In part one of my conversation with Sean McCreanor, the co-founder and CEO of Assignar, he talked about his project management solution specially tailored for the construction industry.
In this second part of our conversation, Sean discusses some of the unique problems he had early on, selling to companies that were still using computers like glorified calculators. He also offers some thoughts on how developing the right hiring technique helped lay the groundwork for their current success.
Sean McCreanor is the CEO and Co-Founder of Assignar, a cloud-based construction operations company. He is a technologist at heart and is passionate about helping construction implement & leverage technology.
Sean started his career in IT in the late 90s. After starting a specialist IT firm with some colleagues and then successfully exiting that business in 2005, Sean went on to co-found (and still owns) a specialty civil & rail sub-contracting business that now has over 80 pieces of heavy equipment and over 250 workers across 4 states.
After an exhaustive search for an operations platform in 2014, Sean McCreanor developed Assignar for his railway subcontracting business with co-founder Marko Tomic.
DISCLAIMER: Below is an AI generated transcript. There could be a few typos but it should be at least 90% accurate. Watch video or listen to the podcast for the full experience!
John Jahnke 0:00
Values to us or to me, and not like one word, you know, trust, integrity, those sort of things, I think values or behaviors actually. And so we’d like to find the behaviors that we wanted to be known for and stand for.
Alexander Ferguson 0:19
John, I’m excited to continue our conversation now hearing more about your journey. Tell me, where did where did your story begin? And how did you get to where you are today?
John Jahnke 0:28
Yeah. So I started my career in tech, I’m, you know, I’m 42 years old, I’m a technologist at heart, I love technology, rode through the.com Boom, working for some of the biggest banks, insurance companies and sort of the, you know, big end of town, I guess, in in Australia, I was in the kind of the cybersecurity space actually, before, it was called cyber security. You know, if you remember the.com days, this kind of, there was a little bit of mystique around, you know, securing the network and all that stuff. So I cut my teeth there, started a business with three of my colleagues at the time, and we built a really great company down there. And we, you know, had an opportunity to, you know, take an exit, so after a few years, so that was, it was a different world back then the cloud was not the cloud, like this, the Internet was around, but it was a different place. And so I was Infraworks. No, so this was the segue into into Infraworks. So that was things that we started, had a chance to kind of reset after the exit. And I was really kind of tossing up what to do, went and did a little bit of travel with my wife, we were lucky to take some time off. And, you know, that was where the idea of InfoWorks came from a friend of mine came to me and said, Look, I got this great idea. There’s a ton of big projects that are forecast that have government funding, committed, why don’t we start a construction business together, you can be the, you can be the business guy, I’ll be the construction guy and go out and try and build a company. And that was really where the company started from. That was in 2007. And so, you know, for a number of years, I was like, literally learning all I could possibly learn about running a construction company and trying to build it. I, I got my truck license, I got my excavation, like I literally can operate. Not very well, I might say, but I can operate, you know, a lot of our machinery that we own. And yeah, we got to 2013. So we were sort of six or seven years into it. And I just literally noticed that was kind of embarrassing being an old school tech guy that I hadn’t actually put any tech into my own business. Like we put an accounting system in, we put an estimating system in, but we were using, like spreadsheets and manual process. And so I said to my business partner, we got to do something about this, because all of the crew, all of the workers have got mobile phones, they got Android phones or iPhones, they’re actually starting to send us data. Like we haven’t even asked them for it. But they’re they they’re tired of paperwork. And so let’s go find a platform. And, you know, that was where that was where the kind of the journey began, I’d say that was in maybe mid 2013. And I started to look for a product on market and I just couldn’t find one. I couldn’t find a single system of record something that would really kind of empower the crews to, you know, continue to keep building because that’s how I make money down there. We make money by building projects. But it’s really important to get that data from the field. So yeah, that’s kind of that’s kind of the genesis of the company.
Alexander Ferguson 3:55
Now Assignar, I did, did you, you fund it yourself? Did you get VC funding? How did you get that started?
John Jahnke 4:02
Yeah, we’ve taken some VC funding on recently. We did well, recently. We did a we did our last round. We did a series a in to two years ago. Yeah, about two years ago. We’ll be out raising a series B in probably q1 Say of 2020. So you know, we’ve had really really strong growth good unit economics, but in the in the early early days, yeah, it was bootstrapped. We, we let some friends and family you know come in early as well. They kept bugging me to you know invest and so because all I kept talking about was a software company that we’d started so yeah, we we got some friends and family involved and some business associates as well. It’s it’s a really great it’s a really great cap table.
Alexander Ferguson 4:47
Is there any lessons learned or things that you would have done differently or you actually glad you didn’t want someone else and recommend someone else to do it as far as funding and getting started?
