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Hi everyone,

I'm doing some research for a side project of my own, and I was hoping to speak to some people that are knowledgeable on the subject.

Does anyone here own or manage a mechanic shop? Or does anyone have past experience doing so?

I'm trying to figure out if what I have is a viable business idea and I'd love to be able to speak to you over the phone or through a private topic (although responding here is perfectly OK by me).

Most of what I am trying to figure out has to do with marketing and finding customers.

What were the ways that you were able to find customers the best?

Did you use any advertising? Such as newspaper, internet, etc.

What were your biggest problems with finding new customers?
 

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White Elephant Guy
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As someone who doesn't trust anyone to work on his cars, I think one thing that would be tough initially would be to establish a reputation. If you're a new shop people are going to have to go out on a limb to trust you to fix their car. Might be a good idea to bring in some people with a lot of experience so you can advertise 100 years of automotive repair experience, or something like that. Good luck with your project.
 

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Ah, you're at the "crap this sucks" part of starting a business, finding people. lol

I have my own shop, but I am a blacksmith artist. However a lot of the same applies. I've also done machining work, but never managed one, lol.

The size of where you live effects a lot. The best advise I can give is get out and meet as many people as you can, basicly have the whole town know you so to speak. Course I suck at this as I generally like to just be on my way when I'm out in public,lol, but the more people know of you the more business you will get. Try to make them as friends not business. A friend is a lot more likely to remember what you do and tell someone else than someone who just thought business, not to mention they'd want to help you out.


Another tip I learned from my parents years ago, you must appear to have work if you want work. You must look successful. I don't mean go out and spend all your money on a new BMW, but when people see you you can't appear to have been waiting all day for them, then they will wonder why no one else comes to you. A lot of mechanics park in their parking lot several cars they own, if you move them around from time to time people think you have a lot of business. Even if they are the same cars it looks better than having an empty parking lot.

One of my parents friends use to run around with empty case boxes (dental technicians, they make teeth. You transfer them in boxes about the size of two bricks) everytime he dropped of work to a doctor. It gave the appearance of other people using him and kept the doctor from trying to swindle him. Keep in mind if people think you have no work they expect a discount because you're "desperate". Doing a "favor" deal will bit you hard in the end, every time I did one, even just for friends or whatever, it always bit in the arse. ALWAYS.

It's your business and some of your friends will expect it to be cheaper because they are friends. lol the good ones won't, but most do. If you do, they will tell others and future clients now expect a discount as well and will not be happy when you say no. Even if you tell your friends not to tell anyone what they paid, they always do, and it always bites you in the end.

Also as far as friends becoming clients go, always draw up a contract like you would just a client. ALWAYS. I just learned this one the hard way. People change, or rather show their true colors, when things get hard or are about money. Its a quick way to loose a friend and money if you don't have a contract. Just say its part of your procedure and you need it for tax reasons. It should be written out, always. Including information about when payment is expected and how much. That way they can't weasel out of it later. Yeah I know, friends shouldn't weasel and yet I always find they seem to take advantage no matter how well or long you've known them :( lol maybe I just need some new friends, lol.


Keep at it and don't get discouraged. Starting a business is A LOT of work, and one that has a trade in it is a lot more. The best advise I can give is to keep things organized and have a way you always go about doing it. Thats alone takes some time and experience with your business to learn, too me years to find how I wanted to do things.

And remember the client isn't always right, but the client should always feel right, lol. This is why you write and draw everything out, date started, time estimates, cost, payment, everything expected, anything and everything you can think of. That way its as clear as you can possibly make it, you should be able to get any stranger off the street and show them the contract and they should be able to clearly understand it without you saying a word. If nothing else so in case you have the misfortune of someone who doesn't want to pay, a judge can see it clearly.

