From the November 2008 issue of Entrepreneur

When customers walk into Dale Fox's car rental business in Venice, California, they aren't greeted by a choice of compact, sedan or SUV; they're greeted by art--both on the walls and on four wheels. Spin Automotive Group, Fox's company, offers rentals of classic, one-of-a-kind automobiles in museum-quality condition.

"[In Los Angeles,] there are lots of places where you can go out and rent a new Ferrari for a day. They've become ordinary," says Fox, 41. "But if I pull up behind a [Lamborghini] in a 1961 Alfa Romeo, I guarantee you that I'll come out after five minutes and there will be 12 people standing around the car. [Classics] are very inclusive, not exclusive. They strike up conversations, and I find that it's a way of engaging the world in a really authentic, genuine fashion rather than trying to say, 'I'm cooler than you.'"

Fox has found a unique niche in a marketplace full of multinational household names and is set to bring in $5 million in his first full year of business. "The [automotive] industry--especially dealerships--is populated with many second-, third- and even fourth-generation family businesses," says Les McKeown, a serial entrepreneur, author and consultant who has advised many automotive aftermarket, dealership and rental businesses. "These are tough incumbents to unseat. They have longevity, customer loyalty and detailed insider's knowledge of the industry on their side."

As entrenched as the auto industry is, footholds do exist for new entrepreneurs who are niche-oriented, innovative and passionate about cars.

For Sale by Owner
Leslie Vander Baan had her entrepreneurial epiphany while navigating the difficult task of selling a car on her own. She recalls sitting on the curb outside "a bowling alley in Timbuktu" while waiting for a family to return with her car that they had taken for a mechanical inspection. "When it came time to facilitate the transaction, they were spooked about my title because I had just moved and it was out of state," says Vander Baan, 30. "I was concerned that the money I was taking wasn't going to be legit--that it wouldn't deposit and clear. I just thought there has to be a better way to do this."

"One-third of used car market [sales are] owner-to-owner, and they're navigating this really frustrating, inconvenient process because of the savings involved," says Vander Baan, adding that opting for dealer trade-ins usually results in $1,500 to $2,500 less for the car owner. "So we developed a solution for that hassle." That solution is Automotive Consignment, a unique kind of used-car dealership that Vander Baan started with her husband, Mike, in 2003. The company's nearly a dozen employees help people sell their cars on consignment by conducting test drives, handling paperwork, offering financing and providing a one-stop location for any other car-selling needs.

Licensed to Sell

We couldn't pass up the opportunity to dig a little deeper and uncover their secrets to success.

If you want to sell cars, navigating the licensing maze can be a challenging process. "Licensing laws have typically been fairly strict on who can sell a motor vehicle because of the possibility of fraud," explains Jim Moors, director of franchising and state law with the National Automobile Dealers Association. "You have significant issues with vehicle condition [and] odometer accuracy." All states have different laws, but typically there's a limit to the number of vehicles you can sell each year before you're required to obtain a dealer's license. There are often several types of licenses--auction dealers, new-car dealers, used-car dealers and salesperson licenses--but for any type of car dealer's license, you typically need a physical location and signage for your business, a surety bond and insurance.

Most dealer licensing falls under the jurisdiction of your state's motor vehicle department, and you can usually find more information on its website, including paperwork downloads, application fees and requirements.


 

The Road Less Costly

Dealerships are the Big Kahunas of the automotive industry. Because of the prime real estate involved, the inventory and the red tape, startup costs can be phenomenal, as entrepreneur Leslie Vander Baan can attest. But there are less pricy opportunities out there for car-loving entrepreneurs. "If you're a bootstrapper, I'd look for a higher margin niche business--'primo' detailing, high-end rental, luxury parts--where the margins and demand are somewhat less vulnerable to the current economic pressures," advises consultant Les McKeown.

Franchising is another option you may want to consider. Entrepreneur's Franchise Zone (entrepreneur.com/franchise) lists nearly 20 automotive franchises, including windshield repair and auto appearance reconditioning, that can be started for less than $20,000.

As with many car entrepreneurs, the auto business is in Vander Baan's blood. She's a third-generation dealership owner, and her father was her original silent investor, helping her secure $500,000 in startup capital and a $1.5 million property on auto row in Charlotte, North Carolina. Both of her parents now work with Vander Baan in her business, which she expects will bring in $4.9 million this year.

Trey Cobb also has cars in his blood. His father owned a tire shop in Rockwell, Texas, but it was imports (Subarus, specifically) that caught Cobb's eye. Back in 1999, Cobb was unable to find the performance parts he wanted for his Subaru Impreza 2.5RS, so he claimed a corner of his father's shop and began manufacturing parts on his own. His first products, an intake system and a camshaft, have now blossomed into 40 to 50 aftermarket products for Infinitis, Mazdas, Mitsubishis, Nissans and, of course, Subarus.

Cobb's computer science background led him to specialize in tuning solutions for car computer systems, including his signature AccessPORT product. Cobb Tuning--now 35 employees strong and headquartered in Salt Lake City, which allows for weather-friendly product testing--brings in more than $6 million annually.

