When Grant Goodwin was struggling to install a drainage system for a tricky basement-floor renovation in his century-old home in Kingston he turned to the Web for a solution.
Determined to do the work himself, he went to HomeRenoExperts.com where he posted a message as “DIY guy” describing the issue and offering to pay one of the website’s skilled-trades experts $20 for help.
Within 90 minutes, three people responded. Mr. Goodwin chose Peter Andrews, a home renovations contractor in Boston, who provided an easy-to-follow, 10-step formula that enabled Mr. Goodwin to get back to work the same day. “It’s like having Mike Holmes or Sarah Richardson in your pocket, which feels really good when you are doing home renovation stuff and you’re just not sure and you want it done right.”
For Mr. Goodwin, the exercise served as a test of his emerging venture. As co-creator of HomeRenoExperts, which went online in mid-March, he wanted to see whether his service could quickly produce an answer at a reasonable price.
He obviously has a vested interest in the website’s success, but his optimism about potential demand in a sea of free advice may be well founded. According to a recent report by Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp., home renovation spending grew by 6.4 per cent in 2008, reaching about $38 billion.
And the number of other online knowledge-brokering websites has also grown, as evidenced by the arrival of expert-driven question-and-answer sites Liveperson.com, AskMeHelpDesk.com and JustAnswer.com.
“With close to two billion people online, I am sure there’s a market for those who want their answers right rather than getting the answer from a place that might be wrong or offer varying multiple opinions,” said e-marketing guru Mitch Joel, president of Twist Image and author of Six Pixels of Separation.
But John Pliniussen, an e-marketing professor at the Queen’s School of Business, said HomeRenoExperts needs to take its concept a lot further if it’s going to succeed. “There’s a lot of room for improvement,” Mr. Pliniussen said.
A self-professed do-it-yourself enthusiast, he said he can find any home renovations guidance he needs for free online or at his local Home Depot or Rona store and he is skeptical that many people will want to pay for DIY advice. If people are going to pay, they will want to speak to somebody in their own community because they can be held accountable for providing bad advice while someone in a faraway city cannot, he says.
“The risk is you get some advice, you try it and it doesn’t work,” he said. “Houses can be incredibly expensive and the mistakes you make can be horrendous.”
Mr. Pliniussen envisioned a service that connects homeowners to the best skilled tradespeople in their area and rates them or helps people find available contractors.
Like Mr. Joel, Mr. Pliniussen said HomeRenoExperts needs to find more ways to increase trust in its experts. Video-conferencing capabilities would enable do-it-yourselfers to have two-way, simultaneous conversations with the experts or witness live demonstrations, he added.
“When someone is giving you advice about your most expensive asset … you want to see the contractor. [You]want to meet him or her,” he said. “If I get to know them and they start to know me then I will start talking about them.”
Mr. Goodwin has one winning formula in his pocket: another site that uses the model HomeRenoExperts is based on.
His online tutoring service, BrainMass.com, which he launched in the middle of the 2001 dot-com crash, provides three main services: custom answers to academic questions by graduate-level tutors, essay reviews and a database of answers to 150,000 academic questions.
BrainMass employs four staff in Newmarket, Ont., as well as Mr. Goodwin’s business partner, chartered accountant Ross Carter. There are as many as 1,000 graduate student tutors available at any given time. When students post a question on BrainMass, they offer to pay anywhere from $4 to $20 for step-by-step answers. The graduate student responders receive approximately half of each payment.
About eight years later, BrainMass is processing 250,000 transactions a year. Mr. Goodwin won’t discuss revenue but said the average transaction is worth about $10, suggesting the site generates in the neighbourhood of $2.5 million worth of business a year. HomeRenoExperts has a long way to go to match those numbers, but it has search marketing, PR and partnership plans in the works to spread the word.
HomeRenoExperts has two main sections: an ask-an-expert function already employing 150 licensed North American tradespeople — 300 more are in the screening process — and a growing database of answers to questions that is being fuelled by the ask-an-expert service. Users can upload and download drawings, photographs and videos to assist experts with the help process.
While home renovation information is available all over the Internet, Mr. Goodwin believes HomeRenoExperts will appeal to people with problems who haven’t found answers online and who want to make sure they get advice from a reputable source. Every HomeRenoExperts expert must produce proof of his or her skills and experience before being signed up.
Marketing for HomeRenoExperts, which is staffed by the three customer service representatives and full-time programmer who help run BrainMass, has just started with an affiliate marketing program and search-engine advertising. Some direct partnerships with more static do-it-yourself websites are on the way, where users looking for more customized information would be directed to HomeRenoExperts.
Mr. Joel said he believes the HomeRenoExperts business model is workable, but the site’s design needs to build credibility more effectively among potential customers. There should be prominent testimonials, he explained, and details about the experts should be placed at the front end of the website. These should include pictures of the experts, their names, and where they’re from.
“I think that would embed a lot more trust in the customer,” he said.
Currently, users have to click a front-page link to another page and then choose a category to inspect the credentials of the experts in that category.
Special to The Globe and Mail