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#50 - Aaron Witt

Aaron Witt is the CEO & Founder of BuildWitt, a company on a mission to make the dirt world a better place.

Episode Transcription & Timestamps

[04:18] - Who Is Aaron Witt?

I'm just a kid that has always loved bulldozers and heavy equipment. For people that haven't heard much of my story. I started out this loving equipment when I was a little kid, had no family in the industry, no immediate ties to heavy equipment or construction or earthmoving or anything of the sort.

My dad's a lawyer, so I. I just admired the industry from afar. Growing up, I had a unique opportunity to go work on a ranch in Montana when I was just starting out high school and learnt that, hey, I want to choose something that I really enjoy and that excites me for work because I have the opportunity and luxury to do so. So, I evaluated my life, thought about what gets me going and said, hey, I, I think I want to make a career in construction and earthmoving and bulldozer.

[06:26] - What is BuildWitt?

BuildWitt today. It started with me just running around with a camera running around the United States, visiting job sites, taking pictures, putting on the Internet. Now it's we have a full-blown creative agency that does anything from video projects to websites to big design projects. I mean, really anything from a creative standpoint, storytelling standpoint for dirt world companies, equipment companies, mass excavation companies, mining companies.

[07:42] - How old were you when you started BuildWitt?

I was 23. I started it on my 23rd birthday. I made it just a year out of college and worked two different jobs out of college and had enough of it pretty quick. So, I just said to hell with it and started travelling around trying to find as much as I could.

[08:05] - How did BuildWitt as a company evolve?

I mean, first I tell people I was dealt a really good hand, I was raised in a good household by smart parents, so let me do whatever I wanted to do within reason. But they didn't ever forced me into some kind of career, didn't have any debt coming out of college or anything like that. So, I was I was really free to do everything I've done. So, I was set up pretty good. I don't want to make it seem like it was, you know, my genius that allowed all this to happen.

And I was just kind of in the right place, the right time mostly, but. It's all about it, at least for me, it was all about just getting started and putting myself in a position where I had to make something work. So, by quitting my job and moving in with my dad, giving up my life that I had built thus far, which was pretty, pretty nice, actually. I was making pretty good money out of school.

Give all that up, have no income, no plan, and have to create something from scratch was a huge motivator for me. So, I just first it was really just a I explained it to some of our team the other day. It was really just a selfish endeavour as far as maximising my time around heavy equipment and job sites. It was a means for me to just get on as many job sites as I could and take the pictures I wanted to take and share the industry with as many people as I could because I love it a lot.

And as I started doing that, opportunities just began to emerge. Someone asked to for us to do their website and I said, sure, we'll make a website for you. Someone asked for a video. Sure, we'll make a video for you. Someone asked for this. Someone of that. And, you know, naturally, you find people that are really talented at building websites or design, or video and you bring them on board, and you sell them on the vision and show them the industry.

And they get all excited about it, too. And other people, because of social media, other companies start to see that work more and more and they reach out and they say, hey, that video is pretty cool. Can you do it for us, too? And we say, hell yeah, we can do it for you, too. So, it was just getting started was a big step and then just seizing the opportunities as they presented themselves being disciplined, especially now as far as what we say yes to and what we turn down, it's not that you should say yes to everything.

You should say yes to what works well for your business and works well for what you want to accomplish. But it's really just been about seizing opportunity.

[11:54] - Did you feel a lot of pressure starting a company at a young age?

The interesting thing is there is a little bit of pressure, but I think my age is an asset as far as I'm just really naive and I've always just seen it as kind of the next evolution and, OK, hey, I can't do this on my own. OK, so I need to get people and there's no sense in stressing about or worrying about, like, this is just kind of the next step.

It's like when you want to start a business, you create a business. It's just OK, it's like I'm on step five now. And that says hire people. I guess I'm going to hire people and ensure there's that pressure. You know, I always support about 50 full time people and a lot of part time people, too. There's pressure to make sure that they have a paycheque they can count on so they can support their families and create the lives they want to live.

But now I feel like a lot of business owners, they look at payroll like a burden, almost like a negative light, like it's such a drag. And I look at it as a really, really exciting thing. Every time we get to hire more people and spend more on payroll, that's more you know, those are those are those are people we're supporting, and people are giving opportunity to. And they have families, you know, holy smokes.

