Built Different Episode 3: StructionSite Startup Journey with CEO and Co-Founders

Lauren Massey
May 24, 2022

In this episode of Built Different, Matt is joined by Phillip Lorenzo, Co-Founder and Chief Data Officer at StructionSite and Dan Zito, Chief Technology Officer and Co-Founder at StructionSite. 

They talk about the startup experience of StructionSite as founders, from identifying a product fit and a sustainable market for growth to navigating the waters of entrepreneurship and building things from the ground up. They delve deep into how StructionSite evolved into having a better, more efficient approach to tracking the progress of construction projects. StructionSite software organizes photos and videos by location and date, allowing you to compare actual work to estimates and time spent on the job. 

The well-defined use case of the StructionSite product allows teams to track production down to the cost code level and see if they are profitable week to week. With the iOS or Android app, clients can walk around the job site recording 360° videos, and the AI-powered algorithms will position them on the project drawing. Through this StructionSite is able to provide an easy-to-use solution for tracking jobsite progress and beyond for complete documentation of your jobsite.


Matt: All right everybody, welcome back to another episode of the Built Different Podcast. I am joined today by my two co-founders, Mr. Dan Zito and Mr. Philip Lorenzo. Do you guys want to say, hi?

Philip Lorenzo: Hi everyone. My name is Philip. My current role is Chief Data Officer at StructionSite. I have had many roles before that. I was the head of product before and just delivery of everything and all of us, I guess I'd say delivery of everything here at StructionSite, but I'm the data guy.

Matt: Nice. I'm the data guy, Dan.

Dan Zito: Yes, hello. Dan Zito, happy to be here with my co-founders. My role is Chief Technology Officer, and I've always been building the tech that drives our own product focused on software development. That's what I know, and that's what I do, and it's been part of what we do here now.

Matt: Awesome. Today, we're going to do some storytime. We're going to do a little storytelling. We're going to look at a little bit at the past. We're going to look, I think a little bit at the present, and if we have time, we can jump into some of the future stuff, too. I think our goal today is just to help people understand a little bit about how we got here, and how StructionSite started. I'll kick it off with a little bit of my own background, and then maybe hand it off to Philip with that connection point over there at the Kaiser Oakland hospital job.

Sometime around 2013, I was working for a company called FARO Technologies that makes 3D-imaging and measurement products, mostly for aerospace and automotive, basically manufacturing businesses. I had spent a lot of my time in the previous nine years before StructionSite in a fab shop, machine shop for Boeing, plant for a car manufacturer. That's where my world was.

Sometime around 2010, that company launched a LiDAR scanner that scans buildings, and so suddenly, I found myself on job sites, talking to contractors. Of course, this is going back in time, 20 years when you go from a manufacturing facility with robots and imaging devices everywhere, and then you get out on the job site. I see Philip walking around with a set of paper plans and a highlighter marking down stuff. It was definitely just-- For me, it was pretty interesting to jump into the construction world.

I think it was 2010, FARO launched that scanner, so I find myself on the Kaiser Oakland hospital project, about 20 minutes away from where I'm at now. The contractor had really basically got the owner, which is Kaiser, in this case, very, very interested in some laser scanning deliverables. They were going to laser scan the floors, they were going to laser scan the steel, and this is stuff that just wasn't really being done at the time. This is very, very early days for using this type of data to produce floor flatness deliverables to the ASTM E1155 spec to be able to tell you what the steel was doing as the concrete deck was being poured.

My wrapping up of this story is I just remember Philip was the guy so their company buys a scanner, and Philip is the poor guy who's got to figure out how the heck to actually deliver this information to their client, using this LiDAR data and a piece of software that frankly wasn't built to do what he needed to do. I get these late-night emails and phone calls from this punk kid who's telling me, "Dude, your software sucks."

I just remember being like, "First of all who is this person, and second of all, if you think you should do it better go ahead." That's the beginning of Philip and I's friendship, how we got to know each other. Philip, do you want to jump in and maybe share a little bit of your experience there on the Kaiser job and things you were doing as a builder there.

