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Building contractor transparency comes with BuildZoom

BuildZoom wants to create better consumer experience; information now reaches Beaverton

SUBMITTED PHOTO - This BuildZoom map shows the location of all the permitted construction and home remodeling projects in Beaverton since the beginning of 2014.A few years ago, Jiyan Wei purchased a house. It needed a lot of work — work that Wei was happy to hire contractors to complete. But he had a hard time finding contractors, let alone good ones, and he had no way of knowing if the estimates they gave him were reasonable.

Then living in the Washington, D.C., area, Wei started gathering information and organizing it into a workflow as a way to keep track of what he learned.

Meanwhile, his childhood friend Dave Petersen was running a company through which he’d become familiar with various types of public information data. The two ultimately combined forces — using Wei’s contracting world struggles and Petersen’s public information knowledge — to create BuildZoom, a firm that analyzes trends in the construction industry.

“We found that we could create a marketplace on top of the workflow application that contained information on every licensed contractor in the U.S.,” Wei said. “Then, we married these two approaches together.”

Officially founded in 2013, BuildZoom is based out of San Francisco, and collects data on many areas across the country. This summer, BuildZoom released data on Beaverton that maps every remodeling project in the city, data that is free for consumers to access and use. Data on Tigard, Sherwood and Tualatin are also available.

When you visit BuildZoom’s website, the first prompt is to enter your location. After doing that, the site generates all the data it has on the area, ranking it from best to worst. In Beaverton’s case, the highest ranking company is Soleil General Contracting Inc. — it received a BuildZoom score of 118, placing it near the very top of the more than 62,000 contractors in the state. The site goes on to list the number of projects the company has worked on and when, where those projects were and what they cost. This is the case for every single contractor within Beaverton, and within every city that BuildZoom has collected data.

“We wanted to create transparency in the marketplace,” said Wei. “We wanted to create a paper trail so that people remodeling (homes and businesses) could have access to information they could trust.”

The rest of Beaverton’s top six include: Al Stone Remodeling & Design (a BuildZoom score of 117 with 29 verified projects); Oglesby Construction Company (a BuildZoom score of 115 with two verified projects averaging $80,000 each); Bruton Comfort Control (a BuildZoom score of 112 with 100 verified projects averaging $7,500 each); Alliant Systems LLC (a BuildZoom score of 112 with 365 verified projects averaging $80,700 each); and Kennedy Plumbing Inc. (a BuildZoom score of 112 with 107 verified projects).

So for six months, Petersen and Wei worked on nights and weekends to gather the data they needed before BuildZoom could officially launch. Both were on the East Coast and working other jobs, but they believed in the concept enough to make it happen.

They gained traction quickly, said Wei, and moved to Los Angeles where they began building the company’s platform. From there, they received seed funding through incubator Y Combinator (an organization that’s also provided seed funding for Airbnb and Dropbox), moved to Silicon Valley, received primary investment money from venture capitalist Joe Lonsdale, and have been working toward marketplace transparency ever since.

“We both felt that the classic directory model didn’t have the most reliable information. A lot of businesses are at odds with the consumer experience,” Wei said. “That’s a really difficult challenge to overcome if you don’t have all information needed to be selective about which contractors you’re going to engage with.”

BuildZoom, Wei said, is driven by calculations, not opinion. Whereas most public resources rely on consumer feedback (“I hate this contractor because...” or “I love this contractor because...”), BuildZoom uses a formula that accounts for 20 variables, including: license information, building permits, types of properties they’ve worked on, and whether or not they’re consistently working. Additionally, the company has a data-sharing partnership with the Better Business Bureau.

“It’s a formula for determining whether you could trust contractor or not,” Wei said, noting that as BuildZoom expands, its information becomes increasingly accurate and reliable. “Our main goal is to create the best consumer experience we can, so most of our efforts go in that direction.”

Bettering the consumer experience means docking points from contractors for things such as showing up late or missing appointments — the software has a low tolerance for things like that, said Wei. Likewise, contractors score better for doing what they say they will.

And on top of compiling all this information, BuildZoom also works to collect building permit data from counties and cities. Some places are more forthcoming with information, Wei said, while others hold back, which has proved challenging as they attempt to gather data from regions across the whole country. Yet, it was this very item that allowed them to gather and release Beaverton’s data.

“Washington County happens to be very forthcoming with data and transparency, even though it’s not the biggest jurisdiction,” he said. “We are a little opportunistic in that we look for departments who are more willing to provide the information and make it easier for us to access.”

When founders Wei and Petersen began collecting this data years ago, they weren’t sure where it would lead. However, the market spoke, and with BuildZoom, they’re working to fill a hole and to change the consumer experience in an industry that consistently receives low marks.

“By collecting all info we can and coming from regulatory sources, the quality of our data is one big step forward for us. Not only collecting data, but using it in a meaningful way by scoring the contractors,” said Wei. “I think the biggest problem in this market is a lack of accessed information; I think the solution needs to be one that’s data driven and objective.”