Aaron Witt, CEO and Founder of BuildWitt, has carved a name for himself telling stories about dirt and the people that move it.
The best way to start marketing your construction company, with Aaron Witt
In today's episode, we discuss why it is so important to market your construction business and the best ways to get started. If you are looking to stay ahead of your competition, building a presence online is critical. We'll break down how everything from starting new business relationships to building your brand, and attracting top talent all hinges upon solid marketing and story-telling.
There have always been concerns about the risk involved with marketing in the aggregate and heavy civil construction industry - but the real risk is doing nothing.
Listen to Aaron's expert advice about marketing your construction company, or read more about it below (transcript edited for clarity and length).
Can you tell us who you are and what you do in the construction industry?
Aaron: I run a company called BuildWitt. Our mission is to make the dirt world a better place. I grew up loving bulldozers. I started as a laborer when I was 18 years old, and I had no family in the industry. I was just naturally in love with the dirt world.
The plan was to start a construction company. I worked for quite a few big contractors, and through my work I started to notice a need for storytelling in the construction industry. One day I quit my job, bought a camera and started running around the United States, visiting job sites, taking pictures, and putting them on the internet.
Today, BuildWitt primarily does marketing and consulting work for heavy construction, mining, and mass excavation-type companies across the United States. We have about 50 people. It’s grown quite a bit beyond just me running around with a camera, although I still do that quite a bit.
What is one of the most compelling stories about the dirt world that you’ve heard in your career?
Aaron: The dirt world is an awesome place. I could sit here for eight or ten hours and tell you story after story from what we’ve heard out in the field. There are so many remarkable stories that have never been told before, which is why we started our business.
It's not just about telling these stories for entertainment or fun. It's telling them to shift the perceptions that are out there about the industry. There are so many misconceptions about people in the industry. That’s why there’s such a need for storytelling, to show that this is what it actually takes to make sure that you have consistent power, running water, roads to drive your kids to school on, and the entire built world around you that gives you the ability to live the life you want to live.
That's the fun of it. If you spend just a little bit of time getting to know everyone in this world, you'll start to hear some ridiculous stories. But the bigger piece of what we do is getting those stories out into the world to show that this is a remarkable industry and the people in it deserve some credit.
There’s a conception that the construction world is devoid of technology, or is “technophobic.”
When you're out on a construction site, do you see technology as part of the day-to-day lives of the people that you're working with?
Aaron: Technology is at every job site in the United States. I like physical things -- that’s why I like dirt. You pick it up, you put it down -- you can see it. The cool thing about construction is that you can marry the technology with the physical world, which means you can build things more effectively. That's what we've done so far by tracking quantities out in the field, GPS, telematics, and all types of modeling. There are a million different technologies out there allowing us to build more effectively.
Technology doesn’t replace the physicality of building.That's one of the exciting things about this industry -- it's not going away. It's never going to be outsourced. We can't move it to a different country. You have to build stuff here. But we can become a lot more effective at how we do it, and everybody's better off if we are able to do that.
Compared to other industries, there’s still room for improvement. You're driving down the road and a car will drive by that's driving itself. That's a lot more advanced than doing timecards on an iPad, so there's a lot of opportunity, but at the same time, [technology] is starting to become more prevalent.
One of the things I love that you've said is that technology doesn't replace people. Labor shortages are hitting the industry hard.
From a marketing perspective, how can construction businesses effectively market to employees, and potential employees, to retain and also attract new talent?
Aaron: Technology is great because it can allow us to be more efficient and effective, which means we require fewer people to build things. Long-term, that's just a reality. That's how the world works, but it'll never make up for the desperate need for people in the construction industry.
Again, it goes back to storytelling. That’s what these companies need to do: tell stories. Tell stories and explain what the people at their companies do. Explain how they make the world better every single day, explain why what they do is so important for everyone, what the realities of the industry are, and why they enjoy it.
We've backed ourselves into this corner. We could sit here and complain that millennials don't want to work, or colleges are way more attractive than our industry, or so on, and so forth. Or we can say, “hey, this is our responsibility to figure out.” It’s not my opinion, it’s reality, and the key to [retaining labor] is all about storytelling.