Cobb has carved out a specific market in the auto industry: His customers are tech-savvy enthusiasts with strong brand allegiances. His marketing strategy hasn't changed much since he began in 1999. "We've always maintained a high level of grass-roots effort, going to various enthusiast meets and race events," says Cobb, 33, who started up with just $10,000. "We also do quite a bit with discussion forums; we have our own blog. You really have to be involved on the grass-roots level so you can immediately respond to your customers' changing demands."

Vander Baan finds most of her business through referrals, repeat business, drive-by traffic, online ads and her website. Fox, on the other hand, decided to use a unique tactic for marketing his business: art. "We used [our] art gallery as leverage," says Fox, whose business is located in the heart of Venice's art gallery district. "Once a month, there would be an opening gala [for a local artist we would feature]. The people who [attended] are influencers. They're high-wealth individuals and in the know about Los Angeles. So our strategy was: 'Let them tell the story.'"

Fox rents out classic cars including a '61 Alfa Romeo Giulietta and a '58 Jaguar MkVIII to vacationers, locals celebrating special occasions, film and TV producers, and other clients. And he's hired former employees of noted car collector Jay Leno and Galpin Auto Sports, the shop that pimps rides on MTV, to keep his rentals in tiptop shape.

The Red Tape
Finding a niche and a market to go along with it is just the first step. The most difficult startup hurdle may be the red tape inherent with auto-related businesses. "The hardest part was licensing and permitting," says Fox, who has a dealer's license and plans to start a classic car investment fund this year. "We changed a lot of things about the building. Doing that and getting the property permitted to legally be able to buy and sell cars was one of the biggest challenges. It took almost a year to get all that [approved]."

Finding a way to finance car sales was one of Vander Baan's biggest challenges. "The financing aspect of the business is a very, very tricky one," says Vander Baan, who eventually plans to take her consignment services online. "The banks in general don't seem to like giving financing to independent car dealers. It's a high-risk business for them." She says it can take as long as five years to build deals with major lenders, but she was able to make it happen after just two-and-a-half years. Prior to that, she had to send buyers to their banks with bills of sale.

In the aftermarket parts industry, you may be able to forego the dealer's license hassle, but the safety, emissions and other regulations are still a concern. "Often, as an enthusiast who decides to make a business out of it, you may not be exposed to all the laws and regulations," says Cobb. "That's where joining one of the organizations such as SEMA [Specialty Equipment Market Association] is important, so you can start to get that information."

The Right Stuff
Being passionate is a huge plus in the aftermarket parts industry. "We see a lot of companies come in with a lot of capital--really good business-minded people--but they're not enthusiasts or enthusiastic about the product they're selling," says Cobb. "And especially in these smaller niche markets, the customers can easily tell. They'll immediately pick up on if that person is there just to try to turn a profit or if they're there as a fellow enthusiast."

But as with all businesses in which passion is a driving factor, jumping in too quickly is a common error. "Sometimes the attraction [to cars] borders on obsession, and that can make an individual blind to the often real problems and challenges with getting traction in the marketplace," says McKeown.

McKeown says another common mistake he sees is startups over-investing too early: "Inexperienced entrepreneurs, especially first-timers, often think starting a business is like a pro baseball game. If they come out swinging for the fences, they [think they] can get a big early win."

McKeown suggests being frugal when starting up, as Fox was in starting his high-end rental company in a prime real estate location for less than $100,000. "Save your money," says McKeown. "You're going to need all you have--and more--to last for a very long time. Start small, prove the market, get some early success and reinvest."

Vander Baan echoes this sentiment based on her experience: "There's a big reason you hear people say it will cost two times as much and take twice as long [as you expect]." She ticks off her startup expenses: "You need significant amounts of insurance, there are dealer licensing provisions, and you've got to get your bonds secured, refit the building and invest in inventory." She also advises budgeting adequately for payroll, because "there is no one else doing it but you," she says. "It's like bringing home a baby. It never lets you sleep. You need a good support network in place to help you through when you just have to go to sleep." Vander Baan credits her parents with the survival of her business; right when she was burning out, they stepped in to help.

Above all, McKeown stresses that business know-how is the key to success in the auto market. "Recognize that no matter how deep your passion for cars, that passion is no substitute for business acumen. Too many genuinely enthusiastic hobbyists launch what they hope will be a successful, thriving business only to find out too late that they haven't got the skills to launch and grow a viable business," says McKeown.

Vander Baan grew up working in the industry and had guidance from her father; Fox is a serial entrepreneur, having had many business successes. For those without that kind of experience, McKeown suggests turning to other entrepreneurs for advice. "Almost every successful entrepreneur I've met has a laser-like radar when it comes to judging whether or not someone else has 'got it,'" he says. "Go see three or four entrepreneurs, share your vision and goals, answer their questions and ask for their candid advice. At this stage, the advice you get from them will be worth more than any business school program."

Laura Tiffany is a web editor and freelance writer from Orange County, California.

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