As with many good startup ideas, the impetus behind Amworx stemmed from a real-life experience — a terrible one.
And also like many good startup ideas, this one almost remained just that, an idea. But thanks to the fast-growing startup ecosystem in San Antonio, this good idea became a reality last week.
Bret Gardner was a recent college grad when he set out to buy his first new car. The analytical young electrical engineer spent weeks visiting dealerships and doing research in Houston, growing frustrated with the “best deals” he found, and the imbalance of power between the professional sellers and himself.
Widening his search outside Houston, Gardner finally found the deal he was looking for, and learned that the frustration he felt went both ways.
“I asked the dealer, ‘Why was it so hard to find you?’” Gardner says, and in response got an earful about how difficult it is for smaller dealers to rise above the marketing din. “So I thought, why not connect buyers and dealers directly, and have them only pay when a successful deal is agreed to?”
His idea took shape as an app that uses an anonymous “reverse auction” process: a potential buyer lets dealers know what she’s looking for, and they have 24 hours to respond, essentially bidding against one another. It’s free for all the parties until a deal is agreed to, then each party pays a small fee — $25 for the buyer, $100 for the dealer.
“It allows dealers to reach potential buyers all across the state,” Gardner says, and relieves buyers of the burden to haggle.
The Amworx site puts it like this: “Current industry giants all follow the same model: ‘Type in the car you want and we show you what dealers near you are charging.’ But this still leaves the buyer to call each dealership and try to haggle the price down. Why are the buyers doing all the work?”
While Gardner knew he had a winning idea, it wasn’t his only app idea, and he actually planned to pitch another one at a Techstars’ Startup Weekend, which allows hopefuls to pitch their company idea, then spend two precious days working with investors and mentors learning how to create a real company.
After he and his business partner, designer Lizzie Nguyen, learned at the last minute the rules didn’t allow pitches for ideas already in development, as their ”Foodroll” app was, Gardner scrambled to write a one-minute pitch for what would become Amworx while Nguyen drove to the event.
Art Gómez Tagle was in the audience when Gardner made his pitch.
“It was by far the best idea I heard,” said Gómez Tagle, who has a background in sales, marketing and management. “The other ideas were interesting, but Bret’s clearly had business potential.”
He and several others joined Gardner and Nguyen to help them refine their pitch over the weekend, with the help of other experts and mentors. When Gardner asked who in the group wanted to stick with the fledgling company, Gómez Tagle and Ramil Rodriguez, a soon-to-graduate from the University of the Incarnate Word with a business administration degree, raised their hands.
At the end of the weekend, the team’s refined pitch won first place, and with that came an avalanche of in-kind services and support, including legal, branding and a Geekdom membership, which gave Gardner and his newly assembled team a place to work. Acceptance into the Rackspace Startups program followed, giving the nascent company discounted web hosting and expert assistance architecting their app to scale.
Being surrounded by such a nurturing ecosystem, and so much expertise, allowed Gardner and Nguyen to take the next big step.
“After winning, I quit my job two days later,” he said. “I knew this is what I wanted to do, and I thought, if I am going to try this, there is no better opportunity than now.”
Nguyen, working as a graphic designer, did the same, and now serves as Amworx’ chief design officer. She said a tour of Geekdom convinced her there was an entrepreneurial market for her talents. Gómez Tagle is Amworx’ chief operating officer, while Rodriguez serves as marketing manager. Rounding out the small startup team is Jordi Domínguez, chief financial officer.
At Geekdom, the team doesn’t have its own office yet, instead sitting in a public area of the co-working space Gardner affectionately calls “the fishbowl.” Amworx is also an early stage incubator hosted out of Geekdom.
“I can’t even express how much value they’ve provided to us,” he said, “through the connections we’ve made, the mentors, all these events — just being here. Everything we need is right here in the building.”
The company officially launched on Mon., Dec. 12, just about seven weeks since winning the Techstars competition.
“We’ve got Chevy, Ford, Honda and Lexus dealerships, about 150 dealerships across the state so far,” Gardner said, “and we’ve already got a few customers too.”
The goal is simple, he said: for the car buying process to be easy and positive for everyone.
“If you’re a new car purchaser, you’re only doing this about every 5 to 7 years,” Gardner explains. “You’re not skilled at it, yet you’re going up against a guy who sells several cars a day. We’re just trying to even the playing field.”