CloudAdvisors Interview Series: In this new series from CloudAdvisors, we explore culture and strategy from the point of view of small business leaders in Canada. You can watch the entire series here.
Today we sat down with Syed Ahmed, the CEO and Co-Founder of OnTraccr Technologies, a platform that enables construction and field service companies to manage their field teams in real time. Their mission is to make advanced technology easily accessible for everyone in construction. You can learn more about OnTraccr Technologies at their website here.
Listen to Syed Ahmed speak to the importance of technology in business practices, remote collaboration, how COVID-19 has accelerated the need for changes in technology, and more.
Could you give us a brief synopsis of what your company does and where the idea for OnTraccr technologies came from?
At OnTraccr, we are on a mission to modernize the construction industry. We want to do that by making cloud-based technology easily accessible for everyone in the industry, regardless of the size of the business. The way we do that is by offering a software platform that allows construction managers to have real-time visibility of what’s happening with their field workers at the job site. They receive instant updates as the work happens, not after, but as it is happening and to also start to introduce them to this whole other world of data analytics and the power behind it. We want to be able to build this data set for them that can help them predict and forecast how their projects are doing. This is so they can address risks proactively and so that they can make better decisions to improve their outcomes. That’s essentially what we do in a nutshell.
As for where the idea came from, I myself didn’t work in construction but I’m actually an electrical engineer. I’ve always been extremely passionate about building technology that can really help people. More specifically, not really the flashy tech such as blockchain, AI, VR, AR even though all that’s great. But for every huge advancement and leap forward in technology, there’s always a large group of people who aren’t quite there yet and they need some more help. I think that extends beyond more than just people, it extends into different industries like agriculture, healthcare, and construction.
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All of my start-up experiences have been around that. I've worked with an agriculture-technology startup called Semios - they're doing great stuff, scaling like crazy nowadays and it's awesome to see that. The last startup I've helped built was called Blue Willow Systems, we built an IOT analytics platform for the senior living segment within healthcare. These were both laggard industries, huge, but historically slow at adopting technologies. So that's where I'm passionate, that's where I love to jump in and help out.
Throughout my career, I've known a lot of friends and other contacts that work in construction and I've always been curious to know how it's going for them. Five years ago, I'd ask a lot of friends "What tech are you using in construction?". Their answers were always "Nothing, we don't really use an app". So five years ago, I thought maybe the industries are still trying to get there. When I asked the same question in 2020 and was getting the same answers, I thought to myself "There's something going on, why is technology not growing in this space?".
I got together with one of my close friends from school; he was an engineer and spent his whole career in construction, worked at companies of all shapes and sizes. To his surprise as well, even though he transitioned from larger and larger companies, the methods of working were still the same. It doesn't change even though you go upstream, which was a huge shocker. We got together and researched the market a little bit more, interviewed a lot of companies and heard the same thing from all of them, that the existing solutions have been tailored towards the big companies, national and multi-national companies. That means that these solutions are expensive, not easy to deploy, and require a lot of overhead to support them. They're really only suitable for these big companies and all these issues are for small business, who don't have the resources or the time. That segment of the market of the smaller-mid sized companies have been grossly underserved in terms of accessible software that can help them.
If you look at the makeup of the market, the large companies only represent 5% of the entire construction market. The other 95% of companies in the construction space were all small to mid sized businesses and it's no wonder that the industry has been slow to improve its productivity growth rate, because the solutions hasn't done them any favours. They're either too expensive, too complex, or the affordable ones don't do enough. These small-mid sized companies are still stuck using the outdated methods like paper and spreadsheets because the software that they do start to use don't cover everything they need. Once we discovered that, we decided to pay more attention. Luckily now, there is a way for technology that's starting to hit the construction industry and it's so great to see that, but there's still a long way to go and we want to play a big part in that.
Rahul: I saw a lot of parallels in how you are democratizing access to an underserved industry and how we got started in insurance was a very similar conversation with my co-founder Matt Lister who is our CEO. He was an insurance insider and I was curious about what tech they were using so to hear about how those questions led to similar parallels, similar discoveries, and a similar need to serve, I think that's an amazing strategy. I love the idea that you're modernizing the industry and democratizing access for really 95% of the market who has been ignored because maybe the money wasn't there, maybe the scale wasn't there, but really the innovation wasn't there. That's where you guys come in and make a tremendous impact.
Why is it important to update business practices as technology improves?
It’s critical and I think to really try to frame that for any business leader, you can relate it to your own personal life. For example, can you imagine going into a house that was still using a dial-up modem, fax machine, land line, tube TV or a tower PC with a tube monitor? It’s ridiculous. Technology evolves and it changes our lives. It would be equally as ridiculous if not more if that was still happening in the context of business.
