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Things I Learned When I Started an Auto Shop

When I was a college sophomore in 2005, I opened a specialty auto shop with two friends. We had classes and regular jobs, but we thought a small shop could be an interesting side project to utilize a unique skillset we happened to possess. The three of us had experience conducting a very specific modification – retrofitting older Subaru models with newer, more powerful factory drivetrains. The shop soon grew faster than any of us would have guessed – until running it had entirely consumed each of our lives.

There was no way I could have managed the level of commitment that the shop required. I moved on, but the shop did well and remains in business today.

An early shot inside the shop

My stint at East Coast Swappers was brief, and richly educational. I learned about work / life balance, client relations, financial management, and running a business. Luckily enough, the process of starting ECS is what led me into a career path after I graduated with a journalism degree. Promoting the business through web forums and search traffic, while teaching myself HTML and CSS was a tremendous lesson in the power of the internet for small business.

I learned a few other things along the way:

Subaru motors and transmissions awaiting installation

Others want to see you succeed. When we first opened our doors, I imagined our competition would badmouth us, and we’d labor to overcome objections from new clients. As it turned out, our niche was growing, and competitors didn’t feel threatened. Instead, they were excited to have company. Our customers were happy to refer our services – to the point where we had a waiting list months long. And our neighbors; other small businesses in a Western Massachusetts industrial park, were among our greatest cheerleaders – sharing equipment and wisdom, even when we were reluctant to ask.

Everything doesn’t have to be perfect. I’m an inveterate perfectionist. When we set up shop, I found pitfalls in garage space that was in fact an incredible find. When we needed a website, I delayed the project to tweak each pixel and character. Our customers didn’t care what our business cards looked like or who delivered us rags and coveralls. What mattered was we offered a specialized service very much in demand – and it was more important to move quickly and generate cashflow. This is one lesson I’m still learning.

The very first four cars we built at ECS

Greater hours ≠ greater productivity. Working in a startup venture made it seem that long hours were a given, and I ended up regularly putting in 60 hour weeks. I was also going to school full-time in a town an hour away. It wasn’t until after I’d left that I realized those late nights made little contribution to the business. In fact, I made the most clear decisions after returning from long weekends and time off.

You can probably wait to make investments. My partners and I began ECS with essentially no budget at all. We didn’t have significant savings or investors, so any purchases we made had to be funded from cash flow. Initially I thought we could never finish our customers’ projects without lifts, air tools, welders and other equipment professional mechanics typically have on hand. My partners were more optimistic, more resourceful, and taught me how to get a job done with only the basics. We grew the business organically, and avoided significant debt.

The early days of the shop - before we had anything beyond hand tools

Know when you got lucky. When I mention my experience building our auto business, people are often surprised by what I accomplished as a 19 year-old without prior experience. The truth is, I was in the right place at the right time. I met the right people while a certain automotive model was gaining popularity in the States. I was lucky – and I’m content with that. Business isn’t always about a groundbreaking idea. Often, it’s about making the most of an obvious opportunity.

Your friends aren’t necessarily partners. This was a tough lesson to learn. I considered my partners among my best friends before we opened the shop, and by the time I left we were hardly on speaking terms. Business partnerships require just the right mix of personalities – and it’s not the same mixture required of friends.

Savor your victories. At ECS, I was focused on building the future of the business: new clients, new services, better facilities. It was difficult to enjoy what we had already accomplished. During our first open house, an event that drew more than 130 cars to visit, I ended up in the hospital after crushing one of my fingers while trying to finish a last-minute project. This lesson was quite literally painful to learn – perhaps that’s why I think of it so often.

A sampling of the turnout at an early ECS open house

Working in the shop taught me more than anything I studied in school. While I’ve long since left the automotive industry, I never lost my sense of entrepreneurialism. Starting, and running something of your own is terrifying, exhausting and absolutely thrilling. There’s really no substitute for experiencing it firsthand.