From an internal standpoint, even if you could care less about showing your company externally, it's about marketing for the next generation, myself included. I want to see what's going on at the company I work for, or when I'm applying to a company, I want to see what it actually is like to work there.
You need to start from the inside, telling these stories to build the culture internally. Now, your people are happier, you have less turnover, and word is getting out about your business and how great it is to work there. You're naturally going to attract people. There are a lot of traditional methods out there -- career fairs or ads in the paper, and I see companies in this industry doing all sorts of things and that's great. They can keep doing it, but at the same time, a lot of that's not working as well as it used to.
We haven’t tapped into the blue collar standpoint online yet. So, that’s what we do. We visit our partners. We go to their job sites, we tell stories about their people and get the word out. Ultimately more people find their way to those businesses.
Agreed. Having an online presence is huge.
How would you encourage companies without an online presence to start building one?
Aaron: There are a lot of companies that may have 200 dump trucks and no website. They might say, “we don’t need a website because we have all the work we need.” That's great, but do you have the people you need?
You need a website because that's how you get new people these days. Maybe you've been able to get away without a website for maybe even decades. Perhaps you've been wildly successful, but things have changed. If I want to go work for your company, I’m going to Google your company’s name. If it doesn't come up, I don't want to work there. Maybe it's a great place to work too. But if I don't know about it, how can I come to work for you?
Everybody over-complicates storytelling and marketing. It’s a lot of the art industry's fault. The traditional marketing industry has taught people that marketing is very complicated. So people hire marketing agencies, and I consistently tell people, they probably don't need to hire us to do this effectively. If they're serious about marketing the best place to start is to understand that storytelling is crucial and necessary for long-term growth.
If you have no interest in really growing, and you're stoked with where you're at. Okay, that's fine. You can get away with it, but if you want to grow or last through the next 10 - 20 years, you're going to need to embrace marketing and storytelling.
You should view it as an essential piece of growing your business, and making it sustainable long-term is key. It’s about getting a little vulnerable. Yes, there are potential risks to putting yourself out there. I get that. My dad's a lawyer. I understand risk. That’s how he sees the world: risk, risk, risk. But I view the risk of not marketing as greater.
You limit your risk by not sharing anything or not telling your story or anything like that. People don't know about you and now you can't hire effectively. You can't build a culture effectively. Long-term, that’s going to hurt your business as a result, and your people are going to hurt too. Understanding that requires a bit of vulnerability, but the risks are not all that significant at the end of the day.
We work with a lot of companies that do a lot of sharing and the times it's gone south are very, very rare. Based on the data we've seen, it doesn't happen all that often, So once you understand it's necessary for your business, even if you don't want to get new work, you understand you need to be a little bit vulnerable.
To start, I would look internally. Try to find a person, or people, within your business that are excited about your business, and that are potentially younger. You don't need to go spend a bunch of money on it. Everyone has a phone with a pretty good camera attached to it. Social media is free. You don't need to pay anything to create a page on LinkedIn, where you share something three times a week. Start sharing about what you do day to day. What your business looks like, what kind of equipment you use, who your people are.
Highlight your people. There are so many stories to be told within your business. I can guarantee there's probably someone in your business that would be happy to do this.
I was that person at the companies I worked for previously and management wouldn’t allow me to do that. That's what led me to quit. I was so excited about telling the story, my story. And they said, no, for fear of potential lawsuits or whatever it may have been. But you have those people [who want to tell their story] at your company. Give them a little bit of freedom to tell that story, give them guardrails, you don't have to completely open yourself up on day one. Maybe just give them a little bit of freedom, but you'll be amazed what it can do for your business.
How can companies replicate some of the outcomes of face-to-face relationships, but online?
Is there risk to that?
Aaron: These companies are running trucks on the road. There's a lot of risk there. It's not like these companies have never taken a risk in their life. They take risks every single day of the week. The level of risk required [to tell your company’s story] is not even remotely similar to the risks that they take on a daily basis to operate their business.
