Matchmaking can of course be a tricky matter, but when it results in some $900 million worth of business … well, then business is obviously good.
“It is good — and even better, it’s been fun,” laughed Jean Brownhill, founder and CEO of Sweeten, a company that matches homeowners with general contractors in an attempt to streamline the process into what is promised to be a positive experience for everyone involved. Based in New York City, Sweeten expanded into Fairfield and Westchester counties last year.
Sweeten’s services are offered to clients for free; its network of contractors pay what Brownhill called “a small fee” after they’re hired through the service. To date, the seven-year-old company has provided its services for nearly $900 million in construction projects in its pipeline, she said, adding that the firm’s projects average about $100,000.
Contractors are usually recruited by Sweeten, based upon their reputations and word-of-mouth, Brownhill said. One-on-one interviews are then conducted, and previous clients are contacted for feedback.
Once a contractor is on board, Sweeten continues to monitor each project with periodic check-ins, as well as by having access to all communications between client and contractor. “Transparency can be a nonstarter for some contractors,” Brownhill noted, “but it’s something we feel strongly about.”
The firm takes pains to screen potential contractors not just for their technical know-how but also for “more nuanced aspects, like customer service,” she said. “We want everything to go as smoothly as possible once the connection is made, for both parties.”
Typically, a contractor is presented with an anonymous view of a potential project and the client is presented with an anonymous profile of the contractor, to make the playing field as level as possible, Brownhill said.
The actual matchmaking process usually takes about 48 hours, after which the customer is presented with three contractor recommendations, each of whom is experienced in whatever a particular project calls for. Brownhill said that while Sweeten’s forays into Fairfield and Westchester were initially restricted to residential renovations, it’s now handling commercial renovations as well.
A Cooper Union-trained architect, the New London native said the idea for Sweeten was hatched when she bought a house in Brooklyn that had been built in the 1890s and needed a full renovation.
“I ended up hiring the wrong contractor, which made for a terrible experience,” she recalled. “I’d spent 10 years as an architect, I can read blueprints, I did my research — everything you’re supposed to do, and I still ended up hiring somebody who was just not up for the job.”
That led her to understand what a disadvantage those not trained in the profession could experience, she said. “It was one of those classic entrepreneur moments — ‘I know how to fix this!’” she laughed. “But there was still a lot of trial and error involved.”
Today Sweeten has 25 full-time employees and about 30 rotating consultants, she said; many work in its office on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, but the company tries to have at least one placed within its ever-expanding coverage area. At the moment that area stretches roughly from Fairfield County to New Jersey’s Bergen County and the Philadelphia area. Brownhill plans to add another eight counties by 2020.
Thanks to national coverage — Brownhill was profiled by Entrepreneur magazine earlier this year, and in March was featured on NBC’s “The Today Show” — “We’re starting to get queries from all over — ‘Are you in Denver yet? New Orleans?’
“Not yet,” she laughed, “but we’re trying.”