Curtis Rodgers is the Vice President at Brick & Mortar Ventures, based in San Francisco, California. He began his construction career in 2009 at Kiewit's Texas District as a field engineer. He has since spent over five years dedicated to new technology and process improvement for industrial, infrastructure, power, oil & gas, underground, mining, renewables, healthcare, and commercial construction operations at both Kiewit and McCarthy Building Companies. Curtis was an early employee at PlanGrid in 2013 and founded the Bay Area Society for Construction Solutions (BASCS) in 2014. Curtis holds a Bachelor's degree in Business Administration and a Master's of Science in Technology from Texas State University.
On becoming a field engineer
I ended up as a business student in undergrad and I was exploring the different options after graduation. I started attending luncheons in Austin, Texas where I’m from. One of them was for the Society of Human Resource Management, which led to me starting a student chapter at my university. That then led to an amazing internship funded by AMD and Tokyo Electron and other high techs in Austin. That’s when I first understood what workforce development was and that internship showed me that I got the wrong degree. What I really wanted to do was project management.
I wanted to be in operations at a company and I needed a technical degree. I looked at my options and decided a Master’s of Science and Technology was my best bet and that was good because it was a broad degree. I studied manufacturing, semiconductors and construction. Construction just made sense to me. It can’t be outsourced and can’t be commoditized. I went to Texas State University and they’ve got a good construction program and some very heavy hitter companies are present at the private job fair for the construction students. I got an internship offer from Kiewit and they are an outstanding construction firm. Then I started as a field engineer at Kiewit.
On discovering his voice
That internship was funded by the workforce development team and definitely helped me find my voice. In Austin, Texas the Technology and Education Executive Council (TEEC) is staffed by all of the HR leaders of the high techs in Austin. Back in 2007, they set aside $30,000 and gave that to Skillpoint Alliance, which is a workforce development nonprofit. They do everything from helping convicted felons transition back into the real world to educating people on fundamental business skills all the way to STEM education. I was part of the STEM part.
I was selected to manage the pilot project for the Velocity Prep Program. The program was funded by the $30,000 from the TEEC. I first had the experience as a program manager and it was the AMD project managers who we met with to try to teach me how to run a consulting team. Talking to those professionals and getting outside the university was good because these were some of my first interactions with professionals to see what they do.
I also met with an HR professional at IBM and saw what they did on a daily basis. It wasn’t that motivating for me. As soon as I got out of the university and met with professionals in the real world, I had clarity of what I wanted to do. It was a hard and academic environment to understand what professionals do. I started Lunch with a Texas State Student, which was part of my organization in business school. We had a whole program to send students out to lunch and job shadowing opportunities because that was valuable to me.
On joining Brick & Mortar Ventures
Brendan Wallace and Darren Bechtel were classmates and are good friends. The first thoughts of Brick & Mortar included real estate investments, real estate technology and hospitality. We’re more on the construction, hardware, software and technology side. These companies are valued between $5 and $20 million. The investment sides are nowhere near what’s going on in Fintec or real estate technology investment or hospitality. Brendan and Darren decided to have two separate funds, so you could say that we have a sister fund called Grey Wolf. They’re based out of Los Angeles and we share a lot of notes. There are a lot of companies that are based right on the border between construction or facility maintenance and real estate.
Darren was already a very active Angel investor and he decided he’d like to have some focus on the fund and also leverage his knowledge and network. Construction just made sense. Brick & Mortar is not part of the Bechtel Construction organization, but Darren definitely is from that family and has been immersed in construction engineering his whole life. He has a lot of experience in the construction and architecture worlds. It’s a passion that he’s had and one day he woke up and realized things are happening in the construction technology world.
I started the Bay Area Society for Construction Solutions and a number of his portfolio companies were members. They told Darren there’s this skinny guy from Austin, TX whose got some good advice, you should meet him. Darren and I met and we became buddies. I was at McCarthy construction at the time doing new technology and processes improvement for the West Coast, it was about $1 billion a year in revenue. I pitched him an idea to add an incubator or skunk works onto my society for construction solutions and I was an entrepreneur for about 30 minutes. Then he offered me the job to help him start the venture capital fund.