We hired someone with five kids. Now we're supporting five children too. And then we're supporting, you know, their impact in their community. And it's such a big, big expense when you can bring more and more people into the business. So, I you know, early on it was just something I needed to do. It's always had some pressure and there's a great sense of responsibility surrounding something like payroll. But now I really view it as an opportunity and as a privilege to be able to pay out what we do in payroll and give that much money to that many people. Because I know that creates a huge, huge impact in the world.

[14:02] - How does leadership and the culture fit into BuildWitt?

I didn't really understand how important leadership was until recently, we've been doing a lot of work with Echelon Front, which is connected with Jocko Willink extreme ownership dichotomy of leadership. He was a former SEAL team commander, created a consulting business focussed entirely on leadership. And we've been in a very fortunate position to work with them closely over the past two months, developing our leader’s platform. And that's really the centre of everything is the quality of leadership. And it's, again, it's a huge responsibility.

And I you know, up until now, when you just have even 10 people, 15 people, you can reach everybody. And so, building culture and that kind of thing isn't all that hard because you can get to everybody, and you know what's going on. When you start to get to 30, 40, where we're at now, you need to rely more and more on a foundation, on the culture, on your ability to lead.

And as you go further, further down the business, further down the path, you need to elevate your ability to lead. And it's a skill and again, it's perishable. If you don't practise it and the business, the business can outpace your ability to lead as well and then you're screwed. So, I've never spent more time than I am right now, developing myself as a leader. And as far as culture is concerned, early on I identified the need and importance of having a greater purpose, a mission to the business, which is where we created the mission of making the world a better place, which is really centre to our company.

And that's been huge as far as building cultures concerned and then a set of common values that everybody can look to and use as a as a compass in their day-to-day actions. And that's something I also rolled out in that first year of business that's been completely. Foundational, we wouldn't be where we're at today if we didn't have our values, we didn't have our mission, and not to say that we're at all perfect, we are so dysfunctional, it's not even funny.

And we have just more problems than we know what to do with right now. But they're all good problems. We're headed in the right direction, and we have really great people. So, I'm excited to see where we go. But the reality is we're always going at problems. We're always going to have cultural issues where, you know, as we double our team again, like we did this year, it's just going to add another layer of complexity and new relationships and different challenges.

So, you try to make the best foundation you can try to make the best culture you can. And then from there, it's just becoming a good leader and managing everything effectively.

[17:14] - How much has the BuildWitt business changed over time?

It's like every day, like we'll have the most brilliant idea yesterday and today. It's the stupidest thing we could ever have thought of. Like BuildWitt leaders, for example, three, four months ago was not a thing. It wasn't even an idea. It wasn't even scribbled on a napkin somewhere. It was not even a remote thought. And now here we are launching this enormous platform with, you know, over a hundred video-based courses taught by industry experts on all sorts of different subjects.

It's just it's really cool to have ideas and actually make them into something or, you know, the office like I'm finishing this week. It was just a dusty room a few months ago. And now it's this beautiful office and home for our business. The constant rate of change makes people uncomfortable if they're not used to it. You see a lot of people come into our business and freak out a little bit because things change quite a bit and they're not used to that.

But that's just the reality of trying to do something that hasn't really been done before. We don't have a roadmap to follow. We can look at other great businesses out there and model ourselves somewhat on them. But what we're specifically doing, no one's really done it before. So, we're just making it up. And, you know, the reality of just making something up is you get total creative control, which is really exciting. And in theory, it should work out really well.

But you also screw up a lot. You also make more mistakes. Then you know what to do with. There's a lot of turmoil, there's a lot of confusion. There's a lot of switching directions in the middle of what seems to be something that's working. But turns out, oh, shoot, it's not at all working. And now we need to go in the opposite direction. So, it's a lot of chaos that we're trying to learn how to manage.

But that's just the reality of what we're trying to do. If we were a contractor, it might be a little simpler because you at least have a blueprint to follow with what we're doing. There is no blueprint. So, it's exciting. It's fun, but it's also just total chaos.

[20:50] - What is BuildWitt Jobs?

