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Construction workers swap pen and paper for digital app

Roger Showley, The San Diego Union-Tribune on

Published in Home and Consumer News

SAN DIEGO -- At the InterContinental Hotel construction site on the downtown waterfront here, Hensel Phelps field engineer Andrew Coba pulls out his tablet and fires up an app called Raken to note progress on metal framing at the second level.

He can dictate observations, take photos and videos, and email his daily report back to the office in a matter of minutes.

Developed by an area startup, Raken can cut an hour or more off the tedious daily task of monitoring dozens of subcontractors and their crews.

The old method of pen and paper was prone to slipshod recordkeeping that sometimes resulted in overlooked construction mistakes and litigation years later.

"Sometimes it can be a hassle with all that's going on," said Coba, whose responsibility includes working with subcontractors. "They miss days and we have to chase them down (for the information)."

The 25-year-old took quickly to the software, having grown up on video games. But he said it's been relatively easy to convince older construction crews that the new method was worth trying.

He said Hensel Phelps tried out Raken on various jobs around Southern California and encouraged him to try to it out at the InterContinental.

At least a quarter of the construction crews there now use it and, largely, have abandoned pen and paper.

Other companies use different software tools at construction sites, but the Associated General Contractors of America named Raken the top daily reporting software and one of the top five mobile apps for construction a year after it debuted in 2014.

Since then, Raken has been adopted by 2,400 customers with more than 10,000 users in 13 countries.

Some of the most high-profile projects here and elsewhere have been documented using Raken. Besides the InterContinental and a San Diego-area community college district, the software has been used by various defense contractors, the company said.

Elsewhere it's been employed at the $1.7 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium that opened in August in Atlanta, the $1.3 billion Transbay Transit Center under construction in San Francisco and $1.1 billion Salesforce Tower, also under way in San Francisco.

The app is the product of a company founded by Kyle Slager, 36, the son of a Columbus, Ohio, home builder who majored in economics at Brown University.

He worked on Wall Street before moving to Rancho Santa Fe, Calif.-based Brandes Investment Partners, an investment advisory.

"I had an itch after doing that for a few years to create something," he said.

He interviewed scores of construction companies and concluded that they badly needed some technical upgrades in the daily chore of monitoring subcontractors.

"What I didn't know at the time was that construction companies can be sued up to 10 years after a project is completed," he said. "A plumbing leak on the 14th floor can cause $500,000 in damage (costs) to a general contractor and they go back and forth with the plumbing contractor they hired."

Who's to blame often comes down to who has the best records. And if they're incomplete, somebody has to pay up.

Raken makes it simple and seamless to keep impeccable notes and photographic evidence that can be retrieved as needed.

The software also helps smooth interruptions in the construction schedule due to weather -- that app automatically includes weather condition reports -- or delays in construction material deliveries.

"It's catching small problems before they become really big, big problems," Slager said.

The name is taken from "rakentaa," Finnish for "to build," and reflects Slager's admiration for Finnish design.

From an initial staff of four, Raken has grown to more than 40 employees and that is expected to double in the next year.

They are housed at the Make project, the former floral mart outside San Diego.

Its onsite amenities, like a gym, surfboard racks, food service, and the mix of tech-savvy companies like GoPro also suit the millennial-oriented Raken staff makeup.

It also suited the commuting needs for Raken's chief product and technology officer, Sergey Sundukovskiy, 41.

His backstory is as interesting as Slager's.

He was born in Ukraine, moved to San Diego to attend UC San Diego in 1994 for a B.A. in computer science. Subsequently, he earned a master's degree in computer science at the University of Liverpool, a Ph.D. in business at online Capella University and another master's in science and big data at Harvard.

He developed point-of-sale software for checkout registers and sold it to Capital One in 2014. Now living in southern Orange County, he was introduced to Slager by a mutual friend as someone who could help propel Raken's growth.

"When I looked at Raken, the company immediately drew my attention," he said. "I started advising Kyle and working together and decided to join as a late-stage cofounder."

Users pay $12-30 per license per month or an annual subscription at a 20 percent discount. They can tap a nearly 24/7 customer help line and make suggestions for upgrades and new services.

One upgrade that was soon abandoned was the ability to upload 80 megabyte files. Users discovered it took too long to access such files, especially when Wi-Fi and cellular service is spotty at construction sites.

"We pulled back to the chagrin of some customers," Sundukovskiy said.

Although Raken might have some application to other industries, from event planning and movies to natural disasters and oil and gas drilling, Slager and Sundukovskiy said they are sticking with construction for now.

"We still have a myopic focus to be able to provide the best app for its purpose," Slager said.

The two founders said the company is generally running in the black but not consistently profitable since extra funds are poured back into hiring new staff to handle growth demands.

The company has raised $3.25 million in venture capital funding and is preparing to launch a growth round that could range from $5 million to $20 million.

"We plan to do that in the near future and accelerate growth and continue to bring in great talent that is San Diego based," Slager said.

(c)2017 The San Diego Union-Tribune

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