The Coronavirus Economy: Picking back up with home renovations after the economic shutdown
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Sweeten is a home renovation service that matches every project with vetted general contractors. Founded in 2011, the firm offers guidance, financial protection, and a suite of online tools—at no cost to the homeowner. Based in Manhattan, Sweeten operates in the New York City tristate area, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, Atlanta, and Nashville, with plans to expand to 10 more cities later this year.
Fortune spoke with Jean Brownhill, founder of Sweeten, for a new series, The Coronavirus Economy, about how the outbreak has affected her business, her thoughts on the future, and how she is working through the pandemic.
The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Fortune: Could you tell me a bit about your career background? What inspired and led you to launch Sweeten?
Brownhill: I graduated from Cooper Union with a degree in architecture and went the traditional route of working for a well-known firm in New York City. After six years at two different firms, I made the jump in-house to Coach, working on their real estate development team, handling global architecture for the next four years.
After working hard and saving, I purchased my first home in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood. The down payment alone was more than I ever thought I would have been able to save. On top of that, the renovation was another $125,000, which felt like crazy money.
Having spent so much time in the construction and design industry, I felt confident about launching my own remodel. However, I wasn’t prepared for what became a terrible experience. Despite my insider knowledge, I still wound up hiring the wrong general contractor. This showed me that even though I had come from the industry and spoke the same language as these contractors, there is a huge gap between what homeowners know and what they actually need to know in order to renovate. Out of my painful experience, combined with my passion for problem solving, I created Sweeten. With Sweeten, homeowners can enter the details of their renovation project and be matched with a short list of fully vetted, licensed, and insured general contractors, while having access to expert-level support to help bridge the gaps in knowledge and trust.
Sweeten has also been a boon for our contractors. The future of construction is being powered by tech innovation. Our contractors—all of whom are small to medium-sized businesses and make up 62% of all licensed contractors—are hungry for tech solutions that can evolve and enhance their business. Sweeten is helping by enabling them to provide the type of 21st-century, on-demand experience their renovation clients increasingly expect.
When did you know the outbreak of COVID-19 would affect your company?
It was the week of March 9. Despite having thousands of projects in various stages of the pipeline, we noticed a slowdown in activity at all stages, from project leads to site visits to contracts signed. Projects that were expected to go into contract that week were now “on hold,” and conversations with homeowners became a lot more ambiguous. Our general contractors were hearing the same messages as well, which confirmed our suspicions that this might not be a short-term slowdown. Sweeten operates throughout the New York City tristate area, as well as in Chicago, Philly, L.A., Atlanta, Nashville, and Miami. Once it was announced that many of those areas would officially be sheltering in place, the offline activity came to a complete halt.
With all construction projects coming to a complete halt in March, how has your business fared? Did you need to make any budgetary changes? Were layoffs necessary?
Similar to many other businesses affected by COVID, we had to make some tough decisions. By the end of March, we needed to make changes that addressed the new realities of the market. With no idea when offline activity would return, we had to part ways with some incredible teammates to ensure the longevity of our business.
We know that great players are made in the off-season, so we began focusing our efforts on things that would set us up for success when demand returned. Resources that were normally allotted to monitoring and reporting on projects were redeployed to speed up various platform enhancements that we began in 2019. Among the projects that have been keeping us busy are improving the project posting experience to better understand and level-set renovators’ scope and budget; overhauling our marketing automation; building a new machine learning–based algorithm to create better homeowner-contractor matches; and making it possible to track and pay for completed milestones of the renovation via our platform.
How has business been progressing in the past few weeks where reopenings are happening?
With so many people working from home, homeowners realized their spaces need to be multifunctional: a place to sleep, a place to work, a restaurant, a classroom, a gym, etc. So we have seen a considerable amount of pent-up customer demand break through in recent weeks.
The customers we have been speaking to are eager to move forward with both paused and new projects. They have accelerated timelines and want more transparency and accountability given the large price tag and intimate nature of a renovation.
Construction and home renovation do require workers to be indoors in relatively close proximity, but it seems like wearing masks and keeping some social distancing should be doable. Are you and your employees making any changes to your workflow to stay vigilant as the pandemic continues but also keep work projects on track?
We understand the vulnerability that comes with letting strangers into your home, so we enable strong relationships between our homeowners and contractors from the start. Initially, we send each homeowner a pre-vetted list of three to five licensed, insured general contractors. We know our contractors, we know their work, we’ve spoken to their past clients, and we know their unique specialities. We take all that into consideration when matching homeowners and contractors. [Ed. note: Sweeten contractors are not employees of the company.]
We also provide tools that allow for much of the planning process to be online, such as our new virtual site visit feature. From there, we advise both our homeowners and general contractors on best practices, designed to keep all parties safe, following all federal, state, local, OSHA, CDC, and building-specific guidelines.
Closer to home, the entire Sweeten staff continues to happily work remotely from points across the globe. And while the shift to working fully remote was jarring at first, I’ve been amazed at how quickly our team has not only adapted but thrived under the circumstances.
On a personal note, how have you been faring amid all this?
It’s been a lot—the single greatest leadership challenge of my career. I imagine many in my position are feeling the same way, and if they don’t, they most likely quit early in the storm. The levels of stress, uncertainty, and pressure this situation has created are unprecedented, and you have to be extremely focused and decisive, especially when making difficult decisions, such as expanding into new markets during an economic downturn, that can make or break you. We’re seeing those new cities reopening with strong renovation markets, illustrating that time and pressure can either smash you into rubble or create a diamond, and I’m confident that Sweeten will always shine.