But recruiting, we're doing a few different things. You know, the primary business was telling stories. I think that is the easiest way to attract new people to the industry. I think there's a big perception problem. We haven't told our story well as an industry, we've hidden it from public view. And it's caught up with us. People don't understand this world exists and let alone makes a great career, not just that exists, but it's actually a great, great place to work.

They don't even understand that fact. If your company struggling to attract people. I couldn't recommend telling your story more. And that could be that could be a podcast that could be writing some articles that could be sharing on LinkedIn once a week, that could be starting a Facebook page or sharing different projects that you've done the past on your website. There are so many different mediums to tell stories, and we need every contractor in the world to be shouting stories from the rooftops.

If we're going to make a significant change in this industry and make sure we have the workforce, we need long term. But more specifically to us, beyond just storytelling and storytelling is a big piece of it with many, many, many hundreds of messages at this point from people in different careers and working for the companies we work with because of the stories we've told, which is really awesome. You know, we want to go beyond that.

And I think the next evolution of that is it's you know, we called it BuildWitt jobs, which was just a website purpose-built job board for the dirt world it was our first product. We created it early last year. We didn't spend a whole lot of money on it. It was kind of a minimal minimum viable product to see if it would work. It worked pretty well. And now we're developing an app.

It'll just be BuildWitt online or just be the BuildWitt App to build a community surrounding the dirt world. And we want, you know, everybody that we can get on in one place in the world. We want if you're if you're an excavator operator, this is the first place you go when you wake up and get on your phone is not Instagram or LinkedIn or anything like that. You go you go to BuildWitt online because it's a tailor-built community for the dirt world where people can share what they do day to day, where they can find new jobs or companies can post new jobs and where they can see what what's going on in their company, what other jobs are doing.

They can come their company can communicate with them more effectively if we can get everybody in the industry in one place. That's a pretty powerful tool, so that's what working on now, it's still in its infancy. It doesn't totally exist yet. It's currently in development. So, it's not just theory anymore. It's designed. It's in development. But that'll be the job functionality. It'll be it'll be think of it like a like a social media platform where you share stuff and connect with people and a job board and a means to see what the heck's going on within your company or a means to communicate with the people at your company. So, it'll be a combination of a lot of different things online but tailored exclusively to the dirt. It should be pretty cool.

[24:19] - What is an internal podcast?

Internal podcasts these days are probably the most effective way to communicate with people within a business. Especially in this world. It's crazy how effective it is to pass ideas back and forth, utilising a podcast. So, we have. What an internal podcast is, it is what this is, but it is just made for the company's purposes. So, we have a BuildWitt internal podcast where it's me and Alex talking about internal BuildWitt happenings that's just distributed to BuildWitt people.

It's not available to the public now. Is it top secret information? No. Could it potentially find its way out to the open? Potentially. But it's not even. It's not it wouldn't hurt us if it made its way out into the open because it's information that's relevant to our business, the way we utilise it is we anyone can submit questions from within the company and we answer them as honestly as we can. And it can be anonymous, or it can have their name attached to it.

And that's the discussion. It's just once a week discussion of what the hell is going on. So, like a question this week was our new office in Nashville is just about done. Someone asked, are we going to be requiring everyone to move to Nashville? That was the question. That's a great question. And an OK. Yes, sure. There's probably a little bit of anxiety with some people saying, whoa, hey, the business now has this home.

Am I going to be required to move my family to a whole different city because of this job? And it just gives us an opportunity to hash it out in a very informal, authentic setting. And then the company can consume it whenever they want. And the reason why I said it's so effective in this world is because there's a lot of windshield time in the industry and earth moving world. People are driving a long way. And what can you do while you drive?

You can listen to podcast. And so that's how we use it. A lot of our partners utilise it to just share what the heck's going on, the company, what kind of new jobs they have going on. You know, what big changes they have going on. Maybe they have open enrolment, for example. Maybe they want to talk about safety a little bit. Maybe they want to highlight some of their some of their people for some really cool stuff that they've done.

Maybe they got an award. Maybe they just bought a new piece of equipment, whatever it may be, best practises so they can craft whatever kind of show they want. And it's best when it's the executives. I know the best example I've seen is the Sargent Corp podcast and Herb Sargent on there leading the damn podcast. It needs to be from the top. It needs to start at the top. And he takes it real seriously. And he does just a wonderful job. And I know the entire company really appreciates it.

