Testing a Tech MVP: A Home Renovation Contractor Booking Platform

Brickplank: A product development project 

  • TL:DR
    • I did a side project on an area I am familiar with: connecting homeowner and contractor
    • Market Opportunity: Right now it’s huge $100B market, but a fragmented (leader has only ~5% share), with confusing process to find a good contractor and untapped potential
    • What did I do: I wanted to think about the market, design a product strategy, and push a MVP in a scalable content aggregator, using a Python crawler, NLP, and a basic website 
    • RETRO: MVP failed to pick up traffic due to unrefined content from my automated process. Still see huge market opportunity in lead generation business.

Intro

I’ve been working around home renovations for a while, and I’m very familiar that designs are unlimited, costs are high, and sourcing trusted contractors is a nightmare.  While everybody has an idea of what their dream home is, few have successfully gone through the complicated process to build their dream house. I wanted to do a project to help make the process of home improvement a bit easier, specifically around education and matching homeowners with contractors.  I created a project called BrickPlank, to explore the market, develop a product strategy, and produce a MVP. While I would have loved for this to pick-up as a successful company, my primary goal was to exercise my product thinking, build a fast prototype, and practice some technical skills. 

A $97B Home Improvement Market 

  • Huge $100B market with no dominant players in networking contractors
  • Home renovations are increasing, I expect long term growth with COVID impacts
  • Exciting market in matchmaking contractor to customer

Home ownership has increased during the pandemic as people have left cities for suburbs. People are buying homes, and spending money to improve them. The housing market is strong; median home prices in August 2020 were well above pre pandemic levels. Home Depot’s market cap has increased 13%, and Lowes 40%, from pre pandemic highs to February 2021. 
As house renovations increase, a growing pain proliferates in connecting homeowners to contractors. The home-owner owns the burden of picking contractors from hundreds of options, often with no info besides a referral. The contractor space consists of no large players. The largest contractor controls less than 2% market share (Belfor Holdings). The space is highly competitive, composed of small companies in local markets.

I predict the increase in home ownership will result in long term growth in the home renovation market. Lead generation and matching in this market  is an extremely valuable position.

Online contractor marketplaces exist, but there is room for improvement and considerable business opportunity. Other marketplaces capture a small portion of an estimated $97B remodeling market; Homeadvisor  ($650M revenue, ~$6B+ market capitalization), Thumb Tack ($100M revenue $1.3B+ valuation), and Houzz ($500M revenue, $4B valuation). Research indicates Home Advisor’s ~200K service provider offering is less than ½ of the total ~415K home service companies in the US. There is still ample room to improve the network of customers and service providers in the remodeling market.

BrickPlank: An empowering network for homeowners and contractors

The next couple of sections explains a product that I believe could competitively enter this space. I call it “BrickPlank”. 

BrickPlank: An empowering network for homeowners and contractors

  • Brickplank offers content to educate homeowners for renovation projects
  • Contractors provide content and market themselves
  • Platform makes connecting contractors and homeowners easy 
  • Project management tools let contractors manage projects efficiently

My solution is to create a platform that educates homeowners about the remodeling process through content provided by contractors, creating a strong lead generation network for customers and contractors, enabling customers to confidently choose contractors and execute projects. 

Our core values comprise of three parts:

  1. Expose expert service providers to customers thru content
  2. Build trust and empower customers to chose service providers faster
  3. Create a strong network for the highly fragment service provider and customer market

Our market focus for Brickplank is: 

  1. Customers with small to medium house projects and likewise, small to medium service providers. A large portion of projects fall in this space.
  2. Customers with limited knowledge on the construction process
  3. Small to medium size contractors

Differentiation from other solutions

  • Brickplank will focus on low to mid market projects, as opposed to Houzz, whom I observe to focus on high-end, luxury remodels 
  • Brickplank will make onboarding both customers and contractors easier than Homeadvisor, which I observe to be very focused on a lot of time-intensive validation 

HomeAdvisor and Houzz are two current networking platforms. I’m ignoring Thumbtack and Yelp as they are not focused on the home renovation market. 

Houzz tends to cater to the high end luxury market. Much of the content is focused on large costly projects. The smaller, mid range projects are a huge untapped market. I believe Brickplank could capture this by creating content and providing a platform for low to midrange home projects. 

HomeAdvisor is primarily a directory. Customers have to understand their project before using Homeadvisor. Lack of content also does not attract as many customer eyeballs. Service providers need to be vetted by HomeAdvisor before a connection is made, losing many competent providers. Brickplank would differentiate itself in two aspects: content, and ease of onboarding.

