Jiyan Wei – Co-Founder of BuildZoom

[quote style=”boxed”]I sometimes fall asleep fantasizing about what it would be like if the Washington Redskins were a good team.[/quote]

Jiyan Wei is currently the Co-Founder of BuildZoom, a site that helps connect consumers with home improvement contractors.  He formerly served as Director of Product Management for Vocus (VOCS), a global PR and marketing technology provider, where he drove product platform strategy and roadmap execution for a variety of small business products including PRWeb, the leading online news distribution service.

Prior to Vocus, Jiyan served as Vice President of Online Services for v-Fluence Public Relations, where he was responsible for defining and developing services to monitor and analyze online activity.

He earned a BA in English from Georgetown University and a Masters in Media/Communications from the London School of Economics, where his dissertation focused on social media communities.  He currently sits on the vendor council for the Society for New Communications Research (SNCR) and maintains a blog, New Influencer (www.newinfluencer.com), where he writes about media and technology.

Jiyan has spoken at a number of industry events including SMX, SES and PubCon on a variety of topics including online PR, SEO, social media marketing and more.

What are you working on right now?

I’m working with a fantastic team on BuildZoom, a platform that helps homeowners find reliable home improvement businesses.  What makes us different is that we take an objective and algorithmic approach to ranking contractors.  Our system analyzes information from third-party authorities like the state license boards and Better Business Bureau, direct consumer feedback and inputs from the contractors themselves to provide consumers with free and reliable information to help them make better hiring decisions.

Where did the idea for BuildZoom come from?

In the past 5 years, Dave (my co-founder) and I both become first time homeowners.  We learned pretty quickly how difficult it was to find good home improvement contractors and also felt that the tools out there like Angie’s List and ServiceMagic had fundamental shortcomings for guys like us, who are big believers in the value of openness and transparency when it comes to the Web.  The information that consumers need is all around us.  It just needs to be aggregated, normalized and shared in a user friendly manner.

What does your typical day look like?

We are a small team of about 10 full-time employees, including me. Like most small business owners, I spend my days doing a broad range of things.  Generally speaking, I focus on overall operations, marketing, sales, support and the product.  I manage our sales and support staff and also handle a lot of customer support, which keeps me plugged into the platform as well as our user base.  I also handle most of our conversations with investors, partners and the media.  I would say I work about 12 hours a day during the week.  I make it a point to exercise on a regular basis and also spend some time with friends, discussing things that have nothing to do with BuildZoom.

How do you bring ideas to life?

Ideas spring from creativity but are actualized through discipline.  Prior to BuildZoom, I spent most of my career in product management, which taught me the value of sticking to a general roadmap.  All too often, people can negatively influence their businesses by jumping from one idea to the next because there is something emotionally compelling about new ideas (as opposed to the one you are currently working on).

When I have an idea, the first thing I do is ask myself whether it will create value for a majority of users and whether this value will justify the effort.  If the answer is yes, I’ll run the idea by my partner and maybe a few other folks whose opinions I trust (including some users).  If the general reaction is positive, I’ll put the idea on our collective backlog of ideas so I can see it in relation to all of the other ideas that we could allocate time to.  If it still makes sense, I’ll figure out where we can place it on the roadmap.

When it comes to execution, I look for opportunities to build something simple that contains the essence of the idea, so I can get actual user feedback before committing more significant resources to actualizing the idea.

Three trends that excite you?

  • The continued localization of the Web
  • Increased adoption of the Web by older generations (my mom is now on Facebook and just got an iPhone)
  • Continued consumer empowerment through collaboration and information sharing

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

I don’t believe that any job I ever had could really qualify as being “the worst.”  Jobs are all learning opportunities.  If I ever felt like I stopped learning at a job, I just quit and tried something different.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

From a product standpoint, I would have probably made the first few iterations of BuildZoom a bit more constrained. When you are starting to design a new product, it’s tempting to let your creativity go wild and envision something grandiose.  This is healthy but it’s important to step back, consider your existing resources and figure out how to build iteratively and satisfy real world use cases.  Each iteration should create traction and get you feedback that will inform the next iteration.  We ended up writing a lot of code to support use cases that never manifested on BuildZoom because they were modeled after how we wanted to use the platform; not on how our users eventually ended up using the platform.

What is the one thing you did/do as an entrepreneur that you would do over and over again and recommend everybody else do?

Constantly talk to your users/customers.  In fact, I try to have conversations with users and customers on a daily basis and I’m constantly mining them for feedback on new and existing features.

Tell us a secret…

I sometimes fall asleep fantasizing about what it would be like if the Washington Redskins were a good team.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

I think there is an incredible opportunity to build a platform that helps people manage their lives by using product management tenants.  I believe that the explosion of media and technologies in the past couple decades has created a generation of people with endless opportunities but no clear direction.  The problem isn’t unlike the problem that technology companies face when growing a platform except there is an entire field (product management) that has been built around making decisions to grow platforms but when it comes to your own life, it seems like the existing options out there are pretty fluffy.  I want to see a platform that allows you to take inventory of all the different things you could do with your time and helps you prioritize them according to some sort of cost-benefit algorithm.  It might also be interesting to crowdsource feedback on how people should spend their time.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I’m sure you get this a lot but I loved The Cluetrain Manifesto by Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Serles and Dave Weinberger.  I really think when it comes to what’s happening in the media and communications industry right now, this is the only book you have to read.  Most “social media” books are just bad imitations of this book.

If you weren’t working on BuildZoom, what would you be doing?

Thinking about how to start working on BuildZoom.

Three people we should follow on Twitter and why?

I’lll give you one name: Fred Wilson. He generally posts when he has something valuable or interesting to say and he has a lot of valuable and interesting things to say.

When is the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?

Last night while watching a movie with one of my friends from DC.  We were just making terrible jokes while watching Paranormal Activity.

Who would you love to see interviewed on IdeaMensch?

Brian Lee, the CEO & Co-Founder of ShoeDazzle and LegalZoom.  I think he is incredibly grounded, intelligent and well spoken.

What are the most challenging parts of running a start-up?

Without a doubt, two of the areas I find to be the most challenging at a bootstrapping start-up are quality assurance (QA) and customer support.  There is a strong inclination to release new code into production without thoroughly QA testing because of how time intensive (and grueling) QA can be, but it’s vital to have some elements of a systematic approach to QA in place.  With new platforms and products, customer support can be excruciating.  I think all managers should spend time engaging in customer support because the feedback is invaluable (and you’ll also learn to be a lot nicer to your support employees).

What is the most important non-professional advice you can give?

Acknowledge the value of turning your computer off and doing something that has nothing to do with your business each day.  There are far larger machinations at play in any business than what you are seeing in the moment.  It’s important to realize that no one decision will make or break a business but what will is if the founders consistently disregard the importance of maintaining some form of equilibrium in their lives.


Jiyan Wei on Twitter:  http://twitter.com/#!/jiyannnwei