My name is Cliff Fetner and I’m the Founder & CEO of Soil Connect, a digital platform that connects those who have soil, with those who need it. Our platform is targeted towards excavators, contractors, builders, landscapers and other building professionals who work with soil on a regular basis.
Soil Connect has brought transparency and efficiency that previously did not exist in the soil and aggregates industry. It’s been successful in making the soil transaction much more efficient for our customers; saving them time and money, while also substantially reducing CO2 emissions.
Soil Connect launched in May 2018, and we recently released V2.0 in November 2019. The platform is currently free for our thousands of users.
What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?
As the son and grandson of builders/developers, I grew up on the job site and worked for my father and grandfather doing handy work in high school and college. After graduating, I went into the family business, but after several years, I felt I was ready to start my own construction company.
Once you’ve proven the demand and have done thorough research, don’t be scared to go for it. Just know that it will not be perfect upon launch, and will require tweaks and modifications along the way!
As the owner of JACO Builders, I focus on luxury single-family and multi-family homes. Having worked in the business for 30+ years, I repeatedly experienced soil-related issues on my job sites that would result in additional time and/or money that was not budgeted for.
A few winters ago, we excavated and dug a foundation for a new house. When I was told that the project was at a standstill because the excavator couldn’t find someone within his local network who needed the soil, I knew there just had to be a better way.
I presented my frustration with the soil moving process and an idea on how to solve the issue to my son, Daniel, who was getting his MBA at the time. Daniel was interested in venture capital, with a focus on Construction Technology. After doing some additional research on the soil industry and transaction process, we decided there was a real need and demand for a product that makes the transaction more seamless...and Soil Connect was born.
Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?
During the conception process, I reached out to a few friends in the industry and invited them to dinner. While it was apparent that there was a void in the industry and seemed as though there was a demand for this product, I was eager to get their opinion to validate the idea.
I hosted a few different focus groups and aimed to include people with not only various job functions within the industry but also different age ranges. I asked them how they’re currently operating their businesses as it relates to soil transactions, if they’d engage with this type of platform, if/how they’d pay for it, etc. We received an overwhelmingly positive response across the board about the need for the product and took note of important pieces of feedback that we planned to incorporate into V1.0 of the platform.
From there, we hired a developer to map out the user journey. We worked through several iterations to figure out how the platform should function and what it would look like across both the website and app.
After several months, Soil Connect V1.0 was ready for launch! In May 2018, we went live with soilconnect.com, as well as an app available for both iPhone and Android. It was very well received within the industry, and within 6 months, the platform had 1,000+ users and ~20M yards posted.
We used this traction to raise our first institutional financing, which closed in May 2019. The round was led by Michigan investment group Common Sail, and we also disclosed that we have executed strategic partnership agreements with leading construction firms ARCO/Murray and Keeley Construction.
We took all of the feedback from V1.0, along with a majority of the process to create Soil Connect 2.0, which we released in November 2019.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
In the 4 months since we released V2.0, Soil Connect has received an overwhelmingly positive response. We've had thousands of new users and now boast 90M yards posted through the platform since inception.
V2.0 also includes added enhancements and features including the following highlights:
- Daily dig: daily email sent with the last post from the past 24 hours
- New algorithms for matching technology: additional accuracy to provide exact and partial matches for users
- Radius filter: allows users to filter results by distance
- New soil types & amp: soil analysis reports
- Geo tech reports: the ability to upload a geo-tech report from your job site
With several million people across the country who work with soil on a regular basis, we have a huge pool of potential users to continue to expand, presenting Soil Connect with a unique opportunity to revolutionize the business and change habits that will make the soil process more efficient and effective.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
During the initial conception phases of Soil Connect, we targeted our marketing efforts to the decision-makers' of individual construction companies, which tend to be the 50+ and baby boomer generation. However, we started to see that this was just a small portion of our user base, with the majority being two separate groups.
- The first is the younger, millennial demographic, who in many cases, is working in the family business, alongside the boomer. Because the boomer generation is quickly approaching or is in the process or retiring, millennials are quickly transitioning into the decision-maker role. For the most part, the boomers were hesitant to change habits and required much more education and demonstration of the benefits that Soil Connect provides, while millennials were quick to embrace a new technology that has made their business more efficient.
- The second demographic are the people whose job function includes the actual movement of soil: excavators, landscapers, pool contractors, etc. While historically, this group of individuals would solely rely on their personal list of contacts within their network, Soil Connect has expanded this network, creating opportunities for connections that may offer better timing or distance options for their personal soil needs.
This knowledge influenced how and where we were marketing; decreasing the money spent in print and increasing our presence across social media and email.
While I've been an entrepreneur and company builder my entire career, Soil Connect is my first technology venture. This experience has given me the opportunity to apply my knowledge and expertise in construction to a whole new industry. It has forced me out of my comfort zone to learn, and now feel comfortable in the technology and VC ecosystem. I also feel that this idea would not have come to fruition without my personal expertise and thorough understanding of the way our users think. Throughout this process, I’ve made it a personal goal to ensure that the platform is intuitive and easy to use for our target consumers.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
As a result of the way people have historically done business in the soil industry (calling/texting to people within their existing network), we knew that initial communication about Soil Connect would be heavily communicated through word of mouth. This would also be vital to the way the platform functions, since there have to be people both actively looking to buy and sell soil within a specific radius, in order for the platform to be effective.
Because of this, we utilized different links and websites that service construction professionals across the industry and specific markets to create our own database system. We created a distribution list and strategically sent out emails in specific markets to create individual networks on the platform. From there, we saw the number of users increase, due to word of mouth marketing.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Although I was a personal Instagram user prior to Soil Connect, let’s face it - I’m just not the target demographic and my knowledge was elementary. I had no idea how much construction based content lived on Instagram, including the sharing of projects and ideas across users. I was able to connect with a few influencers in the space, as another means of marketing for Soil Connect.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
I’ve had tons of learnings from each stage of the process. Here are a few that stand out:
Prove that there’s a need/demand for your product/service from multiple sources. It’s extremely beneficial to have validation from people across different aspects of the industry, located in different markets, etc. to offer a variety of perspectives.
Encourage feedback from users, investors, employees, etc. at each stage of the process. Take this feedback into account and if deemed valuable, incorporate this feedback into different iterations of your product/service.
Don’t be scared to commit! Once you’ve proven the demand and have done thorough research, don’t be scared to go for it. Just know that it will not be perfect upon launch, and will require tweaks and modifications along the way!
Where can we go to learn more?
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