If you expect technology to change your life in your personal life, why aren’t you expecting it to change your business? You can’t be stuck using the same technology. Technology is constantly evolving and it is a great enabler and a tool, that’s its purpose. It can change the way you operate your business at every level, how you interact with your value chain, your partners, your customers, even how you acquire and retain talent or improve collaboration from within. Every single detail of your business can leverage technology to just improve and get better and better over time.
With our team, we are constantly evaluating tools. We are never quite satisfied and we know that there is always more and more solutions that are coming in to the market. Each one has their own unique value proposition that can help you in other ways that you haven’t thought of yet. It is important for every business leader to remain open-minded about technology, constantly be on the lookout, and evaluate the tools that your business is using. If you’re not doing that, you’re at risk of being left behind.
Rahul: I couldn’t agree more. You have to stay curious about those changes and shifts in the technological landscape and think about what your competitors are doing. You had an interesting comment there about hiring talent and acquiring people in these businesses in that scenario of technological shift. Out of curiosity, how are you acquiring talent and finding people to work within your organization today?
In a COVID world, everything is online. To start with, acquiring talent means you have to articulate the vision behind exactly what it is you’re doing. That’s at a baseline level, but going more in depth, how do you facilitate them to do their jobs and how do you expect them to work together? What tools are you cool with them using or which tools do you encourage them to use? How do you keep people motivated, engaged, and excited?
Especially nowadays, when everybody’s isolated and at home. Guess what? It comes down to technology and you have to connect with each other using technology. There’s a lot of cool apps coming out that encourage remote collaboration and improve it and replace those ad-hoc brainstorm sessions by the whiteboard, because you miss out on that. I think it’s always important to have [new hires] resonate with the vision, but also set the expectations around the role and to give them flexibility to be creative. If you prohibit that in any way, you might be able to attract them but it’s going to be hard to hang on to them.
Rahul: I love that answer actually. I love starting with the vision and starting with your why because that is what you’re doing when you’re building a team. You’re hopefully finding people who can help you accomplish these ambitious goals and help you with your mission.
How has COVID-19 accelerated the adoption of new technologies and what impact do you see this having in the long term on the need for businesses to be readily adaptable?
It’s something that has been discussed pretty extensively nowadays but I think for the most part, COVID has been a huge wakeup call for all of this. Not just for our personal and social lives, but for the way we work, the way we collaborate, and share ideas. It’s forced us to re-evaluate how we do those things and what tools we use to do those things. I don’t think that this is a single point in time event. I think now with the rise of deforestation, the risk of transmission of these deadly viruses keeps going up. So, this could very well happen again. It’s been a huge eye opener in terms of challenging companies to stay on their toes.
You always have to stay on your toes, you have to be ready to adapt whenever these world changing events happen because if you’re not flexible or adaptable, it will be hard to survive. With COVID-19 now, we are coming on two years very soon and the next time this happens it could be longer or shorter, we don’t know how that will look like. It’s changed the way we work forever now; we’re seeing offices shrinking and companies are looking for smaller offices because of remote work. I think that trend will continue and the expectations around your job when you come in to the job will change and both employee and employer expectations will change. It’s important to stay on your toes as much as possible.
Rahul: That makes a lot of sense and you’re 100% right. It has been talked about in different senses from a number of business but it has been a real wake up call. I think we’ve seen throughout human history that a lot of the greatest technological innovations have come in our greatest times of crises. I think we’re going to see some huge shifts in how workforces operate. For us, we’re a cloud-based company, I mean cloud is in our name. It’s different for us versus manufacturers, people who have on-premise activities or construction who has a very physical on-premise role. But I see the use of technology and particularly, technologies like yours, being critical to the long term success.
You hit on that one perfectly. Construction is a great example. You take an industry who has been averse in these remote monitoring technologies in the past and they are one of the industries that need it the most. If you’re working remotely and if you have to implement protocols at your job site to limit the amount of people that are there, what time they are there, or screening them to make sure they are protected – how do you do that if you don’t have a way to monitor it? You can’t just rely on phone calls or texts, you need to adopt a solution that can give you that visibility to adapt.
Where is the biggest opportunity to improve use of data and analytics in the construction industry?
That’s a great question, I’m just going to rephrase that a little bit. As I alluded to earlier, aside from that 5%, those large companies who do invest in BI platforms and analytics platforms, the other 95% of the market is still learning about data analytics. They don’t quite know what it is and how it can help their business. A lot of them operate on such tight margins and cash flow that they don’t even have the time.
