Say you’ve just bought a house that needs fixing up, or you’re looking to remodel. Or maybe you’re building from the ground up. Chances are you’re not ready to take on that herculean task yourself. So you hire a general contractor. That’s the person charged with providing all of the material, labor, equipment and services to build the project.
But how do you find the great contractors that are out there? There’s a chance that can quickly go awry.
For Jean Brownhill, the founder and CEO of Sweeten, her wake-up call came after a “classic nightmare story” of hiring the wrong general contractor to remodel a Brooklyn fixer-upper she’d bought. She launched the company while completing a prestigious Loeb Fellowship at Harvard University. The company draws its name from the expression “home sweet home,” and the desire to help people feel more at home in their dwelling.
“We consider ourselves renovation matchmakers. So we help homeowners and small business owners find the best general contractors, we match them to their projects and then we actually track those projects all the way to completion,” Brownhill said.
Brownhill is not the typical homeowner. She trained as an architect at Cooper Union in New York City, and worked on multimillion-dollar budget renovations. Despite her training and experience, she felt lost when it came to hiring the right contractor for her own home renovation. And it cost her in additional time and money.
Sweeten charges general contractors a small fee based on the project size. The contractors are vetted through a 30-minute phone interview that tests customer service skills. The company also works with clients to make sure their expectations align with the reality of the project.
“Our general contractors have told us that they have the most friction and the most tension... in the misalignment around scope and budget expectations,” Brownhill said.
Brownhill is also atypical in the construction space because she’s an African-American woman. She says the company is working to close the gender gap in construction by launching a new program: Sweeten Accelerates Women (SAW).
“We are looking to find existing, great women-owned general contracting firms and give them special promotion within our platform, to give them mentorship and to look for press opportunities to highlight their work in a more broad context,” she said.
The work of a general contractor aligns well with skills that women traditionally have, she added.
“The job of a general contractor is mostly logistics and communication, right? You are marshalling materials and labor. You are synchronizing them over time and making sure that you communicate the progress of the project. Those are executive functioning skills that women succeed at, and I think oftentimes people think that being a general contractor is swinging a hammer and that's just not the case.”