SEMA News—February 2014
By Mike Imlay
Fresh Faces, Fresh Ideas
What’s Driving the Industry’s Young Entrepreneurs?
A lot has been said and written lately about the “aging” of the automotive specialty-equipment industry. Built over roughly six decades by hands-on parts and hardcore speed and performance innovators, the automotive aftermarket is now an industry topping $30 billion. However, questions currently abound over whether it will continue to attract younger enthusiasts—not only as consumers but as entrepreneurs.
In part to address such concerns, SEMA’s Young Executives Network (YEN) recently conducted a competition dubbed Launch Pad, aimed at attracting young innovators, showcasing their product ideas and helping to give them a lift in the industry. From a large pool of qualified candidates, five top company owners, presidents and C-level executives under the age of 40 were selected to compete at a live event during the 2013 SEMA Show. The finalists pitched their business plans to a panel of industry experts. The prizes included capital and marketing assistance to bring plans to fruition.
In the end, Jonathan Mill of E-Stopp Corp. walked away with the top honors. In this article, SEMA News catches up with him and two other finalists to get their perspectives on their unique business ideas along with their experiences as young entrepreneurs in a mature industry. If their stories are any example, today’s ideas are as likely to come from a computer keyboard as a garage. Ironically, however, many of the industry’s “old guard” may well find themselves identifying with these ambitious newcomers seeking to take the aftermarket in bold new directions.
Jonathan Mill, 28
Inventor of the E-Stopp, a pushbutton take on the age-old emergency brake, Jonathan Mill was the only Launch Pad contestant to represent equipment developers—the individuals who built the industry by developing hard parts for vehicles.
“The E-Stopp revolutionizes the emergency brake,” Mill explained. “It makes the installation of an emergency brake very easy, especially for smaller chassis. The biggest plus is that it doubles as an extra antitheft device. It’s significant to the industry because not having an emergency brake is not only illegal but also a safety concern. Yet a lot of [car builders and restorers] overlook the emergency brake because they either don’t want the unsightly lever or just don’t have room past the drivetrain. The last thing they want to do is end up having to chop up their finished interior to mount a lever system. The E-Stopp alleviates all of the headaches by being universal and able to mount anywhere on the vehicle you have space.”
Mill, who lives in a downtown Los Angeles loft and manufactures his product at a warehouse in Long Beach, California, has been fascinated by automobiles since childhood. In more recent years, he has been inspired by his father-in-law, Larry Goodman, a longtime veteran of the automotive field. The two began working on car projects together seven years ago when they first met. About three years ago, Mill got the idea for the E-Stopp, thanks to a handicapped friend who needed such a system for his mobility vehicle.
“There was just nothing viable out there,” said Mill. “Then we quickly realized, after putting the E-Stopp on one of our hot rods, that this would be perfect as an anti-theft system as well. That’s when we figured out that there was a need for the E-Stopp and began developing the system you see today.”
The E-Stopp became a fulltime business venture for Mill two years ago, but like any entrepreneurial startup, it hasn’t been without its ups and downs.
“The biggest challenge has been making a high-quality product at a competitive price, because I knew that we had to come in under $500 to compete with lever systems,” said Mill. “The second challenge has been getting taken seriously by the veterans of the industry. They don’t let someone new and young just waltz in and become successful. There is a period of proving yourself to ‘the family’ that I’m still going through. I definitely believe that there is room for improvement when it comes to encouraging young people in this industry. YEN has done a fantastic job so far as one of the only outreach programs to the younger generations.”
Mill also believes that the specialty-equipment industry can attract a younger audience through continued innovation.
“It is a completely different industry [today] than when it was built,” he observed. “When it was built, you had vehicles that could be cut up and welded, engines that could be swapped, parts that could be fabricated, and the people who could do all that. They also didn’t care about fuel economy and all the newest gadgets.”
By contrast, Mill sees his generation as less hands-on and much too focused on the digital world.
“They just want a car that looks cool off the bat and gets great miles per gallon,” he asserted. “It gives the majority of the power to large manufacturers, and they’ve done a good job at utilizing that. You can literally hop on one of their websites and customize your vehicle digitally with all of their options. Hopefully that sheds some light on where the industry is heading.
“I think a good way to get the attention of younger enthusiasts is to get onto their level of perception. The other competitors from the SEMA Launch Pad are heading in the right direction with this by creating digital and media platforms that are easily accessible to the younger crowd.”