Philip: Yes, well, now that I'm on the other side, I definitely don't think that software generally sucks just incomplete. There's got to be workflows, they got to be built, and everyone has a different use case. I had a great working relationship with a team there, and they're doing some amazing things, but when it came to actually getting it done, that was a whole different feel. It's like, all right, well, we promised this to the client, go ahead and deliver it. I was the person that had to get into the weeds and actually deliver it.

It was fun, but it was a lot of late nights, and a lot of custom plugin development and random-- I was using a software called MATLAB to do a lot of the calculations on this huge gigabyte size point cloud data to be able to replicate the standards for how you check, steel and concrete that was developed in the '70s and '80s using these really traditional levels. It was a long process.

It was cool being able to be the person that can do that. We got some construction awards, tech awards, whatever. Being able to get this via tech, which is like this, facilities engineering management technology awards, it was cool and they liked it but, I didn't really care about it so much as who else besides me can do this, that mattered more to me and when I tried train my replacement, well, we had to install MATLAB, we had to install the special Excel plugin. It made me realize, well, we got to really wrap this up into some easy button. That's a big takeaway is, sure you can make an impact in one project but how do you make an impact on multiple-- How do you make an impact in the industry?

That didn't really connect with me until me and you were like, "Why don't we just use this API that FARO started offering? You can make your own plug-in, you can customize stuff, you can do whatever you want." That really opened up the doors for us there.

Matt: Tell us about Rithm.

Philip: Rithm is short for algorithm. It's not the dancing rhythm, but like algorithm. Its goal was to create that easy button for customers, so, you don't have to know much about the technology, the algorithms, the steps. It abstracts away a lot of the analysis of the building, for floors, concrete. It was a very niche product, I got to say, because it focused on certain aspects of construction, and you had to have a certain laser scanner. I got to tell you, we really owned that niche back when these FARO scanners started coming out, artists coined the term Reality Capture. That was a whole new word.

Remember, Matt, they had this whole comments around it. They were trying to create so much hype around scanning, and there was a myriad of companies getting into the space, "Hey, we can capture buildings." It's like being there. That was part of a whole revolution. These construction companies started having these RealityCapture departments. I remember with Rithm, people would buy our software, but then I would actually fly around the country living out of my suitcase, practically, and so did you, Matt, selling scanners, like, "All right, I want I to use Rithm, but I want to know, how do you actually do RealityCapture? How do you capture [unintelligible 00:06:44] analyze your building?"

We did more than even just create software. We started getting to thought leadership, like "This is the best practice. This is how you do it." We pretty much got to know so many of these BIMtech decision-makers for DSCs all across the country, just from tackling that niche, which is pretty awesome.

Matt: Yes, I still remember. I think one of my favorite stories from the Rithm days were flying out to Jacksonville, Florida, to the ASTM conference, to basically try to lobby and convince them to put a laser scanner in as an acceptable apparatus for the E1155 spec, so that you could scan and actually meet the spec, by actually scanning it instead of using the 20-year-old manual analog device that had been patented a couple of decades before.

What I remember about Rithm too, and even just obviously, my time with FARO was the thing that was really tough to scale was the scanner itself and LiDAR data. I think one of the major learnings there was, scanning technology is a little ways out from really being scalable. I couldn't hand this thing to a superintendent and say, "Go scan the job." They would never do that.

We were stuck in this very niche world of, "What can we do with LiDAR data based on the amount of time people will actually put into collecting it?" The big turning point for us was 360 photos. Do you want to talk through that? Because I still remember you sharing this very rough PowerPoint presentation with me that was like, "This is the thing we've been waiting for. Here's what we could do with a 360 camera instead of a scanner."

Philip: Yes, when the 360 cameras came out, actually, I wanted us to kick-start campaigns, and they were like, they were releasing this 360-camera, one of the first ones on it. That really changed the game. A lot of tech companies have grown very fast in our space, and just tech companies in general, they typically jump on the wave of a new hardware that becomes this mass market. Obviously, this cloud becomes mass market, mobile becomes mass market, but when iPads came mass market, coming like PlanGrid, just skyrocketed just from the iPad.

