Amber: Hey, I’m Amber Ambrose and this is BusinessMakers USA, brought to you by Insperity, inspiring business performance. Today, we’re coming to you from Seattle, Washington at ATLAS Workbase. And my guest is Amy King of Square Peg Development, and I should also mention she’s the co-founder. Welcome to the show, Amy.
Amy: Thank you for having me, Amber.
Amber: Yeah, I appreciate it. So, first of all, what is Square Peg Development?
Amy: Square Peg Development is a collection of companies and, really, a culture that embodies the resiliency of the human spirit. We really believe in second chances and giving individuals an opportunity to belong and thrive in their community, and we do that through employment, and a number of other opportunities and methods.
Amber: Sure, so your services and actual products are…what?
Amy: Our primary company is a construction company. Square Peg Construction does residential and commercial construction in the city of Seattle. We also have a third-party builder services department that contracts out to other developers and builders in the city and around other parts of Seattle as well. We build mostly homes, but we do other remodels and things like that, as well. And then, we have another company called Pallet. It’s a social purpose corporation. We design, and engineer, and manufacture homeless and disaster shelters. So, they’re used for disaster response as well as homeless service provision. And then we have a non-profit organization, private operating foundation, that provides wrap around services to the individuals that work for us and other individuals in the community who come from similar backgrounds.
Amber: Sure, and a support system in addition to employment?
Amber: So, also, Square Peg. We were just talking before and saying Square Peg could mean a lot of different things. I would love to hear the meaning behind the name.
Amy: Yeah, so we originally picked the name Square Peg, it’s a traditional woodworking term used for the Mortise and Tenon joint, so it’s a joint that requires no nails or screws. It’s basically a round hole, like you would think in society, and a wooden peg, and the two get hammered together and because they’re different shapes they fit really tightly. And it’s considered to be, in the woodworking world, the strongest of all of the joints that you can make. So, we picked it because of that, because we liked it, and then we sort of, at some point, unintentionally started hiring previously incarcerated individuals to work for us. We got to know them, fell in love with them, heard their stories and the barriers that they faced to re-entry, and that name Square Peg, and square peg in a round hole, took on a whole new meaning of people who are returning to society who feel like they don’t fit, and our goal was to provide a place where they did fit.
Amber: A word that has popped up a couple of times in our conversation already is unintentional. I would love to know the background to how you guys got into the construction industry, because your co-founder is your husband, is that correct?
Amber: Ok, how you guys got into the industry in general and how it blossomed into what it is now?
Amy: So, my husband has been a builder for fifteen, almost fifteen years now. We had a construction company here in the city of Seattle here prior to the recession. At the time of the recession we owned and were developing and building a number of properties that we could no longer sell, or rent, or use, so that business ceased to exist. We went away for a period of time, we moved to Portland, got some jobs there, kind of reinvented ourselves. Most of my career was in healthcare as a healthcare administrator, so I kind of thrived on that for a while. And then, a developer that we built for before approached us in Portland and said, ‘Hey, the market is picking back up again in Seattle. Why don’t you come and build for me again?’ So, first we said no, and then we thought about it a little more and decided we might think we would possibly get back into construction again.
Amber: Saying yes is always the right answer to a new path.
Amy: It was a little painful but we did it.
Amber: Sure, that makes sense.
Amy: And we’re really grateful now. So, when we got up here, my husband was the only builder, building by himself, and he got up to eleven units, and it was too much for him. There is a big labor shortage in the trades industry across the country, but especially here because development and construction is a very hot market right now, here in the city.
Amber: We’ve seen it just in the skyline.
Amy: Yeah, it’s everywhere. Construction is happening everywhere. And so, what we found was we were trying to get laborers to help him and we couldn’t find anybody. So, we met another company, a gentleman who is now our residential construction manager, who had his own company but didn’t really want to do the business side. He knew how to build and do remodels but didn’t want to do all the payroll and HR, and all the extra stuff. And so, what we did was merged our two companies. He had six laborers, well, five and then six including him, and they were all previously incarcerated, they all had a criminal background. When we hired them, we didn’t know that because we were so desperate that we didn’t bother to run background checks, but it didn’t really matter because they were very hard workers, very amazing guys, really great work ethic, really great guys who were trying to just turn their life around.
Amy: And as we got to know them, as I said before, and hear their stories, we just realized that maybe we were onto something. In all my career as a healthcare administrator, I had hired and fired a lot of people, and managed big teams, and I can confidently say I’ve never had a team of employees that were as hard working, and loyal, and devoted to the company and its mission as the men who work for us today. So, it was very unintentional at first, it was meant to fill a gap, and then as we learned more about re-entry and the struggles that these individuals face as they come back into society it became an intentional thing to hire those individuals, give them opportunity, and see them succeed as they return to society.
Amber: On your website, I know you say second chance a lot. So, just an opportunity to prove yourself again (Amy: Right.). You can always reinvent yourself, as you know, with a business that went away and,
Amy: Yeah, and it’s hard for them because they come out of prison, or jail, either place, and because of their background they can’t get a job, they can’t get a house, they can’t go get bank accounts. All the cards are stacked against them and they really have no way to succeed. A job is really a great center piece, pivotal piece to their success, because they get a livable wage, they get a community inherent with that employment opportunity, and they get an opportunity then to move on and to get housing and things like that. So, we really felt like the job was kind of the key centerpiece to helping them succeed, but there’s more to it than that, obviously, but it really feeds a lot of those purposes.