On his role at Brick & Mortar
Darren and I are definitely teammates. My title is Vice President, which is basically an associate with very deep industry knowledge. Darren is the Managing Partner or Director. My background is more of the business processes, the current state of technology and different construction methods for all the different verticals of construction. I’ve done roads, bridges, highways, hospitals, labs, utilities, solar, oil and gas, mining, underground and was very fortunate to get that education at Kiewit and McCarthy. Darren’s background is on the investing side. He’s been a CEO, an architect, and a field engineer. That’s the complementary part. I can really evaluate a technology’s relevance to the construction industry. Darren is an expert in corporate strategy, investing and executive relationships. I’m more of the engineer or superintendent relationships.
I do a lot of networking and working with startups and founders on their product, market fit and establishing relationships between them and early adopters so they can get good product feedback. We look for a good relationship with an early adopter where there’s a feedback loop and we can look at a couple different points where they made changes to their product or their service based upon real world feedback before we invest.
On what sets Brick & Mortar apart from others
We’re experts in our space, so when it comes to architecture, engineering, construction, facility maintenance, facility management, that’s our background. We’re building relationships with the absolute cutting edge of that space, like NASA and the research institutions like Stanford and the Construction Institute in Austin. We want to own this space where the typical venture capital firms may say they’re more hardware or software but they don’t have an industry focus.
Construction is an opaque industry based upon tribal knowledge. Unless you’ve gone through moving from jobsite to jobsite as a field engineer or you’ve had a very fortunate opportunity like myself where I’ve been flown around all the jobsites and studied technology, there’s no way you can possibly know about what goes on in construction and it’s a huge opportunity. Over $1 trillion of work put in place every year just in the United States, it’s going to grow worldwide to be $15 trillion by 2020 or something like that. It’s a major percentage of the global GDP. That’s our focus.
Typical VCs may be experts in cloud technology and probably have a background in VMware or Google. That might qualify them to talk about some enterprise technology, moving former enterprise server technology onto cloud infrastructure or something like that. We have some investments in augmented reality and virtual reality. We look at ourselves as the next generation of venture capital firms, we have an area of focus. There are other VC firms that we work with very closely like Bolt, which is hardware or Caterpillar Ventures which is corporate. There’s a little bit of overlap between us so we can share some deals, but we also have our own areas of expertise or focus.
On where the AEC industry is ready for disruption
Right now a typical contractor is called a construction firm. I believe they’re called that because that’s what they do: contracting. That’s the most creative thing about the construction industry. It’s interesting if you’re into that stuff. But when it comes to the technology and the processes, that’s not their bread and butter. They use the contracts to create a business agreement that negates all the risk.
Most contractors that people are familiar with subcontract out absolutely everything. They don’t actually build, they’re just managing and coordinating the design, coordinating the flow of information, documenting things and observing things being put in place. There are some construction firms like Kiewit or Bechtel that self-perform and that is where you learn the real parts of the construction industry. When I talk to students I tell them ‘Hey, go work for a self-performing contractor that’s where you’re going to learn the most.’
Where the disruption is coming from is these general contractors which are very diversified and do some federal work and may do some hospitals, labs or roads. As one market goes down another one might go up. As housing and commercial take a dive, the government puts more money into infrastructure investment and the big industrials start putting capital to work and building new refineries so they can move their employees to those verticals. That’s how they’ve survived over 100 plus years. The disruption is coming from the hyper-focused contractors of builders that are going to own the entire supply chain behind them.
I’ve been using the term vertical integration in construction to talk about a construction firm that does self-perform. But that’s not really accurate. The vertical integration of construction is just now coming to the industry and that is going to transform it just like it did with manufacturing. It’s only going to be possible to do that with technology. You’re going to have to have supply chain financing and relationships put in place that provide the certainty to set up a supply chain. A construction project today is temporarily a supply chain with a temporarily supplied team of temporary workers that are all hourly and moving there for that job.