The 360 cameras was a wave that we really rode there, where it was, you can just go to Best Buy or Amazon, you can get a camera next day, or the same day and just start capturing so much at your job site that was not possible. In a way that is similar to using a $56,000 scanner, that was really instrumental for us.

I was like, "Matt, I think we can do something with this." The first idea for it was some lame VR app, which is still cool. There's companies that do that now. We probably spent almost 100 hours on iterating on a PowerPoint presentation until people were like, "Yes, this is something I would actually use and pay for. Maybe we can actually build a scalable business around it." That was probably that story.

Matt: Yes, I also remember delivering something to one of our early customers who was like, "This is awesome, but it looks so bad, I can't show it to my client yet." [chuckles] It was just like that's where, the part of this story that nobody wants to tell, where you got to begin, and really part of our journey doesn't really totally begin until our other two co-founders Dan here and Manuel joined the team and really jumped in to do the actual work of building the software we needed to build in order to take this thing from an idea to actual reality.

The thing that got me there across the line was, Philip doing what every great entrepreneur does and putting a PowerPoint together and getting a lot of people to buy into that vision for what could be via that PowerPoint. That's kind of what got me over the line.

Philip: Not just figuratively buy-in, like literally buy-in, like sign this, sign this, bring us a check before. Getting someone to actually put their money where their mouth is, is a whole different ballgame compared to just being like, "Yes, that's so cool. I'd use it." It removes that whole bias of them being your friend or them liking you.

When real dollar bills are placed, which it was a $5,000 buy-in to use it and our command was from just definitely VPR, but that like was some real momentum there with some real backing, real buy-in.

Matt: Literally. Dan, I'll tee you up here with my background here. I met Dan back in college, UC San Diego, which by the way, we don't talk enough about the fact that there's actually people coming out of UC San Diego that have done a few things here and there. They've got a great name in biotech and some other areas, but two UCSD grads here.

I remember looking up Dan and being like, "Who could help actually build this thing and coming to visit you at Google that fateful day and just being totally like, "Wow, you've got it made. This looks nice." It was one market or whatever that was-- and thinking to myself like, "How in the heck are we going to convince Dan to leave this and go work in his garage or house or whatever, and basically start building this thing from scratch with us."

Dan, you can speak to your own version of that story, but when it came time to roll up our sleeves and actually build some software, that was you at the beginning.

Dan: Matt, I remember that fateful day, that lunch we had together. I was just excited to hear about what you and Philip were doing. At that point, I hadn't even met Philip yet and roughly following what you guys were up to with Rithm. I was eager to hear what this next iteration was, even though if it was called StructionsSite at the time yet. It was really the idea that germ, more than a germ actually. That's what impressed me about where you guys were at and where these, these two guys were at with.

It was more than just a good idea. It was proven as validated, like Philip said, having that check in hand or multiple checks from people who even a very rough, not even a prototype, they just it's compelling enough that they're willing to wait to come to life in a way that they can actually use it.

That's one of the elements here that caught me from the beginning.

My background like I said, is in software development. As you guys know, I've been doing this professionally for gosh, almost 20 years now. One of the great things about working in software is it's such a creative field. There's so many different avenues you can take with technology. For me, it's been a journey of learning. I've worked in a number of different industries before Google. I worked in AdTech and before that I worked at Tesla. Before that, I worked in digital marketing and so lots of ways to learn about different industries and how people are working, and how technology can enable them.

For me, it's been also about doing side projects and having an entrepreneurial bent. It's like taking an idea and seeing what you can do with it. People who follow startups know takes a lot more than an idea to-- There are good ideas. They are a dime a dozen. I think what impressed me about Philip and Matt, you guys had proven this idea.

On paper, of course, it made perfect sense. Philip, like you said, the technology is there now with these 360-degree cameras. Let's go build software around that, that unlocks these workflows. For me, that's super exciting to create something from scratch that resonates with people and it's going to change how they work for the better.

Matt, probably I could see where you're walking into that Google's office in San Francisco. It looks great and it's a great place to work for sure, but there's something exciting about an idea whose time it has come and having the right team to do it. As soon as I met Philip, there was no doubt, this is the right team to get this off the ground and Manuel as well.

