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4 Ways to Bring a New Approach to a Rigid Industry

A fast-growing builder has shaken up the construction industry by looking outside of it for inspiration. Here's how you can do the same in your industry.
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A Project Frog building welcomes visitors to San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.
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"Not much has changed in the construction industry in the past 100 years or so," says Ann Hand, CEO of Project Frog, a San Francisco-based company that builds energy-efficient prefab buildings. "It's an industry just waiting to be disrupted." Her company is working to be the one that does it. By using standardized core components and less-expensive materials, Project Frog can produce buildings in half the time and at 20 percent of the cost of traditional construction.

Plus, a Project Frog building consumes half the energy of a conventional structure. The company's approach has helped it land more than $40 million in funding from investors. With $28.7 million in revenue in 2012, Project Frog earned the No. 930 spot on the 2013 Inc. 5000. Here, Hand offers tips on rethinking the way things are done in a slow-moving industry like construction. 

1. Look outside your industry. Hand decided that Project Frog should take its cues from companies such as Boeing and Toyota rather than traditional construction companies. That can be seen in the way parts and components are put together to churn out a building quickly. "Our marching orders were that if Boeing could build an airliner in 11 days, why does it take 12 months to build a school?" she says. She regularly calls on executives from G.E., Toyota, and Boeing to float ideas and get feedback on processes and strategy.

2 . Hire a diverse mix. Hand's 40 employees include architects and construction experts, but also a mixture of engineers, product designers, supply-chain experts, and manufacturing managers who can draw on diverse backgrounds to brainstorm new ideas and approach construction differently. "The magic of Project Frog is the healthy tension we create between traditional construction, product design, and manufacturing," says Hand.

3. Get customer Feedback early. Hand targeted Project Frog's most promising customers--school districts and health care companies--and talked to them to learn about the building sizes and features they needed and the prices they were able to pay. She invited them to view early drafts of designs and mockups of real prototypes going up inside a warehouse. "We would try some things, evaluate, and iterate over and over," she says. "At the end of it, we had something that met customer needs and was therefore sellable."

4. Partner up. For Hand, Project Frog is more of a tech business than a construction firm. Like the iPhone, Project Frog serves as a platform for showcasing other companies' technologies. For instance, every school the company builds integrates LED lighting, automatic shades, and plasma-TV-screen teaching walls. This story line came in handy when calling on investors and executives at G.E., which became the lead investor in a $22 million cash infusion.

From the November issue of Inc. magazine




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