Ep. 110: Telling Your Story with Aaron Witt of BuildWitt

Aaron Witt, BuildWittHe goes by “Chief Dirt Nerd” and he’s taking the construction world by storm with his unique ability to tell stories about the hard-working men and women mining for our materials and building our communities. While Aaron Witt hasn’t taken a traditional path into the industry, it’s one he loves, and one he thinks others should love too.

His goal as President of BuildWitt Media Group is to inspire others to think about construction and mining as a way of life through his photography, videos and lighthearted approach.

Aaron and Host Missy Scherber discuss using social media to educate and inspire your current and future workforce.

They also cover:

  • Taking responsibility for the changes happening in the industry
  • The biggest mistakes construction companies make when it comes to marketing
  • The importance of being authentic and vulnerable
  • Considering the safety implications of your employee’s mental well-being
  • Aaron’s first trip to CONEXPO-CON/AGG and how it helped launch BuildWitt

Never listened to a podcast before? Here's How to Listen to a Podcast.

If you want to listen to more recorded podcasts, click below to see the CONEXPO-CON/AGG archive of episodes.

Listen on your favorite app: iTunes | iHeartRadio | Stitcher | Spotify | Google Play

Show Transcript:

Announcer:                     

Welcome to CONEXPO-CON/AGG Radio, highlighting the latest construction technology and trends to drive your business forward. Coming up in March of 2020, CONEXPO-CON/AGG is North America's largest construction trade show. We bring you expert advice from your favorite brands, startups, and industry peers. For even more news, sign up for our weekly 365 e-newsletter at conexpoconagg.com/subscribe. We've got another great guest on the show today, so let's dig in.

Missy Scherber:              

Hi everyone. Welcome to CONEXPO-CON/AGG Radio. I'm your host, Missy Scherber, and I'm thrilled to introduce a new segment on the podcast called Contractor Conversations. Every month I'll be talking to your favorite contractors around the country about their projects, workforce development, technology, and of course, equipment. I hope these conversations give you the expertise and support that you need to thrive in the daily work that you do.

Missy Scherber:              

For those of you that don't know me, I'm a contractor based in Minnesota and I own a demolition and excavating company alongside my husband, Trevor. I'm passionate about our industry and I want to recognize all the hard work that you do every day to build our world. I truly believe that CONEXPO-CON/AGG is the event where the construction community can come together and belong. I sure hope you'll join me and my guests at the show in Las Vegas in March of 2020.

Missy Scherber:              

Now, please stay connected with me on Instagram where you can join the conversation and stay up to date on all the exciting things that are happening at the show that you won't want to miss. Now let's get started with today's episode.

Missy Scherber:              

He goes by Chief Dirt Nerd and he's taking the construction world by storm with his unique ability to tell stories about the hard-working men and women mining for materials and building our world. While Aaron Witt hasn't taken a traditional path into the industry, it's one he loves and one he thinks others should love too. His goal as president of BuildWitt Media Group is to inspire others to think about construction and mining as a way of life through his photography, marketing, videos, and lighthearted approach.

Missy Scherber:              

Aaron will be participating in an influencer panel discussion and meet and greet taking place on Wednesday, March 11th at CONEXPO-CON/AGG. Aaron, welcome to the show. We're so glad to have you here today.

Aaron Witt:                    

Thank you so much for having me. I'm really excited about this.

Missy Scherber:              

Well, and I know you travel so much, so tell me where in the country or world you're calling us from.

Aaron Witt:                    

Miraculously, I'm at home in Phoenix, Arizona here.

Missy Scherber:              

No way.

Aaron Witt:                    

I got back last night. Yeah. Yeah. I've probably done, I don't know, maybe 10 states in the past month. So it's so nice to be home.

Missy Scherber:              

Wow. Well, we're glad to speak with you from home and we're excited for the show today. For the listeners who don't know you, you took a very nontraditional path into the construction and mining industry. Tell us about your background and how you got started.

Aaron Witt:                    

Yeah. I got started, I guess you have to go all the way back to when I was a little kid. I just loved heavy equipment, construction, anything dirt. But I had no family or friends in it, so I had no exposure to it when I was young. The only exposure I had to construction was driving by construction sites. I remember I'd be upset because I couldn't quite see out of my dad's window in the car and I couldn't see the construction as we were driving by it. That just kind of persisted all the way through high school.

Aaron Witt:                    

But once I went to high school I figured, all right. I really want to get into construction but I need to be creative because I don't have any in in construction. A lot of people have family members or family businesses. I didn't really have any of that. There was a construction project in my neighborhood at the time. I would go look at it every day after school in high school. I was a senior. Every single truck that drove through had Pierson Construction Corporation on the side in big black letters on the side of each box, beautiful trucks.

Aaron Witt:                    

I just thought, "Well, you know what? Why don't I just call this company and see who owns it and then ask to see if he wants to meet with me?" So I did and I met with Rich Pierson. He took me out to the job site. It was the first time I'd ever been on a construction site. I showed up in cargo shorts, just looking like a complete idiot. I begged him for a job and he said, "Let me know when you're 18. I can't even legally hire you right now. You're 17." So a few months went by and I kept hounding him and he gave me a job as a laborer. So I started out as a laborer a week after high school graduation in the ditch with a shovel and just that was the start of all of it.

Missy Scherber:              

No way. So now talk about the transition from you were on the job site, which is so amazing to hear a story of someone who did not grow up around the industry who didn't have a family member and you really hustled into the exposure. Now tell me about the transition from you're on the job site, what happens next for you? How does your career path start to form?

Aaron Witt:                    

Well, my intention was always to start a construction company. It was for nothing other than ego's sake. I wanted my name on heavy equipment. To get your name on heavy equipment, you need a construction company. I was like, all right, I'm going to go get a construction company. So my master plan was to go work for as many construction companies as I possibly could while I was going to college for construction engineering as well. So I worked for five construction companies while I was in college, from multi-billion-dollar companies to smaller, local companies in four different states. So I saw a lot in a very short amount of time while also getting an engineering degree. That was the path.

