This blog post is republished from an article about Unearth featured in the Jan/Feb edition of Wire Rope Exchange.
Seattle-based Unearth is a company focused on revolutionizing the construction industry using drones, remote sensing, IoT (Internet of Things), and computer vision.
What does that mean? Well, Unearth represents a new generation of construction software that rethinks how projects are organized. They feel that construction suffers from declining productivity, cost overruns, delays, and narrow profit margins. Yet, software companies haven’t used their platforms to improve on construction workflows.
Unearth wants to change the status quo. Instead of basing their platform on outdated paper processes, they seek to fundamentally change the way teams manage their projects by making the entire jobsite digital.
The company’s CYA (cover your assets) toolbox allows customers to stitch multi-page PDFs into a single, geo-referenced map layer. This builds evidence—aka, geo-located proof of issues, progress, and work completed, while simultaneously serving as automatic storage and organization of all site activity.
Unearth’s software also allows its user to instantly access high-definition site maps from aerial imaging and export work to the file format used most. Adding to the fun, users can also superimpose blueprints, maps, and annotations, while accurately measuring distance, area, and volume from anywhere. It’s real-time communication for both office and field, and Unearth sees its product becoming the standard of communication on construction sites around the world.
With 20 years of leadership expertise ranging from startups to public company acquisitions, Unearth CEO Brian Saab lands comfortably within the serial entrepreneur and product strategist space. Indeed, he knows quite a bit about tech disruption, but that’s not to say he’s unfamiliar with construction. In fact, after leaving Texas for Seattle over a decade ago for a gig with Microsoft, he eventually moved on and started (and sold) a series of companies—and by late 2015, found himself examining the roles of drones, IoT, and the possibility that data could revolutionize the real estate and construction industries.
“I took a serious look at drones; there was a lot of investment, but no one had really come up with a great answer as to how to use the data,” Saab explained. “I was in a unique position in that my family runs a multi-generational construction company out of west Texas—so I had the chance to take some of the technology, including smart phones and drones, and put them on the jobsites and see if something interesting was going on.”
Within a few weeks, Saab and his colleagues had stumbled upon a dispute between a landowner and a general contractor around how much earth needed to be moved from an excavation—the difference represented $250,000, and was evolving.
“By sheer luck, because we’d been around, we had a good bit of data concerning this particular project, and we were able to use it to bring all of the stakeholders into alignment, which brought a resolution to the dispute,” he remembered.
The resolution represented an “Ah-ha” moment for Saab and his co-founders around the reality that data can be instrumental in driving not only productivity but actual alignment within the industry.
“But there’s no one piece of data that’s perfect for every stakeholder,” he assured, “and every stakeholder has their own unique point of view. So it takes a mixture of information to really bring the whole crew into alignment. That was sort of the core place where we started Unearth—how do we build a repository that mixes all this current information, and particularly, how do we mix information that comes from new methodologies.”
Bringing Industry Forward
Saab and his early Unearth team recognized that all of this new data/information could be focused on not just aspirational plans for builders, but used as a new way to capture progress. “Like with a 360-camera or a drone,” he said, “where a lot of the existing systems just aren’t geared towards capturing that type of data. We sort of set out to future-proof the industry as these new technologies arise, by providing platforms that will drive better decisions and simpler communication—pushing the limits of what’s possible in construction.”
The goal at Unearth is to give construction teams both breadth and depth insights— allowing drones, and the data they collect, to become the incredible tools they were promised to become. Married with Unearth’s software, the result(s) promise to revolutionize construction: by collecting detailed information and hosting the analytics/collaboration needed to make use of it.
Unearth is essentially comprised of many of the talented people Saab had put together for previous projects. “The simple answer is, I put the band back together,” he laughed. “I went and grabbed my best people from my prior startup. They’ve been instrumental in helping us build a product that, quite frankly, anyone can use. We realized that if you’re going to have lots of different people interacting with the system, then it’s got to be dead simple—to a foreman in the field as well as a landowner in an office somewhere. We had to build a user interface that was simple and approachable.”
With the team in place, Saab and Unearth also established a set of six core principles to put at the center of all their decisions: Collaboration, Focus, Integrity, Diversity, Honesty, and Passion.
“I think it’s easy to put some words on a website, but through prior experiences, we’ve realized that those core values help us to stay honest,” he affirmed. “With ourselves, with our team, and with our customers, we really sought to understand early on who we wanted to be, and I think moving into the real estate, the construction industries, we wanted to be respectful of the types of organizations we’d be dealing with.
“We have a huge amount of respect for any company that builds—so we want to be respectful of what people do while also recognizing our own strengths, which is technology. The values are our way of trying to marry those two dynamics: that we know technology, and our audience, our customers, know how to build the world we live in. Through our principles, we feel like we can deliver great value and help bring our customers forward in an industry that’s rapidly changing.”
With its values in place, Unearth is leveraging technology as a way to evolve the industry in real-time. “Construction is going from a place of sort of tried-and-true practices to embracing new technology, and I think you have to find partnership in that,” said Saab. “You have to find partners like Unearth that can help you navigate those new waters. You could get left behind, and lose credibility. Or you might get sideswiped by a dispute because you didn’t have the right documentation or progress management in place. There are lots of risks as new technology emerges, but also lots of opportunity.”
How does Unearth help the industry navigate those new waters without scaring away potential customers with all this fancy disruption talk? “It’s a balance,” Saab emphasized. “We’ve been surprised that most of the people we meet in this industry are incredibly earnest. They know they’re really good at what they do; they also know that they need help in certain areas. And no one shies away from those types of conversations so far. More than anything, it’s just about being earnest in return— explaining to folks that this is just the reality of some of the things technology can help you with.”
Whether it be breadth project documentation of a jobsite, or other technology like 360-degree photos—for capturing interior spaces and showing progress as spaces get built out—Unearth’s products and services allow customers an unmatched avenue into making productive decisions about how they might need to adjust schedules, inform landowners of site conditions, change orders, process schedules completed for invoicing, and much more.
“A great way to think about Unearth is, whether it’s a drone survey or a blueprint that’s been geo-referenced, it really just gives you a contextual view of the jobsite, a breadth view,” said Saab. “And then from there, we allow you to capture more precision-based information against that breadth view—so you can drill down to a very specific area of the jobsite: whether that’s an HVAC duct or a utility closet or a culvert on a drainage for a horizontal project. It’s taking that breadth view and attaching precision-based observations and measures and conversations against it.”
Saab does feel like Unearth is solving a real problem by bringing a wealth of mixed information together into a single place. “There’s so much information fragmentation in this industry—sitting in someone’s laptop, not accessible to other members of the team. So, by finding a way to bring it all into one system, and then liberating it so that everyone can see it—that alone brings everyone into alignment.
“Ultimately, our goal is to be almost a Google Drive for construction—a collaborative repository—one place where all of this information lives, and then gets liberated among all the stakeholders that are involved in a project. We bring all the people who are working on a jobsite together—in terms of collaboration, information sharing, agreement on project scheduling and budget, and more.”
As far as what the future holds for Unearth? “Well, I’m always excited about new technologies and how we can utilize them to enhance the industry—and our digital blueprints are really exciting for me at the moment,” Saab added. “But I think the thing that’s most exciting, quite frankly, is just hearing—when someone sees Unearth and gets it and goes, wow, this really is the one place where I can put everything I need and share it with all my people. As an entrepreneur, I love hearing that, because it means we’re on the right track.”