[27:09] - what was your first exposure to the equipment rental industry?

First exposure to rental was when I had my first construction job. No rental, I think is misunderstood. I think everybody or a lot of people, they think you just own everything, own every piece of equipment on a job site. And that's just not true. So, I think that's what I thought was, hey, I drive by a construction site and it's John Smith Construction Corporation. John Smith owns all that equipment. That's pretty bad arse.

Not the case a lot of times. And on the job, we had we had a bunch of rented equipment, just smaller pieces that we didn't need to own necessarily. And as I've worked more and more with construction companies and started to understand their businesses more and more, the case for rental is only getting better and better rental and only going in one direction right now. And it's not stopping anytime soon. It's I've learnt it's oftentimes so much better to rent than to own.

But there's this weird misconception that you have to own everything and there's this pride component to it as well. You know, you'll like it on the balance sheet. You like to talk about how many pieces you own. You like to have it branded in your company name. You like it to say your company name. When people drive by and look at your job site. But a lot of times it just doesn't economically make sense.

[28:55] - Are you seeing a shift in contractors renting more than owning equipment?

Every rental company in the United States is experiencing record growth right now and can't keep machines in their yards, so. Yeah, I mean, that's proof as far as yeah, this this this is really starting to take hold in a much greater sense. And, you know, I know Caterpillar, for example, has crazy aggressive rental growth goals, and they wouldn't have those crazy aggressive goals if they didn't see enormous opportunity there. So, I do think it is changing.

I think people are just becoming a little bit more thoughtful about how they operate businesses. I think the next generation is starting to make itself make its way into leadership roles. And that new generation is a lot more willing to question why things are the way they are. And if they don't make sense, they're more willing to go in a different direction, which is a big change. And there's just a lot of work going on. And so just from an availability standpoint, a lot of contractors just can't go buy equipment right now.

They have to go rent it to do the jobs they have on the books. So, there's a lot of opportunity in the real world. And we actually on BuildWitt Leaders, we discussed this exact topic of, you know, do you rent, or do you buy? And we get a new equipment economics, because I think it's something that a lot of people really don't understand.

[31:12] - What advice would you have for companies that are still focused on selling equipment and not renting?

The ones that understand that the customer's best interests are their best interests do very, very well. So the ones that are smart enough to say, hey, maybe it's not and is not in our customers best interest to sell them these two excavators, maybe it's better to rent than those two excavators because we know they're not going to put that many hours on them or we know that they need some level of flexibility or we know that we can just do it cheaper by the hour, which is very possible if you can just even out the equipment cost and just give them an hourly rate rather than have them having to worry about me.

And you maintain it and them having to worry about maintenance and depreciation and all that jazz. You know, if they make the customer better, their customers better, their customers business better, they can go do more work, they can get more equipment. And ultimately the dealers better. But it's the difference between, you know, tactical versus strategic. You know, they think tactically they want that sale, that next sale, even though strategically it's not in the customer's best interest.

But if you think about it from a strategic standpoint, hey, yeah, maybe my numbers are going to be down this month because I could sell these two machines. They want these two machines, but I'm not going to do that because it's not in their best interest. And instead, I'm going to suggest that they rent because I know that, yeah, I'm going to be down this month. But over the long term, their business is going to be better. I'm going to be better at the end of the day.

[33:52] - What are your thoughts about renting construction equipment online?

It's still pretty old school like I wish I could just from a rental standpoint, I wish I could just go on to the rental store website and just say I need three mini excavators and. OK, well, it's like when you go rent a car, for example. You go on the website, you choose what car you want.

It gives you the options. You can click through it, it gives you the rate right there. And you just say reserve and now you have a machine ready to go. Like, I wish it was that simple, but a lot of times it's not. And I'm sure that's out there. I don't rent all that much, so I don't know. But it would be cool to make the rental experience a lot simpler in that regard. And then from an information standpoint, the more information out in front of people, the better.

