The Move to Mobile
Tablets are changing the construction enterprise—in a big way.
Recently, Laura Black, editor, Constructech magazine, sat down with Tracy Young, CEO and cofounder, PlanGrid, to discuss the evolution from mainframes to client-server technology to Web and now mobile, and how it is impacting the construction industry.
Let’s talk a little bit about PlanGrid and how it got started. We were two construction engineers and two software engineers who quit our jobs in 2011 when the Apple iPad 1 came out, with a mission to bridge the gap between good software and the construction industry. We were working engineers: we were out in the field pushing paperwork to all our team members. We realized that paper was just obviously inefficient. When the iPad 1 came out, the solution was obvious to us. Let’s put it in the cloud. Let’s make all the information available on a mobile device. We launched our app and immediately within the first week we had new paying users. We realized that we had the start of a real business. Since then, we have added over 10,000 paying customers and over 200,000 projects have been built with PlanGrid. We are now the largest digital blueprint repository in the world, with over 21 million sheets of blueprints in our cloud. We have grown from a team of four founders to 135 team members.
Just to give you an idea of how different we are from other construction software companies, something like 70% of our staff members are in product and engineering. We put a lot of resources into what we are building. When you look at other enterprise construction software, the ratio is much different. 70% of their staff is sales people. This should give you an idea of the quality of software we are producing.
How can construction firms establish best practices for implementing collaboration technology? Traditionally in the enterprise space, and this is true for construction also, technology has always been discussed and chosen over steak dinners and three martini lunches. What I mean by that is some VP at the corporate level or some CIO will sit down with really good sales people from software companies and then they will discuss the quality of the wine and martinis and then they will pick their software and deploy it to the rest of the team. What you see is very low adoption. In the construction industry, this is especially true. Mainly because first of all, you can’t really take technology out onto a jobsite. The workers are on site for sometimes over 10 hours a day, and sometimes they don’t even have time to go back to their office trailer. They haven’t started to adopt technology until very recently.
Really the first time was in 2010 when Steve Jobs announces the first generation iPad. It is a fully powered computer that is lightweight enough for you to stick in your safety vest with a battery life that lasts all day. Within a year, PlanGrid launched our app. What happened then is that you could share information in a much different way. When I think about the way I communicated with my team as a project engineer in 2008, I was in the field, I had a walkie talkie because that is how we communicated. I would notice issues and my team members would notice issues and at some point we would walkie talkie each other and try to find each other on the jobsite and physically show each other the problem. That was literally the way we communicated and this was industry standard. With PlanGrid, you can make markups in realtime and then just share it with each other through a mobile app and mobile device.
Mobile is changing enterprise in a big way. It is really just a platform shift. In the 1960s, mainframes was a platform. In the 1980s and 1990s, we moved to client-server technology, and then is the last decade we moved over to Web. So there is a transition happening. We are moving from Web to mobile. It is allowing new players like PlanGrid into the space and we are able to build something that is much, much better for field workers because the mobile platform makes sense if you are not at the office all day.
What do construction firms need to keep in mind when using tech for internal collaboration? The parties and the team members might be different, but at the end of the day everyone is trying to follow whatever problem, whether it is internal or external. I think one of the reasons why there is so many schedule delays and cost increases is because … there are so many different team members. You have the building owner, the design team, the architect, and the architect has all their different engineering consultants; you have the general contractor side, and all the subcontractors and vendors. So it is really hard to distribute information out to all the parties. What you get on top of that is the information is constantly changing due to the nature of construction and design.
When everyone is looking at different information and trying to have a productive conversation about solving the problem, they are not looking at the same thing. This is where all the arguments come in from. Getting everyone on the same page so they can collaborate meaningfully is huge. The same thing with the home office. Internally, for most construction companies, they are running several projects at the same time. And then you have different teams on different projects dealing with different team members and vendors, etc. It is really hard for executives to understand what is going on. With all the information in one place and everyone knows to go to that one place and reviews that information, it is going to have a transformative impact on the way they effectively manage their job in a company. It is as simple as let’s get everyone on the same page so that we can talk about the right things.
Where do you see collaboration tools headed? When we talk about mobile we are talking about iPads, iOS. We are talking about Android. And we are talking about Microsoft Windows tablets. When we started the company in 2011, iPads were (a high percent) of the tablets on the market. In 2014, just last year, Android is (a high percent). Microsoft is spending a lot of money on making their Windows device better. They have a (small) marketshare right now, but it is going to get better. We are probably going to see the devices change over time. It is good they are all competing because what that means is the tablets are going to start with a one and end with two numbers. They are going to be less than $200 for a really good device. Storage is going to double every single year as they compete. The battery life is going to get better. The weight is going to become lighter and it is really good for consumer enterprise.
What advice do you have for others looking to implement collaboration technology? Try it before they buy it. That is the beauty of mobile and apps. We have a free version of PlanGrid. Try it. See what people think and then buy it.
We have covered a lot of ground here, but is there anything else you would like to add that you think would be important to note for our readers? When I talk to directors or VPs of construction companies I always remind them to let their field decide. At the end of the day they are choosing software for field construction managers, and if they are not the ones choosing it, then it doesn’t really make sense for them to deploy it.