Aaron Witt:                    

So I graduated college. I went off and became a project engineer on a road construction project in Texas and I was going to do that for a few years, see where it got me, and then maybe around 30, start a construction company and see how hard that was. But the social media thing took off and one, two, six, here I am with a marketing company instead.

Missy Scherber:              

Now talk about that. Why did you start? I mean you started Instagram, social media, a presence on really all of the platforms. What was the motivation there? You're an engineer. You're on the job site. What's kind of going on that made that transition for you?

Aaron Witt:                    

Well, before I graduated college I was looking at social media and I wanted to use social media as a tool. I had used it up until then like most everyone uses it, as a means to waste time. But I was starting to realize, holy smokes. This is a really powerful tool if you used right. So how can I use it right, and what's my unique story that I can offer the world? After thinking about this for a few weeks, it all just clicked one day. Holy smokes. I have this amazing story from all my experiences in construction. I'm just 22, but I've already worked for five heavy construction companies. I've seen a lot.

Aaron Witt:                    

I have all these pictures sitting on my phone. Why don't I go share some of these and just share them from a 22-year-old perspective? Not act like an expect, not act like I know anything, just come out and say, "I don't know anything and here's what I'm learning." So I started doing that, just posting whatever I had on my phone to start and then I started running out of pictures. I was like, "Oh man. I need to go take some pictures of construction sites." So I'd go drive around local construction sites and photograph them from outside the fence and post them on Instagram and wipe the company logos off so I didn't get in trouble.

Aaron Witt:                    

And then it took maybe a month to get any kind of traction, but it took off. Now here we are reaching a few million people every week.

Missy Scherber:              

Wow. So it really was just the motivation to tell the story. Did you notice out in the marketplace that there were not a lot of people telling the story of construction on social media platforms?

Aaron Witt:                    

Exactly. Yeah, yeah. When I first wanted to tell a story on social media, I was doing a lot of hiking, so I was taking pictures, again, with my phone. I had no formal photography experience or anything. So I was just taking pictures with my phone of all my places I'd go hiking. I was like, "Man. I love hiking and this and that." But then I looked on social media and there's a million amazingly talented storytellers in the nature/adventure space. So I figured maybe I could do that, but it would take me a long time to get anywhere.

Aaron Witt:                    

But then I looked at construction. There were a few people posting on social media in the construction space that I'd followed for a very long time, but there really weren't many dynamic stories. I had seen how dynamic the industry was and realized there was nothing out there that was filling that need for telling dynamic stories. So that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to tell these stories at a much higher level, try to go out and take the best photographs and create the best video, and capture the most exciting stories in the industry. So that's how it began. That's how I got to doing construction rather than taking pictures of my hiking adventures.

Missy Scherber:              

Well, we're so glad that you made that transition because you've truly made an impact in the visuals of our industry. I noticed that as well. I mean the landscape was so light of storytelling in construction. I just started slowly sharing, but you really got aggressive with it. You were like, "Hey, this story has to be told." Why? Why were you so motivated to tell the story of construction? I want the audience to really hear about the passion that was growing in you and your motivation to do that.

Aaron Witt:                    

Yeah. Well, it started out of just my genuine passion and interest in the industry. I had no motives. There was no business plan. When I quit my job to do BuildWitt full-time, I wasn't making any money from BuildWitt. I moved in with my dad so I didn't have to pay rent, so I could just travel around the country as cheap as possible. I just had to worry about feeding myself. But as I've done this more and more, I've understood the need to tell the story and I've gotten more and more frustrated.

Aaron Witt:                    

I'm a 24-year-old kid, so I'm young. I look at everything with a 40-year-plus time horizon. You see all these older folks in this industry who are very powerful, have very big companies, have been doing this for 30, 40 years saying, "We can't find people anywhere." But then they're doing nothing about it. It really started to frustrate me and it frustrates me even more to this day. They're just not putting their money where their mouth is. They're not actually doing anything. So they're not accepting responsibility for, "Hey, there's a problem here."

Aaron Witt:                    

Retirements are only accelerating. Go out to any job site. There's a lot of older folks on every single job site. Once they retire, their knowledge is gone. And then there aren't many young kids getting into the industry. But it's such a beautiful, beautiful industry and to provide so many tangible benefits that a lot of other industries can't even touch. But they're just doing nothing to tell that story. Instead, they're just playing victim and, "It's Millennials. It's colleges. My people aren't loyal. Why train them because they're just going to leave for a dollar raise?"

Aaron Witt:                    

It's like that's the problem right there. So that's why storytelling's so important. It's trying to actually address this labor shortage and actually do something about it rather than just sit there and play victim.

Missy Scherber:              

So that kind of became your motivation then, that the storytelling could really make a huge impact in workforce development, and rather than all of us kind of sitting around the table saying, "Where's the laborers? Where's the laborers?" You're saying, "Hey, let's show the laborers the future, what it looks like. Let's make it exciting and cool." Has that become your core motivation as workforce development into building BuildWitt from just a social media storytelling platform into a full-blown marketing company? Is that your core motivation there then is the workforce development?

Aaron Witt:                    

Yeah. Well, the core motivation, our overarching mission has become making the dirt world a better place.

Missy Scherber:              

Awesome. I love that.

Aaron Witt:                    

There's a lot of problems that have created the workforce development problem. I think the industry has largely created the problem ourselves. A lot of it comes back to storytelling. Storytelling helps from two different angles. The first angle is the obvious one, educating people about the industry because you can't expect a 16-year-old to say, "I want to go into the construction industry," or, "I want to go into the mining industry," when they don't even understand those opportunities exist.

