Launched in 2018, Soil Connect serves as an online marketplace for construction professionals to locate, transport and acquire soil and aggregates. — Courtesy: Soil Connect
By Joshua Burd
Cliff Fetner is prone to oversimplification, admittedly so, as he condenses a recap of his more than 30 years as a homebuilder into the span of two minutes.
He also keeps it simple when describing his second career — as the founder of the startup known as Soil Connect. The platform, launched in 2018, serves as an online marketplace for construction professionals to locate, transport and acquire soil and aggregates.
It’s a clear-cut solution to a clear-cut challenge, he said, even if it’s long overdue.
“We’re a platform — we’re no different from Airbnb, Craigslist, any one of these million marketplaces and platforms out there where you put buyers and sellers all in one place,” Fetner said. “I didn’t reinvent the wheel here … I took real estate out of the platform and inserted dirt and aggregates.”
Soil Connect, which works as a mobile and desktop app, allows users to identify their location using pins on a map and indicate whether they need dirt or are trying to offload it. The company has grown since its founding and is now launching additional products on the platform, with a growing user base led by drainage and excavation operators, developers, contractors and others within the construction field. In New Jersey alone, the app has nearly 11,000 users in its database.
The startup has also resonated with investors, announcing in early December that it raised $3.25 million in seed funding led by TIA Ventures, a New York City-based fund, also drawing investments from a mix of venture capital firms, real estate managers and construction companies.
“We’re creating transparency in an old school world where nobody knows what’s really going on,” said Fetner, the firm’s CEO. “We’re putting information out there. We’re making it quicker, cheaper, faster for the (people) to re-source and move their dirt. It’s as simple as that.”
It doesn’t hurt that Fetner, a third-generation builder with decades of experience, is essentially Soil Connect’s target customer. He notes that his father and grandfather set up shop in Brooklyn in the early 1960s as the Verrazano Bridge was being completed, paving the way for his own career as a developer of both luxury single-family and multifamily housing, mostly on his native Long Island.
“I grew up on the job site like a lot of these old, generational businesses, playing on the machines and the trucks,” said Fetner, who founded Jaco Builders in 1991. “I never really left the dirt.”
He said the idea for Soil Connect was born in winter 2018 after he broke ground on a project in Nassau County, only to end up with a massive pile of dirt that was preventing a contractor from working on the foundation. Fetner came to learn that his excavator could not find a place to send the dirt, despite his best efforts, highlighting an underlying problem.
“From the beginning of time through today, how do guys find and get rid of dirt?” he asked. “Well, they get on their phone and they call everybody they know — who needs it, when they need it and why they need it? And nothing has changed in one gazillion years.”
Fetner launched Soil Connect in May of that year after developing the app with an overseas firm, providing the proof of concept that would allow the company to grow. He was quick to note that his son, Daniel Fetner, who was an MBA student in early 2018 and now works for a venture fund in Manhattan, “has been instrumental in our success,” thanks in part to his access to the tech industry and to the capital markets.
Still, Fetner cited the early difficulty of being a construction professional who “needed to learn how to talk venture — and that’s a whole new language.” But it also worked to his advantage, providing the field experience that allowed him to truly understand his target user. That group also includes “everybody else who plays in the dirt,” such as truckers, asphalt and concrete companies, landscapers and others.
After unveiling a new version of Soil Connect in late 2019, the firm is now launching other products. Next up is an e-ticketing, GPS-based platform for the truckers who transport soil and aggregates. Fetner expects the program to streamline the dated, paper-based system that the industry has long used, which he said results in a significant loss of time and productivity for contractors.
“We’ll continue to add more and more of these types of products to the Soil Connect site, because ultimately we’re solving more and more problems for the same (customers),” he said. “That’s what we’re doing.”