Anyone looking for a plumber or an electrician during the last two years has probably faced some sort of existential crisis they haven’t felt since high school. With COVID in the background, you call a service provider with a problem or a plan, and then you hope. Will they call you back? Will they show up when they said they would? Or at all? Will the tradesperson actually complete the job or will it malinger, half-finished, while they try to find a part or a solution to your sticky issue?
The shortage of tradespeople is well documented; many of them have retired or have died due to COVID or related complications. Meanwhile, demand for home improvement has been on the rise, especially demand for smarter home devices and installations. To help meet that need, the startup Griot doesn’t look to solve the shortage of tradespeople. Rather, it hopes to make those still in the business more efficient and at the same time, help newcomers gain necessary skills while on the job.
Griot was founded last year and launched at CES. It’s the creation of Nate Williams and Chris Kim, both of Union Ventures. They subsequently recruited Sean Miller, the former president of PointCentral, to run it and act as another co-founder. The startup offers a FaceTime-esque application that runs on cellphones (and soon on the web) and makes it easy for skilled tradespeople on a job to connect with experts.
This may seem stupidly simple from the perspective of anyone who’s been stuck on Zooms, Teams, and Google Meets for the last two years. In fact, Griot is part of a larger trend of tech firms trying to reach out to frontline workers with office productivity software. Technology is becoming an essential element of more and more jobs — from medical workers to washing machine repair technicians — so the tech world is trying to adapt its products to be easier to use in rugged environments, and by people who are using it as one of multiple tools while on a job.
This tends to mean a simplified design and features that can quickly provide relevant information in an easy-to-digest format such as audio or video. After all, while we’ve seen a lot of hype around giving home service technicians AR tools, the hardware and/or user experience can be clunky. To get a taste of just how clunky it can be, try repairing a car while holding up your phone over the engine to identify where the spark plugs are.
Griot provides a front end that resembles FaceTime and lets a tech connect to an expert with the click of a button. They can use audio, or audio and video. The app is paid for by the firm that employs the pro, with Griot focusing first on early customers that have several employees as opposed to single-person operations. Current customers include several HVAC installers, solar installers, and alarm companies, Griot is also in early trials with enterprises such as Alarm.com, Tricon Residential, and Mitsubishi Trane.
According to Miller, companies using the service are doing so because the types of services that tradespeople are installing have become more tech-intensive as consumers put in smart home devices, and also because there’s a dearth of experienced tradespeople to go out on jobs to help train newcomers to the field. With an easy way to consult within a company, people on the job can troubleshoot quickly and experts can weigh in remotely. This means experienced techs can work other jobs or that retired techs can consult for a few hours a week training younger staff.
It’s not the sort of technology that can change the world, but it could become a rich source of data that turns into a compelling business. Data showing where techs are struggling or the equipment they’re struggling with is valuable for the service company and also for the makers of problem devices. Additionally, if the service calls are recorded, they can become part of a user-created library of content that can be used to teach others. These sorts of user forums can lead to new revenue streams as device makers can pay to advertise alongside the forums or even pay to have their own experts communicate directly to the audience the device maker hopes to reach.
Miller told me that Griot has raised about $1 million so far, and he hopes to raise a seed round later this year. Given the trends of tech adoption, interest in the trades, and the desire of bigger tech firms to reach a larger pool of users, Griot is in a good place.
Updated: This story was updated on Feb. 23, 2022, to correct the spelling of a co-founder’s name. It is Sean Miller, not Scott.