Aaron Witt:                    

They don't even understand the industries exist, let alone there's some beautiful career opportunities. So educating those younger folks or folks that may be 30, 35, sitting in a job that they're just absolutely miserable at and saying, "Hey, maybe you're not supposed to be in an office. Maybe sitting behind a computer is not for you. That's okay. There's another option here and it's a much more beautiful option for you. It fits your personality better. You can make a lot more money. You can actually go build the world and make a difference in the world."

Aaron Witt:                    

So one, it's that educational piece, just sharing what this industry actually looks like. So trying to attack the negative perceptions. And then two, I've realized after visiting I mean hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of job sites in 30-plus US states right now, the current workforce is very uninspired. That's because people have been treated like numbers and pawns and just a piece of the construction process. They're not the construction process. So they're just a line item on a bid that's labor and that's it. If you need more of them, you go and hire more of them. If the economy goes down, you just lay them off. You can go get them later.

Aaron Witt:                    

So we haven't treated people very well. We haven't invested in people. There's very little training. If you want to become an operator, I don't know the answer. Just try to hop your way into an excavator and just wiggle the sticks after work and learn how it works and maybe you'll get a shot. There's no defined training. There's no career paths. Construction companies are spending very little investing in their people, trying to retain their people, trying to build great culture. So the storytelling, it helps from that front too, to inspire the current workforce.

Aaron Witt:                    

Our company's mission-driven. The odd thing is, we'll go to billion-dollar companies and ask them, "Why are you doing this? Other than making money and meeting production, why are you doing this?" It's crazy because a lot of construction companies don't have that higher purpose beyond the safety, the integrity, the quality behind the values that everyone shares. Every construction company has the same values. There's no core purpose and they haven't instilled that within the organization. But when you peel back the layers, it's a beautiful purpose. It's beautiful mission.

Aaron Witt:                    

You're making the world a better place. I mean the rest of society couldn't function without our industry. You couldn't turn the faucet on in the morning. You couldn't drive to work. You couldn't get on a plane to go see your grandmother. You couldn't do any of that. So you're the industry that's helping every other industry, every other person live the life they want to live. That's a beautiful mission.

Missy Scherber:              

It's huge.

Aaron Witt:                    

So we're trying to take that mission and just throw it out there and say, "Hey, these construction companies, you guys need to re-instill this pride in your current people and then they're going to go be your spokespeople to go get more people for your company."

Missy Scherber:              

Absolutely.

Aaron Witt:                    

So it's that twofold approach.

Missy Scherber:              

That's awesome. The storytelling just is so much bigger and deeper for you. It's educational on one side and it's inspiring on the other side. It sounds like your goal is from the top down within companies that are already existing. It's not just for new startup companies. It's for these big companies to say, "How can we educate and inspire and really turn people's heads towards this industry?" Which is just such an awesome purpose to have for BuildWitt and I'm so grateful that you're doing that and telling our story.

Missy Scherber:              

Based on your travels and field interactions, and I think you just kind of touched on this, but I want to go a little bit deeper. Based on your travels and field interactions, what are the biggest challenges that you see construction companies facing right now?

Aaron Witt:                    

Construction companies right now, the times are really good. Everyone's making a ton of money and everyone's building a lot and everyone's bidding a lot and winning a lot and buying new equipment. The industry's really good right now. So there's this people problem and everyone knows it. They're saying, "I just can't find enough people to go build everything." But then there's not a real incentive to change either because everything's so good. If you're making so much money, if everything's so good, why go change the way you do business? Why go train people?

Aaron Witt:                    

It's worked, and it's worked for 40 years. Why would I go change? I don't blame them. If I were in their position, I probably wouldn't change either. I think that's the biggest issue right now for all these construction companies is, one, they can't find enough people but, two, they need to change. A lot of them are not willing to change. They're not willing to sit there and say, "Okay, this has worked for 40 years-plus, but the world has changed. We need to change with it. We're trying to force these old ideals, these old values that a lot of them don't apply any more."

Aaron Witt:                    

So really looking themselves in the mirror, accepting that it's their responsibility to go solve their workforce problem themselves, and then go make changes. Going off that, everyone thinks, they say, "I can't find experienced blade hands anywhere." Yeah. No kidding. All the experienced blade hands are working because they're good. If an experienced blade hand's available, that's a red flag. They're probably not very good. So if you want experienced blade hands, it's your responsibility to create them.

Missy Scherber:              

To create them.

Aaron Witt:                    

It's not anyone else's any more and they're not being created anywhere else. So if you want those people, the experienced people, it's up to you to make that happen. I just haven't seen that mentality in many companies in the industry yet because the times are so good.

Missy Scherber:              

So you're saying our solution is to create the talent and to not get stuck. I mean you're absolutely right. It is so good right now in construction that it could easily blind us as construction company owners. Things are so good. Let's keep rolling. But you're absolutely right. We have to have a vision for how do we create the experience and talent instead of just out there always hunting for it. I love that, that you're talking about that.

Aaron Witt:                    

Yeah. Your older folks, once they leave, they're gone. That's the amazing thing and also the downside about our industry. The knowledge and how to build a road, for example, it's not recorded anywhere. You can't go watch a YouTube video on how to build a road. You can't go read a book on how to build a road. I mean there's some resources out there, but it's you go ask a guy who's been building for 30 years, "How do you do it?" He's seen it done every single which way and then he passes that knowledge on to the next generation. But if he retires, that knowledge is gone.

Missy Scherber:              

That's so true.

Aaron Witt:                    

So there's no knowledge transfer there. That's why you need to get ahead of it because if you don't get ahead of it, all these people retire and then you're like, "Man, we need more people." It's too late.

Missy Scherber:              

Yep. That's what happens too. I love that you're coming from a storytelling aspect to create this. I've been talking to Trevor about I want to come from the sacrifice angle. It's a sacrifice to train these guys to pause, to sacrifice production, to slow everyone down, to have our senior operator hop out and say, "Train Shane what you're doing," our 23-year-old operator who just dug his first basement last week, which was the most amazing, rewarding thing for us as business owners. It is a sacrifice.

