Build it and they will come: Ottawa startup's construction management software gaining fans

Construction app

Shawn Watts is a builder by nature, but the former construction worker-turned-entrepreneur is now pouring his energy into knocking down barriers – metaphorically speaking, that is.

The Kanata native is the founder and CEO of Corfix, an Ottawa startup that’s out to transform the way construction labourers in the field share critical compliance documents with managers back in the office.

For years, builders on job sites have been filling out “core certification” forms – for example, paperwork that explains how a trench will be dug to ensure the process follows all safety regulations – the old-school way, by hand. Typically, Watts explains, workers will then take pictures of the completed forms on their smartphone and email them to an office somewhere.

In a decade-long career that eventually saw him oversee multimillion-dollar construction projects, Watts says he grew increasingly frustrated at the amount of time and effort he had to devote to tedious administrative tasks. He remembers thinking it was “ridiculous” that massive builds would get held up because a manager back at headquarters couldn’t make out words on a blurry photograph.

Feeling the urge to tackle a new challenge, Watts decided to do something about it. The result is the Corfix platform.  

“I thought that I could take 30 grand in three months and build a product to change the world,” says Watts, 36, who launched the company in 2019. “A million dollars and three years later, I got a product to market.” 

Mobile app

In a nutshell, Corfix allows workers in the field to seamlessly complete certification documents and share them with head offices on a mobile app. Users can also provide quick updates on how tasks are going, while managers can assign jobs to workers on site at the click of a mouse.

Watts and a pair of silent business partners have invested $400,000 of their own capital into the venture, which released its software in beta form last May. Watts says Corfix is now on the cusp of closing a half-million-dollar friends-and-family round of seed funding to carry it until it secures bigger institutional investors.

The budding software magnate says the firm’s momentum is steadily building despite the industry’s notoriously deep-seated aversion to new technology, which sometimes makes him feel like he’s banging his head against the proverbial drywall when pitching to construction execs.

But Watts says his decade-long career in the trenches has given him the street cred to win over the skeptics.

“My story helps break down a lot of those barriers,” he says. “When we pitch the idea that this was built by field workers, (customers) love it.”

Corfix is now selling its subscription-based product to 30 companies, including a couple in the United States. The startup joined Kanata-based software business accelerator L-Spark last fall, and since then its headcount has risen from five to 13 while its annual recurring revenues are on pace to exceed $700,000 in 2022.

“The way that I looked at it was that I would come in (to L-Spark) and get an MBA in six months,” Watts says, heaping praise on L-Spark’s seasoned crew of mentors that includes tech veterans Danny Baldwin, Mike Laginski and Patrick White. “I’ve grown so much as a leader.”

Among Corfix’s growing legion of fans is the godfather of Kanata entrepreneurs himself, Terry Matthews. Watts says he was blown away by the billionaire tech magnate’s reaction to the fledgling software CEO’s initial presentation at L-Spark last fall.

'Great pitch'

“Terry got up twice and was like, ‘Great pitch’ in front of everybody.” Watts says. “It’s been pretty cool to sort of see that evolution in myself and see other people's buy-in in the whole process.”

Now, armed with a confident CEO and a product that’s finding a growing niche, Corfix is looking to expand across Canada and extend its reach south of the border.

“L-Spark really helped us get in position to scale and do this massive land grab,” Watts explains. 

"We believe that every construction company’s going to be using a product like this in the next three to five years."

“We believe that every construction company’s going to be using a product like this in the next three to five years. We need to position ourselves as leaders to be that player when it happens.”

That will require a lot more cash, but Watts thinks the firm is in good position to land at least $2 million in additional funding from institutional investors, perhaps before the year is out. 

He expects Corfix’s headcount to reach 20 by then as it continues to hire more sales and marketing staff and bring on new software developers to add more features to the product. 

Like any construction project, building a new business is fraught with challenges every day. But Watts says he and his colleagues at Corfix are up to the task.

“I’m not great at anything. What I am good at is building a team of people who are great at what they do,” he says. “That’s what we’ve done. We’re moving in the right direction. You're going to hear lots from us, for sure.”