There's this weird stigma in this world about sharing information. People don't like to share information in this world. And I think that does everybody a disservice. And so, if you can get as much information about equipment, how to utilise the equipment, best practises, you know, maintenance or whatever it may be in front of those individuals that are actually using the machine, everybody's better off. At the end of the day, they're safer. They're utilising the machine more effectively.

They're, you know, hopefully treating the machine a little bit better. So there's less wear and tear there and then. The rental company has a happy customer, it's both sides win when you're exchanging information back and forth.

[36:20] - What are your thoughts about sharing equipment rental rates online?

If you're a rental company, do you know your competitors’ rates? Yeah, you do. I would almost guarantee it. So, if you know your competitors’ rates, would you say that your competitor knows your rates? Probably, probably so they already know, and me as a consumer, I want to see that and that's why I see I do business a lot with a company called National Car Rental National. I get to see the price I book it.

I don't have to talk to anybody when I pick up my car and it is awesome. I just show up. They have a car, a roll of cars lined up. I get in whatever car I want, I show them my licence at the gate, I'm on my way. I don't have to do any paperwork. I don't have to sign anything. I don't have to talk to anybody. It's fantastic. It's fantastic. And when I drop it off, leave the keys and walk away again.

Don't even have to talk to anybody. It's so easy. That's what we've been programmed to think, that consuming things is that simple and that's just how things are now. I don't know what to tell people. And, you know, I get it like the previous generation didn't do things that way. And I'm not saying the relationship doesn't matter if that car breaks. I definitely going to want to know who I need to call to make that thing work again.

Same thing with a piece of equipment concern, but I want to be able to make that decision. I don't want have to jump through three different hoops to get myself a mini excavator. I just want a damn mini excavator. Just get me a machine. And if I need anything, I'll give you a call. And I appreciate the relationship we have. I appreciate your help. But also, I don't want to talk to you sometimes. And it's not anything personal.

It's just. That's how we've been programmed. It's also simple, and whoever figures that out in the real world, I think is going to do really well.

But even on the other side of the spectrum, let's say you rent a mini excavator, or an excavator or skids and you don't want it anymore. The process is that you meant to call the rental company into a couple of friends. We would email them to say you don't need it anymore. Why can't you just do that online? Why can't you just go online and say, hey, come pick this up, I don't need it anymore.

[38:15] - How can equipment rental companies be more proactive with their customers?

You could be even more proactive than that. You can be the rental company looking at the telematics and saying, hey, this 320 excavator, they haven't run it in two weeks and they've had it on rent for two weeks. They're paying for it. Shouldn't we call these guys and say, hey, do you want to call that 320 off rent because you're not using it and they're like, oh shit. Yeah, yeah, we didn't even know it was sitting.

Thank you. Like you can take it a step further than that these days. And again, maybe that happens. I am ignorant on the subject, but from what I've seen it doesn't happen as much as it should. And yeah, when I want to call something off like that's just a pain in the arse. I remember when I was managing work as a field engineer and used to worry about calling stuff off rent all the time or else, you're going to get billed for this billed for that.

Like this just sucks. This is not fun. And it feels like the rental companies after me, like the rental company, is trying to get as much money out of me as they can. Nope. Sorry you didn't call it off rent. You're screwed. Like, what the hell, I, I didn't even use the water truck, man. And I'm sorry I forgot to call you yesterday. And now you're going to charge me an extra week because I forgot to call you. It's just stuff like that that I look and I'm like, that's just that's there has to be a better way to do it.

[40:12] - Moving more online, does this eliminate rental sales reps?

And I'm not saying that I want to eliminate rental sales reps like it's still a super valuable role, it's just a different role. And I think a lot of them are not eager to adapt and make the experience more fluid because they feel like that's a threat to their job. And it's like, no, no, no. If you're thinking about a right that should help your job, that should help you rent more equipment, make the customer happier, and then just give you more time to just build that relationship, just stop by their site and see how the hell things are going.

Hey, you need anything or. Hey, dude, so we rented you this machine with this bucket on it, but I, I stopped by the site the other day. There's this other bucket we have that's going to be way better for you. Let me let me bring that down to you. Like now you're just focussed on building relationships rather than taking care of paperwork, answering phone calls. You're not you're not just busy all day. Now you can really focus on how do I really take care of my customer.

