Google Ventures, Andreessen-Backed Openbay Aims to Fix Car Repair

10/28/13Follow @curtwoodward

It seems like there are a million little small-business headaches that haven’t been solved by the Internet quite yet.

There’s a good reason for that—signing up small businesses can be a serious slog, even aside from the structural problems of building a two-sided marketplace where you bring together buyers and sellers.

But eventually, you have to believe that the timing will be right, and booking local services will become as easy as, say, Uber has made hailing a fancy black car: tap a few times on your smartphone screen and it’s done.

A relatively new Boston-based company is hoping to make that happen for car repairs, a big market with plenty of old-school hassles and a reputation for making consumers nervous about getting a square deal.

The startup, called Openbay, has been testing its service since the beginning of the year with about 400 auto repair providers in the greater Boston area. Starting today, Openbay says it’s expanding well beyond Massachusetts, soliciting bids from car owners around the country who want a price quote for fixing their ride.

Like most local marketplace sectors, car repair has already attracted a few businesses trying to make a dent. Along with a repair-shop finder and estimate calculator from national parts brand Napa, I found at least three modern-looking websites that offered a service similar to Openbay: AutoMD, Repair Jungle, and Fair Mechanics. Venture-backed BodyShopBids does the same thing for collision repair.

That means Openbay will have some competition if it wants to expand into a truly national online auto-repair bid service. It does have some very notable backers for that fight, however, with investments from both Google Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz, two of the most high-profile venture firms in the country.

CEO Rob Infantino won’t say how much he’s raised for two-year-old Openbay’s seed financing, but he’s understandably happy about landing Google Ventures’ Rich Miner and Andreessen’s Jeff Jordan—formerly CEO of OpenTable and president of eBay—as his investors.

One example of how those connections can help came when Openbay was ready to rush its app into production, only to have Google Ventures insist more work was needed.

“They said `No, no, no—you’re not putting this thing out into the market until you do some usability tests,’” Infantino says. “I’ll tell you, those sessions were invaluable.”

High-end tech business coaching is one thing. But Infantino says the early months of developing Openbay also prompted some decidedly more pedestrian lessons in building a local business.

As it sought to get consumers to sign up for its still-emerging service, Openbay tried just about everything, Infantino says, from Google Adwords and Facebook ads to leaving flyers on parked cars.

“That’s where the cost really is, in driving that volume of consumers to your site,” he says.

Auto-repair shops, on the other hand, have been a bit easier to sign up. For its attempted national expansion, Openbay is relying on the same kind of system it used to amass 400 shops in Massachusetts: using lead-generation databases to e-mail local shops when possible customers in their area submit a job for bids.

The repair shops can get that message without being signed up with an Openbay account. Infantino says Openbay spent months doing customer research, which paid off with a website design for repair shops that will look familiar to the repair-estimate software many of them already use.

“There are a lot of providers out there that are essentially hungry for business,” Infantino says. “When a request comes in, you see users get anywhere from one or two offers up to eight or nine offers to do that service.”

That was true in my experience. In a test run offering a brake-pad replacement job, I got four responses in an hour from garages near my Boston-area home, with a good range of prices to help me evaluate a possible repair shop.

Probably helping repair shop recruitment is the fact that Openbay doesn’t charge them any sort of signup or subscription fee to participate in the service. Openbay gets paid by taking a 10 percent finder’s fee on any eventual transaction.

One glitch I did notice, however, was in the most essential part of the website—the search bar where consumers enter what kind of work they’re looking for. Typing in a common job like “oil change” and hitting return just reloaded the homepage. To get where you want to go, it appears a user is supposed to type in the keywords and select what they want from the list of matching jobs that pops out under the search bar.

If Openbay can work out some wrinkles like that and use its big-named financiers to quickly build up some strong regional markets, it could have a chance to make a dent in this industry. But the graveyard of local-business Internet entrepreneurial dreams is full of ideas just like this.

“People may have tried this in the past and been unsuccessful,” Infantino says. “I think it’s timing.”

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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    It is hard to start a business when there are lots of competition and especially when those competitors are already well established. It would be a different case though if the capital for the business is quite big. Nevertheless despite the capital, proper strategies should also be in place to outsmart competitors and get lots of attention from potential customers. – http://www.mmtowing.us/

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    Good Job trying to get these “AZZCLOWNS” to stop emailing you…. I have sent several emails asking to be taken off their mailing list. They send them from Phil and on behalf of Simon for the Brand of vehicles you dont even work on. Not to mention they want the customer to pay them directly and then charge the shop 13% or 14% of the Service cost plus another $9.00 per transaction to have that direct deposited into my bank account…. Really???