Christopher Brenchley, Co-founder & CEO of Surehand, Inc.
We have long equated groundbreaking innovation with the entrepreneurs and startups of Silicon Valley. But now, more than ever, large corporations are staking a claim in the innovation game. Driving this wave of corporate innovation are Corporate Explorers: the leaders actively pursuing bold, exploratory business ideas beyond their firm’s core.
This article is the fifth in a series featuring Corporate Explorers to Watch in 2021. Sometimes, Corporate Explorers are managers given license to create new businesses, operate outside established corporate rules, and use the assets of the firm to convert the organization’s financial lead over startups into disruptive growth opportunities. At other times, Corporate Explorers are CEOs, personally leading the charge to innovate. Regardless of their position within a firm, Corporate Explorers are typically insiders willing to stand out from the crowd, act with independence, and break the firm’s taboos to commercialize disruptive ideas. They are purpose-driven individuals on a mission to transform the status quo.
Corporate Explorer to Watch: Christopher Brenchley
Role: Co-founder & CEO of Surehand, Inc.
Organization: Stanley X/Stanley Black & Decker
Innovation tends to follow fashions, fads, and focus on ‘high-value’ segments. Christopher Brenchley, co-founder and CEO of skills-based hiring platform Surehand, is bringing the power of digital innovation to the market for blue-collar industrial jobs.
Did you know that by 2030, there will be 3 million skilled job openings in the United States—representing $2.5 trillion in economic impact? That in 2024, we’ll already see a shortage of 400,000 welders in the industrial sector, a shortage that may well jeopardize parts the Biden administration’s infrastructure plan?
Paradoxically, it can be hard to find a job, even when you have the skills to do the work. Employment is localized, specific to particular industries, while employment agencies do not operate at scale, and online resources are restricted to smattering of industry job boards or generic employment sites designed primarily for white-collar professionals.
This is the challenge that Stanley Black & Decker, a Fortune 500 manufacturer of industrial tools and household hardware, gave Christopher and his startup colleagues. Kevin Lemke, leader of Stanley X venture studio, the firm’s new business incubation unit, wanted to find out if they could create a better way for industrial employers and skilled tradespeople to find one another, initially in the oil and gas sector, and turn it into a viable business.
In search of the ‘signal’
The journey to solving this problem started with an intense 12-week incubation cycle with Stanley X and its Silicon Valley-based partner, Mach49. The first goal was to learn as much as possible about the market and its challenges. Many of the workers do not follow a traditional full employment lifestyle. They are used to living six-months on the road, then returning home to family for the rest of the year. Others work in the field, on job sites or in plants that don’t allow for the use of mobile devices. That makes them harder to reach. Less likely to be online or use digital tools for their work.
Brenchley and team launched an extensive search to find stakeholders to interview. They found people via LinkedIn and industry networks. Invited them to roundtables on Zoom. Got referrals to speak to others. Soon they were speaking to hundreds of employers, trade groups, unions, tradespeople, HR, hiring managers, and recruiters. They dug into what data they could find about the market.
Out of all this noise, they found a signal. The ‘tone’ for getting started was in the more technical trades, those with hard-to-find skills that are must haves on most industrial jobs. Their beach head was non-destructive testing and industrial inspection. Many recruiters from HR or agencies don’t know the technical detail required for the job. This made life harder for hiring managers, who wanted to reach people with specific skills.
Out of this insight, Surehand, Inc. was born, with a two-fold, stated purpose: to reduce industrial labor shortages and eliminate unemployment among skilled tradespeople.
After the 90-day incubation cycle, the team secured funding from Stanley X to build a minimum viable product (MVP). This helped enrich the conversations with stakeholders, teaching them more about what it would take to make a difference to employers and workers.
277 days to revenue
The COVID pandemic and the collapse in the oil market was an early near-death experience. They had selected was seemed like a robust market, but now it was headed for the doldrums.
Brenchley and team moved fast. They accelerated their planned expansion into manufacturing, focused on the craftspeople who build, operate, and maintain heavy machinery. That segment shared many of the characteristics of the oil and gas market and suffered many of the same bottlenecks.
Counter to a widespread opinion that startups—corporate or otherwise—cannot make money, this new strategy helped Surehand get to first revenue in only 277 days. Their thirty thousand worker users—a number Brenchley expects to be 10x that by early 2022—download and use the mobile app for free. Surehand’s business model is to charge employers a fixed, “all you can hire” annual subscription to use Surehand’s web-based talent sourcing and recruiting platform. So far, Brenchley has signed up twenty-five large industrial clients, including major players like BAE Systems, Siemens, and General Atomics. As a privately held company, he declined to state his revenue, but it is clear they’re getting a boost from U.S. hiring activity picking back up as the country emerges from the pandemic. Projected government stimulus focused on America’s infrastructure is another macroeconomic driver that will accelerate Surehand’s progress in the months ahead.
Most Corporate Explorers are driven by a mission to transform their business from the inside out (see Krisztian Kurtisz at UNIQA). They find themselves in this entrepreneurial role almost by chance. Brenchley is different. Having spent more than 20 years in corporate innovation management and the last ten in the startup ecosystem, he was purpose-built to take on the problems plaguing the industrial talent ecosystem.
Most ambidextrous organizations grow new ventures by leveraging assets from the core business to allow them to go faster. Similarly, Stanley Black & Decker provided capital, which it managed carefully through Surehand’s board, and gave the team early access to Mach49, a growth incubation company, prior to inception. Mach49 gave the team a structured process to follow and coached them as they interpreted the market needs. However, Brenchley had no special treatment when it comes to signing up Stanley Black & Decker’s business units as clients for Surehand. They have operated as an autonomous unit since its inception.
Brenchley praises Stanley Black & Decker for having such patience and deep commitment to Surehand’s mission. Unlike a Silicon Valley Venture Capital firm, the corporate takes a long-term view of venture investments. Surehand is outside quarterly performance targets and does not have to make a return inside the life of a fund. This has given the company the space needed to stay focused, move fast and adapt to the rapidly evolving industrial talent landscape.
What is next for Surehand?
Surehand is now shifting from the oil and gas sector to industrial manufacturing, followed by heavy civil/commercial construction, a move powered by product advancements that the team internally dubbed ‘Jobs 2.0.’ To accelerate the shift, Surehand has recently launched ‘Rock the Trades,’ a workforce development initiative that celebrates the American industrial worker. The primary goals of the initiative—one that is tightly aligned with Surehand’s overall mission—are to underscore that the skilled trades can be a fulfilling career path for all comers and to enable those who choose to embark upon the journey. In concert, the initiative will raise awareness about growing shortage of skilled workers in the United States and the dire consequences it may have for the country’s long-term economic future.
In March 2021, the initiative kicked off with its first industry influencer: the internationally-acclaimed metal sculptor and skilled trades advocate, Barbie The Welder. A welder by trade for 14 years and sculptor for the past eight, Barbie is a fierce advocate for the skilled trades and all others who build, operate, and maintain the physical world around us. Surehand has commissioned Barbie to create a one-of-a-kind, life-sized metal sculpture, “The Tradesman,” to serve as the physical manifestation of the Rock the Trades mission and honor hardworking, skilled tradesmen and -women around the country.
As any maturing enterprise, Surehand will have its headwinds and bumps in the road. But one can be sure that for as long as Christopher Brenchley and his crew hear the ‘signal,’ they’ll keep trying to change the world.