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Local Motors' YENster Talks Open-Source Vehicle Development

  Sarah Stokes
  Sarah Stokes is the vice president of sales for Local Motors, an American car company that creates a direct connection with customers who guide and participate in design development based on personal desires.
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Sarah Stokes is the vice president of sales for a very unique business in the automotive industry and a member of SEMA’s Young Executives Network (YEN). The Texas native graduated from the University of Texas with a Bachelors of Business Administration degree in the Engineering Route to Business program. She then went on to Harvard Business for graduate school and received her MBA. Stokes has also served in the Marine Corps, which has given her a very valuable skill set. She now resides in Phoenix, Arizona, where Local Motors is located.

Local Motors is a new American car company setting an exciting and sustainable course to design cars. Revolutionary yet simple, Local Motors creates a direct connection with customers who guide and participate in design development based on personal desires. The process is open source and the results are meaningful, exciting cars designed specifically for car enthusiasts. All chassis and body vehicle data is shared to make the experience more enjoyable.

Stokes’ experiences both inside and outside of the automotive aftermarket industry vary, with a career in the military and now the unique environment that is Local Motors. We sat down to discuss some of her experiences and how those may help other young executives in the industry.

How long have you worked in the automotive aftermarket and why did you choose this industry?
I have been in the industry for two years now and I didn’t really choose the industry, it chose me. After school I knew I wanted to be in sales and the opportunity presented itself when a friend from business school asked me to join Local Motors. I made the decision to join and then met up with the team at SEMA 2009. It has been an amazing journey ever since.

Tell us about Local Motors and your role there? What is a normal day like?
Local Motors focuses on cars, where both the products and process are sustainable. The first concept conceived by Local Motors is the Rally Fighter; the original design is by Sangho Kim. The Rally Fighter is primarily an off-road desert racer. The one I drive is named Flash.

I know a lot of people say this, but every day is different here at Local Motors, both because of the nature of the business and the fact that it is a relatively small company for what we do. First and foremost, I handle the customer relations. The sales process can range from one month to two years because the customer has to physically be present to participate in the design. Conceiving the vehicle concept and all of that can take a very long time, but is essential to getting the unique final product.

As VP of Sales, I try to focus on business development, while all on the team focus on marketing. My position is like many you find in small aftermarket businesses; I wear a lot of hats. Social media is a great medium for getting your name out and I do the Rally Fighter Facebook page and the whole team tweets. With a very small marketing budget, it has made us think very hard about where that budget is spent, and in a way it has been good to ensure we don’t spend needlessly in areas to just test the water.

How do you motivate your sales team?
Everyone in the entire company sells the car, from interns to engineers and from the supply chain to Jay, the CEO, all are equipped to talk to potential customers and all are given the freedom to take Rally Fighters to events and to show them off and talk to people about the cars. Keeping the customers happy is my main priority. It is pretty grass roots when it comes to our approach; I think employee equity in a compensation package is the best way to get everyone aligned with pushing the company in a single direction.

How many years did you spend in the Marines and how has your military background influenced your career?
I spent about five years in the Marines and I learned the benefits of taking initiative and being a problem solver. If you find something wrong, you better fix it because no one else has the time to do it for you. If you bring your boss a problem, you better have a solution coming about two seconds later. A big misconception about the military is that you get told what to do all of the time, and I’ll be honest, there was a time or two when I wished someone was there to boss me around. In all seriousness, joining the Marines was the best decision I ever made. It was a great experience.

Do you have any recommendations for a young person considering military service?
I highly recommend young people to consider military service. Prior to joining, I had a great job at Trilogy Software and left that job to serve in the Marines. That short experience in the service compressed twenty years of learning into a very short period of time. The responsibility level and expectations are so high that it causes you to mature and grow in so many ways. I served in Iraq twice and Afghanistan as well. When you think about the initial sign up and commitment of four years it goes by so fast. Doing this in your teens and twenties is the perfect time—you can’t do it when you’re fifty, and the lessons apply directly to your early career.

Has networking played a role in your success and becoming a partial owner in Local Motors?
Yes, my connection with Local Motors all started at Harvard Business School where Jay Rogers, the CEO, started the company. Jay brought me in to the business two years ago. Networking is essential for business and I find people in this industry are always helpful and all are looking for people to succeed. It also helps that we are an American auto company and the aftermarket is really behind that. We try to source local parts and suppliers as often as possible, and networking has proved very helpful for doing that. Rockford Fosgate is a perfect example of that, as they are a local Phoenix source for our audio parts needed in the Rally Fighter.

Do you have any tips on how to network effectively in this industry?

Yes, go visit someone and visit them in their shop, understand their business and their pain points. Understand what motivates them. Try to be a messenger of information, when you hear of something that could benefit another, pass it on. I constantly make an effort to help others with useful information, it’s not only the right thing to do, people will also pass along the courtesy in return. Word of mouth is so critical—good and bad, people talk and remember how you made them feel—so be nice and try to help each other. Competition is good, too. We make sure that when Local Motors gets press, we highlight all the partners we can.

Do you have any advice for a young executive in this industry?
The best piece of advice that I can give is always do your best and don’t be afraid to make mistakes, there is so much learning to be done by making those mistakes. Another one to remember is to truly be nice to people at all times. On the job and in life in general, don’t worry about who gets the credit and keep moving forward. The bad stuff will pass, and you’ll be remembered by how you acted when things were bad. When you get bogged down yourself, look around for someone to help.

Do you have a mentor in this industry or someone in the past that mentored you?

I have a lot of influential mentors; my father in general, and one in particular is Tim Day, who comes from the meat industry. What I have learned from valuable mentorship is that I have to be open to feedback and people giving me honest advice. To do that though you have to be willing to take the good and bad critique and not take it too personally. In this industry there are a lot of people willing to help and give guidance, especially the staff at SEMA, so don’t be afraid to run things by people and get their honest opinions. At the end of the day though, you have to look yourself in the mirror—you have to do your best and get back up when you make a mistake. Take ownership of those too.

What was so valuable about their mentorship?
The most valuable thing about having those mentors is that they have seen it all before and can help you laugh about the ups and the downs you may face. The mentors and confidants in your life make you realize that everything isn’t as severe as maybe you think it is. They can keep you from making the same mistakes and can give you that adequate warning before you make one. With that warning it is then up to you, and you can take responsibility and risk it anyway, and in some cases those risks do pay off.

Outside of work, what do you do for fun?
I am into sports, although I’m not so good at watching them, and I grew up racing bikes and doing triathlons. Right now, I just enjoy working out and understanding car racing. I like the atmosphere at the races. Since I spend time at those types of events, my job does bleed over into my weekend, as I am sure is the case with most in this industry. I like the travel and the change of scenery that my job provides. I get restless—I love traveling. I love to cook and throw parties—but for the past couple of years, I haven’t been very good at making the time for that…maybe 2012.