on.

CC: Really we’re just taking a suite of cloud based products and matching them to the business, so assessing the business, working out what they do, looking at the available tools that are out there because there’s such a huge range of them now, making the assessment of what the right fit is and – and educating the business owner or the person we’re consulting to about why this is the best fit and how it works.

It’s all about education. We’re dealing with technology and dealing with tools that these business owners have never had to use before so that – that education piece is massive but taking the – our knowledge on what the products can do and what they can’t do and making that assessment on what’s the right fit and then helping to piece – put those pieces together and build the platform that the business can then use to run their operations.

RS: And how hard do you think it is to be successful in the construction industry these days without focussing on software that you use in the business?

CC: I think that the industry has been operating for decades and decades the way it is but more and more people are turning to technology and I think for businesses that haven’t made that leap you are a major step behind businesses that have made the leap. Once you see what’s possible and you see how much easier business can operate and how much more knowledge you have on business operations and where to invest your money and where to spend your time and just how much inefficiency there is in running it the old way, that’s when you look back and you go I can’t believe I’ve been doing this the hard way for so long.

JVD: You started out as a tradie yourself and had your own business, yeah?

CC: That’s right, I’m a plumber by trade so my business partner David and I were running a plumbing business on the northern beaches of Sydney here and we were always looking for a way to run the business electronically and that’s how – how Tradiepad came about. We set up some technology to run our business and it changed our lives.

RS: And what was the catalyst that said okay this is running beautifully in my own business, I’m going to take the step now into consultancy and advising other tradies?

CC: I was out of the frying pan, into the fire. It was really – I remember coming home from work one day and pulling the keys out of the truck and going wow I’ve got all my admin work done, I don’t have to do anything tonight, I can go and play with the kids or I can, you know, go and talk to my wife or whatever it was that I was doing. And that was the point where I went wow this is – this has really changed the way our business operates and changed our lives and I thought I can help other tradies to do this. Next thing I know I’m doing 15, 16, 18 hour days. So it was – it was a bit of a – yeah it was a bit of a – a bit of an eye opener. But, you know, now we’re really seeing the benefits, really seeing the fruits of our labour. And we’re able to take this out to tradies – and scale.

JVD: So you obviously play a key role in helping businesses get that insight into how to perform better but that – that involves understanding I guess what’s happening in terms of technology and emerging technologies as well as really deeply understanding their own businesses and keeping that link with – with the construction sector. How do you maintain that balance between staying ahead of the technology curve and – and really staying grounded in terms of your customer base?

CC: Staying ahead of the technology curve is becoming more and more time consuming as more solutions come out. Part of my role now within Tradiepad is – is to do that assessment of the products that are coming through and we’re starting to find that a lot of software companies are coming to us now and saying have a look at what we’ve built, you know, what do you think, how does this work. So it’s – yeah it’s becoming a little bit easier than having to sit there at night time and trawl through the app store like I did originally.

But the other part of staying in touch with the industry, I do the scoping sessions that Rob mentioned before. So that’s spending time with business owners to understand what their pain points are and how they operate and that’s really the finger on the pulse. There’s so much variance within the industry of peoples’ positions with technology and with business operations and structure and process. But essentially the – the core concepts are the same, of we sell two things, we sell time and materials. It’s – you know, it’s about as simple as that.

RS: Well and that’s quite interesting, tell us a little bit more about how tradies do business. You mentioned pain points, what are some of the most common pain points?

CC: From my personal experience – I can talk personally about this one – the amount of time that’s being spent after hours on admin, on business administration. So it’s quite common for a tradie to spend a whole day out in the tools, there on the road going from job to job, writing things in a diary, writing it on a job card or maybe using – starting to see a lot of people using the calendar system now on their phones. But a lot of time then has to be spent on manual entry of that data into their traditional accounting program. So – and that’s happening after hours. So you’ll get home after a long day, have dinner, put the kids to bed and then go and sit in front of the computer for two or three hours.

