Photo: Jamie Scott Lytle
Wendy Rogers weathered industry skepticism and the Great Recession in building her software-as-a-service company, eSUB Construction Software, Inc.
Wendy Rogers was once a consultant to subcontractors, helping them get paid for work they had done, but not clearly documented on large construction projects. Today, as CEO of subcontractor-focused software-as-a-service company eSUB Construction Software Inc., she offers a comprehensive, cloud-based project management product intended to make her former role an unnecessary one. Through roughly 500 clients and tens of thousands of users, Rogers' company's software is intended to make creating and storing documents simpler for the people doing the nitty-gritty to get projects off the ground, and to share them with people working off-site.
Brian Roberson is senior vice president of construction for contractor California Comfort Systems USA Inc., which employs about 200 people locally. California Comfort is an operating company of Comfort Systems USA Inc. The contractor installs heating and air conditioning for industrial and commercial projects; recently, the company wrapped up work on the luxury, 41-story Pacific Gate condo tower. California Comfort became an eSUB client in January 2015.
Previously, California Comfort employees created documents, such as change orders and requests for information, or RFls, in Microsoft Word and Excel. Then, those documents were put in file folders and stored on a server. But without any naming convention or standardized way to create the documents, Roberson said tracking the information proved a time-consuming task.
At one point, he lured someone specifically to maintain the file structure.
"I was spending a lot of time maintaining files," he said. "We needed to change that." Roberson said the tech firm's decision to tailor its software to subcontractors, rather than general contractors, was a major factor in the decision to become an eSUB customer.
Simplicity a Plus
Its simplicity was also a draw: It takes about 15 minutes to teach an employee how to use the program, he said.
"The other programs are set up for contractors to track the progress of a document, whether they received it or not," he said. That's not particularly useful for subcontractors, who need to make and track their own documents, not receive others'.
Today, about 80 people at the company's San Diego headquarters use the eSUB software, he said. Previously, during her tune as a consultant, large subcontractors would come to Rogers with notes on napkins, receipts and other scraps of paper about changes they had made during construction, eager to get paid for the work they had done. Subcontractors bid on packages for large construction projects, but as a rule, changes to the initial plan start rolling in as soon as ground breaks, Rogers said.
No Documentation, No Dollars
"The dichotomy is that they're too busy in the field doing work with their crews that they're not documenting these changes as they come up, so they don't really know what's happening in the field, and the office and the field have this disconnect," she said. "We would come in retroactively and try and get them paid for the work they had done many months prior."
Some ended up losing millions of dollars, she said.
As the use of software for streamlining businesses functions began gaining traction, she began researching a proto-cloud program called Applications Service Provider software; the software connected people in various locations via an internet connection.
"We built the software package and waited for people to come," she said, but discomfort among contractors, with sending information electronically stymied adoption. "We were early to market for what we had."
In 2008, Rogers reformed the company, hired her first employee through a posting on Craigslist and rapidly became a cash-positive SaaS company. Then the financial crisis hit. The same month, Rogers decided for the first time to seek investors. Lehman Brothers failed. Undeterred, she decided to wait it out.
"I was absolutely convinced it wasn't a matter of if this would take off," she said. "I represented enough people in my career that I knew... that it had to, at some point, take off."
The rapid adoption in recent years of mobile devices, from smartphones to tablets, helped transform wary potential clients into eSUB customers, Rogers said. Tablets are what California Comfort workers use in the field to connect with eSUB, Roberson said. Although the math made sense, Roberson said the switch to the more high-tech method of creating and storing documents wasn't easy.
"We looked at it and said, 'If I save an hour a month per person - which is nothing - I pay for the program'," he said. "But 80 hours per month? That adds up."
Even so, "probably 50 percent of the people wanted to stay with the current system," he said. "It took a month or so to get everybody up to speed to where they bought in." In construction, a notoriously hidebound industry, "change is always the enemy," he said. "Contractors are creatures of habit; they don't like change and they think the way they do it is the best." While contractors may be slow to adopt the technology, Roberson said he is sure it's the way to go.
"We have to get better at the paperwork and at providing documentation so we can be more successful," he said. "Margins are tight. You can't make mistakes nowadays s in construction."
For Rogers, after years of uncertainty, there is relief.
Sticking With the Dream
"It got to a point where I was almost embarrassed to tell my friends I was still plugging away at this," she said.
No longer. eSUB is now hiring at a furious pace and was recently dubbed a "Cool Company" by the San Diego Venture Group, which annually recognizes 40 exciting local startups.
"The tinting is finally right," she said. "I've dedicated the last 25 years of my life to this particular industry that has been underserved and deserves to have the same tools that general contractors have had for years."
Published in San Diego Business Journal