Some innovative entrepreneurs are just born that way. They were the kids who founded lemonade stands before they could count or make lemonade by themselves and who dropped out of Ivy League schools for fear they were wasting the most productive years of their lives sitting in a classroom listening to a boring professor.
Others, like UpKeep CEO and Founder Ryan Chan, walked a somewhat more circuitous path. Very recently, the maintenance management technology firm picked up $2.7 million in seed funding from some pretty big names, including Battery Ventures and Bain Capital Partners. But the idea for UpKeep has been formulating in its CEO’s brain for at least three years, going back to his days as a process engineer on the floor of a large manufacturing plant.
Doing that job and working daily with maintenance workers, Chan found the problem he was inspired to innovate a solution for — how maintenance work at organizations is prioritized, assigned and tracked to completion. Because, he noted, while almost everything else in business life has gone decidedly digital, the maintenance world is largely an analog kind of place.
“[Maintenance workers] have a smartphone in their pocket and tablets with them while they were in the field, but everyone was actually keeping all their notes with pen and paper,” Chan told Webster. “There was desktop-based software to log all that information — but since the data was all originally put to paper, it meant the workers were doing double and triple data entry tasks as soon as they got back from performing their duties.”
This struck Chan as a problem — and one that those smartphones and tablets in the pockets of maintenance workers could fix by creating a central platform where jobs could be logged, data could be entered and from where notifications could be issued, which would significantly improve the entire process.
The problem was that at the time, three years ago, no such digital solution for maintenance workers actually existed, and so Ryan Chan decided to build one himself. Which was something of a challenge, because Chan was a process engineer at the time, not a software developer; but he decided to rectify that situation by continuing to work as an engineer by day and taking a community college course in iOS development at night.
With some training under his belt and a clear idea of the problem he was trying to solve, Chan built UpKeep, version 1.0.
“It was really bad. I’m not going to lie; I had no idea what I was doing.”
But what Chan lacked in programming skills at the time, he made up for in passion and a determination to succeed. So, he quit his day job and got a new one as an entry-level iOS developer.
“I got paid to learn to program well, and I worked on UpKeep on the side, until about 14 months ago when UpKeep became my full-time job.”
A full time job, he said, that has produced a product to help organizations run more efficiently with better maintenance and empower those same workers who feel that they have a little more control in their lives.
So, how does it work?
The Digital Hub
The problem that maintenance crews at all kinds of institutions face is similar, Chan noted — work orders and requests come in via text, via email and via phone call without a central hub to store that data, let alone prioritize it.
The UpKeep app lets the user with a problem upload it — with a picture if applicable — so it can go directly to a facilities manager who can then (after viewing what else is in the queue) assign it as priority necessitates.
“With no central place, it’s very hard to put those requests in any kind of order of priority,” Chan said. “Removing the paper mess and making it digital means that scheduling and upkeep can now be done in real time — and updated in real time”
Note the use of the word “upkeep” — thus the name of the company.
Moreover, Chan explained, the ability to keep track of data in a central location gives companies the ability to view that data holistically and spot patterns and problems before they appear. If the HVAC system needs a lot of calls, for example, it might be time to start budgeting to replace it.
Most importantly, however, the UpKeep technology aims to empower maintenance workers it connects to — particularly when it comes to demonstrating their value. Done perfectly, maintenance work is invisible; it’s one of those things that only really becomes noticeable when done incorrectly.
“Maintenance is not the most glamorous job, but it is really, really important for any facility. We want to empower those technicians and give them the ability to demonstrate with data to their employer the very important work they are doing. And that is only possible if the data is being tracked and managed.”
Who Needs a Service Like UpKeep’s?
The idea of UpKeep was born on the floor of a manufacturing plant — but the uses for it have quickly spread beyond that.
“We are popular with hotels and rental properties especially,” Chan noted, adding that UpKeep counts Hilton and Marriott in some locations as UpKeep customers. Chan also said that vacation rental companies often embed UpKeep into their own mobile app so that renters can easily snap a picture of the problem and create a work order so that facilities personnel know what issues need to be addressed and when.
Chan said that they had never expected the app — and their mobile-first approach to the facilities maintenance world — would find so many applications across so many verticals, but they have been pleasantly surprised by how many players actually looked for a service like theirs when UpKeep first launched on the Apple App Store.
“I hate to say it this way, but it is a bit of what happened — we built it, put it up on the App Store and people came,” Chan said. “I hate to say this because it never happens. But this is something that is so needed in this industry and something that no one else was really addressing, or at least not at the same level we are — we filled a gap.”
This means, Chan noted, that most of their growth has come organically, through word of mouth, mostly because, he said, UpKeep has the rare ability to add to everyone’s bottom line — tenants/guests/facility users get a better building — and a clear line of communication to the people who literally keep the lights on. Maintenance workers get more control and better ability to do their job and be recognized for it, and building owners get a clearer picture of how maintenance runs on the ground and the ability to optimize worker productivity.
Chan said that UpKeep is a small organization with some big clients and even bigger plans for the future. One might say that UpKeep’s real ambition is to make it hard for the competition to keep up.