John Cefalu, Derek Clelan and Kyle Harrell of The Buildsters: “Behind the walls”

Smart Homes also offer the ability to track what’s going on “behind the walls.” The water usage example from earlier is still apt. If there’s an emergency, the homeowner is notified, can shut it off remotely or the system does it automatically. Tracking also feeds into higher efficiency. Homeowners can keep an eye on solar […]

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Smart Homes also offer the ability to track what’s going on “behind the walls.” The water usage example from earlier is still apt. If there’s an emergency, the homeowner is notified, can shut it off remotely or the system does it automatically. Tracking also feeds into higher efficiency. Homeowners can keep an eye on solar usage and how it compares to what the panels are generating. The same goes for AC, heating and electric usage.

As a part of our series about “Homes Of The Future”, I had the pleasure of interviewing John Cefalu, Derek Clelan and Kyle Harrell of The Buildsters.

John Cefalu and Derek Clelan are the co-hosts of “The Buildsters,” a home improvement podcast out of San Diego, CA, bringing together experienced professionals sharing their hard-earned wisdom to help homeowners overcome the challenges of construction, real estate and more. The Buildsters is also an exclusive platform for contractors and suppliers in the construction industry to showcase what they do, how and why. Together with Kyle Harrell and Jorge Chiman, two of the construction and landscaping pros and craftsmen behind The Buildsters, they help homeowners get jobs done right.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

John: Derek and I have very different backgrounds. We just so happened to move to San Diego at the same time in January of 2019. I was selling home improvement projects at the time.

Derek: I was in sales for a corporate gifting company.

John: I was just sick of it. Sick of working for someone else, making other people money and doing it on their schedules. So, I reached out to Derek and we came up with a plan. Nothing too ambitious. We just wanted to make $200 a day and do it on our own terms. One of our avenues was landscaping. We landed one job, which turned into three, which branched off into a hardscaping project and so on.

Derek: We were just learning on the fly, watching videos on YouTube and getting jobs done as best we could.

John: Momentum was on our side. We reached out to as many suppliers as possible, meeting with everyone in the county that had anything to do with landscaping and the materials that go along with it. We asked them for lists of their best contractors and subcontractors — the pros they knew and trusted.

Derek: We knew we were solid with sales, marketing and scaling appropriately. We could manage the business. But we needed help on the construction side of the industry. Pros, like John said, who could manage job sites, install turf, lay brick and more.

John: We set up interviews, accounts and awarded jobs to some of the subcontractors. That’s when we met Jorge Chiman.

Derek: Looking back, Jorge was the main reason we were able to scale the business quickly and eventually launch The Buildsters. He’s only 36 and can do everything under the sun. Carpentry, framing, whatever is asked of him. It was an easy decision to showcase his skills, the work he was doing, as a marketing tactic. We focused on social media, Instagram specifically. It was a huge lift for us as we focused on keeping our newly-formed network of pros busy.

John: I think one of the main differentiators, too, was that we kept our foot on the gas even despite the pandemic. Most of our competitors slowed down and even stopped marketing. We doubled down and invested despite the economic downturn.Our social media gained serious traction. We saw it as the perfect time to rebrand, get our name out there and build something bigger.

Derek: A radio show approached us to create a podcast almost immediately. What started as “Can You Dig It” became “The Buildsters,” and much more than just a podcast.

John: The Buildsters brand is shaking up a stodgy, antiquated industry.

Derek: And the numbers back it up. Since connecting with Jorge, investing in brand development and marketing, we’ve experienced astronomical growth. Off the top of my head, our revenue has jumped from around $340,000 to $4.5 million.

John: While most contractors use Yelp and HomeAdvisor to get leads, we’ve relied almost exclusively on our social media channels and word of mouth. These are the highest quality leads possible — homeowners who are familiar with our brand, can see our unwavering commitment to quality and are ready to kick off their own projects immediately because they trust us to get it done right.

Derek: Then we thought, “Why not expand?” There’s a huge gap in construction. Most players in the industry are old school when it comes to marketing.

John: They’re just old in general. We look at this generational gap as a distinct advantage. You can no longer rely solely on a storefront for the local market. A brand needs a backstory, a unique positioning, clear offerings and accessible channels nowadays. Especially when trying to connect with younger generations who are now homeowners.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Derek: Well, we lived in a trailer.

John: This was back when we first started and had only sold a few jobs in the $30,000-$40,000 range. Mind you we started from scratch and put everything we could into the business.

Derek: We didn’t qualify for any place because of how expensive San Diego real estate is. Thankfully, my grandmother gave us a little loan and John’s parents were kind enough to finance the trailer.

John: So off we went, moving from trailer park to trailer park. Driving to wherever the next job was.

