Landon Messal has taken intra-preneurship a step further. Rather than just being innovative within the confines of how his company does business, he’s developed a product, Site Marker, that he hopes will change his industry.
On one hand, combining half a dozen land development tools into a single solution is exciting. But relying on colleagues to test a product that you hope will persuade them to change — while backed by your boss — brings a whole other level of pressure.
Give us the quick tech talk behind Site Marker.
People in civil engineering and land planning are out there using things like Google Earth, cell phone pics, spreadsheets and handwritten notes to collect data outdoors in the field. Then they’d come back to the office and make a Word document to convey what they saw.
Then the info is getting managed through text messages and emails. And we were having to go through the back door to get the information we really wanted. It was time-consuming. And, ultimately, we recognized that we were using some of these other mapping solutions to collect information in the field.
But now… there’s an app for that.
We're solving this fundamental data collection and communication problem in land development. We've got deep institutional knowledge of what needs to be collected and what needs to be conveyed, how it needs to be conveyed.
How did you come to understand this was a solution that will work for many types of users?
By creating a clickable prototype. It didn’t require creating something super new. It was bringing together bits and pieces that are available in a bunch of different apps. I absolutely felt like this had legs immediately.
In my role as director of digital innovation, I was always pushing the company further than they probably wanted, exploring new areas of the business to improve, from design tools to business intelligence. There’s a McKinsey report that says our industry–architecture, engineering and construction–has the lowest technology adoption rates of the seven major industries.
That kind of makes sense. People are like, “Ah, I've been using spreadsheets for 30 years, let's just put it in this list.” It took some persuading, but recognizing our data collection and field communication problem was not unique, leadership approved to take this thing and spin it out of the company.
So you're also confident that you can overcome this cultural inertia?
Yeah, that’s a really good point. There was value in first making sure that everybody internally was on board, that they all raised their hand and said, yes, let's go.
But with respect to taking something to a market that's resistant to change, we have definitely focused on ease of use. Also, there aren’t many other options. We are trying to solve a very fundamental problem with a fun, easy-to-use solution.
So, if you know how to send a text message with a picture in it, you know how to collect data in the field with Site Marker. And so that's where I think we're gonna be able to bridge this stereotypical salty dude in the field that's been there for 30 years.
How many testers did you feel you’d need?
That’s the beautiful story of being able to incubate this thing inside of an engineering firm. I sit 30 feet away from 10 construction professionals that are out in the field collecting information every day. And, God love ‘em, they've put up with some stuff. It wasn't perfect right away. We've had bugs, and they've been very patient with that.
It's a great thing because you're getting a ton of feedback. You've got this app being created by people with deep institutional knowledge of the problem, and a lot of ideas.
What surprised you about the feedback?
Actually, the thing that surprised me was my reaction to it. I felt, man, I've let you down and I'm sorry.
These guys are driving as much as an hour to the field, and if something doesn't get collected and they come back, they’ve gotta go back out there and get it right.
Always asking yourself if there's a better way to do it is a driver for Site Marker and certainly day-to-day, like, hey, could this be better? Being super critical of yourself and your work helps me perform at a high level.
But you still have doubts?
There’s absolutely moments that you sit there like, is this for real? Am I really going down this route? Am I ready for all the hurdles? And, and we certainly have hit roadblocks that we didn't anticipate. Then you're like, is this earth shattering?
Roadblocks such as…?
Rendering construction drawings in Apple was different from Android. That was a blocker for months, partially ‘cuz of the size of our team and our ability to just address that. Some of it went well beyond my comprehension. We went to the market with iOS because the majority of users will have iPhones. But there's a significant group of people in the industry that use Androids, which have brighter screens and they're better in the field.
What are the other big challenges?
We are solving such a fundamental problem for so many different personas in land development that it's very difficult to distill the dollar-for-dollar value that we add. There are no metrics to say how much time you spend in Outlook or re-coordinating issues through text messages and phone calls?
Plus, every project is unique, and each company is structured differently. I’m struggling with how to talk to someone and say, hey, I need X amount of money to take this company to the market, and this is what we do.
But I’ve done a full distance Iron Man marathon. One of the things I always gravitate to in doing distance and endurance sports is going to this dark space, and getting comfortable there. Training takes months and all the pain that you go through and the accomplishment when you finish… putting myself in those situations equipped me for doing this kind of business.