April 28, 2023

#022 – Will Synnott- Transcript

Bricks and Bytes
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#022 - Will Synnott- Transcript
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Show Notes

Will Synnott

For my experience, the best way to get implementation is actually going to the site and sitting there, being at the mercy of their calendar, not your calendar. It’s essentially just sitting there for the entire day, as I’ve done with my clients. I’m an open book, I bring doughnuts along, as you probably know, to break the ice. You’ve always got to bring something; that’s another thing. If you’re going to turn up to a site, that’s the real secret. Beers are frowned upon, but doughnuts or any other treat are welcome. I’m going to be giving Krispy Kreme some sort of royalty for that! But honestly, if you’re implementing any type of software, you need to be on-site, you need to be there, and you need to be available consistently. 

What’s up, everyone? Thank you for tuning into another episode of the Bricks and Bytes podcast, your go-to for all things construction and property technology. On today’s podcast, we have a true construction tech evangelist, one of the most passionate people I have ever met in the construction tech industry, who has some of the greatest insights when it comes to selling and implementation of construction tech. In this episode, we dive deep into one of the industry’s key struggles: implementation. If you’re enjoying our podcast, please check us out on Spotify, Apple, or wherever you get your podcasts from, and please leave us a review. This helps us get more amazing guests to give you the best and most informative content on technology in the built world. 

If you want to connect with some of the biggest players in the construction tech world, including tier-one building contractors, construction tech companies, investors, and advisors, visit www.the-beta.com. You are listening to the Bricks and Bites podcast, where we take you on a journey in construction, technology, and business. 

All right, let’s get this episode started. So, Will, you’re another guest of ours who has gone from a traditional construction role, being a geotechnical engineer, to a construction tech role. Can you briefly explain the transition and why you did it? 

Yeah, absolutely. My transition from being a geotech engineer to construction tech wasn’t something I was actively seeking; the opportunity essentially came about. As I started to look into it further, I thought it was too good an opportunity not to give it a go. I went for the interview, and when the opportunity and offer came in, I thought, “Yeah, let’s do it.” I’m still in the construction industry, which I’ve been in for 14-15 years, and I have my degree in it. I get to play around with construction technology gadgets and meet loads of clients. So it’s a win-win for me; who wouldn’t want this opportunity? 

So you weren’t the type of engineer who was focused on deep work, working all the time, not talking to anyone, just spending time with their spreadsheets. You were more of an outgoing personality, engaging with people in the field. 

Yeah, you were more like in the field, talking to people and enjoying that part. Yeah, that’s right. So in my previous role as an engineer, I’m a chartered geologist and a geotechnical engineer. I’ve worked on numerous projects across the UK, mostly in London, deep basements, tall towers, mainly focusing on basement and foundation design. My role, towards the end of my career as an engineer, was very much about working with a team, clients, and contractors, trying to get the best design possible in a small area, especially in London where we were usually next to some sort of third-party asset. To be honest, for me and my team, that was the best. If there was a network rail track or a London Underground, it meant more work and more analytical tasks. I enjoyed not just the analytical side but also working with third-party assets like Crossrail, Network Rail, or Thames Water. 

Interesting. Nice. And is the analytical side something that you have applied to what you’re doing now? 

Yeah, I’ve definitely got an engineering mindset in terms of how I work. I don’t think that’s ever going to change. I’m still very much trying to assess my clients’ problems as an engineer. Although I am a construction technology salesman, essentially, at heart, I’m still an engineer, looking at their pain and trying to resolve and help them out. That’s the same internally as well. We’re a start-up, running since 2015, and it’s hard not to get into the depths of our internal processes, from delivering products or services to all other fundamentals within the business. I want to get involved, and sometimes I’m reminded that I need to be out there seeking opportunities. I appreciate that, but it’s hard not to get stuck in. I think that’s just the nature of myself, and maybe it’s the nature of engineers in general. We want to be collaborative, working together to achieve an end goal. Sometimes we can get distracted by peripheral issues, but it’s crucial to stay laser-focused and get the key things done within our field. 