Trent Campbell, 37
Car Buff Network LLC
Trent Campbell conceptualized CarBuffNetwork.com some six years ago. The website is a worldwide profile-based automotive network/directory, providing local automotive businesses with access to an inexpensive, search-engine-optimized web presence without special software or computer knowledge. According to Campbell, once a profile is set up, it is easily maintained by the owner and can be searched by preferred markets and services as well as by location. In addition, the website can profile projects, events, organizations, travel destinations and clubs related to the automotive industry.
Campbell believes that the network has the potential to revolutionize the auto industry through its ability to connect people to the businesses and events they’re looking for. In his thinking, Car Buff Network may well be the industry’s own “Google,” eliminating the days when customers searched the Internet in vain for businesses that met their needs and standards.
“I grew up with cars,” said Campbell, who hails from a family of both car lovers and entrepreneurs. “I had a Jeep growing up that we tore apart and fixed up. That’s just what I grew up doing. Car Buff Network started with an idea I had about six years ago as I tried to market my insurance agency, which specializes in insuring collector vehicles. The challenge I found was that businesses are very difficult to find at the local level when you try to locate them on the Internet.”
For example, Campbell said, finding a sheetmetal fabricator locally in the rod and custom field is rarely easy. “It’s the same for just about every specialty in the market,” he said, “so I decided to develop a website that would make it easier for people to find businesses while making it more cost effective for businesses to get in front of their target market on the Internet.”
Campbell had been in the insurance business for about five years before stumbling onto the idea. (Even today, he continues to insure more than 600 collector vehicles through his agency.) Car Buff Network was actually born of his own frustration in building a website that distinguished his agency from the crowd.
“As an insurance agent, if you don’t figure out how to market yourself, you get lost in the mix,” he explained. “I’d been very resistant about building my own website because I didn’t want to be known as just a general insurance agent. I think that’s the feeling for most business owners in the automotive industry—they don’t want to just get thrown into the mix on the Internet.”
Campbell found a webmaster in his area who specialized in directory-type sites. As the two discussed Campbell’s needs, a new idea for the industry in general emerged. They formed a partnership and began work on Car Buff Network.
“He’s a developer who specializes in search-engine optimization,” Campbell said of his partner. “It was a piece to the puzzle that I didn’t have. My understanding of the industry at the local level and his understanding of building directories meshed really well. So we just started to brainstorm what a website that mirrors the way the auto industry does business would look like. As we started to talk through that process, we came up with what we have today.”
Like Mill, Campbell views the automotive aftermarket industry as a somewhat slow adopter of new digital technologies.
“Finding old hot rodders on the Internet is almost impossible, unless somebody in their company has pushed them and is doing it for them,” he observed. “What I’ve found is that a lot of these guys know that they should be on the Internet, but they don’t know how to do it. It’s something that’s intimidating to a lot of them. The way we’ve developed this website, they can maintain their profile on our site 100% with a username and password.”
Campbell actively seeks such businesses and “trades marketing” with them. For example, his website hosts a hot-rod shop specializing in custom rods and street-performance restomods that recently won the Trendsetter of the Year Award from The Goodguys.
“What we’ve done is to develop a profile for them,” explained Campbell. “We’re helping them develop project profiles for vehicles they build, and we’re connecting other businesses to those project profiles. So what they’ve decided to do is put our logo on their home page. When you click on the logo, it takes you to their project-and-service profile on our website.”
Campbell, who has always seen his innovation as a slow-growth project, has likewise aligned with other companies that he feels embody sound business practices, service work and products.
“We’ve partnered with a lot of companies that many people would recognize, and that’s how we’re getting the word out,” he said. “We’re developing the network first and letting it get out to the general public through people they already trust. Our industry is a word-of-mouth industry.”
However, Campbell also noted that trying to put the industry logically on the Internet is a huge challenge.
“You’re taking what we’ll call an old-world mentality and trying to bring it into the current Internet society that we live in,” Campbell said. “The exciting part for me is when I get an e-mail from a company that I have a lot of respect for and they’re thanking me for the opportunity to be involved in what I’m doing. It’s just a great feeling to know I’m helping our industry in a way that hasn’t been done before.”
Robert Kibbe, 38
President and Host
The MuscleCar Place Podcast
To say that MuscleCar Place podcaster Robert Kibbe has a thing for musclecars would be an understatement.
