Founder story: Alex Garlan from SignOnSite

SignOnSite’s founder story

From their earliest days of winning seed funding in a university competition, SignOnSite’s founders have come a very long way.

Now, with their safety app used by about 12,000 construction sites, they’re ready to hit the growth accelerator and scale the business that grew from a conversation in a Canberra bar. 

Here, co-founder Alex Garlan shares their story, including how they have stayed cashflow positive, where they’re heading and the sacrifices made along the way. We hope you enjoy this founder story. 

SignOnSite technology on a tablet, computer and smartphone screen

In one sentence, what is SignOnSite?

A safety app for the construction industry that handles attendance and inductions digitally to reduce time spent on paperwork and better manage risk. 

What problem are you solving?

We are solving the problem of workers having to manually sign on at construction sites and waste time providing the same information every time they do a site induction. 

Our app streamlines site inductions by using a digital passport model. When a worker arrives at a site for the first time, if they have already done an induction with the company at another site, their information auto populates. They only need to check it is correct, rather than spend time filling it all out again. Their information and credentials are housed in the app, which connects into the construction company’s tech stack. It also uses geo location software to automatically sign people in and out of a site using their location. 

All this has many benefits, including:

  • Better data for project managers – they can log in remotely to see how many people are on site and manage their workforce attendance and compliance
  • Improved risk management – site managers have instant access to people’s certifications so they can make sure the people on site are qualified for the work they’re doing. This is also important for company directors who can be personally liable for injuries and deaths in some Australian states 
  • More time on the tools – our customers say that downtime is minimised because contractors are able to get to work quicker and site managers aren’t losing time coaching people through time consuming processes

What was your light bulb moment?

It came from my co-founder, Mitch Harmer (pictured below), when he was studying entrepreneurship in Canberra. He worked in a bar and a construction worker used to come in and complain that there was no digital sign-on at sites. Mitch knew I was studying building and construction management so he asked me to join him and two developer friends in a business competition to solve a problem. We ended up winning it and the prize of $25,000. 

Mitch Harmer from SignOnSite

What happened next?

Mitch and I started the company in late 2013. We used the prize money as seed funding, plus an additional $10,000 from winning a pitch contest. We received grants from the ACT Government and got into the Griffin Accelerator program in Canberra and from there, we’ve just kept on going! 

What funding sources have you used?

After the competition prize money, we finished the Griffin program with a successful angel investment round, which involved Sydney Angels, individual investors and a construction company. 

Since then we’ve stayed pretty cash positive by taking shareholder loans to continue growing during periods of uneven revenue. Shareholder loans have been really successful for us over the years. We also took on revenue-based financing with Tractor Ventures recently. 

What stage are you at?   

We’ve achieved product-market fit and we’re about ready to hit the growth accelerator once all our key hires are in place. 

The construction industry is working really well for us in Australia and New Zealand. We’ve had almost half a million workers use our platform and about 12,000 construction sites. 

What personal sacrifices are behind your success?   

There are a lot of different sacrifices that go into building a startup. 

Mitch has invested his formative career years in building it. He’s made a big sacrifice on salary and there’s the opportunity cost of dedicating his time and energy to this. 

For me, it has been different. I didn’t want to work full-time in the company until it needed me. You often see founders finding space for themselves and continuing in roles they’re not good at to the detriment of the company and I didn’t want to do that. So for a long time I worked full-time in the construction industry and when SignOnSite became closer to needing a Head of Operations, I did my MBA and then came on board about two years ago. 

Alex Garlan from SignOnSite standing against a wall and smiling

How have we helped?

We had enormous trouble over the last few years finding bookkeepers that understand recurring revenue. It was really frustrating to keep explaining why they needed to take revenue from last year into account.

Tractor Ventures put us in touch with a few people and Standard Ledger was the best fit to manage our bookkeeping and payroll

We’re also finding the virtual CFO support really important, mainly working with Linh and Remco on cashflow modelling to ensure we straddle the line for sustainable growth. We need to be growing so we can build all the features our customers want while staying relatively cashflow positive to make sure our employees feel secure. We don’t know what is best practice for accounting or cashflow modelling, so it’s really helpful to have that advice. 

What’s on the horizon?

Our next roll out is digital permits for high risk construction activities, which we’re planning to launch by the end of the year. This is all about giving construction companies a better understanding of their site risk.

We’re also working on a digital solution for plant and machinery. Right now, much of the industry is pushing this admin onto workers, who have to fill out serial numbers, maintenance info, test and tag requirements, and so on for equipment. This is frustrating for workers and is just shifting the time cost from site managers to workers. Our solution will make this disappear. 

Our ultimate vision is to genuinely transform the industry by giving construction companies important data to make better decisions and understand risk in a better way. At the moment, the industry has lagging risk indicators for injury or death. We want to preempt that and there’s nobody working on that. It’s a big part of our focus for the next five years. 

More founder stories

Don’t worry, we have plenty more founder stories to inspire and inform you. Head here for Mobble co-founder Jock Lawrence’s story and founder tips, here for a Q&A with the food revolutionaries behind CocoNutZ in Queensland or here for our very own founder story.

As always, we’re here to chat if you need help with your startup. Just choose a time that works for you.  

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