Amber: Sure, no that’s great. And I would imagine there’s probably a lot of psychological things as well that a job provides that is much more than just money and opportunity. But, I’m not a psychologist so I won’t ask you about that. There’s a product that you guys make and it’s really fascinating to me, especially with everything going on in the world, and just, you know, the earth being the earth and people being people, is a pallet shelter. Please tell us about that product, it’s fascinating.
Amy: Yeah, yeah. So, my husband actually came up with the concept for that. It is patented, so he has the patent for that. He came up with an idea following hurricane Katrina, and most people had this experience of, gee, why can’t we get housing and services to people faster following a disaster of that level? And so, with that in mind, we actually were on vacation in Palm Desert. He was floating around in the pool and kind of spouting, true story, kind of spouting, ‘Gee, we need a shelter solution that’s quick to deploy, that doesn’t need any tools, that you can air drop from an airplane,’ he threw out all these lists of kind of crazy things that I said, that’s ridiculous. That will never happen, no one will ever create that. And, a year and a half later, we did. So, we have a head engineer, his name is Zane, and we took the list of specifications to Zane and we said, do you think this is possible? And actually, my husband, this wonderful man that he is, was like, ‘This will never happen, no one will ever like it.’ And I said, ‘I disagree. I think this is a really good idea, I think we should chase it down.’ So, he continued to build, and focused on that, and I took the idea to the engineer and said, what do you think? and he said, you’ll never be able to create this. And then we hired him. He agreed to come work for us anyway, and,
Amber: Second chances.
Amy: Yes, and he came to work for us and he did, in fact, create it and then some. He actually made it better than we initially anticipated. So, it is an 8’x8’ shelter. It collapses down into a 1-foot tall palletized form, which is why we call it the Pallet shelter. It can be stacked and stored, and it’s made of materials that are mold, mildew, rot resistant. They have endless shelf-life, basically. Ten years is what they say on the materials but we think it’s actually longer than that. And they pop up in less than 20 minutes, no tools required. You only need two people to put it together. We’ve tested all of that, our guys have done races and all kinds of fun events with the units to make sure they function as they were intended.
Amy: So, we actually, our first customer was the city of Tacoma, close by here. They are declared a state of emergency around their homeless crisis down there. They’re one of the highest volume of homeless individuals, per capita, across the country. And so, they declared a state of emergency, got some federal dollars to help with that, and they approached us, and heard about our product, loved what we do, and that the buying our product provided opportunities and jobs for individuals that were needing a second chance. And so, they are using our shelters as a centerpiece of their response to homelessness. So, we’ll see that actually in place in the next month, probably, they’ll be setting up their first communities.
Amber: So how old is Pallet Shelter?
Amy: A year, sixteen months.
Amber: So you guys are a startup.
Amy: Very new, yes. All of our companies are technically a startup. Square Peg Construction has been in business for almost three years, Pallet has been in business for just over a year, and then Weld was founded, our non-profit, end of last year.
Amber: Ok, so what are your plans for Pallet Shelter? Or, I keep saying Pallet Shelter, but is it actually Pallet?
Amy: Yeah, you can say that, that’s fine. Pallet is the name of the company, but they are shelters. So, our goal for Pallet is eventually to see it expand across the country. So, our big vision, we are in conversations with FEMA right now and we’re really hoping that evolves into a contract deal or partnership, potentially. And then, as it gets out and people get to know the product better and how it works, we’re hoping that it expands further into the homeless service provision market as well. But, it’s a new concept, people are used to tents, so it’s something new that people have to get used to. But, what we want to do is expand production regionally and send it across the country, and send Weld with it. So what we would do is find all the, FEMA has various regions, the country has various regions that are more disaster prone than others, so what we want to do is set up production plants in each of those regions in the city that has the highest rate of recidivism. So, we’re expanding our mission of reducing recidivism and preventing homelessness. Take the pallet shelter,
Amber: In like a one-two punch.
Amy: Yes. So, we take the pallet shelter production and the non-profit that provides the wrap around services for the individuals working there, and so we often say, in a lot of ways the purchase of a pallet shelter provides a place for people to begin again; both the people who receive it, the disaster survivors and the homeless individuals, as well as the people who are building them, they’re getting a second chance through employment.
Amber: Right. Is there ever a plan maybe once you get past the initial phase to take it to like a recreational market?
Amy: Absolutely. Yeah, that’s something we’re definitely looking at. For sustainability purposes, we want to diversify the product as much as we can. It’s just so new and we just got it out that we are trying to focus in on one market at a time. Initially we started out looking at homelessness, which of course has a lot of political ramifications, and so expanding into that market became a little bit more difficult than going into the disaster market, which is where there’s the more immediate need, I think. The homeless market, certainly there’s a need there. I think that our approach to that will be a little different. It will probably be more in a donatable form than in a saleable purchase, but those are things we’re all kind of working out in terms of our business plan.
Amber: Makes sense. Did you guys have investors or bootstrapping?
Amy: Nope, it’s just us. So, we used mostly our profits from the construction company to start Pallet.
Amber: To reinvest.
Amy: It’s been a little painful but we’re getting there. Slowly but surely, we’re making progress, so it was just one of those things that it was just a passion project more than anything. It was something that we cared about and we thought it was a great idea, and we believed in it, and we stood behind it with all of our money and blood, sweat and tears, and here we are. And we’re hoping it’s going to be successful, so we’ll see what happens.
Amber: That’s great. Well, we’d like to stay updated on the progress of everything. So, thank you for joining me today, Amy.
Amy: Yeah, yeah. It was really fun. Thanks for having me.
Amber: Yeah, no problem. Once again, I’m Amber Ambrose, this is BusinessMakers USA, and my guest is Amy King of Square Peg Development. Thanks for joining us.
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