Matt: Absolutely. Let's talk about Y Combinator for a minute. You guys remember that? It was like what I remember divert-- trying to get this thing off the ground. It's 2017. We launched that summer. Two customers, app is working, but still pretty rough around the edges. That's where I remember getting that comment from I think it was Justin Porter at Truebeck or maybe Alex Snyder and they were like, "This is great, but it needs to look a little nicer before we go show our client what we're doing here."

That's just where we were. Obviously, it started to improve, we got some design work, things were really cooking. We applied to Y Combinator, and we went through that process a couple of times. What do you guys remember about that process?

Dan: It's a little nerve-wracking, wasn't it? That was a big deal for us at the time to see the doors that that can unlock to go into a program like Y Combinator. I think we were pretty confident in our ability to do that, as I recall, but it's hard. Even if you have something really strong, the competition to get into that program is fierce.

Philip: Yes, it's definitely-- Even the act of trying to get ready for it and making sure your pitch already transforms the company in a way, it makes it a lot easier. It adds a much higher level of scrutiny to what you're doing. That already indirectly, those who are done, getting in or not.

Matt: Yes, I remember this as getting to the interview stage twice, only to be crushed by the reality. I still remember very vividly, and you're sitting in your living room, Dan, waiting for that phone call late night, and feeling like, "Man, this has got to happen. We have such an awesome team, we've got a product that's in a market, this has got to happen." and getting-- [crosstalk] What's that?

Philip: Get revenue, some revenue.

Matt: I know. Again, we had a lot of reasons to be confident. I remember being crushed by not feeling we were ready for that. Ultimately having to hear that it just looks like what you're doing here might just be PlanGrid. PlanGrid should just do this. I think that's a very common thing that investors say about their portfolio companies is it looks like the thing you're doing might be a feature, and not a platform.

Yes, I remember that being definitely a low point. Sometime after that being bullish enough on what we were doing. We believed enough in it, that we made some interesting decisions about how to fund the business, basically with credit card debt. Doing things that you do when you believe in what you're doing, but you look back and you're like, "Wow, that was risky."

I remember taking us through that phase, and us being willing to make that bet on ourselves, but then 500 Startups. All of a sudden on the other side of the table, there's an investor who I remember, whose father I think worked for a mechanical contractor. I took someone else from the space that had a connection to it, who was like, "I see what you guys are doing. I get this, we're in." I remember that program being pretty transformational for us. I don't know, what do you guys-- What are the memories that--


Dan: That was a pivotal moment, and I think that was a theme too, is like there are people, there's a class of investor and customers, of course too who get it, because they understand the problem we're solving either a first or second hand. Nowadays, we see that on the team here that people work at StructionSite, a large percentage, large portion, how that personal connection to construction, and understand the challenges that are faced there.

I think that's different to maybe other tech companies who've gone through those types of accelerator programs, where it's clearly a little bit more of an abstract idea or something a little more trendy, or what have you, that gets accepted because there's more press about it. Whereas we're bucking the trend at the time as I remember it, but that was a pivotal moment getting into 500 Startups, definitely.

Philip: We went through this three and half-month program, and we were in-person working and hashing things out every day. It was a transformational experience because we started a company really just being fully remote, and not really getting to connect or understand how they work closely together. We're still a fully remote company now, but having once in a while in-person conversations sometimes just accelerates certain things.

Matt: That was also where we-- there was a couple of mega projects we were on that we learned a lot on. Chase Center in the Bay Area was one of those projects where we were in the field using the product, going back, taking a scooter from Chase Center, back to the 500 Startups office back when we all took scooters everywhere because that was the thing to do. I just remember having a hardhat and a vest in a Bird or a Lime. We're going back and forth between the Chase Center and the 500 Startups office

Dan: At least you had that bright vest and a hardhat, so you were safe on that scooter, no doubt.

Matt: I felt safe. I felt probably way safer than I was on the streets of San Francisco on a scooter that goes 20 miles an hour or whatever that thing does. I definitely felt safer with an orange vest on, there was no doubt. That was a pretty transformational, I think experience for us, I'm super, super grateful for the team of 500 Startups, folks that went through that batch with us, and just for that experience. I think for any other first-time founder that's thinking about it, we did it, Dan, because we knew another founder that had gone through it. That was really what convinced us to go through it, and I think I would recommend it to others, especially, when you're like us and you're a first-time founder and trying to figure all this out, there's a lot to learn and you need a good network and you need some people who can help you along the way, and so I think I can probably speak for all of us when I say like, we're super, super grateful for that opportunity.