Regarding the transition, you said the opportunity to jump into tech came about. Some engineers might be working in engineering and then think they’d like to try something new, like transitioning into a construction tech environment, like you, Martin. What advice would you give to someone considering a transition but unsure how to approach it because, for you, it was an appealing opportunity that you just jumped into? 

To elaborate a bit more on the opportunity that came about, it all started during COVID, during the lockdown. 

I was very much, you know, stuck at home during the lockdown, and we were sending engineers to construction sites and network rail abutments to carry out inspections. The photos we were taking just on the iPhone weren’t very good, so I started looking at what other technologies could be used to improve the images. We needed a 360 camera, so I bought one to explore the technology. Luckily, the price point of this type of tech has reduced substantially, making it more accessible. Using it in the field, I saw the benefits straight away. 

Regarding your question about people looking to explore the construction tech field, consider opportunities to do trials or familiarise yourself with the technology. For example, I was already familiar with using 360 technology. At my previous company, we were taking 360 photos and using a relatively cheap software online to map the locations. When I moved to my current role, I noticed similarities in the methodologies used, which made the transition feel natural. 

It’s about being curious, maybe staying in your current role but experimenting with a few things and being open-minded. I know, Will, you’re quite an experimental person based on some conversations about the 3D models you create on apps like Polycam, which is quite cool. There’s just so much out there that you can now use. 

As part of the transition, I’ve noticed your increased presence in the digital world, especially on LinkedIn. What’s your opinion on the importance of digital identity in today’s world? 

Great question. I think you’ll probably notice I post more frequently now on LinkedIn. As a tech consultant, I want to be more than just selling technology. I also want to consult and help others within the industry by making them aware of the different types of technology available. The best way to do that is using social media. Right now, LinkedIn is a platform I use regularly, and for me, it has numerous benefits. 

One, it’s about establishing who I am and who Disperse is, making everyone aware of the technologies we’ve got, but also other technologies that are out there. When I meet up with clients or reach out to potential clients, they’re going to investigate me. Of course, they will look at my digital presence and my digital persona. That’s why I think it’s essential to have these two personas – your real life, or real reality, as I like to call it, and your digital persona. Companies and brands have websites that act as a 24/7 interview, where people can see who you are and what your interests are. I think it’s crucial for anyone in construction technology or any form of sales or consulting to have their voice on social media and leverage platforms like LinkedIn, Twitter, and Instagram. 

Taking my strong background in engineering and now working in sales and construction tech, I also help companies implement technology on sites. Implementing construction tech on site is hard. There’s a great book by Garin Hess called “Selling is Hard, Buying is Harder.” I think in the case of implementation, it should be “Selling is hard, buying is harder, implementation is hardest.” 

Disperse is trying to solve a fundamental issue about collecting data and providing it on a regular basis while making that data actionable. You’re dealing with a core group of people on a project site who are incredibly busy, with many stakeholders. If I come along and try to showcase a new piece of technology, especially if it’s being implemented or bought by someone who’s not necessarily part of the project team, it’s incredibly difficult to get it implemented. 

At Disperse, we have an entire team that supports project teams in getting up to speed with using technologies like Teams and Zoom for online collaboration. These platforms have been fantastic for demos and training. However, from my experience, the best way to ensure successful implementation is actually going to the site and being at the mercy of their calendar, not your own. Essentially, just sitting there for the entire day, being an open book, and being consistently available. Bringing along treats like donuts can also be helpful. 

I appreciate that my background is quite unique, with strong engineering experience before moving into a sales executive role. When I meet with clients, I emphasise my 14 years of construction experience and my work on significant projects such as Battersea, 21 Moorfields, Broadgate, and various infrastructure projects across London and the UK, as well as a few retail outlets. As a chartered geologist and geotechnical engineer, I have experience working on-site, dealing with contractors, and understanding the pains of tracking progress. 

My role as a geotechnical engineer was very much at the start of the build when the piling contractor was working on foundations. I would be taking data, marking up progress, and so on. This process is relatively straightforward compared to when you start building the superstructure and fit-out, where you have multiple contractors working simultaneously. Keeping up with what’s going on can be incredibly difficult. 