Missy Scherber:              

There's storytelling involved, but then there's also business owners have to hear that message of it's going to be a sacrifice of production, but in the long run it's going to pay off in the end. Have you seen it done well out there where you're seeing what we're playing with right now because we don't know what it looks like. We're young business owners as well, so we're starting to partner our senior operators with junior operators. We're giving them bonuses to start training. Have you seen it done well out there? What does that look like?

Aaron Witt:                    

I've seen it done well. There's a lot of really cool programs out there that we've been able to see at a very intimate level. The unique thing about us is we're a neutral party in the industry.

Missy Scherber:              

That's great.

Aaron Witt:                    

Every company we partner with, we really get ingrained in their business and they'll tell us everything. It's advantageous to them because we know what everyone else is doing and then we can help them. "Hey, you're doing great over here. Hey, you need some help over here." But I mean obviously one of the really good ones, and you've talked with Keaton Turner. Turner Mining Group has done a beautiful job bringing people up from just driving a truck to now managing entire projects. We have Morgan Corp on the Southeast. They bought simulators. They send a lot of their operators regularly out to Caterpillar, Tinaja Hills and Peoria, for advanced training on GPS blades, GPS dozers, proper dozer techniques, how to use excavator technology.

Aaron Witt:                    

We work with Carter Machinery. Carter Machinery, they're offering training for not only their own technicians, their Carter University program, but they're offering training for their customers' technicians and their customers' operators.

Missy Scherber:              

Wow.

Aaron Witt:                    

They're not saying, "Hey, we just sell machines and service machines." No. If you don't know how to take care of those machines, if you don't know how to properly run these machines to their fullest capabilities then we're doing you a disservice. So they're taking full responsibility for even their customers' training, which is really cool.

Missy Scherber:              

That is amazing. I have not heard of that, so I'll have to look into what they're doing because that sounds amazing. Really what I'm hearing from you in these last few conversations and questions is taking responsibility for what's happening in the industry is all of us kind of looking at ourselves and saying, "What can we each do to make the change," rather than sitting around the table saying, "This needs to change."

Aaron Witt:                    

Exactly. Yeah, yeah.

Missy Scherber:              

Awesome. I love what you said. Now let's make a transition specifically to marketing. We've talked about workforce development. We've talked about what we're missing in that space. But getting a little more niche into marketing, the construction industry does tend to lag behind in many ways, and one of those is marketing. What are the biggest mistakes that you see companies make when it comes to their marketing and their online presence? I can't wait to hear this answer from you.

Aaron Witt:                    

This is sort of the world I live in.

Missy Scherber:              

Let her rip.

Aaron Witt:                    

Well, one of the biggest mistakes is not spending any money on marketing. You'll have a half a billion-dollar company with one person in the office dedicated to marketing, but they're so overrun with just putting out proposals that they don't actually do any marketing. So their marketing spend is, I don't know, $100,000 a year for a half-billion-dollar company when everyone else, every other industry is five to 10% of total revenue marketing spend. Just I mean fractions of percentages. Marketing's really nonexistent. So that's mistake number one.

Aaron Witt:                    

Mistake number two I see is they put someone in charge of marketing their company and marketing this industry that has no understanding of the industry. I have no formal marketing background. I don't understand marketing principles. I have no kind of marketing education, nothing. I'm just worried about telling authentic stories in this industry. That's marketing. That's true marketing. There's no tricks. We don't have any things that anyone else doesn't know. We don't have any secret formula. I don't know what an algorithm is. I don't know any of that. I just tell good stories consistently every single day.

Aaron Witt:                    

I see a lot of companies. They just clearly are demonstrating that we have put someone in charge. We don't value marketing at all. So we've put someone in charge that has never been in the field, has no understanding of it, and then their social presence is demonstrating that, yeah, we don't really know what we're doing. So it does the whole company a disservice because the people looking at their social, it's like, "No, that's completely incorrect. This is ridiculous." And then I see a lot of polished stuff, brand-new vests, brand-new hardhats. I just made a post about this the other day. It drives me nuts-

Missy Scherber:              

Me too.

Aaron Witt:                    

... because that's not the industry. That's doing everyone a disservice. That's screwing everybody in this industry. That's giving everyone the wrong idea. But these companies are too afraid to say, "It's really hard and it's not for everybody." They think that making it polished and making it, "This is a beautiful world available for everybody. There's fairies and rainbows everywhere in the construction industry." That's not the right approach. That's not the industry. This industry is not for everybody, but that's why it's so great because who it is for it's an awesome fit.

Aaron Witt:                    

Working hard every day is a beautiful thing. You have tangible pride in your work. You're making a tangible difference in the world. They avoid that message altogether and just try to polish.

Missy Scherber:              

So you're saying just kind of get the dirt and the grit of what we do in the messaging because it's going to reach and target the right people.

Aaron Witt:                    

Exactly. Yeah. That's the magic of this industry. The whole rest of the country, everyone's in an office. Everyone's polished. Everyone's wearing a clean, pressed shirt. And then you have our industry. We've been in tunnels and in coalmines and fixing sewer mains and all kinds of hardcore work. But then you see these people, they're laughing all day. They're smiling all day. They're the most proud people you'll ever meet because they're really proud of what they do. They know what they're doing is not something everyone else is willing to do.

Aaron Witt:                    

That's the basis of pride. When you do something most everyone else isn't willing or can do, you're really proud of yourself because you're like, "Yeah. I'm doing this. I'm out here and everyone else isn't." I think marketing that real story is the best form of workforce development that we can pursue.

Missy Scherber:              

Okay. Were there any more you had? You're saying marketing budgets. One of the mistakes that we make as construction companies is our marketing budgets and we need to make improvement there. The second one is not being authentic about the true grit and hard work that comes with. What else do you got?

