“You can be stubborn or you can be stupid, but you can’t be both.” That’s the advice that one of Jean Brownhill Lauer’s architecture professors always shared with the class, and it still resonates for this startup entrepreneur. She’s the founder of Sweeten in NYC, a startup that recently rebranded with VC-backing from Great Oaks Venture Capital and others.
“For some reason, there’s always these moments, especially in a startup where you really have to figure out am I being stubborn and it’s because I’m right and I know that I’m right and I just have to keep going,” said Lauer. “Or, am I being stupid and I just need to be flexible and really listen and adjust and pivot. I think [you have to] try to figure out or be honest with yourself which of those two you’re being in the moment and then try not to be both at the same time.”
With the success that Lauer and her team at Sweeten are experiencing, that advice is working. And their idea is quite simple, but extremely useful. Sweeten matches New York City homeowners and small businesses with the best general contractors, architects, interior designers, and landscape architects for specific projects and their budgets. The idea came to Lauer after experiencing the frustration of trying to renovate her own home in Brooklyn.
“It was really challenging even though I worked in Manhattan all these years,” said Lauer. “I used Angie’s List and other websites that were available and felt it was incredibly difficult to find the right match. It was one of those light bulb moments, that there must be a better way.”
The people of New York agree with Lauer. In private beta, Sweeten already has over $35 million worth of renovation projects posted to the site, thousands of homeowners and 200 contractors looking to be matched, and was even named New York Magazine’s Best Contractor Locator 2012. Even more telling, their average project budget posted to the site has grown 25 times in just over a year.
However, what really separates Sweeten from your typical listing sites is their quality process and that they display real renovation costs in New York City. Homeowners can see the actual costs of redoing kitchens in the Lower East Side, merging apartments on the Upper East Side, or landscape yards in Brooklyn. And not just any contractor is listed. Even though it’s a challenge, hiring through Sweeten means you’re getting the best match for your project with a really great contractor.
“We do a lot of screening. We’ve had over 2,000 firms apply, and we’re only working with about 200,” said Lauer. What are they looking for? Lauer explains that contractors listed on Sweeten are not only skilled, but also have a very specific dedication to their profession, are optimistic about the industry in general, have effective communication styles, and are just really great firms to work with on any project.
They also go to great lengths to make sure that projects are matched properly. Lauer explains, “If you understand how the site works, as renovation match makers, our model is pretty simple. We try to structure what we do much more similar to any of those dating sites. We do a lot to make sure we understand not only the projects and our members but our architects and interior designers and what they’re looking for.”
To do that, Sweeten’s team tracks everything. “Most of the work we do is just matching them together. So figuring out how we can produce either algorithms or proprietary processes to tag those projects, to tag those members, and connect them together,” said Lauer. “[We] make sure we’re collecting data on every project, so we can make the system smarter.”
As Sweeten continues to grow as a company, they’re taking time to celebrate their successes, which Lauer will tell you is important to do. She shared a moment in 2012 when she found out Sweeten was selected as the best contractor locator by New York Magazine. She was in Mumbai on a class trip (Lauer was one of nine award recipients of the prestigious Loeb Fellowship at Harvard University while starting Sweeten) when a reporter called.
“It’s actually a funny story,” shared Lauer. “There I am in Mumbai on the phone with this reporter, going wait, what are you calling me for? This is such an expensive call, what do you want? That was definitely one of those moments where I was like wow. That’ s incredible. We hadn’t solicited, and someone at New York magazine used the site to redo their house and loved the experience.”
And when she returned to the states… “At that time there was just Shera and I working on [Sweeten] part time, full time, and I called her and we did a little celebration dance, me in Cambridge and her in New York. And, we prepared for the onslaught of projects, which did happen and so many people [started] posting projects and people applying and it was fantastic!”
It wasn’t a long, drawn out celebration, but just enough to recognize the achievement and get back to work. “You have to celebrate because we have had tremendous growth over the last year,” said Lauer. “We certainly see a lot of growth in our future. But that does mean that there is a lot of hard work, right? The reward for good work is more work. So you have to celebrate those moments.”
There’s a good chance that Sweeten will have quite a bit to celebrate over the next year. They’re looking into expanding outside of New York City as they continue to grow and build their platform. “We already get so many requests from all different cities asking are you in San Francisco, Denver, New Orleans. We’re just in NYC, but looking to expand to others within the coming year,” said Lauer.
What cities would you like to see Sweeten expand to first? I’m hoping for St. Louis, which is the home base of Techli. But, Lauer is not spilling any of the cities they’re looking at, which means we’ll just have to wait and see.