So, I believe technology is there to help solve that issue. Apart from donuts, we do have a proper system for implementation within Disperse. We follow a process of how to best implement our software within the teams. We are very hands-on early on, even before our technology has started. It’s about planting the seed within the project team that this software is coming. Our software is typically implemented, or our services are typically provided, during the superstructure or at least the fit-out phase. However, you’ve already got a project team established during the piling or the very early stages of the superstructure. By making them aware very early on and starting to train them up when you actually start providing your service, they’re already familiar with it. They haven’t put any systems in place internally, such as Excel spreadsheets or similar, so when they receive your software, they won’t have to juggle two methods. We want our system to require very little input from them while we provide the services, and they just consume the information and act upon it. 

We have a process throughout the works and, as the project starts to finish, we focus on capturing the lessons learned. This is crucial not just for Disperse as a software provider, but also for the actual contractor and the main contractor. They will have plenty of lessons learned on how they used this type of technology, which they can share with the next team as they move on to different projects. It’s essential to capture and transfer that knowledge to the next project. This is incredibly important, not just from Disperse’s perspective, but also from the main contractor’s standpoint. They’ve invested time in using this software, so they should learn from it and implement it in the next project. 

Disperse was formed in 2015, and one of the key issues it aimed to solve was collecting accurate, reliable, and consistent data on construction sites. We know that construction sites often struggle with data management in terms of what is happening on site. Without Disperse, you have quantity surveyors, planners, construction managers, and project managers all going out on site and collecting data about the site’s progress. 

So, you have multiple people collecting information about their specific areas of expertise, such as first or second fix, or based on their experience. Disperse aimed to solve this issue by capturing that data and consolidating it, allowing you to see where you are on your construction site, the progress of first or second fix, and the progression of different trades against their planned progress. We essentially give your construction site a voice, helping you understand where you are on site. 

However, this led to a second issue, which was an overload of information. Our clients were saying we provided too much data, and they didn’t know what to do with it. This led to the question of how good our software is at relaying this information and making it as actionable and easy to use as possible. We’ve been working on a new platform, which will be released soon, that simplifies the data presentation so that users can quickly and easily make sense of it. 

Implementation is crucial. If your platform requires an instruction manual, you’re going to have a problem. A platform like Netflix is successful because it’s intuitive and easy to use. We need to remember that not all of our customers are tech-savvy like us. For example, we recently introduced a button for zooming in and out when looking at a 360 photo. While most people would instinctively use the touchpad or their mouse, not all clients know how to do that. This made us realise that we need to consider the user experience and make our platform as easy to use as possible. 

To achieve this, it’s essential to get on site, observe how customers use the platform, understand their pain points, and then implement improvements. The platform should be as simple as picking up an iPad and having anyone swipe around and use it with ease. 

Because that’s where you’re actually going to get meaningful use out of your software. It doesn’t matter what you create in the laboratory if the on-site conditions are different, right? Yeah. So at Disperse, we aim to package and provide data to the clients in a meaningful way that they can then act upon. We have other elements, because we’re also tracking against the drawings, we can check to see if the works are installed correctly, and we’re highlighting early spotlights. If one of your trades is slowing, we can highlight that to you. If there’s been rework, we can identify that as well. I didn’t realise how bad the industry was until I started seeing it firsthand. We see work being pulled out because the sequencing has been out of place, and they haven’t been looking at the data or understanding how the works are progressing. So that’s what Disperse is really trying to do – pull that information together and highlight the blockers early on, so that you’re not having to deal with them at the very end. You’re dealing with them during the works, so it doesn’t become a legacy project. 

Sure. Do you have some stats or statistics on the benefits of using Disperse software, or even just some more qualitative benefits? 

Yes, hugely. Every site is definitely bespoke in terms of usage and the benefits we’re providing. But in terms of claims savings, we have saved previous clients millions of pounds because they’ve been able to use our data to track back and see what information was actually done and look at our digital archive. In terms of the hours we’re saving for QSs, planners, and managers, they don’t have to go out on site as much. They still have to go to the site, obviously, but we’re freeing up their time. If you imagine project managers spending 50% of their time tracking progress and walking around the site and the other 50% dealing with the main pains on site, we can help alleviate some of that 50%. We’ll give you the data on how your construction site is progressing, and that frees up more time for you to actually go on site and provide the most value. 