Derek: We did that for a solid eight months before meeting Jorge. Like we said, then everything took off. Not long after, we found a place in downtown San Diego, pulled the trailer up and moved everything inside.

John: We left the fridge. It got a little moldy.

Are you able to identify a “tipping point” in your career when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

Derek: There was a clear “tipping point” when we met Jorge. That was a game changer. We started to believe in what we were doing, believe in each other and rely on one another to do the best job possible. With our network of professionals and Jorge leading the charge on the ground, we could focus on building the brand.

Jorge liked us because we worked hard and he believed in our mission. We got after it every day, selling jobs and keeping his guys busy. This was early on, too. Just a few months after meeting. Then we sold a big job in Carlsbad, CA, a dream job for most of us, and our partnership was solidified. It was full steam ahead from there.

John: One of the biggest factors, too, was that we never stiffed him. We certainly wouldn’t have been the first entrepreneurs to come swooping into the construction industry and create a business model that exploits hardworking people. Instead, we took heavy losses to make sure Jorge and his crew were paid well and felt some sense of loyalty between us. It was a long term investment and we were confident it would pay off.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person to whom you are grateful who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Derek: It’s Jorge again. Are we being too repetitive?

John: Maybe, but he’s so motivated and talented. There are never any problems on jobs. Derek and I know enough about construction. But Jorge is on another level, which means we can trust him completely.

Derek: It comes down to partnering with talented, trustworthy people.

John: People who trust you in return.

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

John: Have you heard of The Buildsters podcast?

Derek: Great answer. It’s definitely inspiring.

John: More seriously, the first thing that comes to mind is Simon Sinek’s Start With Why. I heard his talk years ago and it still shapes almost every decision I make. My first business was a soap company. I was selling hygiene products in different industries, but the style of my pitch hasn’t changed since then. I’m still selling a “product” nowadays, but that product is now my experience and the partnerships I’ve forged with other pros like Derek, Jorge and Kyle.

This line of thinking extends to The Buildsters. The brand and our platform highlights why and how these pros are getting jobs done. People in this industry tend to focus entirely on what is happening. For example, “Hey, homeowner, you need a new roof. Pay up.” Instead, we’re focusing on bringing to light why and how a homeowner’s roof is being replaced.

Derek: My answer differs slightly but leads to the same line of thinking around The Buildsters. Back in college, when I was working on a golf course actually, I listened to a podcast called Bigger Pockets. It catered to real estate investors, but the message that resonated with me was about team building.

The most successful leaders put people in positions to succeed while contributing to the greater goal, which is one of the founding principles of The Buildsters. We’ve done really well in this regard. The podcast also focused on making sure your money works for you. By relying on your team, your resources, there are a variety of ways to succeed beyond just grinding it out every day.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Derek: For me, it’s a Miyamoto Musashi quote. “If you know the way broadly you will see it in everything.” I think it says a lot about how everything is interconnected. That life is about relationships and doing things properly to enable them. John was selling soap a few years ago and I was in corporate gifting. We didn’t think we’d be in construction today. But the lesson of the proverb still holds true in whatever we were trying to accomplish.

John: I’m a little more contemporary when it comes to “life lesson” quotes. Richard Branson once said, “If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say ‘Yes.’ Then learn how to do it later!”

Derek: That pretty much sums up our path to success.

John: Right. It’s this kind of philosophy that got us to where we are today. I sometimes don’t know what I’m doing on a day-to-day basis. But we say “yes” to absolutely everything and figure out a solution. We’re confident in doing that because of the team we’ve built.

Kyle: I’m on the other end. The old adage is “Give me six hours to chop down a tree. I’ll spend the first five sharpening the axe.” I prefer to be prepared for the jobs we’re getting into and have a thorough understanding of them. It tends to lead to a higher quality end product.

John: You could say we’re well balanced philosophically.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Homebuilding in the US has grown tremendously. We’d love to hear about some of the new trends and techniques that are being used to build the homes of the future.

Kyle: How long do we have? Manufacturing-wise, we’re moving away from natural products and using more synthetic products. They boast a greater resilience to weather and time. There’s also a greater demand for products that deliver a tighter building envelope and reduce loss of conditioned air.

Creature comforts are through the roof right now. Low voltage tech. Theater systems. Air heating and cooling via mobile apps.

Construction is finally catching up to manufacturing and building to incorporate emerging technologies. It’s not just about pulling basic materials out of the ground and then processing them on a job site to use anymore.

Can you share with us a few of the methods that are being used to make homes more sustainable and more water and energy efficient?