Dan: 100%.

Philip: Yes, it's so much more than just coming in with the idea and building it, hashing it out, there's so much of this, go to market process, customer success building and architecting that, it's really hard to learn on your own. They really streamline that and accelerate your progress, so yes, and accelerated like that, or just in general. It's been amazing.

Matt: Let's talk about a couple of the big, I guess you could call them product ideas, pivots, changes, whatever you want to call them. One of them was around that time and it was a video walk. I think Philip, you remember being out at the Chase Center on the days, and I know Dan, you were out there some days too, where you're out there taking a picture every 20 feet and we're searching for a better way, do you want to tell us a little bit about that?

Philip: Oh yes, having to use your own app to capture 3 million square foot project weekly, it made me-- At that point, we were, add 3Cs to photos on our drawing app. That's really all we were, it was also like a slower camera. We were using Rico's marginal one, you had to pause a little bit longer, but anyways, it took so long and I hated using our app.

I was like, "Man, this is so slow." I could be so much faster if I can just like walk around. There's got to be a better way. We had to innovate for sure.

The biggest limiting factor for us is the time it takes to capture. It still is, and there are some newer technologies coming out there like autonomous, that's-- it's already getting more, but back then having to stop was being able to create a workflow where you don't have to stop was a complete game-changer for us. Wasn't easy to build though and we're still continuing to prove and automate, but yes, Dan has some fun stories to share about that.

Dan: Yes, the idea was like we just had to solve the capture speed problem. Again, at that point where we were really feeling the pain of the workflow breaking down, the Chase Center, 3 million square foot project, to keep up with that, these cameras were coming to market, there were new cameras coming out that were faster and could record video.

That was just the problem to solve, how can we use video to do this much, much faster? Yes, it definitely was, at that stage, we were hacking together as fast as we could a product that fit the solution, and so to go back and rework what we had to accommodate this new pipeline right, for taking in videos was a pretty heavy lift, and the team was super small.

I think we had maybe a couple of contractors we were working with on the development side. Figuring out what's the shortest path to get there and being hyper-efficient to do that. That was a lot of fun actually to see this come to life, to get on the whiteboard, draw out how it would work, and then just go and have like marathon coding sessions, later that week, go back out to the Chase Center and try it and test it. What better way to get that feedback loop than actually using it in the field.

Philip: We were scratching.

Matt: I'm sorry, hop on your Lime or your Bird and get down there and start recording some videos. I have very fond memories of our time there in the city, and as well, maybe let's move a little bit closer to present day. We've got a capture platform that's rapidly growing. We've got to really differentiate it in like pretty great way of capturing data, and then we start to think about what comes next.

A lot of this is being driven by our customers, but also just fill up your own experience, and I think intuition around what could we do with this? Along comes Smart Track, and I still remember hearing about the time that you had spent on the job site. We like to basically say, you were a summer intern for one of our customers walking around with your paper sheets and your actual highlighters tracking interiors, tell us a little bit about that and what led us to Smart Track?

Philip: I remember needing to track even like the install stuff as a PE, but no matter how long you've been in construction, other customers, other people have different experiences, different ways of doing things, and yes, I went back out to the field and not being on a software company, but still needing to be in the shoes of the people that are in the field.

I remember being an intern for them, I'll help you track your stuff, you don't even have to pay me, I'll be your free help. They had me go every week and track the install of like walls and, and ceilings and all that, and then they taught me everything in terms of how they go about doing it. They'll put everything into Bluebeam, then they'll put it into the system, they'll quantify it, and then they start to like use it in meanings and be able to see that first hand and sees potential, what value we'd be able to provide if we were able to automate that and also like how we should just be like building something that will more or less like one to one replace a lot of what we're doing. The only way to really know that is to see it being used firsthand on projects that was a pretty, pretty awesome experience.