Now I know I mentioned a lot about not getting paid, don't let that scare you with it. Most do, most don't argue about it once you've agreed on the price. The ones I have trouble with are the ones I did a "favor" for or accepted payments. In this line of work I have decided the only payments I'll accept are ones before they receive it. A third to start, another third when it's almost finished and all of it before they accept delivery. Having them put a third down, that should be non-refundable, will keep you from being totally screwed if they decided not to buy it. It cost you time, effort and materials, if you don't make it non-refundable, you're out of it all with a custom piece you'll never be able to sell to anyone. Make sure they know that and know thats why. You're making custom things, not off the shelf parts.

Course it could be a little different for you, I only do highly custom work, everything is completely designed and built only after the client is beyond happy with it, I don't take parts off the shelf, I hand forge it all, so to have a client back out leaves me with a lot of work down the drain, it's why I insist on the third down. You'll also want to give them a COPY of the agreement (you should have the one where they actually signed, if they want one make a second one for them to sign) and a receipt for the money, you don't want them uncomfortable with giving you a lot of money and not having anything to show for it.

Secondly, if you don't have a receptionist, use an answer machine and state you'll call back at a certain hour on it. Otherwise you'll never get any work done. It breaks the flow of working and a 5 minute call usually costs you an hour of work because it takes time to get back in the groove. By which ttime someone else usually calls... lol.

And lastly, don't take on more work than you can do. If you have too many clients (and when that day happens be sure to have a party!) don't accept any money, you can make a waiting list and depending start a contract, but the last thing you want to do is accept a whole bunch of jobs to discover its overloading and you can't finish them, then everyone is angry and you won't get any work after that even if you managed to finish them all.

Oh, and do NOT accept full payment on day one unless it's like a one day job. Reason being is if you do, you'll loose motivation very quickly as you have already been paid in full for the job and then when other people come offering work the job you're already paid for will fall back onto the shelves or be half-assed and leave one very very upset client. This is also why you don't want to accept payments after delievery, because this flips, now they have it and there isn't much to motivate them other than you nagging at them. Granite sometimes it has to be done this way, but you need a very clear contract and schedualed payments figured out. Personally I do everything I can to avoid payments after delievery, you may find people buying things they can't afford, which though it's work for you, it also means you might not get paid for it and have to take it back. And thats a stressful fiasco.


best of luck! Its great fun, it really is. I wouldn't have it any other way, so don't let my warnings of people sucking be discouraging, its just one of those things thats best to know about before hand, yet always seems to have to be learned through experiencing it. And I'm just having a stickler at the moment:\
 

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Discussion Starter #4
Stephen67 said:
Ah, you're at the "crap this sucks" part of starting a business, finding people.
...
best of luck! Its great fun, it really is. I wouldn't have it any other way, so don't let my warnings of people sucking be discouraging, its just one of those things thats best to know about before hand, yet always seems to have to be learned through experiencing it. And I'm just having a stickler at the moment:\
Thanks Stephen.

Actually, I do intend to open up my own resto shop WAYYY down the line but that isn't in the near future for me.

First, I need to learn to do bodywork and paint myself so that I don't need to farm that part out. Then I need to get the capital to open a shop and find a reliable mechanic who can do everything related to drivetrain, suspension, steering, brakes, etc (I already have that person in mind). I figure that starting small like that will work as it will keep overhead down while we start to build a customer base. Eventually I'd bring someone else in to take over the body/paint when(if?) it got big enough.

However, the reason I asked this question was that I have what I believe to be a good business idea. I really want to discuss it with people to figure out how feasible it is but don't feel comfortable putting that info out there seeing as it isn't possible to copyright/patent something like this.

obsidianspider said:
As someone who doesn't trust anyone to work on his cars, I think one thing that would be tough initially would be to establish a reputation. If you're a new shop people are going to have to go out on a limb to trust you to fix their car. Might be a good idea to bring in some people with a lot of experience so you can advertise 100 years of automotive repair experience, or something like that. Good luck with your project.
I completely understand where you're coming from.