The Brickplank Experience

I would imagine user journeys as described below: 

Homeowner user journey path:

  1. Homeowners go to Brickplank for guidance, clarification, and education. There is a large library of photos, past projects, and design ideas.
  2. Homeowners get advice from expert contractors. Homeowners gain knowledge and confidence on their project
  3. Content remains on Brickplank, for future homeowners to learn from
  4. Homeowners, then use the brickplank directory to find local contractors for their project. Each contractor has photos, reviews, price ranges, and contractor authored content references. 
  5. Homeowners use the Brickplank scheduling, quoting, messaging, accountability, and billing tools to connect and successfully execute a project.
  6. Homeowners successfully finish the project and leave a positive review for the contractor

Contractor use path: 

  1. Contractors easily set up a provider account on Brickplank to market themselves. 
  2. Contractors provide content for potential customers by posting articles and answering questions. Contractors are rewarded for content by a boost in directory rankings. 
  3. Contractors receive lead from the brickplank directory. 
  4. Contractors manage their many clients and projects with tools on Brickplank. Scheduling, messages, accountability is all in one place and easy to manage. 
  5. Contractors finish projects, get good reviews, and grow their business. 

Brickplank: Strategy and MVP

  • Strategy relies on positive feedback loop between contractor created content and customer leads
  • First MVP involves creating inoculation content to attract users
  • Automated generation of articles 

Our long term strategy had three main parts: 

  1. Generate Content to encourage homeowners with renovation projects to visit Brickplank. Customer traffic will subsequently attract providers to Brickplank 
  2. Encourage providers to generate content. Ideally content creation results in quality business leads, promoting more customer views and content creation. 
  3. Create a system to connect customers with service providers. This network should reward providers who generate content. 

The cycle should create a positive feedback loop between more customers, content, and service providers. To jump start this process, we needed to generate the first batch content (highlighted in Blue as “Part A”). 

My goal was to validate this as fast as possible, with as little cost and investment. I wanted to reach MVP and test PMF.   I decided to take an automated approach to generating content for speed and cost. Many great content for general home improvement exist, such as HomeDepot, ThisOldHouse, and Spruce. I wanted to use pre existing content and an automated approach to quickly generate thousands of short, informative articles. 

Our content process was broken down into three parts: 

  1. Crawling sites for to produce 1000’s of pieces of content
  2. NLP to condense articles to useful quick guides
  3. Grouping articles based on renovation category for an organized brickplank (Kitchen/Bath/Landscaping) 

Using this approach, Brickplank published 1000 content pieces, grouped in relevant home renovation categories, sourced from other websites. Resulting content quality was varied.

A decent article: 

a bad article:

Retrospective:

What happened? We launched several thousand pages of content, with many pages that were good directories of other resources! As someone exploring the contracting space, I could see some articles as a very helpful starting source. Unfortunately, this content didn’t get traffic. I think the lack of traffic is largely because the content and organization created was not of quality.

Content generation was successful for the following:

  1. thousands of articles were crawled, allowing very quick content at little cost
  2. Grouping of content into subcategories was largely successful (bathrooms, garden…)
  3. Many articles provide a good starting point for homeowners

However, Content failed for three reasons:

  1. The NLP did not produce consistent quality articles. They were frequently incomprehensible. 
  2. Useless articles were often summarized (privacy notices, return policies)
  3. The website layout and directory lacked organization
  4. SEO not great. Google did not like our automated articles. 

Improvements I would do next time

  1. Improving the content quality
  2. Improve website directory and navigation
  3. Reevaluate contractors as a source of content

I believe that good quality content is the major driving factor for initial viewership. My automated content was very quick and cheap, but did not satisfy minimum customer needs. At a cost, I believe partnering with existing content, like ThisOldHouse or HomeDepot, may be worth it to jumpstart the quality content creation. Obviously, more time and money would need to spent whatever method of content creation is chosen. I would also study how Houzz initially attracted attention and usership, and modify it for everyday contractors. 

I would also reevaluate our strategy as contractors as a source of content. Contractor generated content is critical in our strategy. I think content creation by contractors is a major risk factor. Our desired market is small to medium house projects, which are often contracted to small contractors. I see the risk that small contractors will not have the resources or tech savviness to create content. Houzz is successful at contractor generated content, but the content is largely from the luxury end market with lots of production value. Many content creators are large firms, with projects costs above $200K. BrickPlank’s vision is to create a platform for small and middle end projects. I think low friction content creation features will be vital to the long growth of contractor supplied content. Furthermore, incentives or features on top of potential lead generation will be valuable to attract and hold contractors, such as tools scheduling clients, a messaging platform, or legal guidance. 

A Lucrative market still exists

While the BrickPlank project did not successfully take off, I still strongly believe there is great market opportunity in the strategy. The house renovation market is huge, and with covid pressures, I expect it to grow as people move to the suburbs and home ownership increases. Many home renovations projects are medium and small, which are not captured at the moment by Houzz and HomeAdvisor. There is a huge market opportunity for a platform that connects medium sized contractors to homeowners. I think it’s a very exciting space and I’m super curious to see how it will continue to develop.