Kyle: Product-wise, we’ve been using the Huber ZIP System®. It’s a factory-made sheathing product with a waterproof layer attached to it. It’s very easy to assemble and, when we add the Liquid Flash tape, build a more sound, air-sealed structure. Simply put, it keeps cold air in during the summer and warm air in during the winter. Homes become much more efficient.

Solar is surging in popularity, speaking of efficiency. Not only is it a requirement in new construction and home additions of certain sizes, but the technology is also becoming more accessible, more affordable and homeowners don’t need as large of an HVAC unit to accommodate for it. In Santa Barbara, CA, in fact, the goal is to phase out natural gas in the next ten years and rely 100% on solar. Pretty ambitious, if you ask me. But solar panels with battery backup systems are fantastic when you consider natural disasters like wildfires, which can take entire grids down. These homes are self-sufficient in events like that.

We’re putting a higher value on insulation, too, using foam-based brands like XPS. It helps ensure that homes hover around standard temperatures year-round instead of suffering from dramatic swings.

There’s also been greater incorporation of tech. Water systems that learn a homeowner’s usage patterns, for example. If there’s a spike in water usage in the middle of the night when there clearly shouldn’t be, the system may cut the supply because there may be a leak. Some circuit panels are now Wi-Fi enabled and customizable. If there are issues, like a malfunctioning breaker, the homeowner receives a warning. It’s not unlike cars today.

It’s also worth mentioning options like synthetic stucco, rocks and more. We’re not necessarily taking elements out of nature. Instead we’re using materials that are more abundant that can be manufactured to meet demand.

There is a lot of talk about Smart Homes. Can you tell our readers a bit about what that is, what that looks like, and how that might help people?

Kyle: At the basis of the trend is the integration of emerging technologies, making them more accessible than ever. Instead of multiple touch points to control the features of a home, there’s a single interface that offers total control of them all. Specifically, via the mobile phone. It’s also simpler than ever. Homeowners don’t need an engineering degree to create a custom environment that caters to their specific tastes. It’s just the touch of a button and they’re good to go.

Smart Homes also offer the ability to track what’s going on “behind the walls.” The water usage example from earlier is still apt. If there’s an emergency, the homeowner is notified, can shut it off remotely or the system does it automatically. Tracking also feeds into higher efficiency. Homeowners can keep an eye on solar usage and how it compares to what the panels are generating. The same goes for AC, heating and electric usage.

There’s always going to be the higher end features like home theater setups, controlling pools via mobile phones, automatic windows and shutters that adjust to lighting. The sky’s the limit depending on the homeowner’s budget and what he or she is looking to do.

Aside from Smart Homes, can you talk about other interesting tech innovations that are being incorporated into homes today?

Kyle: Manufacturing-wise, on the pre-con side, we’re doing more design work with MEPs. That’s the mechanical, electrical and plumbing crews who are planning systems to be more efficient.

We’re seeing more as a result of Title 24 in California, which sets new standards for HVACs and lighting. There’s a long list of rules that go along with that.

Some commercial jobs are incorporating control units where everything is automated to limit energy use during down times.

Tesla is rolling out a solar technology that is fully integrated with individual roofing tiles where each one is plugged into the system. I haven’t seen much of this yet, but it’s very interesting. We’ll see how quickly it’s adopted among homeowners.

John: It’s worth mentioning the technology that gives homeowners the opportunity to visualize a product before anyone puts a shovel in the ground or a nail in a slat. Virtual reality, for example, allows them to do a walkthrough of an addition or backyard.

Derek: That kind of innovation has been especially useful during the pandemic. Designers, contractors, real estate agents, the list goes on. They can all leverage VR to keep their businesses afloat and attract clients.

Kyle: We use it often. We’ll do a 3D rendering for documentation or send up a drone to see different facets of the build. We’ll record where everything is going if it ever needs to be dug up.

Derek: Technology is evolving so fast and the industry is following suit.

Can you talk about innovations that are being made to make homes more pet friendly?

Kyle: When homeowners are renovating their kitchens, they’ll integrate food bowls with the cabinets. We’ll run water lines for a dedicated faucet at the water bowl. Some of them are even integrating timed food systems, which automatically dispense dry food at certain times of day. It’s rarer, but I’ve also seen pet doors that sync with RFID tags in the collars of pets. They’ll remain locked unless that particular chip is in the vicinity. That way the pet can come and go and the homeowner doesn’t have to worry about any other critters.

Derek: There’s also some fantastic technology with turf and drainage. It’s manufactured to reduce odor.

John: That basically goes for any type of flooring, including carpet. There’s a pet variation to all of it. It might prevent scratching or, like Derek mentioned, be designed for drainage and odor prevention.

How about actual construction materials? Are there new trends in certain materials to address changes in the climate, fires, floods, and hurricanes?

