Communitech photo: Anthony ReinhartJeff Fedor joins Bridgit as construction-tech startup enters building mode Anthony Reinhart February 11, 2016 Columns, Startups, View from the ‘Loo The construction sounds floated up through the floor as if on cue, as Jeff Fedor sat down to talk about his brand-new role at Bridgit. Fedor joined the hot-as-a-welding-torch startup, whose software is used to manage construction work, as its Chief Technology Officer this week. Led by co-founders Mallorie Brodie and Lauren Lake, Bridgit recently moved into an industro-chic space upstairs at 100 Ahrens St. W., a charming old building where renovations are ongoing on the ground floor. The bursts of drilling and hammering were fitting not only for their obvious connection to the market Bridgit serves. The sounds were also apt given where the scrappy young company is headed: straight into building mode, fuelled by customer growth and a slew of awards over the past year. As the team’s senior member at 45, Fedor – a startup veteran with a fondness for machine learning – faces a particularly pressing first task: recruiting four new engineers to augment the four already at Bridgit, which is expanding its product offering. They’re part of an overall team that currently stands at 13, a number set to double in the coming months, as the three-year-old company pushes into the U.S. market. In interviews this week, Fedor and Brodie exuded a mutual enthusiasm for their new partnership, the seeds of which were planted last autumn when Fedor joined Communitech’s Rev accelerator program as an executive in residence as its second cohort kicked off [Fedor remains a Rev mentor]. Bridgit, which had just graduated from Rev’s first cohort, immediately impressed Fedor with its customer focus and the founders’ maturity. Brodie and Lake, in turn, were struck by Fedor’s zeal for what they were trying to accomplish in an industry ripe for innovation. “Also, just his experience,” Brodie told me. “He’s worked with a lot of different technologies that we’re looking at integrating over the next little while, which I think will be really helpful, and he’s just put very high-calibre teams together. We’re growing our team and looking to double our headcount this year, so we need someone with that experience to join the force.” For his part, Fedor sounded keen to get moving on that mission as he told me how his new gig came to be. Bridgit’s new office is spacious, but will soon be more crowded as the 13-member team sets out to double in size this year. (Communitech photo: Anthony Reinhart) Q – When did you first get to know Bridgit? A – It was through Rev. I wasn’t really involved with the first cohort; I was more involved in designing the next cohort. It was during the Centre Stage rehearsals [in September]. I’d heard good things, but I hadn’t heard the actual pitch beyond bug tracking for the construction industry. Q – What was your reaction after hearing that pitch for the first time? A – I think the thing that got me was that there was this huge opportunity in construction. There’s been lots of innovation in other analogous spaces, but nothing really in the construction industry. That, and how customer-focused the company was. For a relatively young company, they have paying customers who rely on the product every day. Q – We constantly hear about the importance of startups getting customers early on. Why is it still surprising to encounter a young company that has actually internalized that message? A – I think it’s because there’s a tendency to go to your happy place when things are difficult. And so, a lot of engineers – and I have been guilty of this as well – decide that it would be easier to just write a new feature and put it out there than to actually go and talk to a customer. There’s some uniqueness in the way Bridgit was formed, because Mallorie and Lauren didn’t have that capability in-house. By virtue of being non-technical co-founders, they did what seemed natural to them, and that was go and interview people. I think the first night that they were thinking about the business they went and interviewed 10 people. They didn’t have the luxury of building it and then throwing it out there, and that’s something we try to get companies to do all the time as part of Rev – to embrace prototyping and early customer feedback. Q – Do you think in this case it was an advantage that the co-founders weren’t technical? How might this have helped Bridgit? A – It just removes the option of, frankly, producing a crappy product and tossing it out there, and then reacting to it. It skips that step. It’s very much ingrained here that when there’s a question, go and talk to the customer. We come up with strategies, but we don’t sit around and navel-gaze and decide, ‘Let’s build this and then see what happens.’ Normally you’d have to go into a company to convince them that they should talk to customers and prototype early, and get feedback. It’s hard to hear sometimes that your baby is ugly. Q – Would you say most startups founded by exclusively technical people take longer to catch on to this? A – Typically, yes. That’s why you’re seeing Google Ventures really put on this push – I mean, it started internally with this concept of design sprints and customer development. It’s part of the whole lean model; we have to teach people to break what seems like that natural thing to do and actually reimagine how you bring a product to market. Google Design Sprints are a key example of that, and Google has been using those as a pretty big advantage against their other portfolios. Q – So at Centre Stage, when you were first getting to know this company, how did things develop from there? A – I think about a month later, we have a mutual friend, April Dunford, and we were talking. And April [who is also a Bridgit investor] felt that they could use some guidance on the product side of things and the technical side of things. I think they were getting some feedback that they needed a way to describe their roadmap in a way that was more familiar to investors. So I started consulting and we started working on an