Jobsite photos aren’t important until you need them, making the task of labeling and organizing hundreds of them per project a time suck for builders and contractors who increasingly are looking at new technology to boost their own outputs. San Francisco residential project engineer Adam Freeman wanted a way to speed up that process—and when a search for something better than the status quo turned up nil, he built his own. In October, he and two business partners launched Threshold, an integrated construction photo management platform that’s brought in more than 300 users with a pay-per-project model that boasts a user-friendly interface while taking the labeling and indexing process to the next level. We caught up with Freeman to ask how he and his team at construction technology firm 383 Studio Inc. got the product to market and how willing contractors are to bite.
How did you come up with the idea for a photo-management platform?
I worked for five years as a project engineer in light commercial and residential construction and part of my job was dealing with construction project photos—taking them, uploading them to my desktop, and labeling them so I could find them later. It was so time consuming and I just thought with the way the Internet is, it’s kind of silly to be doing that much work. So I searched around for a program and wasn’t happy with what I found. I partnered with a friend who’s a little more tech-savvy and business-oriented. We hired a programmer and started designing the site.
What makes Threshold different from some of the more established project software?
We wanted to get away from the traditional software models, which are hard-to-use, cost more, and have a bigger learning curve. We’ve taken more of a consumer approach with a focus on an easy-to-use interface. Our first thought was to bring in the “news feed.” Everybody’s pretty familiar with Facebook, so we took that same concept and applied it to our internal dashboard. When you log in, you see all of your projects and you can drill down into project-specific dashboards. We also wanted to give people tools to troubleshoot if they’re having an issue with the platform—so we came up with the Project Assistant, which lives across the entire site. It explains the steps to setting up a project and includes video tutorials. People are happier when they can figure out how to get moving right away, rather than having to email somebody and wait for a response.
The Dynamic View is the meat and potatoes of the site. This is where you tag your photos and index them on the floor plan. All you have to do is drag a photo from the bank on the left side of the screen and drop it at the corresponding spot on your plan. You can overlay plans—architectural, structural, electrical, etc.—and scale them so they’re all the same proportion. And you can use any of your tags to filter down to a very specific photo—via date taken, who took the photo, or what room it’s in, for example. So instead of digging through a bunch of photos and folders on my desktop, I now can just go into the program and say: I know it’s in the south wall, I know it’s in the media room, and I know it’s electrical, and I can use those tags to pull up the photo.
So it’s a big time saver.
For a medium-sized project it can save you two or three hours per week, depending on how diligent you are on your project photos. We hope we’ve made it simple enough that people start documenting their projects more thoroughly—especially since the mobile app lets you do all this from your pocket. I know from personal experience that we tend to not take as many photos as we should, purely because it’s a pain to document them all and it’s usually not the most pressing task until you need a photo. Then you’re scrambling to find it while someone’s poking holes in the wall.
Is this something you’d share with the homeowner?
We want this to be a selling tool for contractors and are encouraging them to add their clients so they can stay updated on the status of the project without having to come to the jobsite. But it’s a double-edged sword because you might not want your client to see every photo you’re taking, particularly if you’re documenting an issue and are fixing it in the field. So we came up with different permission levels—project owner, administrator, view-only unrestricted, and view-only restricted.
Plus, the tool makes the contractor look like he’s onto something good and that he’s tech savvy. Here in the Bay Area a lot of people made their money in tech so they notice when their builder is using tech on the project. The mobile app lets them take photos and tag them right at the jobsite and someone back at the office can be sitting there, watching it auto-update on their desktop.
How willing are builders or contractors to test a mobile app on the jobsite?
The competition isn’t between us and a different service. It’s between us and the old way of doing it. That’s a hurdle. But more builders and contractors have smart phones and many are even bringing iPads to the jobsite, and I think that behavior is being driven by activity in the consumer space. Many of these guys go home now and they log into Facebook, they or their kids have some sort of smart phone and are playing with apps and they think, “Why can’t an app work for construction?” The smaller contractors are getting on board with us. The minute I get into a demo I can see the light bulb go on. The bigger players are excited about it, too, but they tend to ask for unique feature sets so working with them requires more of a delicate balance.
Given the construction bent, did you have trouble securing funding?
We connected with a few Silicon Valley angel investors when we launched our beta version earlier this year. Everybody loved the technology, but they wanted to see paying customers. We didn’t have them at that point. We were letting contractors use the site for free in order to work out some of the bugs and develop many of the internal controls. To a lot of potential investors, construction was a basically a four-letter word because of what happened to the economy. And they were kind of spooked because we were a business-to-business application serving the construction industry, which they knew nothing about. So we had some pushback and ended up bootstrapping the launch. We’ve put down about $80,000 to date.
You have paying customers now. Will that be enough to sway investors?
Our previous pitch was more tech-based. The pitch we’re going back to them with is focused on user feedback, how many people we’ve added, and how we’ve done it. That’s going to be the change, and I think that will change their views of the construction market.
I went to a construction industry tech conference at the beginning of 2012, and again in July, and it was remarkable to see the change in what people wanted from the industry in terms of technology. The first time, everyone was touting server systems and saying they didn’t trust the Cloud and I was like, “Oh crap, I’m barking up the wrong tree here because all of these people want conventional software.” I ultimately pushed ahead because the attendees who were for the Cloud were really for it. Six months later, the mood had changed. Everybody was talking about what iPhone and iPad apps were available, and everybody wanted their data hosted in the Cloud because they were tired of dealing with server maintenance and IT.
We’re looking to grow with an integrated iPad app on the development side, making the platform compatible with Android devices, and expanding our marketing. We’re still getting the platform out there, getting contractors to know our name.