That’s the most value that you’re there for. You’re not there to essentially track progress. You want to be able to deal with the issues with your contractors, or not just to deal with them, but also help them. You know, if you can see that, if you’ve got more time to support them, it’s going to have a win-win benefit for everyone. And again, I personally think our platform can benefit everyone, not just the project managers or the planners or the QSs, but everyone, whether it’s just a task list at the start of the week when they see what works have been done last week, or we can see that because we’ve got a report that says all the tasks that were completed to plan their week, or the spotlights that we highlight. For example, on floor 50, there’s been some rework done. I wouldn’t have spotted that, or if I would have, I’d have to go all the way up to floor 50, check that out, and I might have missed it, whereas Disperse has highlighted that. So all these numbers that we can generate in terms of support are huge. And we’re seeing that now, especially since we’ve done over 100 projects at Disperse. We’ve got about 45 projects, I think, live right now. We’re taking 50,000 to 60,000, 360 photos a week. 

Wow. Yeah. So over 50,000 photos a week. Photos, 360 photos a week. Yeah. So that’s what we’re roughly uploading every week. Just for people’s benefit, Disperse is more than just a, you know, we don’t necessarily hand over the camera to the contractors. We actually have that service in-house. We go on site and take those photos on a weekly basis. If one of our staff members is ill, like we know we’re human, we have backup. They go out on site, they’re all trained with CSCS cards here in the UK and in America and other parts they have the correct training they need. But then those photos are uploaded, and you’ve got essentially a digital archive of your actual build. And then we use our AI and human hybrid approach to track the progress of your construction site. So there are almost like three services that we’re providing within one Disperse. And when I speak to clients, they say, “Oh, I just thought you took photos. We’re so much more than just pretty 360 photos.” Or, “I didn’t realise you actually offered the service to take photos. Right. We’re really bad at taking photos. We know that because we have clients come up to us and say, we tried self-scanning. It doesn’t work. We’ll go with you, Disperse, because you offer that service.” 

Yeah, that sounds like a bit of a game-changer, to be honest with you. I don’t know a company that does that. It sounds like a complete USP, as you’re really helping people to use the software, not just saying, “There you go. Thanks for your money. See you later.” Exactly. That’s a really good way of putting it. And it wasn’t something that Disperse wanted to get into. It was just that when we were handing over the cameras to the contractors, they weren’t taking the photos. And I know this as an engineer going out to site, taking lots of photos on your iPhone was great because you get some really good photos. But then you get back to the office a day later, and you’re like, “Right, I’ve got a photo of a column. Which column is that? I can’t remember what floor I’m on.” You know, you start getting lost. So you put those photos in, and it magnifies the pain. 

There’s definitely technology out there in terms of helping with site reality capture. And that’s one thing I definitely suggest, if anyone’s just looking for that, there are businesses out there. But why not get more meaningful information out of that data? You’ve got photos, they’ve got data. Let us take that data and actually provide you with information like, “Trade one or trade two has progressed by 10% this week,” or “Trade three has regressed on floor 50. Why?” 

So, on that, you obviously touch on a data point now, which is something I personally find very interesting. With the pictures that you’re getting, you’re obviously collecting tons of data. So how does that turn into something useful for people? Because obviously, there is a real danger that you’re just getting photos of stuff that doesn’t really mean anything. And then how does that translate into perhaps a business case for performance or maybe subcontractors? Yes, really good. 

So, within the photos that we’re taking, again, these are just 360 cameras the size of your hand. Our team is walking around, taking photos in the same location every week. There is so much data within that photo. 

Now, if you look at any photo right now of a construction site, you could work out roughly by counting how many bricks have been laid, or how much façade has been installed by looking at it. But if you start scaling that over a 50-storey building, and then you start tying in all the different trades, it would take you forever to be able to track the progress, and that’s where we’re really leveraging the AI and computer vision to be able to track what work has actually progressed between week one and week two and week three, etc. And we highlight that, essentially seeing what works have been done in every room. In some buildings, like 90% of the time, there’s been no work done at all. So what’s the point of going to those rooms? Why am I going to walk through 600 units or 600 homes and actually just try to find an issue when there may not be an issue? Well, we can tell you that because our software has highlighted or not highlighted any progress change. 

