SEMA News—August 2019
How a 21-Year-Old Business Major Is Building a Name for Himself in the Youth Off-Road Market
Spartan 4x4 built a RAM 2500 called “Leonidas” for Edge Products for the 2018 SEMA Show.
Spartan 4x4, which caters to the youth off-road market, was founded in 2015 by 17-year-old Robert Bowden III out of his parents’ garage in Atlanta. In 2017, Bowden relocated to a 600-sq.-ft. office in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Now 21 and an entrepreneurship major at Western Kentucky University, he expanded yet again in March to a 1,000-sq.-ft. facility with six employees and moved to a 6,000-sq.-ft. facility in July, which houses an office, a shop and a showroom—all under one roof. We recently interviewed Bowden about his progress.
SEMA News: How did you get started in the automotive aftermarket industry?
Robert Bowden III: In high school, I had a Jeep Wrangler that I wanted to modify, but I didn’t have the money to do it. So I started a social-media page where I promoted peoples’ builds from all over the country. Other companies started to reach out and told me they would send me free stuff if I promoted their products. Then I started moving products as a third-party drop shipper. I built my first website in fall 2015, and we had a handful of direct contracts with manufacturers whose products we installed and promoted on our website. They drop shipped, so we were just a third-party middleman.
I attended my first SEMA Show in 2016 and fell in love with the industry. When I saw how big the Show was and how much variety there was, it just blew me away. When I got back from the Show, I started working on vehicles out of my parents’ garage. When I moved the business up to Bowling Green in fall 2017, we opened our first official 600-sq.-ft. office with three employees. We were web-based only, selling apparel and our own privately labeled aftermarket off-road parts. We had about 20–30 contracts and we pushed out parts, but it hadn’t gotten to the point where we were installing parts for customers.
The Spartan 4x4 team includes (from left) Hunter Lee, Andrew Clark, Robert Bowden III, Alfredo Aubone and Hunter Cassity.
At the beginning of 2019, we opened our shop in Bowling Green, where we now do builds for customers. We did a handful of builds in the past year or two where we did what we were able to do before sending out the rest of the work to different shops, but now we’re at the point where we have our own equipment, bays and mechanics.
SN: How has your business grown?
RB: We are completely self-funded, and we more than doubled our growth in 2018. We went from an online business with two employees to having an office, a shop and five employees—all of whom are in their early 20s and are either college students or recent graduates of Western Kentucky University. We still do online retail, but now we have a physical shop where customers can come in and purchase parts directly, and we also do installations.
We also use resources offered by SEMA, whether it’s research, connections or the SEMA Data Co-op. We did a RAM 2500 build called “Leonidas” for Edge Products for the 2018 SEMA Show, which helped our credibility and gave us another level of prestige. We try to leverage that with customers and companies we work with as much as possible.
We probably do about 10–12 builds per month. We’ve done some high-profile builds as well, including for the son of Dr. Heavenly from “Married to Medicine.” We also built a truck for the son of one of the executives of Home Depot, and we consulted with the son of Big Boi Patton from OutKast for his Jeep.
Providing optimal customer service should be any company’s number-one priority in order to gain repeated long-term business.
SN: How can the industry keep the younger generation engaged?
RB: Making products readily available and acceptable, whether it’s through different manufacturers or direct. When we started out, the industry consisted mostly of older hobbyists, and then it started to bleed down to 20- and 30-year-olds. I think it’s just one of those things where people are able to express themselves by taking their vehicles and designs and building them however they want.
Social-media pages and websites offer variety, and trends and fads come and go because new ideas are constantly coming to market. It’s about knowing that more is coming because people consume so fast, and all of a sudden that train is gone and they’re waiting for the next big thing. It’s also about not shunning the industry, saying, “Oh, this is too loud or too big.” We live in a country where people have the ability to think and act how they want. These kids aren’t out doing drugs and getting into trouble. They’re building vehicles that might be loud or go fast, but it’s not the worst thing in the world.