In general too like we were just being used so much on projects in terms of capturing job site progress. There's so much opportunity to unlock more from that data like that raw imagery data. It just makes so much sense to just analyze it.

Matt: I think we'll wrap up here with Dan. I'm going to pass the mic here to you for a minute with basically, I think you did something that it's really difficult for technical leaders to do, and that took a lot of courage at one point when it was very non-obvious to invest in a new type of technology and a new series of technologies to build and scale the business and you can look back on it now and say that was a great decision, but it wasn't obvious at the time that it was, would love to hear a little bit about why Elm and Rust and what led you to that and how has it impacted us today?

Philip: Sure, yes. No, that's a topic I'm very fond of is, is just, there's always technology continues to innovate. You can make a decision to grab a hold of that, or you can stick with what's proven what's mature. There's an old saying in software like, nobody ever got fired for choosing Java. Kind of like nobody got fired for choosing IBM, but it's so old. You could do it and it will work and you can find people who know it, but what's more exciting to me is to grab ahold of the new and hopefully improved.

Elm and Rust, those are two programming languages that at the time were not too widely known, but I think it's still true. Like software developers who know those languages are very fond of them. There's these lists that come out every year, the most loved programming languages. I was tinkering with both of them and I was like, "Wow, this would be really great to use at work, but nobody's really hiring very few companies are hiring folks to do that."

The idea there was like, "What if we could be one of them. Are there enough software engineers out there who-- we could find some like come work at StructionSite." That's what happened actually, and really like that, wasn't the only reason these languages are superior to the status quo languages in a lot of ways like Elm is a replacement for JavaScript. Anything you can do on a web browser which is a big part of our product, you can build that with Elm and you get more stability.

When we started building on those languages, we also saw improvements to our user experience. We were spending less time fixing bugs and going back and doing rework. When we wanted to change something we could do with more confidence. That's super valuable, especially the startup that's innovating, that's still finding what exactly is going to work and in every case to have that ability, that's like a superpower to go back and change something without the whole house of cards falling down.

That's what these languages provide for us. Rust now you see these days like every major tech company now has using rust somewhere. That's been really cool to see that spread as well.

Matt: Yes, you were ahead of the curve. I think it's safe to say that when it came to those. I think we've really benefited from that and yes, I think that we've got this amazing team of engineers here now we're super passionate about the technology they get to use here at StructionSite.

Dan: Full credit to our team. I could say, "I saw this happening", but really like, they're the ones who built what we have with StructionSite. You're using this technology and like, it's very brave too, to bet your career on some tech that very few companies are hiring for which they've done.

Matt: That's awesome, man. Well, look, Dan, we recently celebrated your five-year anniversary, congrats, really which is like our five-year anniversary. That's the group's milestone there and it's just so hard to imagine how far we've come and just appreciate everything about you guys. This has been so much fun and thanks for jumping on here and sharing a little bit of history with us.

Dan: Yes, likewise, Matt. It's fun to reminisce every once in a while. Isn't it? We're spending a lot of time looking forward. It's fun to look back

Matt: Totally. Right on. All right you guys, that'll wrap it up for this week and we will see all of you all here on the Built Different Podcast soon. Take care guys.


Presenter: Built Different is brought to you by StructionSite. To find out more about us head to structionsite.com

Matt: Make sure to search for built different in Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, or anywhere else you listen. Click follow, so you don't miss out on any future episodes.

Presenter: On behalf of everyone here at StructionSite, thanks for listening.

If you're interested in knowing more about the founders of StructionSite, their journey into entrepreneurship, their approaches and limitations in solving real-world problems, the complexity of software development, and the relevance and viability of StructionSite, tune in to this episode of Built Different a Podcast by StructionSite.

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And connect with Dan and Philip here:

👉 Dan’s LinkedIn:https://www.linkedin.com/in/dzito

👉 Philips’s LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/philip-lorenzo-94602018

👉 StructionSite Website: https://structionsite.com


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Built Different is a podcast by StructionSite & hosted by Matt Daly and Chris Jervey, where we listen, question the status quo, and continue to find better ways to build the world. It is a podcast for boots-on-the-ground hard workers who aim to get the job done.

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