Two entrepreneurs want to upend the auto-mechanic world. But are they using the right tools?
The co-founders of instaMek get some "disruptive" advice from Brian Hesje, former Fountain Tire CEO
by Michael Ganley
Photograph Ryan Girard
Young execs: Asem Alsaadi and Uzair Ahmed, co-founders of instaMek
Senior exec: Brian Hesje, former CEO of Fountain Tire
Asem Alsaadi and Uzair Ahmed have a business they think could disrupt the world of auto-mechanics. The two are co-founders of a small startup that acts as a middleman between freelancing mechanics and people who would like to have their cars fixed at home and for less.
– Brian Hesje, Former CEO of Fountain Tire
Alsaadi and Ahmed both have chemical engineering degrees from the University of Alberta and worked in water treatment for a time, but the entrepreneurial bug bit them. Their first venture involved an online platform to connect oil and gas companies with pre-qualified contractors. They developed it and began to build their client base, but it wasn’t taking off. “We were struggling with it, there was too much red tape,” Alsaadi says. Ahmed adds another reason for the failure: “We were trying to force the market fit,” he says. “It was our idea rather than asking what the market wanted.”
So the two friends made a sharp pivot into mechanic-brokering. They came up with the idea after Ahmed’s mother was left in the lurch with a broken car in her driveway and no idea how to get it fixed. They launched instaMek just over a year ago and so far have operations in Edmonton, Calgary and Toronto. They have deals with 35 mechanics – most of whom do this on the side – and have handled 1,500 calls. The work is done at the customer’s home at a time of their choosing, saving the overhead costs of a regular, bricks-and-mortar shop. So far, instaMek has grown slowly through word of mouth and some Google advertising. Alsaadi and Ahmed say they’ve learned some lessons from their first failed venture, and right out of the gates see a brighter future for instaMek. “For this, the demand was right there,” Ahmed says. “People wanted a better way of doing things.”
Ahmed and Alsaadi recently invited vertan businessman Brian Hesje for lunch at the Harvest Room at the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald. Hesje was the CEO of Fountain Tire for 13 years and remained chair of the board until last year. He’s also on the boards of four private companies and of Alberta Innovates – Bio Solutions, and is the chair of ATB Financial’s board. Suffice to say he has some business experience.
Under his leadership, Fountain Tire went from a small player in the auto-mechanic business to a major force in Western Canada and beyond. Alsaadi sees a parallel between an early Fountain Tire and the fledgling instaMek. “Brian led a company to grow from the bottom up, and we’re trying to do the same thing,” he says. “There are so many things in business that are still the same, and that’s what we can learn from Brian: strategic direction; how to get things done; how to understand your customers; how to grow in general and make sure your customers are happy with your service.”
There is one other way Hesje has been able to help the young entrepreneurs. “Asem and I have very little experience in the automotive industry, and we have no contacts,” Ahmed says. “Brian has been very helpful with getting us in touch with people in the industry who can help us out.”
Alsaadi and Ahmed liberally sprinkle the word “disruptor” into their conversations, and their first point of comparison is Uber. “What we’re trying to combine is the best of Uber and with a traditional mechanic’s shop,” Ahmed says. “We want to create a superior service that is scalable with new technology and we also want to provide convenience and give customers their time back.”
Hesje, with the skeptical eye of a veteran, has his own take on “disruptors.”
“It’s one of the big words of the day,” he says. “I was at a meeting recently and I said, ‘Before someone came up with the word, disruptors were called businesses giving better service.’ When you have a concept like instaMek, the thing you have to be pretty clear on is, if you can’t give a better customer experience than what is out there now, the chances of success are much lower.”
But he does see one parallel between Uber and instaMek: “Uber didn’t really change the product but they changed the process and the customer experience,” he says. “This is pretty similar to what you’re doing: The product hasn’t changed, but you’re trying to change the process and you’re trying to change the customer experience.”
Hesje has another piece of advice for the two young entrepreneurs, and it has to do with one of those most challenging aspects of building a successful business: appropriate risk assessment. “Most of the older organizations focus on the risk of failure and spend very little time on the risk of missing opportunities,” he says. “I think the risk here is the opposite: focusing too much on the opportunities and not enough on the negative risks.” When you’re trying to create a new business model, he says, you have to be careful not to get ahead of your ability to deliver the service that is going to set you apart. “If you get the growth ahead of the ability to deliver, the growth will be very short lived, and when you’re relying on word of mouth, there are two kinds of word of mouth: it can be good or bad.”
Alsaadi says one way instaMek will ensure good service is by treating the contracted mechanics as customers, too. “They can choose when they work and they don’t have to worry about the business aspect of it,” he says. The economic downturn has helped instaMek in two ways: more people want to save some money on mechanical work and they have a lot more access to good mechanics. “The mechanics we have, many of them got laid off,” Ahmed says. “They’re using this to make money. Some make a living wage, and their per-hour rate is as much as they’d make in the oil fields. Some of them might not go back.”
Hesje, in keeping with his habit of putting Alsaadi and Ahmed in touch with the right people, offers to arrange a call with his nephew and Fountain Tire’s current CEO, Brent Hesje. “They’ve met with some people at Fountain, but it’s always better to meet with the CEO,” he says. They all agree there could be some kind of mutually beneficial alliance between instaMek and a more established, traditional mechanic shop. In fact, instaMek has begun referring cases it can’t manage – say a major transmission job – to a Fountain Tire location in Edmonton. Hesje tells Alsaadi and Ahmed to stay in touch. He sees hope for their operation. “A lot of the opportunities that exist are obvious after someone else has seen them,” he says. “For years, people complained about the cab business and nothing changed. Then, Uber.” And who hasn’t complained about their mechanic?