The way I would reframe that is to say, how can analytics be introduced to that segment of the market? Not really about improving the use of it, but how can we introduce them to analytics, start educating them around the benefits that you can derive, and how it can directly change the way you do business. The first step to do that is not to go to the 95% and say “Here’s this analytics thing, let me pull all this data from the spreadsheets and pump it into the analytics platform.” There, you’ve lost them a little bit. The way to introduce it is to embed that directly into their existing workflows.
It’s to create something that gets as close to the way they currently work and that also starts to produce the data set that can take us there when they can come back and say “this tool that you’re using for your day-to-day of managing your job site operations is also starting to show you insights based on what it’s observing that is happening at the job site. We can make predictions about how your project is forecasting and you can choose to listen to that or not as you have the experience, but us as a technology solution provider, is going to do our part to try to help you see things that you can’t necessarily see without our data that we’re producing.” I think that’s the key to really start to introduce it, especially in an industry such as construction.
What are the biggest challenges you've faced in the past year as a small business owner in Canada?
You face challenges everywhere to be honest with you. From how we work together, the first step was how do we change our way of working? We’re used to meeting at the whiteboard to brainstorm and do this quick on-the-fly brainstorm sessions – how do we now do that a little more deliberately? Unfortunately it has to be a bit more deliberate, you do have to set aside time to encourage creativity and mold that. You have to encourage the brainstorming to happen, which does mean that people have to step out of their normal roles, which is something you have to accept in this day and age.
You have to find ways to promote collaboration that you didn’t really have to think about before. I think going back to how people work, it’s different when you’re working from home all day every day because the lines are completely blurred between your personal life and work. In an office setting in a in-person environment, a 9 – 5 is more acceptable, even though I have issues with that model. I don’t think that works well when everyone is working from home all the time. You have to give people space to spend an hour to exercise or to go outside and get some fresh air. I think you have to allow for a little more wiggle room to really combat that challenge.
I think how people work is one challenge, how people collaborate is another and for us, as a small business, especially a small tech business, another aspect is fundraising. It’s been challenging to switch to a different mode of fundraising when you can’t really network as fluidly as you could before. So, it’s forced us to come up with different approaches to try to attract investors and articulate that vision and then also to expand the team and attract talent. It’s all been pretty challenging and you just have to get creative. I don’t think there’s only one right answer. Every company should approach it differently as it depends on your business and culture, but I think it’s important to keep experimenting and be creative and try new things to see what works and what doesn’t. If it doesn’t work, act on that quickly to change it.
For small business owners entering the tech space, what would be the most valuable advice you could share to someone just getting started?
Obviously, be ready for this weird state of the world. I think another big one for me, at least in my opinion, is that it’s important to understand your core values, as an entrepreneur and as an individual. Because I think that it gets you to think about your ‘why’. A lot of people just jump into things without asking “Why do I really want to start this company? What is it about the process of building a company? Is it just a get rich quick approach?” If your core values don’t align with what is likely to be successful for you and the growth of the business, then I think it could present a problem.
For example with me, I don’t care as much about the money side of things, it’s just a bonus. I’m passionate and I have been since I was a kid to create, design, and build things for people to use. Not just as a hobby, but to actually create something then give it to someone and see their reaction and how it can improve their life. That’s what has driven me and is why I wanted to study engineering and why now, in the next phase of my career, is why I want to build companies, because that’s what I’m passionate about.
This is important too because it will propagate into the growth of your company at every stage. If you’re trying to attract talent and you’re not truly passionate about the mission you’re on or what you’re trying to do -unless you’re a professional actor, people will sense that. Again, you might be able to get them in the door and attract them but again, you have to hang on to them and if you’re not constantly motivating them through the mission and the passion that you have then I don’t think that will work out too well. It’s important to take a step back before you start and to really ask yourself “Why do I want to build this company? What do I want to do not just for myself but for the world?”
Rahul: That’s very insightful. Actually “start with why” is a really famous Simon Sinek book. I think it’s a great approach to things and I completely align with sharing your values because if your values are not aligned with the direction of where you want to do, either you will break or the company will – neither is an ideal scenario. Having clarity at the onset allows you to move more fluidly and with less friction hopefully. Going back a little while, you talked about fundraising challenges in the landscape. What are some of the activities you are doing now – are you doing more virtual events like networking and virtual pitch events? If so, are you expanding beyond Canada or are you staying within Canada?
We’re lucky that a of of angel groups and VC organizations have adapted as well with their approach. A lot of these events are virtual. Depending on the organization, there’s a lot of networking events that you can take advantage of. For us at OnTraccr, we’re not just limiting ourselves to Canada, we’re looking primarily at the U.S and Canada for now for investment. I think in construction, the U.S market is so big that it’s important to seek expertise and advice in that market from experienced people there. That’s sort of what we’ve been targeting at OnTraccr.