John Jahnke 4:58
Go on. I could go on about things I would do differently for hours? That’s a That’s a loaded question. God, what would I do differently? I think I, in the early days one sort of lesson for us, I didn’t. And this was more of US market, kind of the viewpoint, I didn’t think that contractors were out looking for software like I was. So we didn’t invest as heavily in kind of demand generation marketing. As crazy as it sounds in 2014 2015. That’s something I would do differently because they were looking for it, it turns out the other kind of thing, I’d be like, really clear, one thing I think we did really well, at the beginning was articulate our sort of, you know, mission, vision, value set values to us or to me, and not like one word, you know, trust, integrity, those sort of things, I think values or behaviors actually. And so we’d like to find the behaviors that we wanted to be known for, and stand for, and getting people to buy into that when you’re trying to recruit talent in trying to identify, so like, a good example, I stole this from one of my old bosses was, you know, around being transparent, and, you know, honest, don’t, your bad news doesn’t get better with time. So if you have bad news, with with a feature set or problem, go talk to the customer immediately about it, like it doesn’t get any better. You know, so sort of we we defined some of those things early on, and that’s helped us recruit really, really well,
Alexander Ferguson 6:37
continuing on that, that thought of billet building your team? What is it like to develop from just a couple people and to then to grow it from there any tactics that you’ve used to that you would recommend?
John Jahnke 6:54
Yeah, I mean, it’s, it’s really hard because your company changes almost on a monthly basis, you know, and one of the things that Marco is my co founder, Marco, and I, like, we still talk about it at our all hands is just the culture that we created, can be easily diluted, you know, as you’re hiring and bringing new people in. And so we really put an effort into the recruitment process, making sure there’s real clarity on what we stand for, as a company, as people as team members. And then the onboarding process really kind of drives drives that. I think that’s really important. Because even if you’re, especially in the early days, if you’re a team of 10, you know, going to 15 or 20, I mean, that’s you’ve doubled and that can dilute your culture by 50%. And culture is his values. It’s how you respond to customers, it’s how fast you how hard you work and drive towards, you know, delivering value for customers or solving their problems. So that’s something that we still talk about, you know, from a, you know, at every all hands, it’s really important is maintaining the culture. It’s, it’s a little harder now with COVID and everyone being remote, but I feel like we’ve sort of, you know, adapted, you know, the culture is definitely shifting, but you know,
Alexander Ferguson 8:21
it’s still because the, how big is the team today?
John Jahnke 8:24
Yeah, so we’re about 60 people. All over. Yeah. All over. We’ve got I think about 25 in the US now. Most of them are here in Colorado. And then we’ve got Nashville, San Antonio, Houston, San Francisco, everywhere. And then the rest are in Sydney. And we’ve got them regionally in Sydney and other cities in Australia as well.
Alexander Ferguson 8:50
What’s your plans? As far as COVID wise, going forward with the team of how are you gonna bring people back to the office? They’re gonna be all remote. I mean, any thoughts there?
John Jahnke 8:59
I read a ton about that. We went remote really early into it actually. Sort of late February because especially in Australia, we were hearing a lot about the outbreak in in China, it’s a little closer to home down there. remotes worked really well, but we just found that the sort of the honeymoon wore off pretty quickly, I’d say, especially with lockdown, you know, people were couldn’t couldn’t work out When should I start or stop work and we were finding people working crazy, ridiculous hours on the weekend, late night, early morning. And so that’s kind of eased up a little bit which is great. But one of the things that we decided to do was sort of go with a hybrid style model, I think and so we got really intentional around not just company get togethers you know, getting together for a happy hour at the end of each month or that type of thing. But, you know, the sales teams get together at least twice a month in person where we can Engineering does their stand ups, you know, in person, you know, twice a month. So we’ve got sort of a program where people know, you know what the cadence is there. And then, you know, we’ve made, you know, sort of co working spaces and things like that available for some of the team that, you know, maybe live in a smaller apartment, or just, you know, I have been working off the kitchen table for, you know, for months now. I just think, you know, we sort of tried to, I heard a lot of like, just go full remote, you know, the hybrid model doesn’t work for us, it’s working really, really well, I would say.
Alexander Ferguson 10:35
Interesting to see how everyone shifts forward. So I’m always curious to hear it may work different for each company, as he as he stated, and for depending on the size, shifting gears a little bit on this growth over the past six, seven years. Any thoughts you can share of client wise on? So coming away from team for a moment? How do you get those first few clients and customers on the platform and using it? To just get it started?