And no, an online presence isn't going to replace face-to-face relationships. This is just to add on top of what they're already doing. I used to make the mistake of saying “This is the future. You just need to do this.” That's not true at all. This is just another tool to utilize.
Construction companies can use software and technology to make their business better, but it's not going to be the end all, be all for their business. Their business was probably doing just fine before they got that software, but now it’s better.
I went out to a gold mine in California the other day. It's in the middle of nowhere -- 20 miles down a dirt road in the middle of the desert. We get there and the guys there already know who we are, and they're excited for us to be there because they follow us online, and they have for years. So, when I shake their hand and talk to them, we already have a connection. We already have a relationship, and I've never talked to them in my life. That's because they've been seeing what we've been doing and how we've been building our business for years. They feel like they're a part of it.
When I do shake their hand, when I do meet them in person, when I do create that in-person relationship, it's so much stronger than it could have been if it was just showing up without context, and I had to explain who the hell I was. That's huge.
When we hire people, they don't come into our business asking us what we do. They already know. The hiring process is so much more streamlined and we don't have a hiring problem. There are a lot of benefits to [marketing and storytelling] your business.
What are you looking for in a construction company to be able to help them build a strong brand that conveys who they are and what they do?
Aaron: We always try to keep it really authentic. There's this big temptation to polish everything and to present a story that isn't all that unique and, and is safe. But that has the opposite effect and actually creates mistrust. If you see a company, and it looks a little too good, you think “I'm not buying it.”
The construction industry is built on trust. The quickest way to build trust is to create and showcase a brand that's not perfect. A brand that's true to who you guys are. You go to construction company websites and you see the same values everywhere - respect, integrity, safety. You think, “I could get behind those values, I'm all about safety.” But that doesn't tell me anything about your business. You value safety. Okay, so does every other company in the entire industry. It is 2021 -- safety is kind of a big deal these days. What does safety actually mean to you? It's about diving a little deeper, telling people who you really are, what you really believe in, and doing it in a real manner.
The construction companies I trust the most are the ones that occasionally publish their screw-ups on the internet. They'll have the bed of a truck that rolled over and they'll put it on the internet. They'll say, “This was a bad day. This was a huge mistake. Here's what happened. And here's what we're doing so this doesn't happen again.” That's way bigger to me than someone posting really cool, perfect pictures all the time. There's so much value in that.
Now, I'm not saying you have to go post all your rolled over truck photos. That's completely ridiculous, so that's an extreme example, but that level of realness and authenticity is really valuable. Whenever we're building a brand, we're looking at what already exists. We're looking at who the company already is. We don't make anything up. And then we present it to the world as is. That’s all we do. We don’t stage anything.
I believe that this world is beautiful as is, and it's supposed to be imperfect. It's supposed to be gritty. That's why it's so cool. That's why I love it. That's why people like me would much rather be out on a job site than this beautiful office. There is something appealing about the dirt, the diesel, and the harsh weather. The best brands are imperfect and unpolished.
That’s how we present BuildWitt. Do we want people to think where we have our act together? Absolutely. They like for things to be relatable. From a company standpoint, I think that's a really valuable principle and something that is rare because it takes a certain level of courage and vulnerability that a lot of companies are just not willing to have.
You’ve made great points. To wrap up the episode I have a few “rapid-fire” questions:
Is there somebody in the industry that has acted as a mentor to you over the years?
Aaron: Most of the company owners we have worked with have mentored me whether they know it or not. We work with some remarkable human beings that have built extraordinary businesses. At BuildWitt we do business with people that we respect and trust. Every single one of them is someone I look up to.
What keeps you in the construction industry?
Everything about it, the big equipment, being able to build stuff, the people, the humility, the grit, the adventure, the change in day to day life, and the extreme aspects of it. It's all so attractive to me.
If there's one piece of technology that you could not do your job without, what would that be?
My smartphone. Even just from a Google Maps standpoint -- if I didn't have GPS on my phone, I couldn’t find sites. I was out in the middle of the desert the other day, and my GPS took me right there. Right out in the middle of the desert. If I didn't have that, I would be in big trouble.