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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

Generation Start-up: Hiring freelance construction professionals made easy

Lebanon's Handiss streamlines the process for hiring qualified architects and engineers  

Handiss is an online platform that brings together freelance construction experts.  Adi Weda/EPA
Handiss is an online platform that brings together freelance construction experts. Adi Weda/EPA

Handiss is an online platform that streamlines how construction projects large or small can hire the freelance engineers and architects they need.

The start-up, launched in Lebanon in 2015, has benefited from the venture building programme called The Nucleus, supported by The UK Lebanon Tech Hub (UKLTH) a joint initiative by the UK government and Banque du Liban, Lebanon’s central bank.

The co-founder and chief executive of Handiss, Ramzi Jreidini, tells The National that finding skilled practitioners in construction can be a real headache and, unless you are an experienced firm with a ready pool of trusted practitioners you can always call on, every new build is a risky step into the unknown. Using Handliss, clients will no longer have to just rely on word-of-mouth to access the expert engineers and architects they need to deliver successful projects, he says.

Mr Jreidini says it was his own struggles that gave him the inspiration to create his company with co-founders Mark Khoury, its chief operating officer and Noureddine Korek, the chief technical officer.

"It came from my own personal need to find freelance work as a transportation engineer with a speciality in highway design," he says.

"I saw that there was no way for me to connect with the market and offer my services on projects without very aggressive networking efforts, so I saw an opportunity to create a platform for independent engineers and architects which challenges 'business as usual' in the construction market," Mr Jreidini says, adding that as consultants in this sector, engineers and architects have the potential to work on projects remotely across borders but with the current status-quo, it is nearly impossible to enter a new market or access a project in a different country without physically being there.

"Even in home markets, it is challenging enough to access projects. It is time for the industry to leverage the use of technology and get modernised. Engineering and architecture has always been an independent profession throughout history, and we aim to bring part of this status back," he notes.

Mr Jreidini says Handiss is the web platform that provides the thousands of companies in the construction, engineering and architecture sector with the means to effectively hire freelance engineers and architects.

"We leverage technology to create a marketplace for engineering consulting services that can be done remotely or locally, and the platform even facilitates payments between parties through an escrow payment system," he says.

In starting the company, Mr Jreidini says he invested his own money and time and also received backing from the Kafalat iSME programme and the UKLTH.

"We have spent over US$40,000 from personal finances, and that is not including the time and effort that was put in for no financial returns," he says.

"In addition to that, Handiss received a $15,000 grant from the Kafalat iSME programme, and a $50,000 investment from the UKLTH through The Nucleus programme. We expect to raise [more] funds soon and to break even towards the end of 2019."

The kafalat iSME Programme is a $30 million initiative funded by the government of Lebanon and the World Bank. It aims to encourage the equity investment market in order to increase early-stage investment finance for financially viable, new, and existing innovative firms in the region.

Mr Jreidini says one of the most important aspects of the Handiss model is that it is focused purely on its target industry.

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"Because Handiss is a platform that is catered specifically for the construction sector, this allows us to create features that are specific to the industry, such as the pricing units used in quotations, the categorisation of every niche in the industry, and other features.

"We even make sure that the freelancers on Handiss are capable of providing high-quality work through the means of a rigorous vetting process. One of the most important features that we are working on now is the team building feature, where engineers and architects can form teams on the platform to submit a comprehensive proposal for a project covering every requirement it needs all at once."

Mr Jreidini says the new feature will save clients time that would otherwise have been spent interviewing and building the team on their own, and it gives the freelancers more legitimacy by showing that they already work in teams, which is essential for every construction project.

The experience, Mr Jreidini had gained in the sector before launching Handiss, provided him with plenty of understanding of the problems faced in the industry. But that alone was not sufficient to actually get the firm off the ground, he says.

"I’ve been a civil engineer for nine years, and I’ve worked on several construction projects as a highway design consultant," he says. "My industry experience is essential for Handiss, but it is not enough on its own.

"After nearly 18 months working on Handiss, and after going through mentorship and support with the UK Lebanon Tech Hub’s The Nucleus accelerator, and with the expansion of the team to include other members who cover the knowledge and skills that I do not have personally, we now have a team that is highly capable of handling every aspect of the business.

"As for how we’ll make money, we have service fees charged on freelancers who win a job on Handiss, subscription fees, and our Handiss Pro services which help clients through the hiring process."

And the idea proved so attractive that the company received its first success before it came to market. "Our first sale happened when a client came to us before the product was ready to take on orders. We were still integrating payment gateway API’s [applications programming interfaces] when it happened, so we needed to handle the payment offline. The process nonetheless proceeded smoothly, and the client was able to hire a highly skilled engineer, on time, and on budget.

"Our sales are still going through smoothly, and since then we have improved the user experience and integrated new features," Mr Jreidini says.

Handiss is not merely a networking service, however. "Our platform is all about finding the right talent in the industry, and one of our goals is to help engineers and architects improve their skills by providing them with information they need and by partnering with institutions that aid them in their development."

And Mr Jreidini has high hopes for the future. "In five years, Handiss is going to be the leading platform when it comes to hiring freelance engineers and architects online. We are currently in the Lebanese market, but next year, we’re coming to the UAE as the first step in our expansion strategy. The GCC is next, and then the world.

"My co-founders are experienced and smart and we form a very strong team."

And should the firm be snapped up, he says he intends to stay hands-on.

"If Handiss gets sold today, I would like to remain in a leading role in the company…. the journey is beautiful, and I don’t think I or any of the others on our team are ready to give it up.

"I went from a civil engineer working on construction projects to an entrepreneur, and it has been quite a ride. This journey has shown me that there really are great opportunities in the world, even in the struggling country of Lebanon. Yes, I’m a big optimist ...we are making incredible progress. The market is small and the opportunities are scarce, and still Handiss is getting new projects every week and providing value to companies across the board ... and our community is growing everyday."

Company profile:

1. Name of company: Handiss

2. Founders: Ramzi Jreidini, chief executive, Mark Khoury, chief operating officer, Noureddine Korek, chief technical officer

3. Number of staff: 5

4. Investment stage: We are at our early stages, and we have so far worked with a pre-seed funding of approximately $70,000, and yes we are currently in talks with VC investors for our seed investment.

5. Latest turnover/profit/loss: Undisclosed