Cliff Fetner never intended to become a high-tech entrepreneur when he created his startup company Soil Connect. The company came about only because he had a problem that no one else could fix.
“I’m a third-generation builder and developer,” Fetner said. “And Soil Connect was formed because of a problem I had in one of my job sites. I’m based out of Long Island and I got a permit to dig a foundation and build a house for a couple in the middle of winter.”
But Fetner’s work came to a halt because he was stuck with the soil dug up from the foundation.
“And, so, the excavation guy says to me, and I quote, ‘Cliff, it’s the middle of winter, nobody needs it, nobody wants it,’” he continued. “And quite frankly, I didn’t know what to do with it. And it was kind of right there in that very second that I thought, ‘There has to be a better way of moving material.’ And Soil Connect was born right there and then.”
Soil Connect is a platform that unites excavators, contractors, builders, landscapers and other construction industry professionals who work with soil on a regular basis. The platform’s concept is relatively simple: by using a matching technology, it connects those who have soil with those who need soil.
But if Soil Connect is such a simple idea, why wasn’t this done before? Fetner noted that the operational process used in his father’s construction company has been the industry protocol for too many years.
“I have memories of my father at nighttime calling around to his builder buddies and developers asking who needs material, when they need it, how much, who’s moving and how much it’s going to cost,” he recalled. “And so here it is, 30 years later, and nothing has really changed. That’s kind of how they continue to do business. They have their little circle of friends, their little network and that’s how they move material. Well, maybe it’s not entirely true — what has changed in 30 years is now we have cellphones. Thirty years ago, we didn’t have cellphones — we had to do it at night, but nowadays the guys have the luxury of doing it during the day.”
Fetner soft-launched Soil Connect in May 2018 and tapped into a market that was eager for this type of solution.
“Apparently, we did something right,” he said. “Within six to eight months, we had a couple of thousand users and we had posted over 20 million yards in material.”
Fetner estimated that Soil Connect’s biggest category of users are the excavation and drainage contractors, followed by builders, developers and general contractors.
“Then after that, it’s pretty evenly split between landscapers and pool guys and asphalt guys and concrete guys,” he said. “We also have a couple of quarries now on our platform. We also have what I like to call recycling centers on our platform — they bring what we call mixed material, maybe it has some dirt in it and concrete or brick, and they sift it and sort it in screen and then they resell it. So, we have a whole bunch of those types of uses as well.”
Fetner added that he was “bootstrapping this thing together” during the early stretch, but assistance came from his son — who did not follow him into construction, but instead found a career in venture capital.
“We went into the VC world and we raised some money,” he continued. “And we took the majority of that money and then we created version two, which was released in November 2019.”
Fetner has promoted his platform via social media, email marketing and the 811 directory, also known as the national call-before-you-dig phone number that enables construction professionals to access local utility location services.
As of today, Soil Connect has more than 4,000 users on its platform and has posted more than 82 million yards of materials. The platform is available at no cost on a national level and has received several postings from the Toronto area.
“Right now, we’re free,” Fetner said. “We’re trying to get as many users on the platform as humanly possible. And then at a point in time, we will turn on several different monetization schedules. So, there’s no downside to try and use right now.”