Start-up's app matches reliable tradesmen to home repair jobs

Founders say their app and website can provide bids from reliable tradesmen for any home repair job

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 March, 2015, 6:11am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 March, 2015, 10:33am

All sorts of things go wrong around the home. Your key breaks in the lock. A water pipe springs a leak. That new light bulb is flickering. Finding a reliable handyman when you need one, however, can add to the headache. Where do you look? When you find one, he may be free only when you're at the office. On top of that, you don't know if he's charging a fair price, or if he is reputable.

So for brothers Jaspal and Jerry Sarai, the CallFixie start-up just made sense. The app, available in iOS and Android stores, and the website connect householders with all manner of tradesmen, be they locksmiths, plumbers, electricians or others.

The customer initiates the job by posting an explanation of the problem, preferably with a photo, along with the location, and the time you'd like the job done. CallFixie then sends an alert to the relevant tradesmen, who will leave a quote if they are available. When bids come in, the customer considers the price options and views the tradesmen's profiles and qualifications, and any user ratings.

"For the consumer, the biggest differentiator is that they can make a value judgment," says Jaspal, director of Jaarwis, an incubator company that is CallFixie's largest shareholder. "So if someone is charging HK$20 more, you want to know what you're paying for. It may be that he is highly qualified, has a lot of experience, and has a very good rating."

When the job is finished, the customer closes the deal on the app, gives the tradesman a rating, and payment is transacted electronically.

Gabriel Fong, Jaarwis' CEO, says: "We wanted to have a single platform so the resolution can be swifter. We want to take the equation and simplify it to the point where the customer feels comfortable that they only have one interaction."

Fong and the Sarai brothers believe they have a success on their hands with CallFixie because most of us have a problem finding a safe and reliable handyman who won't come "somewhere between 10am and 4pm", and the model is scalable.

The service was launched in Hong Kong in January, following its December take-off in Australia, where Jaspal lived for 20 years. "Fixie" is Australian slang for someone who fixes stuff. The start-up has expanded rapidly in the country and is now being used in six cities.

Nonetheless, the big differences between how tradesmen operate in Hong Kong and Australia present a challenge, Jaspal says.

"Australia was a tough market because people are used to how they do things. The tradies are a very mature platform in Australia; they spend a significant amount of money on marketing, and they have someone to do billing for them," Jaspal says.

He adds that well-qualified tradesmen in the country can earn as much as a doctor if they charge by the hour.

CallFixie makes money in Australia by taking a 10 per cent commission on each job, but Hong Kong is a very different picture, he says. The start-up isn't taking a cut here yet because many local tradesmen don't have a credit card or even a professional email address.

If someone is charging you HK$20 more, you want to know what you're paying for
Jaspal Sarai, Jaarwis director

Fong says a lot of local tradesmen here don't even have a consistent method of advertising their services.

"To find work, they put stickers on lamp posts or advertise in local papers," he says. It's a promising market, however, because research shows there are about 320,000 registered tradesmen in the city.

While CallFixie works at getting the message out to local tradesmen, it has assembled a "Swat team" of six handymen with a range of skills and the flexibility to make the trip across town, says Jerry Sarai, CallFixie's business development manager.

Building organic scalability locally, the start-up is also reaching out to corporations to offer a solution for their businesses and customers. Although he won't name any, Fong says that in the case of a furniture supplier, a customer can wait for a delivery longer than they might wish. It may not be a logistics problem, but the lack of a fixie to assemble the furniture.

"You call CallFixie, and our guy can be there roughly half an hour after your furniture has arrived. Or you can pick one close to where you are and jump on the same truck at the same time."

Another area of possibility is building management, he says. "Imagine it's a real estate agency, and they might be managing 1,000 flats and they're always having to get things fixed. They can either run a small team themselves with all the headaches that involves, or just use CallFixie. It's instant and on demand."

A big advantage for CallFixie has been Jaarwis' technology support in the Indian city of Gurgaon, with programmers and other back-end workers the company dealt with on previous ventures. But the next step, to take the start-up into the populous nation, will be its most ambitious yet.

"When you go into India, you go into total chaos," says Jaspal, a fourth-generation Hong Kong Indian. "Everything you learned from Hong Kong and Australia no longer applies. A lot of companies have gone into India and lost a billion dollars because they tried to handle the country the same way. The unique thing about Jaarwis is, we know Hong Kong like the back of our hand, and we know India in terms of its commercial culture, regulatory framework and knowledge on the ground, which is essential to make it a success."

Jaspal describes the labour force as "one big pile of people who can do one thing or another", adding that the certification process for tradesmen doesn't exist and it's difficult to find one who is fully qualified.

Another reason India will be a hard nut to crack is security concerns among households, he points out. "The main issue is who is coming to your house. With the amount of incidents you hear coming out of India, it is imperative that you supply people with a police check or a residence check, for instance. There are agencies now to do residence checks, and we're going to be focusing more on making it safer for people to engage with these guys."

CallFixie hopes that the start-up will also encourage tradespeople in India to improve their skill levels.

Fong says it makes sense for CallFixie to think big, or at least regionally. With a population of over a billion, India is likely to keep the start-up busy for now.