CC: And that’s – yeah that’s quite common, and that’s – yeah, it’s – it was just the way that we had to do things. You know, we haven’t had the luxury of having computers out in the field like the rest of the business world has had for decades so it’s now that we’ve got the technology and the devices that we can get that stuff done. So that’s probably one of the – the big ones for smaller businesses where you don’t have people in the office, full-time, on administration. Our sole trader two man band, three man band, whatever it might be, where it’s the business owner and maybe the wife doing all the administration, a lot of it happens after hours and it’s quite common. And I’ll talk to someone who’ll say yeah I spend half my Sunday getting the week prepared, you know, getting jobs ready and having to – to do scheduling and do business administration. It’s just part of a – part of running a business as a tradie.

CC: It’s a big part of the discussion in that initial session about who’s doing the financial side of the business, who’s doing the books. A lot of the times it’s the wife doing the books and that’s just happened by default. So the tradie starts a business, the wife may or may not enjoy it or want to do it but it’s just something that occurs, you know, and that’s quite common.

You know, do we look at outsourcing that because it can be a much better business decision both financially for the business but also for the relationship where – you know, if you – if you get someone in to do the books once a week or once a fortnight or what – however frequently it’s going to be it means that it takes that pressure off the relationship.

JVD: And I think that’s what’s beautiful about what you’ve put together here, is that you’ve created a – a software company that enables people to maintain their independence, improve their wellbeing and really create a functional business to allow them to – to do what they – what they love, what their vocation is.

CC: Spot on, absolutely spot on, a bit of business freedom.

JVD: Do you have challenges with people who’ve tried to adopt technology previously but haven’t been able to integrate it very well or haven’t been able to really reap the benefits of it?

CC: Yes, we’re seeing that more and more frequently now. You know, just in the last few months we’ve had a number of people come to us where they’ve had a go at setting something up themselves and…

JVD: Yeah, yeah…

CC: They may or may not have made the best decision on the best tools for – for their business. I’ve had a – a couple of scoping sessions recently where the clients come into the scoping session saying look I’m really happy with what I’ve got I just want to know how to make it work a little bit better and you start probing on certain things, on – you know, can you do this and can you do that, are you interested in doing this? And they start to learn that there could potentially be a better fit. It’s always quite difficult telling people if they’ve made a wrong decision but in the end that’s about showing them – you know, you – did you know that you can do this and it can have this impact and you can have this type of functionality and then they – they think fantastic, you know, this is things that I – I didn’t even know existed.

JVD: How hard is it to get them to change their thinking around adopting different systems and adopting new technologies? How does that change management piece happen?

CC: Once you – you start to show people how this can actually operate and how it can work it’s not a difficult decision for people to make and say well okay I’ll get outside my comfort zone and actually do something a bit differently because they can see that there is going to be a direct impact.

RS: Do you see any change in the demographics coming into the construction industry? So obviously a lot of the Millennials are now entering the workforce, you know, they’re digital natives, they’ve had, you know, mobile devices since they were almost born.

CC: Yes, definitely. A lot of people are coming to us now saying I’m starting my business, I just want to know what to do from – from day one. So the – obviously the learning curve from those – from the younger generation is much faster. There’s still a lot of people to talk to so far. We’re just about tick over 500 clients and that’s an absolute fraction of the businesses that are out there. I would have thought when we first started Tradiepad I – I expected the uptake to be a lot faster than what it has been and I was expecting to see the software development a lot faster than it has been.

RS: What do you think are some of the reasons why the take-up has been a bit slow, is it fear of change…

CC: Yeah…

RS: Is it time constraints, what are the factors?

CC: I think a bit of both of those. Fear of change is a big one. You know, people look at what they’re doing and they think well I’ve survived through today doing it the old way, you know, if I do the same thing I’ll probably survive through tomorrow as well.

CC: It’s not until they maybe see a colleague or a – a mate that’s a tradie that’s starting to use the technology that – that actually piques their interest. Time is huge because they don’t have the time to go there and investigate this stuff. You know, they’re – they’re busy, they’re head down and bum up running the – running the business and running the operations.

RS: So there’s been a profound impact on this time saved within your own business and the customers that you’re now touching with your consultancy work. What’s your view about where the construction industry is heading as a whole?

