Q&A: EquipmentShare co-founder on ideas, raising capital and building a team

EquipmentShare won Columbia Startup Weekend in October 2014 and set to work building a reputation as the Airbnb for construction equipment. Within a matter of months, the startup had earned an invitation to Y Combinator, the famed Silicon Valley startup accelerator, and attracted investment.

EquipmentShare operates an online marketplace connecting contractors with their peers in the construction industry to rent the equipment they need. The original idea belongs to two brothers, Willy Schlacks and Jabbok Schlacks, who owned construction companies themselves and always wondered what they should do with the equipment they weren’t using.

They realized that having contractors like themselves sharing those heavy machines was yet another opportunity for making money, and EquipmentShare was born. Missouri Business Alert recently caught up with Willy Schlacks, following the January announcement that his company had raised another round of funding.

Missouri Business Alert: How is EquipmentShare special?

Willy Schlacks: It all starts with why we do what we do. We’re really focused on our customers. Everything we do is bringing them value and solving their problems. There are very few if any companies trying to solve that. We also have a phenomenal team to build our solution and solve those problems. Between those elements, that’s something that’s different.

MBA: You won Startup Weekend in Columbia in 2014. How did that help you?

WS: Competitions are great in the early stages of the company to not only meet other people with similar mindsets and find talent but also really good for focusing and validating your idea. Winning or losing a competition isn’t the end and doesn’t mean success or failure for a company but it is a validation on some level. In fact, Columbia has a vibrant startup community. It’s very valuable.

We won the competition and stayed in Y Combinator, which was a huge benefit. We had the company out in San Francisco for several months. The network from Y Combinator was also helpful. And then we came back to the Midwest in Columbia and continued building it there.

At every stage, there has always been individuals and communities that really helped and supported. A company like ours is an endeavor and an exercise of many people, not just of an individual or a few that have an idea and build it.

MBA: You mentioned you will be using your latest round of investment for expanding. What exactly does this mean?

WS: Part of it is the market expansion. So we have regions that we would be expanding our marketplace to based on the high demand for rental. The other side of expansion is the team, largely on the development and technology side, hiring developers to build solutions for customers.

As we expand into new markets, we hire new drivers and mechanics and managers, on the logistics side. For the technology side, we are looking for high-quality standard developers. 

MBA: You are still based in Columbia. Do you plan to relocate? 

WS: We have several offices in Texas and in Florida and in Columbia. We either launched or are preparing to launch in Austin and Houston. Ultimately, we plan to expand worldwide, but one step at a time. We are focusing nationally and will continue from there.

We also opened an office in Kansas City, but we will continue to expand in Columbia as long as we will continue to find good people in Columbia. Also, I live in Columbia. My brother lives close by.

MBA: What does your competition look like nationally?

WS: As far as companies that do what we do, the competition is fairly limited. We are the largest, fast-growing equipment share marketplace. I guess that’s the way to put it. There’s one in Canada and one in San Francisco, but beyond that, there are not many companies. Why? Because it’s a tough problem to solve. Probably because the concept is so obvious and easy that the solution is quite complex. It takes an enormous amount of effort to build. That’s one of the reasons it is not an easy solution and requires a lot of investment in technology and activity, logistics.

MBA: Do you plan to attract more funding? Do you think it will be necessary for the future?

WS: It’s all about what makes sense for the company and what’s healthy. Is there a purpose behind it? We just closed this round, so we don’t need funding right now.

MBA: What are you most afraid of on the market right now?

WS: I don’t have any fears, but if I were to prioritize concerns, my concern is to always find high-quality people. That always takes longer and is harder than I wished. I have an enormous amount of confidence in the company and in the team that we built. 

MBA: What’s your exit strategy?

WS: I’d like to achieve world dominance and maybe do something else. I don’t think about selling the company. We will do what’s healthy for the company, but I like solving problems and I like working with great people to solve problems. But it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen in five, 10 years. But we currently build everything to build the company, not to sell it.

MBA: Any advice for new starters?

WS: Hard work goes a long way, but absolutely always look for people who are smarter and better than you. And surround yourself with them. But do that very wisely because some people look smarter and better but they are not. Make sure it’s well-tested.

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