Vast, an Algorithm-Based Search Engine for Used Cars, Grabs $14M

Austin—Making a big-decision purchase like a car or home can feel like a futile task given all the details to consider, especially with so many options online.

Vast is an Austin, TX-based company that aims to use its data analytics-powered search tools to help people purchase cars, homes, and travel options. The company has historically done so by offering its services as a white-label search tool to third-party websites, but it announced this week it has received a $14 million investment from Capital One Growth Ventures to further build out a branded version of its own search tools.

The company’s branded site for cars, called CarStory, is intended to help consumers look for an automobile based on an experiential approach: what they want to use the car for or what’s in it, rather than just searching for a specific type or brand, CEO John Price said in a telephone interview. Vast is also building brand sites for real estate purchases (HomeStory) and travel (VacationStory), Price says.

Algorithms that Vast has developed—and patented, Price notes—present more vehicle options to consumers that “you never even would have potentially considered but they match the objectives you have for that vehicle,” Price says. “Just like Pandora helps us explore our consumer tastes, we are doing that with our automotive, and real estate purchase cycles. … We actually start presenting to you vehicles, very much like a dating site or matching site would work today.”

Vast’s ability to use machine learning to help predict car options that a user might find interest in is key to CarStory’s goal of “nudging” a consumer’s decision about a purchase, Price says. Part of the work done by the algorithms is to study data the company observes about consumers as they click on vehicles, or details about them they like or dislike—somewhat like the dating app Tinder, Price says. Vast also has collected piles of data since its founding in 2005 about consumer behavior, such as buying patterns and inventory trends related to popular or unpopular items to purchase, which it incorporates.

Part of the behind-the-scenes work of Vast’s tools is keeping track and organizing immense amounts of data. Listings on CarStory provide details about the cars specifically, such as mileage, extras, and quality ratings. All that, plus the price and mileage comparison details and other specifics that are stored in Vast’s sizeable databases, are used by the company’s algorithms to create suggestions.

Price, who joined Vast in 2007 and moved it from California to Austin in 2011, has a deep background in artificial intelligence, including as a co-founder of local software firm Trilogy. Vast uses open-source development tools Hadoop and Cassandra to manage its massive databases of automobile, real estate, and travel inventory, Price says.

“This platform is designed form the ground up to handle millions and millions of units of inventory that are all unique,” he says. “We normalize across these markets of inventory so that we can build analytics and insights across them, which help people better consume and understand inventory.”

Vast’s moves around the branded website CarStory, which has been around in some form since early 2015, are partly about marketing and distribution: a new way for the company to directly reach consumers, rather than indirectly through the companies that use its white-label service.

“The work we are doing with these data story products is simple. We aim to create the most engaging user experience that maximizes conversion,” Price wrote in an e-mail.

Because Vast has historically offered its services as a white-label product—a company that uses Vast’s used car search engine bar could offer it as if it were its own—Vast keeps pretty quiet about who it has made deals with. The company has publicly discussed working with a few customers, including AOL.

AOL operates a website called AutoBlog that reports on its namesake industry, and the site indeed has an unlabeled used-car search tool. After searching for all used cars in Austin, TX, and then clicking on a 2013 Gray Lexus RX 350 with just under 37,000 miles on sale for $33,950, the link initially connected to a Vast.com website. After a second, it rerouted to the Lexus’ listing on Carfax.com.

Vast has historically shared revenues with the companies that it partners with, Price says. The company is also developing relationships with dealers through its branded website and offering monthly subscriptions, he says.

The company was founded by Naval Ravikant, a serial entrepreneur who also founded and is the CEO of AngelList. He’s still the Vast board’s chairman. The company has been backed by Clearstone Venture Partners and Leapfrog Ventures, which participated in an approximately $4 million round in 2007, according to regulatory filings.

Vast hopes to double the number of Austin-based employees to 100. It also has about 200 data engineers in Belgrade, Serbia.

David Holley is Xconomy's national correspondent based in Austin, TX. You can reach him at dholley@xconomy.com Follow @xconholley

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