Category: Working at MyBuilder

symfony man

You don’t need to be a tradesman to know that having the best tools makes doing a good job a lot easier. You might be able to drill a hole in a piece of timber with a crap drill from a DIY shop, but when you’re trying to get through some tough masonry, it’s a different story. Rubbish tools don’t last very long either, so it’s actually cheaper to pay for quality.

So that’s what you say to your missus when she finds out how much your paid for your new router. But admit it, there’s a bit more to it. It’s subtle, but very real. Don’t you find that it’s a lot harder to take pride in your work when your tools are rubbish? Think about how it feels to use your favourite tool. That’s what I’m talking about.

That idea is something we take very seriously at MyBuilder. I don’t just mean with the website, but the tools we use internally. A good example of this turned up this week. We received a new batch of white, postcard sized cards. And then we sent them back immediately. I can imagine the stationery shop when they get them back. “The ink is just smudged on the top line, they still work! How petty.” To them, they’ll just be small cards. To us they’re much more.

One of the workflows we have is that when we have an idea for the website, we write it on a card. The card is put up onto a wall for Jeff, our product manager, to look over and decide what to do with next. If the idea is worth working on, it’ll get put onto a sort of “to-do” board. You could say that our business’s success is tied very closely to these cards – these ideas.

Of course we could still write on them, but we’d feel a bit like we’re using a dodgy drill. Our tools are important.

Symfony2

Sometimes working with good tools means putting in a bit of effort to keep them in shape. On the tech team, for the last half a year that’s what we’ve been doing.

Symfony is the framework we proudly build the site on top of. I’m not planning on getting too technical, so I’ll just say that it’s basically the foundation of all our code. Many websites are built using Symfony – it takes care of the basic mechanics of a website, so we can focus on the features. Symfony1 was released seven years ago, so you can imagine that technology has moved on a fair bit since then. And so we decided to upgrade to Symfony2 when it was released earlier last year.

Hopefully, you won’t be noticing much different about the site (except some shiny new buttons). That’s very much how we in the tech team wanted it. But underneath the web pages that you see, the code that generates them has all been changed. Almost every line of the code has been touched since the last version of the website.

All this new code, on top of Symfony2, will help us write better features, faster. And with less chance of any of you bumping into any bugs. We’re also hoping that whilst we’re hiring the idea of working on shiny new Symfony2 will be more appealing than working with a dinosaur of legacy code. (I’m a relatively new hire, and I’m certainly happier for it!)

So yes, just like you, we take enormous pride on our work and our tools are an important part of this. Nothing makes us feel better than a job well done. This is one thing we definitely have in common with our customers.

We just moved office and I announced to the team that we were going to have to clean our own toilets. Yep, no cleaners. It’s bound to be unpopular, but I think it’s the right thing to do.

When I was a kid, my Dad used to say: “Always leave a place better than you found it”. He led by example. If we were walking outside and he saw a piece of rubbish on the street, he would pick it up and carry it until we found a bin. And there was no bit of housework that he wouldn’t or didn’t do. Sure, we could have paid a cleaner to do all that. My Dad was a PhD and had a well paying job as a Research Chemist at an oil company. It’s not about the money, which is contrary to how most people think of it.

My Dad knew about the value of work. He grew up on a farm in Wisconsin. When he was a kid, he would get up at 4:30, milking cows and shovelling shit before school. And there was a lot more to do after school. My Grandfather worked in the shipyards and used to joke that he didn’t do a day of farming in his life. That’s what the 8 kids were for.

I wasn’t lucky enough to develop a good work ethic as a kid. If I got up early, it was to watch cartoons. But I did have a good example in my Dad, and later in life I learned the hard way (though the hard way is the good way). I also learned the deeper meaning behind what my Dad used to say.

“Always leave a place better than you found it”

This is about a mindset of paying attention to and caring for your environment. It’s a responsibility that we all have. When you pay someone else to do that, you’re abdicating your responsibility. Think about the last time you properly cleaned your house from top to bottom. I’ll bet you felt more comfortable in your home, more of a sense of belonging, along with the sense of accomplishment. The same thing happens when you pick up rubbish on the street, when you look after the common parts of your neighbourhood. It happens when you vote, when you try to right a wrong, and when you help someone in need. It’s about making the world a better place.

It’s easy to pay someone else to do the menial tasks in life. It’s tempting to justify it by saying that your time is worth more than theirs. But this attitude is wrong because it’s not about the cost of a job, it’s about the value of work.

Fender table with LPs

A while back, I decided that it would be good to do some team projects. The idea was to split up into three-person teams that would do something creative together on the weekends. I thought it would also be nice to bring the projects into the office to make it feel a bit more like our space.

I grouped myself with Andy (designer) and Sten (software engineer) and our project was to make a coffee table for the meeting room. I thought that would be a good project for us, since we all like working with wood and I have a garage and tools.

Andy came up with the idea of making a Fender Stratocaster headstock coffee table, as we all play the guitar. I think he had seen something like that before or heard of someone making one. A Fender Strat was my first guitar and I even once owned a 1965 Strat with an original sparkle blue paintjob. A true rockstar axe! Anyway… needless to say, I loved the idea. It was a challenging project and a lot of early morning to late night weekend work, but here’s how we did it…

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Exactly eight years ago, on the 16th of July 2004, I had an intense dream. It felt so real that it jarred me awake at 3am. It was one of those dreams that didn’t feel like a dream at all… but that was the only explanation for why I found myself bolt upright in bed at 3:00 in the morning sitting next to my sleeping wife. It was the strangest dream I’ve ever had, mainly because it made so much sense. It was an idea… in fact a good idea (for once!). My heart was racing. I tried to wake my wife up to tell her the good news but was met with a barrage of profanities. Undeterred (if a little offended), I ran downstairs to write it all down.