And then, where our software takes us to the next level, we have this human element. We have architects and engineers within Disperse. We have a fantastic team that goes through the photos using the computer vision, which we’re training to understand what stud work, plasterboard, or lights are, and then using the human element to correct the AI so that it’s essentially tracking that and then implementing it into the data. And the reports that we provide, with our new dashboard which you’ll be seeing very shortly across LinkedIn, essentially make that data really easy. What has your contractor done? What have trade one or trade two done this week? Okay, let’s see. Now let’s drill into that data a little bit more. How much first fix have they done this month? How much of those components have they actually done this month? We’re tracking all that data. I think it’s over 480 different components that we track. We’ve got a scaffolding company that is looking to use this because they want additional support in terms of tracking scaffolding, not something that we thought we’d ever be tracking, but hey, we can essentially track anything once you teach the AI, and we learn within the business. 

So, it just opens up this whole new realm of technology and knowledge. In terms of the projects we’re interested in working on, right now, in terms of size, the biggest project we’re on within the UK is with Multiplex. It’s a billion-pound construction, a residential and hotel project, and it’s huge. 

It’s taking us a day or two to actually scan 10,000 photos a week that we’re taking. It’s insane the amount of photos we’re taking and the amount of data we’re capturing. In terms of size, we can track anything between 5,000-10,000 square metres, any size really. It just becomes, obviously in terms of value, usually I find that when I’m talking to my clients, by the time you get to something that’s a couple of thousand square metres, their work isn’t necessarily progressing fast enough for them to be unable to react. It’s when you really start to have those residential or commercial projects, when you have those fit-out stages and multiple contractors working at one time, that we can really leverage our ability to track that. But yeah, we do commercial, data centres, aviation (coming out in America very soon), hospitals, and hotels. 

Regarding compliance, having worked in the structural warranty industry for a few years, I can see there’s a huge need for something like Disperse for compliance purposes, be it building control or structural warranty. Currently, how it works is that you’ve got a surveyor who goes out to the site and they think that this is done right or wrong based on some manual building regulations. I can only imagine a situation when there’s a camera which has knowledge of how details should be built and how things should look like, eliminating the need for a surveyor. 

So, within the UK, we’ve got the Building Safety Bill which has been passed and there are more elements of that going to be coming in the next year or two from the government in terms of what regulations are required for us in terms of tracking. 

Disperse has already been actively involved in compliance and looking at how we can support the industry. As we’re taking lots of photos across construction sites, we can use that data to help with compliance. In some respects, we’re already doing it. For example, when it comes to fireproofing, we highlight it as one of our spotlights. If we see that fireproofing is missing when taking photos, and then the plasterboard goes up or something blocks it, we’ll highlight that as an alert. We’ll highlight situations like ducting work going in without fireproofing, and we’ll ask you to double-check. We’re checking not just fireproofing, but also waterproofing and any installations that don’t look correct. 

A lot of our clients are using our service in anticipation of future compliance requirements. When the law becomes more impactful and they want to lease or sell apartments, mortgage companies will want to know if the rooms are compliant. With Disperse’s digital archive or “black box” of the construction build, they can be more assured of compliance or a higher certainty. 

In terms of progress tracking, construction is indeed one of the most litigious industries. We have some examples in the background where Disperse has helped clients with legal cases by providing data on construction progress across the entire project. I don’t want to go into too much detail, but we’ve essentially been able to support clients with our extensive data and tracking capabilities. 

During COVID, obviously, here in the UK, we had lockdowns. There was a period when no work was being done, and when work did start again, safety measures had to be put in place. Construction sites that may have had 400 or 500 people on site were dramatically reduced. As a result, the original planned completion dates were affected. Some of our clients have made claims on their insurance, citing that this was outside of their control. They can use our data to prove the impact of COVID on their work progress. 