Kyle: The Huber ZIP System® is a big one in this category. There are some fire-treated or fire-resistant materials coming into play, including siding, metal roofing and insulation. It’s for both commercial and residential projects. I’m seeing more use of tempered windows and fire zones to protect against blow out as well.

Using insulation foam continuously around the house creates a thermal break between framing, siding and the other structures. A good home will experience just three “air changes” per hour, where all the air will cycle out completely. A bad home records the same cycle maybe 20 times an hour. Bringing that number down makes a home more comfortable, not to mention that the HVAC system doesn’t get overworked.

It really boils down to material choices that make a home more efficient. Tapping into natural resources like solar and geothermal make a significant difference without increasing the utility bill.

For someone looking to invest in the real estate industry, are there exciting growth opportunities that you think people should look at more carefully?

Kyle: Well, we’re in the middle of a housing crisis in California. So if a home can be built cost effectively and efficiently, it’s probably a wise investment. The biggest challenge is finding land right now.

We’re seeing a lot of tear-downs in the city of San Diego, shifting to multifamily. Someone might buy a few old lots, combine them and build 10–20 units instead.

Housing tracks are getting easier approvals where housing is in high demand.

Other people are buying single family residences, using the new laws for ADUs or Junior ADUs and building on larger lots or sectioning off a house.

Still others follow the burn method where you buy a house and cut it up.

To sum up, for investors, it depends on what the dollar value is and what entry point they’re looking at.

Let’s talk a bit about housing availability and affordable housing. Homelessness has been a problem for a long time in the United States. But it seems that it has gotten a lot worse over the past five years, particularly in the large cities, such as Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and San Francisco. Can you explain to our readers what brought us to this place? Where did this crisis come from?

Kyle: We could talk about the housing shortage. There are also economic policies and social programs to consider. We could even get into how the “system” fails to support veterans returning from war. It’s a pretty loaded question that definitely warrants a more in-depth discussion.

San Diego, for example, is such a desirable area. There are so many major companies here that employ 1,000s of people with high salaries, it drastically affects real estate prices. That means less desirable land for low income housing and, eventually, gentrification occurs.

John: This trend affects everything, too. The cost of doing business as a contractor, the right way, is astronomical. The insurance policies, permits, licenses and everything else that’s needed to do a job “by the books,” create a barrier to entry. For most people, it’s insurmountable.

Is there anything that home builders can do to further help address these problems?

Derek: I was listening to a podcast about a guy who’s coming out with a new real estate product. It’s similar to a multi-family setup. They’re five-bedroom layouts that are stacked, which lowers rent and makes it more affordable for lower income families. Things like this can help with the crisis, especially in cities like San Diego where prices skew so much higher than the national average.

John: That said, the average home builder can’t do much.

Derek: Correct. It’s oversimplifying, but they typically get handed a plan and are expected to run with it.

Kyle: In my opinion, it’s on local, state and federal governments. They establish the requirements. When you start doing the math, 20–40% of the total cost of a project could be going toward engineering, permit fees and all the red tape that comes with it. In the past, when the city has tried to build in certain areas they experienced significant pushback from residents who don’t want that type of housing around.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Derek: That’s really the point of The Buildsters. It’s a brand, yes. It’s a podcast and a platform, true. But in reality we want this to be a movement for an industry that is rightfully considered antiquated, stodgy and behind the times. Some people even think of construction as a dirty job. Something someone only gets into if they don’t finish school. We’re trying to shift that perception and showcase how inspiring construction can be. It’s as noble a profession as any. It can also be extremely profitable if you do things the right way.

John: The entire process of construction needs to be overhauled. At the heart of that solution, I believe, is the same thing that inspired The Buildsters. It’s about talented, committed pros coming together to do jobs right. Once we’ve established new and higher standards, we can begin to strip away the cumbersome and expensive processes that hinder so much progress in the industry.

Kyle: I would want to address labor issues and how construction is perceived. The average age of someone in construction is around 55, so there’s a massive exodus of people due to retirement.

On top of that, with all this emerging technology, the industry is evolving fast and recruitment can’t keep up. We simply can’t find enough people with the necessary knowledge. It’s starting to swing back somewhat. People are beginning to recognize that a career in construction can be fulfilling both creatively and financially. But we need to continue to push and make sure the trend continues.

I might even lobby the same people to consider residential over commercial. There’s usually more creativity and craftsmanship involved, flexibility, responsibility if you’re looking for it and plenty of chances to grow your skill set. To that end, it’s also easier to move up the ladder.

How can our readers follow you online?

John: You can follow The Buildsters on Facebook, Instagram, Tik Tok and YouTube. We’re constantly posting.

Kyle: I would ask readers to also check out KSH Construction on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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