Let's say you were new to an area and needed to get work done on your car. Something rather simple but moderately pricey (cracked motor mount or something). How would you go about finding a mechanic?

From what I've seen in the past, people mainly use word of mouth in that case, right?
 

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Having had my own business (electrical contracting) IMO, the only reason some one should go into their own business is simply because they are very good at what they do and can successfully react to anything thing that's thrown at them. Liking what you do is another matter.

Customers aren't going to care that your doing something because it's what you've dream of doing. They want results and cheap prices. They want to know that you can do the job period. It's a business not a hobby.

I think the key for turning a hobby you like into a business that you like and enjoy is this. I believe it's people who've had a side line strictly as a hobby making a little money that just grew from word of mouth to the point of being full time.

When I had my business I advertised in the local paper because I did not want to travel far. Spending your time traveling for estimates and work is lost time and money IMO. Almost all of my business was word of mouth. My best friend had his own business as a HVAC & electrical contractor. He did not advertise, it was all word of mouth and business connections.

Not trying to discourage you but simply to state my feelings on starting a business.
 

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Discussion Starter #6
I appreciate the comments... but let me clarify that I am not looking to start a business in the sense that you are thinking.

It would be a website based business aimed at this market and I don't really want to get too specific because honestly I'm not sure why this isn't already a thriving website.
 

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Not necessarily... the idea popped into my head last night so I've spent today ironing out the details and seeing if it's feasible.

Guess it's time to check on Angie's list!

edit: FAR different than Angie's List, although I might be able to partner with that site down the line if mine pans out. I'm going to search around on that site more but it looks like a good resource.
 

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If you have ideas but need help with a plan, check for the SBDC office in your area and find a SCORE mentor (there's a number of them in the Bay Area). IME, there's nothing like an experienced executive/owner there in the flesh to help and guide you. One of my business colleagues who's retired from his business does this part-time. The key, for you, is to have an open mind and trust the experience of the mentor, adjunct to input from other professionals you hire. Lastly, if you want to grow a business, it wouldn't hurt to take a professional business management course.

Well, lots to think about. Keep that brainstorm to yourself, for now. Good luck!

Pat

PS - I own a machine shop (which you can see in the picture in my signature line) and do mechanical work (not on cars) but never wanted to grow and never did, so I really don't have good advice for you.
 

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The best way for a new shop to get new customers is to get in good with the local towing companies. Offer to pay a towing surcharge for every repair job they bring. I can influence the shop that is chosen for a large percentage of the tows that I do.

Having said that, I recommend only shops that I trust with my own vehicles. I had a transmission shop owner offer me $100 for every job I brought him, but I heard his shop didn't do good work, so I never recommended him.

I try to take care of the shops I tow for. I've even offered a discount on my price if the customer allowed me to take their car to one of my buddies' shops. The more work I take to them, the more likely they are to continue to call me, plus I get a great deal when they work on my personal vehicles.

There are a lot of shops that subsidize towing operations and offer cheap towing prices so they can feed the shop. Most of my towing competitors have shops (either repair or body) as their primary line of business. I have to compete on service because I can't tow as cheap as some of them do. In this economy, one of my competitors recently began offering free in-town towing if the customer has his shop do the repair.
 

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Discussion Starter #11
camachinist said:
If you have ideas but need help with a plan, check for the SBDC office in your area and find a SCORE mentor (there's a number of them in the Bay Area). IME, there's nothing like an experienced executive/owner there in the flesh to help and guide you. One of my business colleagues who's retired from his business does this part-time. The key, for you, is to have an open mind and trust the experience of the mentor, adjunct to input from other professionals you hire. Lastly, if you want to grow a business, it wouldn't hurt to take a professional business management course.

Well, lots to think about. Keep that brainstorm to yourself, for now. Good luck!

