ToolBelt raises $2.5M for hooking up builders
Joshua Engelbrecht came out of the homebuilding industry, so unlike many mobile app entrepreneurs, he wasn't trying to make the next Uber for X, or Tinder for Y, without knowing his audience.
ToolBelt, which launched in 2019, is a two-sided marketplace. It's designed for contractors to find tradespeople for upcoming projects. It works in reverse for tradespeople to find work. In May 2021, it raised $2.5 million in a Series Seed 2 round, led by HR Tech Investments, a subsidiary of Recruit Holdings Co. Ltd., and an affiliate of the job board Indeed.
Engelbrecht was a general contractor in his family's residential construction company after getting his business degree. ToolBelt's market segment is residential construction, including remodeling and renovations.
Engelbrecht doesn't believe there is a traditional labor shortage. Instead, there's an inefficiency in the market: Workers and projects can't find people instantly, the way other markets work.
"If you go inside any lumber store or paint store you'll see a bulletin board with signs like 'Now hiring painters …' There's a Parr Lumber not too far from here where you can see it," he said.
That's the kind of slow-moving marketing that doesn't compete well in a world of just-in-time deliveries and speeded-up schedules.
Engelbrecht's co-founder, Ross Barbieri, is the chief technology officer and is on his third staffing startup after founding Staffing Robot and being CTO at Hively. According to Engelbrecht, Barbieri is doing it for the challenge because he loves to solve the puzzle of different labor markets online.
Strip mall office
ToolBelt has 10 to 12 employees spread between Seattle and Los Angeles. However, the physical headquarters is in an unassuming retail cluster in Vancouver, Washginton, at Covington Road and Northeast Fourth Plain Boulevard.
"I kind of lose track. We do a lot of remote now. We kept this space during COVID because, honestly, it's more of a headache for a business if you don't have an address, Engelbrecht said. "Like, am I going to have a P.O. box on my Security and Exchange Commission filings? And, actually, our landlord was super cool."
ToolBelt went remote last April when they were in the middle of a funding round. They were about to expand into southern California, but some investors pulled out, and ToolBelt had to aim lower and make do. They got a Paycheck Protection Program loan/grant from the government to keep staff on during COVID.
"It really kind of taught us we had to go to markets and be more scalable, for less," Engelbrecht said.
While half of his job has been searching for investors, the core mission of creating an app for job searchers and employers wasn't dinged by the COVID recession. Construction remained stable compared to sectors such as hospitality, travel and health care. But Engelbrecht is convinced there's no great construction worker shortage.
"You can go to any builder, or any GC (general contractor) and they're going to say, 'I can't find guys.' Being in that position, I have thought, well, how am I currently finding people? It's done through job boards, Craigslist, or (word of mouth). Imagine if Starbucks staffed that way for baristas? How scalable would they be? Walmart? No business procures labor that way," Engelbrecht said.
He's optimistic about the labor force, even as baby boomers retire. "We have our next 10 markets already laid out. But I think it's safe to say that if you throw a dart at the United States, and wherever it lands, someone needs labor."
The competition is TradeHounds and Core. "They have some talented leadership teams. But we're an app that's rooted in our customer base. And being disciplined on that has allowed us to be successful. Our competition is word of mouth."
Unions don't get too involved in small projects such as are found in residential.
"I think union halls have value because, what is a union hall? It's an aggregate place of labor. We don't charge some crazy fee and gouge people's wages like the unions do," Engelbrecht said.
Looking back over three decades in tech, efficiency caused the rise of massive job search sites such as Indeed and Monster.
Construction workers don't check newspaper classifieds for jobs anymore, but nor do they have a dedicated digital solution.
"Construction doesn't operate that way. We didn't have a digital solution to connect GCs and builders to skilled labor — whether it was subcontractors, in-house crews or skilled tradespeople. If you're a skilled tradesperson moving up from Scottsdale, Arizona, to Seattle, how are you going to be found? How do you get tapped into this network? Are you just going to start calling, 'Hey, are you hiring?' So the system is broken. I always felt that the labor shortage is more magnified by the way people procure labor."
Click here for work
Toolbelt has helped procure labor for more than $100 million worth of projects over the past year and a half. Engelbrecht claims some general contractors have boosted their productivity by 20%. The revenue model is to charge customers a monthly or annual subscription based on their needs, and it's free for the applicants. He won't reveal the price but says it varies by how many cities the contractor is in, how many crews they need, etc.
He and Barbieri set out to build a simple app. "It's simple and easy to use. If someone needs work, they can click this every morning and try to find new work opportunities."
Most of the postings are of projects rather than positions or full-time, in-house jobs. "Because that's the fiber that connects our industry, right? You're looking for a framer that's going to frame that wall, right?
"We have thousands of contractors across Washington and Oregon. There's this old stereotype that contractors don't use technology. So I say, 'What, do we still build homes the same as we did in 1920?' I just don't think anyone has ever built technology that's for the construction space."
Where: 10818 N.E. Coxley Dr., Ste C, Vancouver, Washington
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