“Even though I’m younger than the musclecar generation, I fell in love with them,” he said. “They’re simply timeless. In every Hollywood movie, when a good guy needs a fast car or a bad guy needs a getaway car, they’re typically in a ’60s- or ’70s-era hot rod of some kind.”
By degree, Kibbe is a mechanical engineer and spent the first decade of his career consulting for defense and software companies—a field he just sort of fell into.
“I could’ve continued doing that, but it wasn’t really my dream growing up as a little boy,” he said. “I’ve had a lifelong passion for cars. I grew up in the era of the ‘Dukes of Hazard’ and ‘Knight Rider.’ Even though I didn’t come from a heavily automotive family, I loved all cars. Musclecars were my favorites.”
Entering his early 30s with a wife and kids, Kibbe went through some soul-searching.
“I was trying to figure out what God put me on the planet to do and hoped it wasn’t working as a software engineer,” he laughed.
Kibbe began dabbling in a few small businesses, including financial consulting. Still restless, he sold that business after a few years to start The MuscleCar Place, which he originally intended as a classifieds website similar to the Auto Trader.
“In looking for a business I could get involved with, I had more time than money,” he said. “An online business was something I could get up and running with mostly sweat equity. It looked like there was an opportunity for a really high-end, musclecar-centric classifieds website. The goal was to start the website and sell memberships to dealerships across the industry but market their musclecars specifically.”
To promote his classifieds site, Kibbe bought a microphone and mixer and began creating weekly interview-based podcasts in his basement. Like most podcasts, they were modeled after talk radio, with interviews in which he engaged people of note connected with the industry, chatting with them about topics that other musclecar enthusiasts might enjoy.
“Podcasts in general were something I understood well because I always enjoyed them,” he said. “They don’t have time limits, and you can dig into lots of questions. You get to know the hosts pretty well, and they become sort of like friends of yours.”
At first the business grew slowly, but the podcasts steadily increased in popularity. After about a year and a half, some industry companies contacted Kibbe, offering to come on board as show sponsors. He started to realize that his product wasn’t a classifieds service after all.
He put together the sponsorship deals, left his day job, and never looked back, expanding from one show to multiple partnership shows, all under the auspices of The MuscleCar Place. He admits that the jump was a scary proposition, considering that his wife is a stay-at-home mom to their three young children. Moreover, his family background was far from entrepreneurial: Both his parents had stable, long-term careers. But things worked out.
“There have been times we’ve produced 12 to 15 shows a month, ranging from people who loved LS engines to Pro Touring musclecars to our standard musclecar program to business and career aspirations,” he said. “Aside from musclecar questions, the number-one topic I got from my audience was, ‘How do I quit my job, too?’”
Perhaps counterintuitively in an industry that is supposedly aging, Kibbe’s demographic skews all over the map, from men in their 30s up.
“I’m surprised at the age of some of the listeners,” he said. “I’ve met some regular listeners who are 65 years old. That surprised me because of the medium. It’s not something you typically associate with that age group.”
Despite his listener demographics, however, Kibbe has found that companies within the specialty-equipment industry remain hesitant to embrace podcasts as a viable medium.
“When it comes to the industry, I’ll be honest—finding sponsors for something like this is still a pretty tough sell,” he explained. “Most people are unfamiliar with the concept of a podcast. You generally have to explain to them that it’s talk radio on the Internet. Anything you have to explain in depth is a tough thing to sell. It’s been difficult to do cold calls.
“Typically the way to gain the trust of a sponsor with something this new is to do some interviews with them and let them experience it for themselves, have them on the show as a guest first and have them experience how it works. Most sponsors still think in pretty traditional terms of print and video. That’s what they understand. A web-based presence is generally going to be third or fourth tier in their mind.
“When it comes to the world of audio broadcasting, you normally think radio, and there’s plenty of automotive radio out there. But we just have such a leg up on them when it comes to the type of shows we can do. We can have a guest on for 30 to 40 minutes. We never break for commercials. My hope is that some big players are going to see the opportunity in front of them and work with us to put together something pretty special for them.”
Looking down the road five to 10 years, Kibbe hopes that the industry at large will follow some of his early adopters and embrace the medium.
“Realistically, I think we’ll find out this year if something like this can be accepted and become bigger than what it is,” he said. “I would like to turn this into a much, much bigger entity. The beauty is that it’s perfectly scalable. We can have a few hundred or tens of thousands of listeners. We have the best industry in the world for it, because we have the most relatable people.”