One of my hopes for this type of software is that contractors can deal with issues on site as they arise. If they see that a contractor or trade is slowing down, they can address it immediately, rather than waiting until after the project is completed. This should help reduce the number of claims and make the construction process more efficient, which is something the industry needs to focus on. 

Construction is one of the least technologically advanced industries, lagging behind sectors like farming. I keep seeing these funny analogies; I saw another one the other day about fishing. But credit must be given to the project teams and anyone working on construction sites, as they have to deal with multiple stakeholders while navigating these challenges. 

You know, farming, you’ve got some Latin, you know, my family is from farming. I know it’s obviously difficult. It’s hard work, but you’ve usually got a few farmers whereas on a construction site, you’ve got multiple stakeholders. You’ve got multiple payment methods. You’ve got multiple claims. It’s just one massive headache. I think the analogies how they describe they compare it’s not apples and apples So I think the industry doesn’t get enough respect in terms of just how complicated The actual construction works out. So good. Oh, and should we move to off topic? Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. Okay. You mentioned a book What was it the book? I think it was before we started recording. What are you reading currently? Yeah, so I’ve just recently finished the book by Garan Hess called selling is hard buying is harder one of the things I thought I’d do is I’ve replaced all my construction manuals and BS 5x3o standards for some technologies. Well, all these terminologies like ABM, account-based marketing, I was like, I have no idea what that acronym is. I mean, I knew what RRI was, but it still wasn’t something. I’ve had to replace all my KOs and KNORs and KPs, which are active pressures and passive pressures, kilonewtons, exactly. All these different acronyms that I use, interestingly, a little bit different. So it’s definitely been a… I’ve used that as, you know, I’ve used your podcasts, but also, you know, different books out there to actually try to help familiarise myself with this industry so that people can take me a little bit more seriously than just some sort of engineer guy who turns up with doughnuts. And what kind of stuff will do you, outside of a disperse and maybe even family, what kind of stuff do you get up to, apart from 3D scanning as well? Yeah, so other than all the little tech stuff that I do, you know, big into fitness, a lot of cycling and a lot of running, into health. family, I’ve got two boys and my wife, which we live over in Bristol Way. So, you know, living the outdoor lifestyle is definitely something I enjoy. But also being a techie, I also like to video game quite a bit. So yeah, it’s a great way of just like downtime. But I’m always on, always, I think YouTube is one of the benefits of being, and I’ve told you guys about my thoughts on YouTube is that it’s just so much wealth of information. I just enjoy learning, you know, I just enjoy sticking YouTube on and just putting on a few things. 

If it’s about sales, if it’s about technology, you know, what’s coming out. I just like to watch a few YouTube videos and I feel like I have a little bit more appreciation of that of that actual industry. And then I like to try to share it. This podcast is one of them. Obviously, my LinkedIn is another way, but also just in my day to day presence when I’m on construction sites and they talk to them about have you heard of this trip and new contractor that’s out sorry, this new software platform that’s out, etc. It’s not it’s not a competitor of ours, which is always good. But have you thought about looking at one of these because you know, you’re looking at modulus or modules, if you looked at modulus, etc. So yeah, this is so much to do about outside and continue to learn. I’d always recommend anyone from engineering to themselves. It’s a continuous learn. And I think that’s be fair. It should be anyone coming out of university or any higher education, you know, enjoy learning because ultimately you, you, you, you, it’s never going to be a negative. Yeah, I agree. And your transition shows us that for you, it’s all about learning because it’s completely different thing that you used to do. So thanks for that, Will. Where can people find out more about you? Yeah. So hit me up on LinkedIn. DM me or direct message me anytime or just post on one of my comments. Be more than happy to catch up. If you’re interested, obviously, yeah, DM me and we can organise a call, but also reach out to Owen and Martin, and I’m sure they’ve got my contact details if you want to, if you want to catch up with me, invite phone. Of course. Absolutely. All right, Will, thank you very much for your time. We appreciate it. Thanks to the guys. Thanks so much for tuning in to this episode of the Bricks and Bites podcast. If you are enjoying the show, please feel free to rate, subscribe, review wherever you listen to your podcasts. We really appreciate it and we’ll catch you in the next episode. 

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