SN: What is the biggest challenge you have faced?
RB: Differentiating ourselves from other companies. When you have builders who are in their teens and 20s, they get a lot of attention from the younger crowd because they are the ones who utilize online content. When they see younger people doing stuff that they wish they could be doing, it kind of fuels them. I’m 21, and I’ve only been building for four years, so when you compare what I’ve done to someone who’s 35 or 40 with five times the experience that I have, I have to be able to differentiate myself from them and prove myself.
On the business side, it’s challenging to get an older customer to come to me to get work done, because I’m half his age. If he’s got a $75,000–$80,000 truck and he’s putting $10,000 into it, he’s going to want someone who knows what he’s doing. Even though we’re young, I’m confident in our ability, but we have to be able to sell that to our customers—especially the
Spartan 4x4 was located in a 1,000-sq.-ft. facility in Bowling Green, Kentucky. Bowden relocated to a 6,000-sq.-ft. facility in July.
SN: What risks have you taken along the way?
RB: The biggest risks I’ve taken are knowing when to grow and when to add employees and also moving the business from Atlanta to Bowling Green. All my contacts and connections and everything I knew were in Atlanta. Opening the shop cost quite a bit of money just in equipment, the facility, mechanics and tools. We want to make sure we’re not biting off more than we can chew. We’re definitely biting off a lot, and we have to be sure we are able to come through at a high level
SN: What draws people to your store?
Robert Bowden III started Spartan 4x4 out of his parents’ garage in Atlanta when he was just 17 years old.
RB: The brand. Enthusiasts between the ages of 16 and 35 relate to us. People want to work with others when they can see themselves because they’re not too much older or younger than us. That level of relatability is something that we can leverage.
Everyone is in business to make money, but we never screw people over. The automotive and technological industries are where people can get absolutely taken advantage of because of their lack of knowledge. A customer can walk in and you know you can just sell him anything and double or triple your price, and he’s going to go for it because he doesn’t know any better. You see it happen a lot. That’s something that we just don’t do. It’s all about transparency, relatability and accountability.
SN: How do you market yourself?
RB: Social media is the most cost-effective form of marketing for us since we are targeting a younger crowd. We also host our own 4x4 event series called “Grits n’ Gravel.” The first event is a meet-and-greet, kind of like Cars and Coffee. The second and third events will have sponsors and vendors. We want to get our name and story out there any way we can, but we also want to be known locally.
In this industry, you’re either a lower-end mom-and-pop or a more expensive, high-end business that doesn’t offer much in the way of customer service unless you’re spending a lot of money. My philosophy is “Why not both?” Let’s have that affordable family feel while also offering a high-end experience.
We do something called personal build consulting, where we sit down with the customer and help them plan out their build. We’ll even come to their house, pick up their vehicle, bring it back to our shop, do all the work, and drop it back off at their door. It’s kind of a white-glove service we provide.
SN: What do you attribute your success to?
RB: Customer service needs to be your priority, because without customers, you’ve got no business. When I was younger, I always paid attention to how other companies treated me because I was young and didn’t know much. How is the initial contact? I tell my guys—and it’s stamped into their heads—the customer is always first. Even if you’ve been asked the question 100 times, answer it positively and be friendly. We want their business repeated and long-term, not just right now. It’s the initial interaction and the follow-up.
I tell my customers I’m available to them 24/7. Obviously, I might not always be able to offer that as we get bigger, but that’s one of the things that really stuck with me when I was younger. Be available to your customers to provide real information. Business ethics is important, because if you do that correctly you’re going to get more business. It’s a cycle. Growing but staying true to our roots I think is the biggest thing.
SN: What advice would you offer to a younger guy just getting started in the industry?
RB: Connections are everything, and don’t let the big fish intimidate you. People will tell you that you can’t do something, and a lot of times it’s because they don’t want you to do it. You have one life to live, and if you have a dream and you want to chase it, the only person stopping you is yourself. Pursue with passion. Things get hard sometimes, but don’t give up. Stay on course.