Aaron Witt:                    

I'd say lastly is I've seen enough posts on social media or enough nonsense marketing that it's a bulldozer picture that says, "Happy Monday." What is that doing for anybody? That's doing nothing. That's wasting people's time. Most importantly, that's passing up on a great opportunity to educate people about this industry. Instead of saying, "Happy Monday," on a bulldozer picture, what's the bulldozer doing? Maybe they're making a cut. What is a cut? How does a cut work? What do you have to think about when you're cutting with a bulldozer? Maybe they're finish grading.

Aaron Witt:                    

What are they finish grading? House pads. How do you finish grade a house pad? What's compaction? There's so many great stories. Who's running the bulldozer? How long have you had that bulldozer? Why did you buy this bulldozer over that bulldozer? There's so many beautiful stories there to tell. It's just taking advantage of them and getting them out there in the world instead of wasting people's time with nonsense.

Missy Scherber:              

Right. That leads into my next question of what are the things we can do as construction companies small, medium, and large, and even also as brands, construction brands out there. What can we do for the mistakes that we are making by not spending enough, not talking about the grit? You just addressed one big one is get deeper with the story. But what else can we do to start making improvements on these mistakes that you're seeing made?

Aaron Witt:                    

It's really easy. I mean my focus is on social media. Social media is one of the most beautiful ways to communicate ever. There's a lot of downsides to it, obviously. But if you use it right, if you shift your mentality, your mindset to, "Hey, this is just a waste of time," to, "Wow, this is a real legitimate business tool if I use it as such." The best part about it is it's free. I can go really get the word out about my company. So it's just about these companies being willing to put themselves out there.

Aaron Witt:                    

We work with companies that are not nervous for me to be on their job sites with a camera. They don't ask to approve everything with a fine-toothed comb. They don't ask to go see the messaging. They don't ask about that stuff because they already know they're doing the right thing. So they're not afraid to put themselves out there. So number one is just these companies need to do the right thing. I don't do anything with my storytelling. I'm just tell stories that exist. I'm not making anything up. I don't do heavy edit. Whatever is on your job site is what I'm going to capture.

Aaron Witt:                    

I had a company that got angry at us a year ago, one of the biggest companies in this entire industry. I photographed a bunch of their operation, gave them the photographs, and they came back and they were upset with me because it was just a bunch of photographs of old people. I told them, "I'm not a magician here. If everyone on your sites are old, you're going to get pictures of old people. I mean what am I going to do? This should scare you because this is a genuine audit of your workforce right here."

Aaron Witt:                    

One, they can just focus on making their companies great and focus on making their company story great. Focus on their culture. Focus on their safety culture, not do it just to lower insurance premiums but to really genuinely care about their people, to trust their people. A lot of construction companies don't simply just trust their people to make decisions. Allow them to make decisions. Allow them to tell their story. There's so many social media policies out there, "Don't ever post on social media or you'll be fired." Why? What are you afraid of? What are you afraid of?

Aaron Witt:                    

I mean if you had a beautiful safety program, if you had a great training program, if you had great job site management, if you had a great culture, you would not at all be afraid of sharing your story.

Missy Scherber:              

Absolutely.

Aaron Witt:                    

So number one is making that story great and, two, just getting it out there.

Missy Scherber:              

I love it.

Aaron Witt:                    

Social media's a great place to start because it's free. It doesn't cost you anything. You don't need me to do it. You don't need anyone to do it. Don't hire your local agency. Go do it yourself because it's that easy.

Missy Scherber:              

It's that easy. Now tell me this because I know this really will resonate with a lot of our listeners who own their own businesses. Social media can be a scary place for many contractors. Again, that probably goes back to that old school mentality you've been talking about. What should they share on social media? I know some of your most successful posts have been about your biggest failures, running out of cash, things that are really, like you said, the good and the bad of what's happening live. Can you go a little deeper for these contractors who might be scared of social media and give them a good list of what should they post? They're getting started.

Aaron Witt:                    

The real simple stuff is what's going on. Just document. What are you doing today? What's going on on your job sites? You got a new piece of equipment. You starred a new job. There's something exciting going on over here. Okay. Grading a road, you see it every day but everyone else doesn't see it. They don't understand how roads are built, so just sharing this is what aggregate base is, just really basic stuff. You don't have to think about this elaborate story. It's just what's going on right in front of you.

Missy Scherber:              

That's awesome.

Aaron Witt:                    

It's as easy as that. I look at it and a lot of people talk about it. This is not me at all. But you either educate, inspire, or entertain. So you can educate by, "This is why we're using this piece of equipment. This is why we're doing it this way. Or this is what's happening right now." You can inspire. "Hey, this person started out at the very bottom and now they're there and now they're leading the company." Or inspire by, "What we're doing is really important and this is why." Showing the value of your work. "Hey, we're installing a new water line in this neighborhood. This whole neighborhood depends on us to shower, to wash their dishes, to flush the toilet every single day."

Aaron Witt:                    

And then lastly, have fun with it. I have fun with it all the time because this is a fun industry. That's one of my favorite things about this industry is it's not politically correct. People joke around. People have legitimate fun while they're at work. It's fun. People don't take themselves too seriously. So poke fun at yourself sometimes. That goes into vulnerability too. When you admit your mistakes, they don't have power over you any more and then you can show people that, yeah. We're human. We screwed up, but this is how we're making it better.

Aaron Witt:                    

You referenced my most popular post not on Instagram but on LinkedIn with a half million views and hundreds and hundreds of messages from other business owners saying they've been there too. We ran out of money. We had a cash flow problem. So we were owned a ton of money, but we hadn't collected on it. So my credit card was shut off without me knowing and I found out at the airport when I was trying to get a rental car. It was terrifying. I ran the company out of money accidentally. I didn't want to put that on the Internet obviously. I didn't want to say, "Yeah, I ran my company out of money."