But when you have a company that says ‘we’re going to do multi-family buildings’ for example and then you reduce the number of skews and number of components of the building and you set up a sufficient supply chain and then you get vertically integrated and you own that entire supply chain all the way back to the raw materials, the normal contractors will have to leave that space because that company will dominate it. They could lose money on the construction operation and make it all in the materials and in the operation of the facility and renting to people or the income for the facility or what not. Technology is just now making it possible to do that.
On the other end there are incremental improvements, so there’s technology that’s making it available to distribute information to the field faster than ever, there’s technology emerging that’s very promising when it comes to wireless networks and sensor networks for construction and that’s very important. There’s no way to passively collect productivity data from construction operation. It’s all from timecards and manual input. In manufacturing, you have machine control but it just doesn’t exist in construction. There are all little kinds of point solutions like that but then there’s these big companies that are starting to emerge that are very focused on the vertical, they’re bringing the disruption. They’re leveraging the new technology with a little bit clearer vision and then you have the older construction firms that are applying the point solutions to improve the productivity. There are some of the old ones that are starting to figure out prefab and modular. You could describe them as next generation General Contractors.
On the future of the industry in the next 5-10 years
We’re confident the industry will change in design. Right now, if I want a home or hospital built I work with an architect and they ask me questions and come at me with a few designs. They’re probably artistic renderings and that is not a construction design. There’s a process of design development and construction designs: SDDD and CD. Each one of those gates has a different level of detail into the design but also a level of being realistic in what can actually be built and cost. Once you can have software understand all of the components of a building and then just put the functional requirements for a building into a system, it’ll just be able to create thousands of different designs based upon your functional requirements. Then you can choose. And it will be a realistic design with a real cost right in front of you. It’s simple engineering. Then you’ll be able to choose what direction you want to take the design and you will always know the cost.
Architecture and engineering are in for some serious disruption when it comes to their areas just because of what software can do when you give it all of that known information. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is just a giant spreadsheet in the cloud that will allow you to design buildings as fast as you can type in the requirements of how many people I want in there or where it’s going to be located. On the maintenance side, it’s all about knowledge management. Right now on the roof of many buildings there’s HVAC equipment. There are motors and fans and all kinds of heat exchangers exposed to the elements. The life of the building may be 50 or 100 years and that piece of equipment is going to be operating for hopefully the entire duration. You have to maintain that equipment. When I send somebody out to go and service it or check up on it, their problem solving capacity is limited to what they know and there may be a phone call.
But with augmented reality there is some new knowledge management equipment that’s emerging. It’ll be possible for field workers to call upon the collective knowledge of their company. That has only been possible in manufacturing up until this point where if I’m on a Toyota assembly line and I see something wrong, I hit button and it stops it. We can all go and look at it as a team and figure out what the problem is. On construction or facility maintenance, whomever is there the problem solving capacity is limited to their skill and their ability to communicate it to whomever they can get by whatever technology they have available. With augmented reality and the ability to organize and call upon recorded sessions is going to be special; the ability to collect and organize the knowledge of a tribal workforce and bring it to bear on problems in the field. That’s going to be a significant game changer for facility operations and maintenance.
On the future of Brick & Mortar in the next 5-10 years
Right now, you could describe us as a super angel and his sidekick and we’re going to raise our first outside capital. As this tremendously large industry adopts technology and changes over time, the investments will be bigger, the technology will be more advanced and we’ll grow with the opportunity in the industry.
On his goals for the upcoming years
I need to learn more on the investment side and it’s just going to take more experience and more getting in the weeds with the documents. I really enjoy the networking and getting in on the technology and talking product and going to market strategy with the team. I’ve got to learn how to become a partner. Right now Darren and I are teammates but I’m not a partner. I need to work towards that because that’s how we’re going to grow the fund.