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WICHITA — Communication is a nearly universal challenge, but one Kansas startup aims to build change — at least in the construction industry — with the support of an influential corporate partner.
Plot, a Wichita-based construction communication platform founded this fall, aims to simplify the process of reaching all parties with pertinent information in an industry reliant on phone calls, texts and emails. Led by CEO Chris Callen — a Techstars Kansas City alum — Plot has the backing of Koch Industries, which made an undisclosed financial investment.
The idea for the company came out of High Alpha Innovation, an Indianapolis-based venture studio that partners with large organizations to innovate through startup creation. High Alpha was investigating supply chain issues in construction, Callen said, and found that there was a foundational issue plaguing the industry: “Job site communications were just atrocious.”
“Most of the rest of white-collar industries have adapted to a number of different collaboration platforms that have not permeated yet into construction, and for good reasons,” Callen said.
Communication solutions like Slack or Microsoft Teams that have become ubiquitous in many industries haven’t caught on in construction for a variety of reasons, Callen detailed. A medium-sized project, for example, might have at least 50 companies touching the job site physically and another 150 involved through up-channel supply or downstream use.
“What we see in construction is a very fragmented user base in the software sense, but in the business sense, it’s fragmented by the contracts that separate the companies on job sites,” he said. “A lot of times, these programs that were built with a single organization in mind don’t work in this highly fragmented environment, where you have one person not even knowing the users who are supposed to be contributing because they’re not in their own company.”
Others in the industry agree on the need for a construction-centered solution.
“Construction software has come a long way in digitizing document and project management workflows, but there is still a massive lack of seamless and contextual communication on project sites,” said Dustin Burns, vice president of information technology at McCownGordon Construction. “The way Plot is approaching this problem is truly unique and has the ability to change the industry.”
Click here to check out Plot’s sneak preview and job openings.
Plot expects to apply the elements of other communication tools that do translate to the construction industry, Callen said, but he’ll be studying how conversations and workflows happen organically and build those elements into Plot’s platform.
“The structure of it has to be unique to construction,” he said. “If that wasn’t the case, then these other tools would have permeated deeper into construction so far.”
He acknowledged that adoption of the product could be a challenge for Plot to overcome.
“I think a big hurdle with adoption is that they’ve taken management styles and practices that work inside of these other industries, and they just assume they’re going to work in construction,” Callen said. “But there’s really some pretty significant differentiators of how people come into construction — how they grow up, how they may even change jobs. There’s a big difference, but that just adds friction to the adoption.”
Acknowledging that construction isn’t just another industry and creating a product that fits into workflows naturally will go a long way toward helping companies understand and see value in Plot, Callen said. Fortunately, the company’s partnership with Koch Industries will provide an outlet for testing and feedback on product design to help Plot home in on a product and interface that will be valued and used.
Anticipation of a solution is top-of-mind for those at Koch who work with construction teams worldwide.
“Plot is uniquely structured to take on today’s communication challenges, and Chris’ leadership adds a degree of expertise not seen anywhere else in the industry. This is a big advancement for construction tech,” said Jim DiAndreth, managing director at Koch’s Georgia-Pacific Ventures.
The right mix to lead
Callen seems a natural fit to lead Plot.
He grew up observing and working in his parents’ concrete contractor company, Builders Plus Construction. His true interest was technology, so he studied business information systems at the University of Kansas.
“That was probably as far away from construction as I thought I could go,” he said.
He worked in the corporate world in his field, but Callen said he wasn’t gratified by the work. Seeking a change, he went back to Builders Plus as it was transitioning to using iPads and tablets in the field, which “unleashed a whole new generation of construction software,” he said. “I actually saw that as a unique way to combine my upbringing and my interests, my education.”
Callen became CEO of the company and found some success through off-the-shelf technology products that helped his team become more productive, but he recognized that gaps still existed.
To keep close to his love for technology and entrepreneurship, he opened up office space in the building for startups. One of those startups was working on virtual reality for gaming applications. A conversation between a construction engineer and a VR engineer sparked the idea to create a virtual reality tool for construction teams, showing building models in VR.
Excited about the crossover product, Callen ran with the idea, founding Grit Virtual, which went through the Techstars Kansas City accelerator.
“I say we built a great, powerful technology. We didn’t build a great product,” he said. “We never found that fit. We never found real success.”
Stymied, funding fell through and Callen had to lay off the entire team. He became a consultant to “get a better view of what normal construction is, not construction run by a business information systems major,” he said.
“It opened my eyes to the mistakes I had made” at Grit Virtual, he said. So he revisited the solution.
“We pivoted the product. We watered down a lot of the features. We made it more seamless with existing workflows, and it fit much nicer into construction workflows.”
As he went back to raise funding again for Grit Virtual, an investor offered to buy the company’s IP to incorporate it with some other technology solutions. The deal closed in mid-2020, Callen said, and he was able to “take a breather from the founder life.”
He became head of customer success at Trace Air Technologies in the Bay Area, saying he was happy to focus on one sector of the business. During a sprint week for High Alpha Innovation, he connected with the venture studio’s team and learned about the challenges they had uncovered in construction communications. Callen signed on, and the company was officially founded in September 2021.
He’s found many benefits of working with High Alpha Innovation. The studio offers support with marketing, branding, accounting, hiring and crucial corporate connections that provide a market, testing ground and financial backing.
“As a founder who’s gone it alone before, it feels weird,” Callen admitted. “It feels unnatural compared to what I had done before, but you cannot undersell the value of not only the support, but it’s the correct support. It’s wisdom behind the actions. … I was out there making a lot of guesses, and, unfortunately, most founders do make a lot of wrong guesses in the early days.”
Callen has grown from his past startup experience and incorporating what he’s learned from those wrong guesses, he said. With Plot, he’ll be actively seeking market feedback and plans to spend the next two to three months in customer discovery interviews to learn a variety of perspectives.
“With my first company, I didn’t ask questions. I made a lot of assumptions based upon my perspective in the industry,” he said. “It was one person’s perspective, and definitely a skewed one.”
The primary market for Plot is medium-sized general contractors in commercial construction, Callen said. He’ll first target those along the Interstate 35 corridor from Texas to Nebraska — that includes some contacts in Wichita from his days in the industry.
To build the platform, Plot is hiring at CTO and several software engineers. Though the company is based in Wichita, Callen said the “Zoom age” facilitates having a remote team.
But don’t count Wichita out — the startup scene there is growing, Callen said.
He was an organizer for the city’s recent Startup Week, which he said was the first that was founder-led.
“It was really great to get everyone together to not only share the pains but recognize that we’re not as alone as we think we are,” he said. “And that helped open a lot of people’s eyes, including my own.”
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.