Aaron Witt:                    

That's not a fun thing to talk about. But it was real and people saw that as, "Wow, you're actually doing the right things. We've been there too. That means you're growing." They were saying it's a good thing that that happened.

Missy Scherber:              

It is. It's a good sign.

Aaron Witt:                    

Now I see it. I said, "Yeah. I learned from my mistakes. It's not going to happen again. It only was extremely beneficial to my company.

Missy Scherber:              

That's awesome. So you're really saying educate, inspire, entertain, and really that fourth component is be vulnerable with moments that can matter to the audience out there.

Aaron Witt:                    

Yes.

Missy Scherber:              

That's great.

Aaron Witt:                    

And where do I start? Just document what's going on today. There's probably 100 beautiful stories right in front of you every single day.

Missy Scherber:              

Keep it simple. A little bit more about workforce development. It's no secret the construction industry does have a people problem, which we've talked about. But what can companies do to better attract young people to the industry? is the social media and storytelling you're talking about the best angle for that?

Aaron Witt:                    

Yes. Well, it starts at the fundamental level. You can't go put your crappy company out on social media and expect to attract a ton of people. If your company is a bad place to work, people are going to see right through that. So your company, one, needs to be a great place to work. It needs to have career paths. So you start here, you end up here. It needs to have people that like where they work. It needs to be safe. It needs to have cool equipment. It needs to be a great company because I tell these construction companies and these executives, they think they're competing amongst themselves, but they're not.

Aaron Witt:                    

I was just in Silicon Valley yesterday, two blocks from Apple. They're competing with Apple. They're competing with Amazon saying, "Hey, we need to hire another million people. We don't just want to hire people. We're going to pay you to quit your job to work for us." Sometimes tens of thousands of dollars to quit your job. So that's what you're competing with and you need to understand that that's what you're competing with. So you just, one, need to be a great company and that doesn't mean, again, fairy tales and rainbows. But it needs to be a company that people like to work at.

Aaron Witt:                    

Two, to attract people, get the story out there. Do it at the corporate level. So tell your story, but also empower your people to tell the stories that they have in front of them. Empower them. Get rid of your social media policy that says, "You're going to be fired if you post a picture on our site." Encourage them to. "Hey, we trust you to do the right thing. We know what you should and shouldn't post. We trust you to make those decisions. You're an adult. We're all adults here." And then their words are going to speak way, way louder than the words that the corporate could ever speak.

Missy Scherber:              

That's awesome.

Aaron Witt:                    

Allow your people to tell your story for you, I think is the biggest thing once you have a great story to tell.

Missy Scherber:              

So really work on it being a great place to work. Sometimes that can be intimidating for medium to large-size companies of they need to make a lot of shift. I've noticed just one little shift we made since watching you and Turner Mining Group and seeing what you guys are doing is in our interview process, we ask them, "What is your dream? Where do you want to be in five years in this company?" Shane, who we talked about earlier, said, "I want to be an excavator operator. That's what I want to do."

Missy Scherber:              

Just his eyes and seeing them perk up that someone cares, someone's asking them, "What career path do you want? And then how can we support you getting there?" I love that you touched on the career path. I think that's a big hole that I'm seeing out there. We're retaining a lot of great talent right now because companies aren't caring about that.

Aaron Witt:                    

Exactly.

Missy Scherber:              

So I'm very, very glad that you addressed that. You worked at several construction companies throughout college and have said to yourself that many don't treat their people well. How can we start to move the needle on an industry that is being rough the edges? Aaron, we literally just hired two guys who said they quit their other jobs. They had been there for a long time, so naturally we get concerned like, "Okay, why are you leaving?" They said, "Can I be honest? My boss yells at me all the time." Or, "My boss treats me like crap." It's like, what? He's been in the industry for 50 years. I couldn't believe that still exists.

Missy Scherber:              

You probably have better awareness than I do because you're out in the field so much. How do we start to move the needle on being known for being rough around the edges like that?

Aaron Witt:                    

Everyone says, "Now we have to go soft." You don't have to go soft. But you just have to treat people better. Like I said, historically people are a line item in this industry under the labor cost code. That's it. I've seen that in a lot of different places. I don't see it very much today because we work with such beautiful companies. But you need to go beyond that. Working people seven days a week every single week, you need to think about, "Okay, is this the best for this crew? Is this sustainable? Do we need to put more people out there?" All the while, they want all the overtime they can get so they're happy with 40 hours, but then they're also going and getting a divorce or their kids never see them.

Aaron Witt:                    

It's asking questions like that. Is there a better way to do this? Like a safety perspective, genuinely caring about people beyond wear your safety glasses and vest. What I saw in the construction industry is maybe some guy, his wife asked for a divorce last week. That's not a safety concern? You don't think his mind is back at home when he's running an enormous piece of equipment around people? That's not a safety concern? Or the guy that just drank 12 beers last night, every single night because he needs to numb his mind for anxiety and depression? Why haven't we talked about this stuff?

Missy Scherber:              

Wow. So you're connecting that to safety. That's a great, great way for us as business owners to think about it is caring about your people is continuing the care through your safety program. I've never thought of it that way. That's awesome.

Aaron Witt:                    

Exactly. It's just about caring about people. Traditional business, traditional construction, the way I've been explaining it is, okay, we have a pie. I want as much pie as possible. So all the other stakeholders involved in getting that pie, so my vendors, the clients, my employees, I essentially need to screw them out of their slice of the pie to get more of my pie. But why can't we just go make another pie or make a bigger pie? If I go treat people better instead of beating on them for not meeting their production numbers ... Oftentimes they don't even know what production numbers they need to hit because they're not shared with them by management.

Aaron Witt:                    

Treating them right so that they're more motivated, so they're far more productive, so that you make more money. You don't have to make less money by treating your people well.

Missy Scherber:              

That's so true.

