From the outside looking in, the construction industry appears ripe for tech innovation. The industry represents 6.3% of the U.S. GDP. There are close to 1 million general contractors (GCs) in the country, and anywhere between 3 million and 5 million workers on job sites every day.
Meanwhile, there’s a common (if somewhat justified) belief that construction firms are slow to adopt technology and are behind the digital curve.
Success in construction tech will come down to proving the need for the technology, delivering immediate ROI, and ensuring workers know how to use it on the first try.
But not every construction company is a technology laggard. While GCs are historically slower to adopt new technologies, this doesn’t necessarily make them behind the times. About 60% of construction companies have R&D departments for new technology, and the largest construction firms have substantial R&D budgets. Yet 35.9% of employees are hesitant to try new technology, according to JB Knowledge.
One way to interpret this is that there is a strong interest and need to take advantage of newer construction-centric technologies, but only if they’re easy to use, easy to deploy or access while on a job site, and improve productivity almost immediately.
These factors have made construction tech appealing to investors, who have poured at least $3 billion into the sector. Is construction tech the “it” place right now? Is it ripe for disruption, the way VC investors find attractive? If that’s true, what went wrong at Katerra? Is Procore justified in losing $1 for every $4 in revenue? And why does so little investment go into improving productivity at the job site where GC money is made — or lost — compared to back-office operations?
My experience to date says that construction is different from other sectors because of the significant variation among projects that originates in the way projects are financed, how risks are managed and the factors that drive variation among projects. Construction’s differences are not easily mitigated via data processing, as compared to fintech, for example, where all money is data-amenable to software processing. Addressing project variations will be key to succeeding in construction tech beyond the back office. Here are the critical factors to consider.
Project financing makes capital investment more difficult. While the Commerce Department reported that construction spending in the U.S. reached a record high of $1.459 trillion in November 2020, this doesn’t mean there are unlimited opportunities for construction tech. The reality is that GCs make few capital investments because they must fund investments in technology out of operating cash flow.
Construction projects are typically funded incrementally in phases as the project demonstrates progress. Delays or accidents can have a huge effect on cash flow. Overhead and G&A cost burdens are hated. Asking a GC to license technology as a capital purchase doesn’t always make sense.
GC ownership and business structure also make large capital investment more difficult. Most GC firms were founded by tradespeople and either started as, or remain, family-owned firms. Borrowing what’s considered the “family’s money” is a much more risk-averse decision compared to the way larger corporations evaluate productivity investments and put assets at risk.