Home renovation startup Sweeten created trust as the foundation of its business — and now it has $1.5 billion worth of work in its pipeline.
3 min read
When Jean Brownhill walked into her Brooklyn home in 2007 and saw a gaping hole in the ceiling, she knew she was dealing with a renovation gone wrong. Brownhill had built a career in architecture and construction — if she struggled to find a reliable general contractor, other homeowners must really struggle. To seize the opportunity, she launched Sweeten in 2011. It’s an online marketplace that matches homeowners with vetted general contractors and helps manage the relationship and the project. Consumers get transparency; reliable contractors get more business. Since launching, Sweeten has raised $20 million, completed thousands of renovations across the country, and has $1.5 billion worth of projects in its pipeline. But to succeed, Brownhill knew she’d need to do more than just create a smart service. She’d need to build trust in a very distrusting industry. Here’s how.
1. Build a new network.
Brownhill was well-connected in the architecture world, but not in tech or venture capital. So she immersed herself. Using Meetup.com, she found and attended one gathering a day. “I’d go to Meetups about coding, talent recruitment, fundraising — any topic where I could learn,” she says. It helped her lay an early foundation: “I found the person who developed our first line of code at a Meetup.”
2. Build trust with partners.
To win over skeptical contractors, Brownhill often met them at their work sites and focused on creating mutual benefit. “They needed to know that we have skin in the game, too,” she says. “Sweeten doesn’t charge them to join the platform and can help them find the right clients — but if they get three bad reviews, they’re off the platform.”
Image Credit: Courtesy of Sweeten
3. Build trust with customers.
Consumers weren’t used to hiring contractors online, so Brownhill had to work extra hard to humanize the process. “I did things that were wildly unscalable: I’d personally visit homes to take measurements; I sent handwritten thank-you notes; I gave customers my cellphone number. It wouldn’t be possible today at our scale,
but it helped people get to know us,” she says.
4. Build trust with yourself.
At first, Brownhill self-funded Sweeten. (“I cashed out my 401(k) and ran up my credit cards,” she says, which she doesn’t advise.) By 2013, she needed institutional capital to grow but kept hearing no from investors. She kept at it, seeking VCs who would understand the business. Then she found Joanne Wilson at Gotham Gal Ventures, who enthusiastically agreed to invest. “Being a woman, being African American — your first yeses, you almost don’t know how to react because you’re so not used to it,” Brownhill says. “I was stumbling all over the place! I did not yet know how to walk through open doors. Luckily, I have since learned to do just that.”