Aaron Witt:                    

That's the best part about it. You treat your people well, you make more money as a business owner. If that's what it's really about then, yeah, you can make more money. Or just trust your people with that information like production, like I said. A lot of crews like pipe crews, for example, they don't know what they're supposed to be hitting every day. The guy in the ditch doesn't know how much money they're making or how much it was bid for. Why not give them that information? What's it going to do bad? Why not trust them with that information so that they have a scoreboard? It's just simple stuff like that, really simple stuff that goes a long way.

Missy Scherber:              

Well, I love that each pivot here in this conversation that you really simplified from industry outlook to workforce development to marketing. You're saying just keep it simple. That makes it so attainable for this audience to really have some takeaway. So thank you so much for that. Let's pivot a little and talk about CONEXPO-CON/AGG because from what I understand, you started your business shortly after your first trip to CONEXPO-CON/AGG. Tell us about that experience and how it helped your business.

Aaron Witt:                    

That was a fun one. I think I went to CONEXPO before I had started BuildWitt. I drove up there and I was a college kid. I didn't want to spend any money or anything doing that, so I lived in Phoenix. I drove up early, early morning, forgot about the time change, so I got there an hour and a half before the show opened. I was wearing a CAT shirt and I had a camera and the doors were open, so I just walked in. I don't know if CONEXPO wants me talking about this or not. I've put it out there on the Internet though. I'm not saying just walk into places.

Missy Scherber:              

Yeah. We're not recommending it any more, but we absolutely love that it's a part of your story.

Aaron Witt:                    

No, no, no. Yeah. I didn't know any better. I was just a 22-year-old kid. I wanted to see the equipment. The doors were open. Great. I'll just walk in.

Missy Scherber:              

Great opportunity.

Aaron Witt:                    

So I walked in. I got to enjoy the show for an hour, hour and a half before people were there. They were all meeting. I was at the CAT booth and I had a CAT shirt on, so no one asked me any questions. So I got to see the whole show and it was just awesome. It's so overwhelming. There's so many pieces of equipment. Yes, I went and bought a pass. I didn't do it for free. I'm not that cheap. I bought my student pass, so I properly paid after that. But I got to see the whole show and then I drove home that same day.

Aaron Witt:                    

I took a few pictures, met a few people, drove home. So I did it all in one day. And then I used some of those pictures to get my BuildWitt Instagram presence off the ground, which was pretty cool.

Missy Scherber:              

Oh really? Really? You went there. It sounds amazing where everything in one convention center that builds our world, everything is right there.

Aaron Witt:                    

Yes.

Missy Scherber:              

So you took advantage of the opportunity and you used those pictures to actually launch BuildWitt, which is amazing.

Aaron Witt:                    

Yeah. Yeah. It's pretty wild. And then it's come full circle and now we're working with CONEXPO a little bit.

Missy Scherber:              

I was going to say it came full circle because now CONEXPO-CON/AGG is using your photos for their marketing and advertising. How cool is that?

Aaron Witt:                    

Yes. Yeah. It is pretty cool. Honestly, I don't license images very often, I mean very rarely. I can maybe count the instances on my hand where I've licensed images. CONEXPO's one of them, just because it's such an important event-

Missy Scherber:              

That's great.

Aaron Witt:                    

... and such an exciting group of folks to work with. So when they came to me saying, "Hey, we want to use your images for advertising," I was like, "Well, absolutely. Let's make this happen." It's so cool to see my images all over the CONEXPO advertising.

Missy Scherber:              

It's so awesome. And just to know the amount of pride that I know a lot of us have in seeing that you're changing the game in marketing and visuals in our industry. And then the biggest expo in the world has your image. It's like, yes, this is awesome.

Aaron Witt:                    

Yeah. It's pretty wild. It's pretty wild.

Missy Scherber:              

Going to the show as a business owner, you've really built such an awesome thing with BuildWitt for our industry. What are you most looking forward to for the 2020 show?

Aaron Witt:                    

Obviously, and everyone talks about the equipment, the equipment's really cool. You get to see all kinds of really fancy iron and this and that. But the iron isn't really what excites me at CONEXPO because I like things in the dirt. But what excites me is the people, all the people there, the people that come there. So you're getting the best exposure to the entire national, international contractor community that you can find anywhere and then you're also interacting directly with the people who are making these machines.

Aaron Witt:                    

So all the manufacturers have their engineers and marketing folks there and they know everything about these machines. They're so proud about these machines. They're there to just talk to you about it. They don't care if you're going to buy one or not. They're not salespeople. They just want to educate you about what they've been working on for oftentimes years on a single machine. So it's cool if you're a business owner. Go to find pieces of equipment that'll make your business better. If you're not, if you're just a kid or if you're someone that just has a fascination with heavy equipment, go because you'll have access to heavy equipment that you've probably never had before if you're not in this industry.

Aaron Witt:                    

You'll have access to information that you will not find anywhere else. It's just an invaluable experience.

Missy Scherber:              

Well, I think that for operators, I know I've had quite a few operators reaching out to us through social media like, "My company's not going." I said, "Well, then you go."

Aaron Witt:                    

Exactly.

Missy Scherber:              

Get yourself there. Educate yourself. You'll bring back so much value to your company that will turn their heads and probably say, "Wait a minute. Who is this guy or gal?"

Aaron Witt:                    

Yeah. That's the thing. Not everything's handed to you in life. So if you want to go to CONEXPO, hopefully your company will send you, so ask. The worst they can do is say so. If not, if they're not sending you, go buy a plane ticket. Go buy a pass to CONEXPO. It's not very much money.

Missy Scherber:              

It's not.

Aaron Witt:                    

You can do it really cheap. I did it very, very cheap when I was a kid. It'll just be the awesome experience for you and then you'll be able to go take all that information back to your company, be extremely valuable for your company, move up. You just have to make these opportunities for yourself. So just because you don't have the opportunity to go to this for free doesn't mean you should not go. I encourage anyone in this industry or anyone with even a remote interest in this industry to go.