John Jahnke 11:02
Yeah. For us, it was really tough because I was in Australia, in Sydney, and I was, it was tough to sell into a competitive for example. And, you know, in the early days, that would come up the prospects and customers were nervous, because I was a contractor, still, I still own a contracting business down there. That’s not a problem anymore. And you can, you know, we went through the ISO 27,001, security, certification early on, you know, very, very, and we would share that with prospects and just give them confidence that now I’m not actually looking at the data. And this is my company, I don’t, I don’t care about the data from other contractors, and that that wouldn’t be appropriate. It was really hard. I mean, I was, I was selling deals early on, I was relying on my network quite heavily in the early days, when we hired our first two sales reps, I was really in a supportive role for those guys, like a sales engineer, I guess,
Alexander Ferguson 12:08
how many years in was that that you hire your first team?
John Jahnke 12:11
We built we actually, I mean, we started the company in mid 2014. But we didn’t start selling with reps until we built the product for a year and a half. So beginning of 2016, I would say, or there abouts. And so yeah, it was hard, because there’s a lot of, you know, language terminology that’s unique to the construction industry. So I played a really strong supporting role with the reps, I still do. They can’t keep me out of deal. So I like to be involved. I get I think I’m a sales guy somewhere deep down there. But it’s really tough. And then I think it does, just recognizing that it doesn’t end at the when you close when the deal, you’ve got to make sure that the customer is really happy, like the full think about the full journey or life cycle of the customer. If you can turn them into an advocate, if you can turn them into a case study someone that’s referenceable, that’s so much more powerful than, you know, me trying to tell you why you should buy software from me, like go hear from 10 of our customers. And I think we’ve done a pretty good job of, you know, creating, creating great customer stories, which in turn, turn into case studies.
Alexander Ferguson 13:21
As powerful both the understanding that it’s not just make the sale, but that whole journey that they’re on that they stick around with it and capturing those stories, and continue to share it going from just that few customers, then getting salespeople any taxes, you found work well as far as marketing and sales to to then scale and to really to to raise up a lot the quantity of your whole client base.
John Jahnke 13:43
Yeah, so I mean, you heard me say earlier that I wish we started the demand gen marketing earlier. If I could wind back the clock, that’s like one big thing I would do differently. Yeah, I think that’s worked really well produced content, you know, like, really not know who your customer is. In the early days, it’s really easy to sell outside of the profile, especially in a small market like Australia, you know, where you, you know, it’s a, you know, the US is like 15 times the size of Australia, just to give you some perspective. So it’s very tempting in a small market to sell to maybe not the right fit customer.
Alexander Ferguson 14:23
Your product doesn’t quite fit them, and then you’re tempted to change your product, and then it just gets diluted.
John Jahnke 14:27
roadmap gets dragged sideways, and yeah, it’s just I mean, we made all of those mistakes early on. That was That was painful. We’re very disciplined. I would say now, you know, we, we don’t sell anything other than what we have. We will share the roadmap. We’ll show them what the future looks like that we won’t promise them that it’s going to be there when we stand the system up for them. Yeah, but I think also, like, you know, how do you kind of create that demand or volume I think content for our customers is really powerful. They love not only hearing other customer stories, but give them some relevance, show them what other contractors are doing to solve, you know, problem point A, B, or C and create some content
Alexander Ferguson 15:12
around this content, like just blog content. Are you writing into the right? Videos? Or kind of all
John Jahnke 15:17
that? Oh, yeah, all of the above all of the above. And, you know, do webinars get customers to host I mean, literally, right now, as we’re recording this, we’ve got a customer advisory panel that’s happening, you know, on another zoom call somewhere. So, you know, like, get really active and engaged. Because if you have those champions, if you have customers, maybe even if they’re at risk, get them involved early, and show them that, you know, the way we build software is it’s not static, we’re not going to send you an update once every six months, or 12 months, we iterate fast, and you can help influence some of those decisions that we’re making, we want to learn from you. You know, you create content around that. And contractors, you know, in our space want to be heard, they want to understand that, you know, they don’t just have to buy a one size fits all type platform. And if it doesn’t fit, I’m not going to buy it. So that’s worked really well for us. We kind of followed the HubSpot demand gen sort of playbook that that worked really, really well and continues to work really well for us. So if you can sort of get the mix, right, you’ve got a few levers to pull to really sort of drive drive demand.
Alexander Ferguson 16:29
Do you see any of this shifting out with COVID? And the way your customers and the way they think and want to learn and reach out? How is that going to change going forward?