CC: It’s evolving very rapidly, we’re seeing a lot more professionalism in the industry now. So instead of seeing a plumber – a plumber, an electrician or whatever tradie it is, you know – you make a phone call to them and they jot something down on a wall or on a bit of a paper or on a bit of wood or something that’s on site and then that gets lost – you know, that’s going away now, we’re starting to – to see people using the technology to actually create a – a job, an appointment, and they get reminders about these things.

You know, things that the business world has had for decades with – they’ve had Outlook on their computer and you put things in your calendar and you get these little reminders popping up, you know, and it runs – it runs your day. Tradies haven’t had that, they’ve had a diary, they’ve had job cards and that, you know, they haven’t had the – the tools that the rest of the business world has had. So I’m really passionate about putting the tools in place to help the industry – obviously not business owners but helping the industry as a whole become a whole lot more professional and getting some respect for the business people that they actually are.

RS: What I love is you’ve got so many people out there who are experts in their craft but the craft could vary from electrical to plumbing to mechanical, you know, just such a huge variety of actual crafts that you can be a master of. But the thing that’s common across all of it is how to run a business. Do you see your role changing over time to actually start informing the conversation around the type of education that – you know, these people in craft are doing?

CC: Yeah, 100%, I love to be involved in helping shape the – the way that the industry is being educated. Yeah I think it has to happen, it has to happen, because the – I guess the education component of trades is still so – still so antiquated, you know, we’re still learning – it may have changed over the last couple of years but still learning a lot of the old skills that were in use 20/30 years ago but are just outdated now.

CC: So I know from my own experience when I did my plumbing license course there was a small portion of the course called business principles which was not mandatory, you didn’t have to do it, but if you went along there was a bit of – you know, brief description and – and intro on some of the core things in running a business but there’s no instruction on this is how you be a business person.

JVD: And it can just be so frustrating when – when for really really highly skilled tradies that really understand their profession not being able to convert that into a – a really functional business can – can be really heartbreaking.

CC: Absolutely, I come across that all the time and I’ll – I’ll talk to husband and wife team and the wife always opens with, you know, Clinton’s so good with his hands and he’s a really good tradie but when it comes to business, you know, he just doesn’t want to spend the time on the admin, he doesn’t understand it, you know, and that’s – it’s very true, I come across it all the time.

JVD: When you’re selling to smaller businesses it strikes me that you’re helping them improve their lives, improve their wellbeing, giving them some time back for themselves. How – how do you actually get these guys to think about their own wellbeing as part of – as part of their business and how satisfying is it when you actually give someone time back to spend with their kids?

CC: It’s hugely satisfying, that’s – that’s one of the key drivers of what we do. The impact that you – you have on – on people’s businesses but more so their personal lives is phenomenal and extremely satisfying. I remember the first few projects that I did that were for mates of mine where we set up a similar solution that we had within the plumbing business, just that look of – of joy on people’s faces when they start to really get the – the impact of what they’re using, that’s what – you know, that was – that was a real – the real game changer for me.

RS: Alright well Clinton thank you so much for your time, it’s a fascinating insight into the construction industry. You know, I think there’s going to be a lot of challenges up ahead but I can really see how things are going to change over the next few years. Can’t wait to follow what happens.

CC: It’s very exciting.

JVD: I think what’s been really fascinating is having that insight into your passion for helping people improve their businesses but also improve their wellbeing and improve their lives at the same time. It’s – it’s marvellous to see the way you’re operating. Thank you so much for coming on the show.

CC: Absolute pleasure, thanks for having me guys.

RS: I particularly liked where Clinton’s journey in his, you know, five years of blazing a trail of helping the construction industry – it all stemmed from the place of wanting to help others, you know, starting with his own business then his friends and that’s still what drives him today. But more than anything else it – it came from that one notion of it’s just got to be a better way.

JVD: Absolutely and it’s just so wonderful through Xero In to be able to reveal the stories of these people who’ve solved a problem for themselves and want to share that with other people in their industry and – and who really – ultimately their passion is helping people.

RS: That’s right.

RS: We want to say a big thank you to Clinton for taking the time out to talk with us and if you do have any questions that you’d like to answer from the interview with Clinton make sure you tweet the hashtag #XeroIn.

JVD: Yeah, thanks for listening.


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