Good News for Homeowners Seeking a "Trusted Friend" in Home Improvement-Silicon Valley Campus - Carnegie Mellon University

Friday, May 10, 2013

Good News for Homeowners Seeking a "Trusted Friend" in Home Improvement

Brenton Marrelli (MS ’07) and Darwin Widjaja (MS ’07), recently jumped into the entrepreneurial pool with their startup Friend Trusted, a mobile application (and web site) that they like to call the eBay of home improvement. Using either the site or the mobile application, homeowners can easily submit projects, with a brief description and photos if needed, to Friend Trusted in order to obtain three estimates from service professionals willing to take on their job.

Marrelli and Widjaja were co-workers at MindJet when they decided to enroll at CMU Silicon Valley in the Software Engineering Development Management program. Each had an interest in someday following their dream of becoming an entrepreneur, but weren’t exactly sure what path they should take. They attempted several projects together, but it was through personal experiences with home improvement difficulties that they decided to focus on discovering a better, more efficient way to find and hire contractors and service professionals.

"The challenges faced by the homeowner when attempting home repairs is finding the time to search for good, quality vendors, scheduling a time for these professionals to visit the home in order to provide an estimate, and then comparing prices in order to get the best deal," says Marrelli. "The homeowner is then strapped with repeating this process several times, which could take weeks or months, and in some cases finding out that your job is too small to get an estimate at all.”

“From the service professionals view, taking the time and spending the money to physically visit a potential job site means that the work would have to be financially solvent," added Widjaj. "So, they would either decline small jobs outright, or price themselves out of competition depending on the size of the job and the distance to the location.”

Marrelli and Widjaja thought about the advancement of smartphones, including the increased quality of the cameras on these devices, and decided to explore a way to use this technology to streamline the process of home improvement both for the homeowners and the service professionals.

Having gained confidence through their interactions with faculty, alumni and investors who they met at CMU-SV such as Stuart Evans, Manu Kumar and Scott Russell, Marrelli and Widjaja started to develop their platform. However, as they both retained their full-time employment, the challenge to find time to devote to the venture became daunting. During a meeting, Russell offered the following advice: “If you believe in this venture, why are you still working?” “That comment really resonated with us so we decided to quit our jobs last June and start focusing our full attention to launching the application,” said Marrelli in response. Their first mobile application was released for the iPhone in October, followed closely by the Android application just a few months later in December.

“At first, the startup struggled to get users," explained Widjaja. "However, after the first couple of iterations and a few tweaks to the naming and usability, the platform soon took off and became very popular among homeowners and service professionals. The homeowners loved the convenience of being able to post descriptions and photos of their home repair projects, leaving the tough work of finding reputable service professionals that would provide estimates to Friend Trusted.”

Using an algorithm to conduct searches of reputable sites such as Yelp and Angie’s List, Marrelli and Widjaja were able to locate the top-rated service professionals, view comments of past clients, interview potential new clients for Friend Trusted, and ultimately build a substantial database of contractors and service professionals willing to post bids based on location and job size. “The reception among vendors was great as they realized they could handle more jobs and still save on resources such as time and fuel," said Widjaja. Although the list continues to be dynamic, Marrelli and Widjaja report that they currently have approximately 8,000 service professionals in their database.

As projects are received, Friend Trusted employees also reach out to homeowners to gather any additional details about the project. “This helped with the comfort-level of the homeowner to use the application as they would be communicating in layman’s terms with Friend Trusted personnel rather than receiving more technical requests from the professionals,” esplains Marrelli.

Between January and May, Friend Trusted has seen a 7x growth in users, an 8x increase in number of proposed projects and a 10x increase in gross sales. Their user base has grown nationwide, but they continue to see hot spots in California, both in the Bay Area and in Orange County. They have also noticed a significant growth in Florida and have fulfilled matches for jobs in numerous other states.

The Friend Trusted business plan allows for the service to be free for homeowners, with only a small percentage of the final commission charged to the professional. According to Widjaja, “the service providers view this fee as part of their marketing budget as it continues to build their client base. The cost is not tacked onto the estimate for the consumer. In fact, since the contractors and service providers are already saving money by not having to do site visits, many times the estimates they offer to the homeowner are lower.” Marrelli added that “we also provide an incentive to the homeowner to rate the quality of work that was done by providing them a small refund of their cost which comes out of the commission we receive. This allows us and the vendors to continue to gather feedback and useful data to use when pursuing other clients.”

As Friend Trusted continues to gain in popularity, Marrelli and Widjaja report an increase in larger remodeling projects as well. “We are very excited to see interest growing with over 700 projects and 6,000 users to date. We are hopeful that as Friend Trusted continues to be successful, we can seek out other CMU alumni to come join in our venture!”

Marrelli currently resides in Daly City. Widjaja lives in Fremont with his wife, Henny and their five-year old son, Rio and two-month old daughter, Carly.

Pictured above (from left): Mary DoMoe, John Lynes, Brenton Marrelli, Darwin Widjaja