John Jahnke 16:38
Yeah, that’s a that’s a really, really great, that’s a very astute question, actually, for our profile, because pre COVID, our customers would want you to drive out to their office, buy him a cup of coffee, they want to stare at the whites of your eyes and shake your hand before they sign the contract. And then COVID happened. And now they live in a world where the kids are on Zoom for school, and they’re on Zoom and all of that. So remote demos, signing a contract over Zoom meeting for the first time over Zoom is the new normal for for construction, they’ve really they’ve really had to kind of fast forward into, you know, technology adoption, that’s been really great for us,
Alexander Ferguson 17:20
or straining period allows you to not maybe spend as much on travel costs. But that behavioural change for them.
John Jahnke 17:28
Yeah, yeah, I mean, travel trade shows were always a big a big thing, because that’s where they can go. I think one of the other things actually just on the on the growth story that we’re has worked really well for us is we worked really, we continue to work with a number of trade associations. And not just, you know, to try and, you know, create referrals that, you know, they get paid on and that type of thing, but try to like go and present at their user conferences, or their member conferences, and talk to them about like business problems, not the software, that salt helps solve that. So we’ll go and showcase, like, you know, this is a customer that experienced these problems. And, you know, they’ve now been able to solve them and has been some of the other byproducts of that sometimes we don’t even talk about the software and that naturally comes up at the in the q&a will how do you go and sell because for our profile of customer quite often they don’t have anywhere else to go for business advice other than their trade association. And maybe they’re like accounting, you know, finance type people that lodge their taxes and things like that. So that’s been a really good kind of growth channel for us is really like that grassroots trade association.
Alexander Ferguson 18:46
Interesting. And so and being just a resource that’s not just only what your software provides, but providing creating content that can help them and then like oh, yeah, you guys provide a platform to
John Jahnke 18:57
Yeah, I mean, like I sort of wind back the clock when I was a contract i i hated getting this sales pitches over and over and over again, just like show me the value like show me how it’s helped solve something for your other customer base and that’s how we go into a lot of the trade shows and the associations we actually will talk about the value that we the you know that we can help deliver with your for your company as opposed to you know, look at this shiny object and let’s take you on a click fest demo that just gets lost. And you know, if you can think if you can capture the value prop and share that with them in those forums. You Yeah, we get it we get a lot of engagement that way.
Alexander Ferguson 19:41
For you, how have you learned where have you gone to to get insight and thoughts, any books podcasts that you have really enjoyed him I’d recommend?
John Jahnke 19:51
Yeah, I’ve got a really great network of business associates, others that I’m in business with that have been great sounding boards and mentors for me over the year, I work really hard on trying to network and not just take, but really try to give back as well. I think that’s like really, really important. So I’m really fortunate in that respect. Books A god I, you know, there’s so many business books out there. I probably read like one or two a year. I mean, I read Bloomberg, I read the Wall Street Journal, I read the new business news all day, every day, because I think there’s a ton of learnings there when you hear about how companies are navigating through, you know, growth problems, or COVID, and things like that. That’s really a pet been a powerful resource for me. But the the only other book that I’ve read, right, you know, in the last 12 months, that comes to mind, I met a friend, a friend of a really good friend of a friend of mine in San Francisco, is a guy by the name of Matt missionary. And he wrote a book called The Great CEO within I think it was and it was, it was a, he spends a lot of time with really great CEOs in the Bay Area. coaching them, he does it for free, as well, which is really unique. I met him in person, I was really, really impressed with, you know, the time that we spent together. And so he released a book, I read his book, it’s a great read very tactical, on how to become a great CEO, how to become a great leader how to manage the problems and kind of as your company scales up. So yeah, that’s a great one and podcast. Last one, then I’ll shut up. I think this Week in Startups, I’m a technologist, I love Jason Calacanis. I just think he is. He’s got a great format. And he’s always on the frontier in terms of in terms of, you know, great companies that are being launched.
Alexander Ferguson 21:51
Last question I have for you, what kind of technology innovations do you predict we’ll see in the next year, near term next year, so and long term next five years?
John Jahnke 22:01
This, I mean, there’s amazing tech, you know, it’s sort of it’s, it’s changing by the day by the hour. For me, I think. A lot of the low code, no code platforms that are out there. Now, I think that’s really interesting. For me, personally, there’s a ton of really great products in market right now. And so you can become much more efficient as a leader as a manager, you know, someone running a company with, you know, the tools like air table and Zapier and things like that. I know, it’s kind of not, you know, the sexy, you know, autonomous vehicles and that sort of space. But for me, I just think that’s actually going to move the needle for the way companies and people operate in business. And that’s really actually really exciting for me.
Alexander Ferguson 22:47
That concludes the audio version of this episode. To see the original and more visit our UpTech Report YouTube channel. If you know a tech company, we should interview, you can nominate them at UpTechreport.com. Or if you just prefer to listen, make sure you’re subscribed to this series on Apple podcasts, Spotify or your favorite podcasting app.