Back in 2004, I was living in Bristol, working as a stonemason and trying to support my growing family. I had learned the trade informally while living in Southern France and working for a German builder and mason. I was relatively inexperienced, but my work was good. I specialised in building random rubble walls and arches. Before that, I was an artist… but that’s another story.

Working in the Ardeche

Before MyBuilder – working in the Ardeche

 

Life was hard. I had to adjust to living in a new country (my wife is English). I had to learn a new language (Bristolian). I had to adjust to a new way of working (self-employed). I was a new father and wasn’t getting much sleep.  We had another one on the way and the doctors told us the baby had a health problem that they didn’t fully understand. I was going from one subcontracting job to the next and not getting paid very well. We weren’t making ends meet and were begging and borrowing from our parents. One of the jobs I worked on was a 2 1/2 hour drive each way. The cost of diesel alone meant that my take home was little more than minimum wage. Another job I worked on saw the main contractor go bust and I was out two weeks of pay. I remember hearing that my wife rang up and gave them hell. They were lucky she didn’t show up in person.

So this idea that hit me like a bolt of lightning really did feel like it came from above. The idea was, of course, MyBuilder.com. In my dream, I had created the matchmaking process, trade profiles, the feedback mechanism… pretty much everything that is core to the site today. I can’t explain why I had the dream. It obviously related to what I was doing at the time, but I wasn’t interested in starting a web business and I’d never seen any sort of website like this before. If someone would have told me the day before that I was about to start a web business, I’d say: “Sorry, you got the wrong guy”. It was literally the last thing I would imagine that I’d do and I certainly didn’t know how to go about doing it.

So I can’t explain why I had that dream, but I can explain why I decided to pursue my business idea.

Starting MyBuilder.com

Starting out

 

Firstly, it was special because it was my own idea. I’ve always valued original ideas and despise copying other people. There’s no way I would have pursued it if I had found a website like MyBuilder that already existed. The ironic thing is that my insistence to be original was a severe handicap when it came to convincing people to invest in my business. I thought that there was no point in doing something that has already been done, whereas investors wanted proof of concept in an existing business – basically, something I could copy. I was eventually able to dig up some other businesses that were similar enough, but while it placated investors, it demotivated me. I got over this by completely ignoring competitors and that’s still the way I operate today.

Secondly, I believed in the idea very deeply. I knew that we needed something like MyBuilder. Tradesmen need a better way to get work and homeowners need a better way to find the right tradesman. I very much felt that the industry was broken in the UK. What I loved about it was also the source of its problems: self-employment. Why tradesmen in the UK became self-employed is another story, but the end result is that tradesmen who just want to get on with their trade find themselves having to run businesses. And from the homeowner point of view, there are so many white van men to choose from, it seems impossible to tell one from the other. And after the job is done and they’ve been paid, the fear is that they’ll just disappear into the fog.

The reason that my idea made so much sense to me is that it promised to solve the biggest problems in the industry: matchmaking and accountability.

Tradesmen don’t know where the work is and homeowners don’t know where the right tradesmen are. Why was I driving down to Dorset when I knew there was plenty of work for me in Bristol (somewhere)? Why were homeowners complaining that they can’t find any available tradesmen when all the guys I knew, who were top notch, complained that they couldn’t find enough private work? This kind of matchmaking is exactly what the internet is great at.

Building the team at Silicon Milk Roundabout

Building the team at a recruitment fair

 

The lack of trust between homeowners and tradesmen is a result of a lack of accountability, pure and simple. In the ‘old days’ we hired tradesmen and building firms in our local community because everyone knew everyone. You knew the local plumber, builder, carpenter and the gossiping community dealt with reputations. Life is dramatically different for many of us today. I live on a street of about 50 households and depressingly, I know only two of my neighbours by their first names. The feedback system, pioneered by eBay, brings the accountability of a community back into our lives. Being able to see what previous customers say, regardless of where they lived or which social circles they were in, was a powerful, exciting concept.

Whenever times were tough and I wanted to quit, somehow I would find myself back to that day in 2004, still getting excited about my dream and still convinced that this was the way forward. What stopped me from giving up, even in the face of many hopeless situations, was my conviction and the knowledge that if I didn’t make this happen, someone else would. I wasn’t about to let someone else take my idea and run with it.

Builders on the podium

Our blog is just one of the ongoing upgrades to the MyBuilder experience for homeowners and tradesmen alike. In the coming weeks and months we will be featuring stories about home improvements, work by our tradesmen and plenty of facts based upon our knowledge of our tradesmen and the building industry.

There will be plenty of entertaining articles to read about beautiful homes, outstanding architecture, quirky design and how to improve the value of your property. There will also be amusing stories from around the web, competitions and guest posts from popular bloggers, tradesmen and print journalists.

We will be featuring pro tips from our tradesmen on how to make sure jobs are done properly, as well as guides for homeowners on how to get the best out of their builder. We will showcase the expertise of our tradesmen and show just why MyBuilder is the best place to go when you need a job doing. So bookmark us now or add us to your blogfeed, as the MyBuilder blog is going to be essential reading.


MyBuilder is an online marketplace for homeowners to find quality tradesmen. The blog features competitions, advice and opinion pieces about home improvement.
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