Missy Scherber:              

I keep saying, "If you're in construction, this is our family reunion." The whole show is our family reunion. So you don't miss the family reunion. It's only every three years, so you better get yourself there.

Aaron Witt:                    

Exactly. Yeah. That's the thing. It's once every three years, so this is just an every year thing. A lot has changed for me in three years. Three years ago when I was at the show before, I was still in college. Now here I am with a business and people know me now for what I do in this industry. So a lot can happen in three years.

Missy Scherber:              

Well, you're one of the people that I'm very excited to see at the show. You're going to be a part of this influencer panel discussion and meet and greet event that is happening on Wednesday of the show. We're really excited to have you be a part of that. So thank you so much for this interview, Aaron. This gave company owners, operators, so much valuable tools to take away and adopt into their companies. Thank you for just changing the game and our industry, but also showing us how with this interview today. We really appreciate it.

Aaron Witt:                    

Absolutely. Yeah. Thank you so much for having me. There's no secret to any of this. It's just telling a great story. That's it.

Missy Scherber:              

Keep it simple. We have a quick rapid-fire round, some fun questions I got to ask you before I let you go. They're really, really big ones. What was your first job?

Aaron Witt:                    

My first job was at an aquarium store taking care of fish.

Missy Scherber:              

Awesome. It wasn't plants, huh?

Aaron Witt:                    

That's a whole other passion of mine.

Missy Scherber:              

What was your first car?

Aaron Witt:                    

Toyota Camry. I still have it. It's in a warehouse somewhere. I don't drive it very much.

Missy Scherber:              

That's awesome.

Aaron Witt:                    

But it's paid off and still got it.

Missy Scherber:              

Still going. If you weren't doing this, what would you be doing?

Aaron Witt:                    

Probably either working for a construction company or trying to start my own, trying to finance a mini excavator and buy a pickup truck and have at it.

Missy Scherber:              

Just go for it. Now what song gets you pumped up in the morning as a dirt nerd, as a dirt nerd specialist? What song do you got?

Aaron Witt:                    

To be on brand with the construction industry I'd have to cite AC/DC or something like that. But I like Kygo really gets me going, anything by Kygo.

Missy Scherber:              

Love him.

Aaron Witt:                    

It's a little bit off brand, but I love it.

Missy Scherber:              

I love it too. Who is the one person you wish you could have dinner with?

Aaron Witt:                    

There's a lot of really powerful people that I've researched a lot. Right now I'd love to go talk with Theodore Roosevelt or Churchill, someone that's really been a phenomenal leader, because I'm trying to become a better leader in my life too.

Missy Scherber:              

That's awesome. What is your favorite piece of equipment and why? I'm guessing skid-steer.

Aaron Witt:                    

Yeah. Everyone would think it's skid-steers. Don't get me wrong, I love skid-steers. They're a blast as you, I'm sure, are aware.

Missy Scherber:              

Yes.

Aaron Witt:                    

I know you have some.

Missy Scherber:              

A couple.

Aaron Witt:                    

I like excavators. Excavators are my thing. It's just I've been in everything. I can kind of make everything move. I wouldn't say I can operate everything, not even close. But excavators are what's really stuck with me. I was just running one the other day with actually Turner Mining Group or one of their sites. They let me in the 374 to load some trucks.

Missy Scherber:              

That's awesome.

Aaron Witt:                    

But there's just a feeling of spinning around. It's just awesome.

Missy Scherber:              

There's nothing better.

Aaron Witt:                    

It's my happy place. The cool thing about running heavy equipment, you can only focus on what's right in front of you. So my phone doesn't matter any more. My business doesn't matter any more. Nothing matters. It's just what's right in front of me and it's just complete therapy.

Missy Scherber:              

That's awesome. So you really like the excavator. Now last but not least, we've been asking all of our contractors in these conversations their favorite gas station food. But we're all aware from following you on Instagram that you're a very healthy, I call you a rabbit eater. What is your favorite Whole Foods find? I will adjust the question for you and only you.

Aaron Witt:                    

Well, I have an answer for gas station. If gas station is all I have, and that's sometimes like West Texas or North Dakota, just when we're in the middle of nowhere. I go with beef jerky, almonds, and a Muscle Milk. So those are pretty healthy, and maybe a banana. But that's just about all I can eat inside of a gas station.

Missy Scherber:              

Okay.

Aaron Witt:                    

But Whole Foods is the real gem when I'm on the road.

Missy Scherber:              

Here we go. What do you got?

Aaron Witt:                    

They have the salad bar. If you haven't been to the Whole Foods salad bar, you need to go.

Missy Scherber:              

It's a gem.

Aaron Witt:                    

Because it's amazing. I force our team to go there when we're traveling. They don't really have a choice on the matter every single day.

Missy Scherber:              

I love it.

Aaron Witt:                    

Whole Foods, Whole Foods, Whole Foods. I try to eat well because I'm traveling full-time. So if I'm not healthy I can't do my job as well as I should be able to do it. So that's why it's so important to me.

Missy Scherber:              

Well, I hope that can be your next source of inspiration for all of us is our gas station diets. I mean you've made such an impact in every other area, why not start eating salads?

Aaron Witt:                    

Maybe that'll be a section of our new website.

Missy Scherber:              

I love it. Well, thank you so much again, Aaron. We really appreciate your time and we cannot wait to see you at the show.

Aaron Witt:                    

Absolutely. I'm excited to see everyone. Thank you so much for having me, Missy.

Missy Scherber:              

Of course. Talk soon.

Announcer:                     

And that's going to wrap up this edition of CONEXPO-CON/AGG Radio. If you like the show and think other people should listen too, make sure to subscribe and maybe you'll leave a review on iTunes. We'll be back next time with another great guest. Until that time, be sure to visit conexpoconagg.com/subscribe to sign up for our weekly e-newsletter. More than 30,000 other construction industry pros are already receiving news and insights to move their business forward.

 




Related Articles