Now, you have even more time to do that. So, it's a win all the way around. But I see a lot of people, they're just they see it as a threat to their job security. I'm like, well, that's not a very good way to look at it. I think I think you look at it as the best damn thing that's happened to your job as a rental rep. I still see so much value in people and so much value and inefficiency and so much value in human connexion. I just think it needs to be framed a little differently.

[42:34] - Who played a big influence on you from a mentor perspective?

You know, it starts like most people with my parents, they again, they gave me the opportunity to just explore life unencumbered. I feel like a lot of parents, they you know, they didn't live the life they wanted to live. So, they tried to get a second shot at it through their children. And they live through their kids, and they have the best of intentions. But they make their kids live this life that the kid doesn't really have a whole lot of interest in.

And there's some value in, you know, kind of hurting your kid into different things that they wouldn't otherwise be involved in. But there's also a lot of value in just letting your kid be and letting your kid explore life for what they want it to be. So, my parents did a really good job at that. Both my mom and my dad are just allowing me to pursue whatever excited me. And so, when it was me going to work at the aquarium store for my first job ever there, like. Sounds good to me. You can go work at an aquarium store, that's awesome. Or when it was Hey, hey, mom, I'm going to go get in the ditch with the shovel when I'm 18 years old. I don't really need a job, but I'm going to go become a labourer on a construction crew in the middle of summer in Arizona. They didn't talk me out of it, or they didn't say or isn't that beneath you or anything like that, they were just like, sure, two thumbs up have at it, bud. And I think that's really helped me get to where I am today.

Having that support from your parents is critical, and I think, as you mentioned, a lot of people do push a second life through their kids and they force them down a path to become an accountant or a lawyer or whatever it is that they're sort of pushing or doctor or they don't want them to do a certain job, which I think is really disappointing. Like if someone has got passion, let them go. Like, obviously, if they need help, you can sort of guide them.

[44:53] - If you could give some advice to your younger self, what would you say?

I've talked about this a little bit, especially when I started the company, I would be a little less brash and a little bit more patient. I've learnt that saying inflammatory things about people doesn't get me very far and I still have a bad habit of that. I sneak it in there every once in a while, but I've become a little bit more tactful and thoughtful about how I do it. If I, do it and I, do it a lot less than I used to do it because I learnt it's not a very good strategy.

So, it's not. I used to just kick and scream and basically tell everybody they were wrong. Even if they are wrong. What's telling them they're wrong going to do? They're just going to tell me to kick rocks and I'm not going to get anything accomplished. So, I would have been better off if I was more patient, more thoughtful and a little bit more tactful in how I approached people when I started the company.

And that's just a basic leadership principle to its if you want to get someone to do something, you want it to be their idea in a genuine sense. And so, you know, I should have been asking myself, well, how do I get these people to draw this conclusion on their own? Because it's in their best interest to go in this direction. They don't want to go in this direction. How do I get them there and how do I get them to want to be there? And that does not involve telling them they're idiots, is what I've concluded.

[47:00] - How do you define success?

You know, what kind of impact can I create in the world and how just how much of a better place can I really make it? But like to me, this just happened the other day, yesterday, I think it was just looking at, you know, people that work at the company will send me thank you. Cards. That one or our customers will send us some thank you cards like handwritten personal thank you cards.

And I have them hung up in my house and that's. To me, like, that's really what's most important here and. It's really fulfilling to me to know that I'm making a significant difference in people's lives, and it sounds super cliche and super lame, but I get so much satisfaction in knowing that I really am making people's lives better, and that's go back to going back to like payroll, for example. I want to hire more and more and more people.

I want to have a massive company because that means I can impact many, many, many lives. And so that's really, you know, I want a huge company and I'm not afraid to talk about it. People think it's like a financial thing. And sure, I want a bunch of money one day and I want a ridiculous life. But that's not the motivator. That's just kind of a side effect. The motivators are I want to make the world a better place.

I really want to care for and help the industry I really love. And make the future very bright and also, I want to deeply impact as many lives as I can, and I see the best way to do that is to employ as many people as I can and bring them into our business, in our culture and trust them and give them opportunities that they've never had before. So that's, I think, how I would describe it now.

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