expanded product offering right away. We started doing some research and putting together some wireframes. This was outside of Rev . . . they were already outside of Rev at that point. Q – You are a technical guy by background. A – I have a wacky background. Q – What appealed to your technical side about coming to work here? A – There are a couple of things. From a process standpoint, the fact that lean principles – even if, in the early days, they didn’t know they were lean principles – were being openly embraced is definitely appealing. It’s hard to go in and reorganize a lot of processes and a whole company culture around that otherwise. And then there’s the actual existing product, that has a lot of things and areas that I have a particular interest in, with machine learning and analytics. Those sorts of things have been sort of core to what I’ve done across my career. The fun part of developing a new product is exactly at this stage, so we know there’s this market need and we have a willing audience to digest new technology, and there’s a big opportunity here to fundamentally change the way work happens on a construction site. There’s just a ton of white space right now to go in and build really interesting products. ‘There’s a big opportunity here to fundamentally change the way work happens on a construction site.’ – Bridgit CTO Jeff Fedor. (Communitech photo: Anthony Reinhart) Q – Have you had a chance to talk to any Bridgit customers yet? A – No, I haven’t. I’m going onsite on Thursday for my first time. We’re going to try out some new features with users. But I get the reports back. Mallorie was in New York last week, literally hustling construction workers off the site and taking them through different products. I was getting the real-time updates on it. Q – So, as the relationship developed, when did the prospect of you working here come up? A – We first started talking about it in December, I think. I was thinking about what I wanted to do next, and we were just having a casual conversation, and it naturally kind of fell into place. I think the interesting thing about having the ability to work with them in a consulting role is that I got to see the company make decisions and react and execute, and I got to learn more about the market and the product. It all just came together in terms of pieces that I’ve come to see as required to really build a great company, and that was all here for me, so it wasn’t really a hard decision. And I assume it was likewise for them; they got to see me and figure out if they could put up with me. Q – How old are you? A – 45. Q – So you’re the oldest person here? A – Oh yeah; I think by, like, 20 years [it’s actually 14]. Q – What’s that like? A – You know what? It’s not really an issue at all. The only difference is, sometimes we don’t have the same cultural joke references. They would have to have seen Seinfeld in syndication. I don’t really notice it at all. Being involved with Communitech, you see a spectrum of companies, and there’s definitely some that are indistinguishable from dorm life. Look at the office here; it’s not really a dorm at all. Q – When you come into a role like this, which you’ve done at a few companies now, what’s the first thing you set out to do? A – It depends on the stage of the company and what they’re doing. In this case, I have the task of doubling the engineering team in the next quarter, so I’ll be doing a lot of recruiting. It’s also a lot of getting your head around all the moving pieces; the processes, what works, what doesn’t work, where do people see improvement. I’ve been meeting with individuals on the team to get their input on it. It’s kind of a different situation because I didn’t come in cold to this one, but I think it’s probably the same path each time. You just try to figure out what’s the baseline right now, and where you need to go. I work off of 30- and 90-day goals that I try to set, and the first 30 days are all around recruiting and process. Q – Recruiting is a constant theme in this tech community, and a bigger one by the day as companies grow and seek talent. What’s the biggest challenge you’ll face when recruiting in the current environment? A – The biggest challenge is that there’s a lot of noise. A lot of people are hiring, and I think it’s really hard both for both employers and employees to find the right match. I’m often surprised; I’ll have friends or acquaintances who are looking for roles and they can’t seem to find a company, and if you went on Waterloo Tech Jobs you’d see hundreds of jobs and you’d think that wouldn’t be the case. It does seem that matching the person to the stage of company is really challenging right now. The person Google is hiring is not the same person we are hiring, in general. There are different motivators; people are at different stages and wanting to do different things. Q – So what looks like a big pool can become a pretty small pool when you consider all the factors. A – Yes. When you’re an early-stage company, it’s difficult to specialize. You need a lot of utility infielders and people who are flexible and like that sort of thing. As you get more mature, then you can hire really specialized skills that can drop in and take you deep into those areas. It’s the old T-shaped developer that you’re looking for. Q – So, if you’re doubling your complement of engineers, how many more will you need? A – Four in the next quarter. But I’d take five. I’m using ‘engineer’ as a loose term. I’m looking for designers, I’m looking for mobile developers, I would take a dev-ops person if I could, but that’s lower in my hierarchy of needs right now. I guess every company will say this, but this is a pretty design-focused company, and it’s really important – for the fact that our user base is sometimes new, and sometimes we’re the first app they’ve ever downloaded – for them to have a really well-thought-out and simple experience. Anthony Reinhart is Communitech’s Director of Editorial Strategy and senior staff writer. View from the ‘Loo looks at the issues, people and events that shape Waterloo Region’s technology sector.