Helen Twose 's Opinion

Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Helen Twose: Website nails hunt for tradies

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Mark Dickson of builderscrack.co.nz, a web-based service connecting homeowners with verified tradespeople. Photo / Richard Robinson
Mark Dickson of builderscrack.co.nz, a web-based service connecting homeowners with verified tradespeople. Photo / Richard Robinson

Unless you are blessed with the handyman gene, getting something fixed around the house can be the bane of home ownership.

Calls to tradespeople go unanswered and those who do pick up the phone are often either too busy, don't have the skills for the job or fail to show at the agreed time.

Such was the experience of Mark Dickson's wife Shona as she looked for people to do work on the couple's first home, a mid-century-era house in Christchurch.

She searched for tradespeople using the Yellow Pages and newspaper ads, trying to guess how reliable they were from the size of the ad, says Dickson, 36.

"There just seemed to be a whole lot of problems associated with that traditional model," he says.

Discussing it in 2006 the couple knew there had to be a better way using a web-based system.

"It seems simple in retrospect but it's actually pretty profound - the idea that you take a few minutes to post a job once on a website and tradespeople already registered on that website compete for the job," Dickson says.

Within a few days of their brainwave, a friend recommended he talk to Jeremy Wyn-Harris, 38, an IT whizz and serial entrepreneur.

After an agreement settled with a handshake over a beer, the pair spent the better part of the year developing a prototype.

Dickson's old school pal Keith Roberts, 36, who has a background in business consulting, came on board to kick-start the business side.

That germ of an idea has since grown into builderscrack.co.nz, an online service matching interested and available tradespeople with homeowners wanting work done.

Once the job is complete, homeowners rate the person they used, enabling tradespeople to build up a record of good (or bad) reviews.

Features of the site include a tool to help estimate costs and links to relevant industry licensing authorities.

Since launching in early 2007 builderscrack.co.nz has had 24,000 jobs posted with a combined value of $30 million, more than half of that in the past 18 months.

It is free for homeowners to list a job, with the fees coming from the tradespeople - 5 per cent of the total job cost or 3 per cent for tradespeople who upgrade to an annual "pro" membership.

"I still remember the first fee that we made from a tradesperson - $49.95 - it was a real joyous moment," Dickson says.

The co-founders put in seed money at the beginning and after making small loses in the first few years the business has been self-sustaining and profitable.

"We've sort of demonstrated, I think, that you can scale a business like this without investment at the beginning [by] keeping it simple."

Builderscrack.co.nz now employs nine staff including Wyn-Harris, but both Dickson and Roberts have maintained their day jobs. Dickson has a PhD in geomorphology - the study of landforms - and spends his day researching the impact climate and sea level changes might have on coastal landforms such as the cliffs around Auckland.

"I'm still very much committed to my day job. It pays my mortgage and I love it as well."

Roberts is the Geneva-based head of strategy and corporate development for Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group.

While the day-to-day running is managed by their staff, Dickson does get involved in developing ideas for growing the business and perfecting the site.

"Right from the beginning I've read every single piece of feedback that we've had from customers and we're always talking about how to keep it simple."

In retrospect the economic downturn has been a boon, says Dickson, with the shortage of work making tradespeople more open to using the website. He says that when things pick up and people have more money for renovations, those tradespeople will have an established track record of positive reviews to back up their bids for work.

Growth has been organic for builderscrack.co.nz, with 50 per cent of customers coming from word-of-mouth referrals, 60 per cent using the site for repeat jobs and a quarter posting more than four jobs.

No job is too big or too small.

The average total cost is around $1000 and Dickson has seen everything posted - from the man who needed a plumber to retrieve his wife's engagement ring out of a drain, through to new house builds.

"The size of the average job completed on the site has increased over time and I think it's because people have got increasing confidence that they're going to find someone reliable."

Wife Shona has used the site 18 times to find tradespeople for their Christchurch home, now rented out following a move to Auckland.

"If it works and we have a really good experience then I know other people are having good experiences as well."

- NZ Herald

Helen Twose

Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Helen Twose is a freelance business journalist who writes regularly about KiwiSaver and entrepreneurial companies. She has written for the Business Herald since 2006, covering the telecommunications sector, but has more recently focused on personal finance and profiling successful businesses.

Read more by Helen Twose

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