Pat

PS - I own a machine shop (which you can see in the picture in my signature line) and do mechanical work (not on cars) but never wanted to grow and never did, so I really don't have good advice for you.
Hey Pat,

Thanks for the advice. I'll search around for a SBDC office.

As for the professional business management course, I have a BS in Business from USC and have been around the upper management of companies a lot as I used to tag along to work with my Dad. I've also been the director of finance for a smallish company so I know how to do payroll, a/r, a/p, etc. That's not to say I already have the knowledge needed, but I feel that I have a good enough base right now that I can just pick up some books and do it on my own.

As to your other points, I'm trying to make sure I keep an open mind and realize that people that are criticizing my idea are only trying to help me perfect the idea or make sure that it is really feasible so I don't waste my time.
 

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That's something I didn't even factor in... the towing companies directing a good deal of business to the shops.

I definitely would need to set up some sort of affiliation with a towing company.

If I had some sort of arrangement with a towing company so that they were the sole provider... and let's assume that they'd get a decent amount of business from this, what kind of prices do you think I could get per tow if it's in town (10-15 miles TOPS)? Even a ballpark would be helpful... $50?
 

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pcarlson said:
what kind of prices do you think I could get per tow if it's in town (10-15 miles TOPS)? Even a ballpark would be helpful... $50?
I'm not sure I understand your question. Would you be charging for the tow and paying the tower a lesser amount? Or are you asking what a tower would charge you, or the customer?
 

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bighorse said:
pcarlson said:
what kind of prices do you think I could get per tow if it's in town (10-15 miles TOPS)? Even a ballpark would be helpful... $50?
I'm not sure I understand your question. Would you be charging for the tow and paying the tower a lesser amount? Or are you asking what a tower would charge you, or the customer?
Sorry that I'm being so vague but it's tough to expain this without giving the concept away.

Let's assume that it's how much the tower would charge the customer. However, I would be pairing the tower and customer together so I would be able to negotiate a better rate for the customer.

Does that make any sense?
 

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One other thing, AAA is big in the towing (and incidentally car repair referral) space, so it's not clear what advantage you'd have, plus they have a GREAT reputation (somewhat deservedly so) among long time customers. (I've had them for 16+ years now and it's not clear which of us got the better deal as I drove some chitty, chitty cars for a while there.)

Private towing in New England last I priced it was around $3 a loaded mile, plus ~$35 hookup fee, but that's been a few years. You could surely call around and find out in 15 minutes what the going rate is.

That's what makes AAA such a good deal for me. I get a flatbed tow, usually within 30-45 minutes, as many times as I need (there is an annual limit, but I never come close), and I pay something like $55 a year for AAA+ (up to 100 miles towing no charge). They say they'll only tow under certain circumstances and with some limitations of where they'll tow to, but I've had them tow to my hangar (where my "shop" is) and to various residences of mine without issue.
 

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pcarlson said:
Let's assume that it's how much the tower would charge the customer. However, I would be pairing the tower and customer together so I would be able to negotiate a better rate for the customer.
That is basically a motor club concept (AAA, Cross Country, USAC, etc.) These entities contract with towing and roadside service providers to provide said services to their customers. Motor clubs generally do not have a good reputation among the service providers, so the contractors they get are either new to the industry (and willing to work cheap), have poor business skills (and don't know what their operating costs are), or are very large volume providers (and have enough volume to operate on thin margins). There are exceptions to my generalizations, but most towing companies that are heavy into motor club work will fall into one of those three categories.

One of the local AAA providers talked to me once about buying his AAA contract, so I asked what his rates were. It was $23 to hook, 1.25 per mile enroute (with 3 miles free), and $2.25 per mile loaded (with 3 miles free), with no provisions for additional compensation after hours. In comparison, my daytime weekday rates are $60 hook and $3.00 per loaded mile within 20 round trip miles, and beyond that I charge $3.00 per round trip mile, plus I charge extra for after hours. I told him that he should pay me to take his contract.
 
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