Founder Focus: The Importance of Identifying and Filling Unique Gaps in an Established Market – David Stringer, Insignia Group

Welcome to another episode of Founder Focus with Steve Greenfield, founder of Automotive Ventures, This ASBN original series dives into the inside stories behind some of the most impressive entrepreneurial journeys In this segment, Greenfield sits down with David Stringer, founder of Insignia Group, a company that helps over 4,000 automotive dealers solve their vehicle personalization and accessory needs.

Transcription:

Steve Greenfield:
Founder Focus takes us on an intimate conversation with innovators and entrepreneurs and the great companies that they’ve built. This is Steve Greenfield from Automotive Ventures, and thanks for joining us. This week, I’m excited to welcome our guests, David Stringer, who is the founder of Insignia Group. We’ll spend some time with David retracing his steps from the very early days launching an online catalog of services for air conditioning parts, all the way to the current day where he’s leading a very successful company with 60 employees. So with that, let’s welcome David to the show. Welcome, David. It’s great to have you here.

David Stringer :
It’s great to be here. Thank you very much, Steve.

Steve Greenfield:
So why don’t we rewind the clock a little bit? But before we do that, just give us a little bit of an overview of the company. What can you tell us about Insignia Group?

David Stringer :
Sure. Well, we are a software and consulting company in the automotive industry. We have been serving dealerships since 2002, and we specialize in helping dealerships merchandise accessories during the car sale process. So merchandising their OEM and aftermarket accessories during that sales process. So, we’ve been doing that a really long time and we’ve stayed very focused in that lane and we’re proud of all the accomplishments that we’ve had over the years.

Steve Greenfield:
That’s great. So for people who aren’t familiar with accessories, give us a few examples, for example.

David Stringer :
Yeah, perfect. So, these are the ad-ons after the car comes off of the line of the manufacturing line, gets shipped to the dealership. So, it allows the dealership to allow the customer to customize that vehicle ever further. So, it could be wheels, sidesteps, bedliner, bike rack, all weather mats. So the accessories portfolio is pretty broad when you think about it from a vehicle standpoint. So, it’s any customization that you would want to add to your vehicle after or during the time that you’re purchasing it.

Steve Greenfield:
So when I travel to Texas and I drive by these big pickup trucks with all these accessories, you’re the guy that’s helping them do that?

David Stringer :
I hope so. So what we do is we provide that dealership, a professional and very easy-to-use software system that allows that salesperson to present those accessories and then present those options to the customer while they’re going through the process.

Steve Greenfield:
Cool. That’s great. So let’s rewind the clock a little bit. Let’s talk about the early days, how did this all get started?

David Stringer :
Wow. So usually I tell this story over a couple of beers, it’s a fun story. So, I started what would be become Insignia as a marketing and internet company and through a family connection, I was able to be introduced to an auto parts distributor in Florida. And this auto parts distributor was a family-owned business, been around since their early fifties. And so what they specialized in was air conditioning and air conditioning parts in Florida, which doesn’t surprise anybody. And they were an ACDelco distributor, was called Florida Automotive Distributor. And they were really my first major customer and we got to working on an automotive catalog for replacement parts, ACDelco, Motorcraft and bringing together a lot of data points. We created something that was really special in the aftermarket segment.

David Stringer :
And so in 2001, we decided that it would be a good idea because they were my only customer for them to buy out what was my company and we started a journey together that started in 2001. And in 2002, we really found the accessory segment, Florida Automotive was a GM distributor for accessories, GM ADI. And so we were very early on in the General Motors’ ADI program that was launched out of pilot in 2001, it really got going in 2002. So when we were right there on the front lines and we found this as a niche that nobody was really operating in and we’ve stayed right there in that lane. So, in 2006 and 2007, we began to expand out and start doing more for dealerships and Chrysler and Ford and Toyota.

David Stringer :
And then, we really expanded in 2009, 2010 into lots of different brands. And now today we have 28 brands that we support from a dealership perspective. We do support aftermarket when it’s appropriate for those dealerships, but we really let the dealership kind of figure that out. So, that was how it all got started and we found a place to operate and we kept operating. So, it’s been a crazy, crazy, awesome journey.

Steve Greenfield:
So let’s talk a little bit about entrepreneurship. There is the bait out there whether entrepreneurs are born or over time, they’re sort of made nature versus nurture. I guess, as you reflect back on yourself and introspect, do you think you were born an entrepreneur or was there a moment in your life where it triggered and you were like, you knew this was the right path for you?

David Stringer :
I love this question. I don’t know if I have an opinion about born or nurtured. All I can say is I was born to be a professional baseball player, but my body wasn’t suited to be a professional baseball player. So in my mind, I was born to be a professional baseball player, and I didn’t know what an entrepreneur was until way far into my career. That wasn’t something that was really talked about and I wish it were talked about, because I think if I were going through college now, that’s absolutely what I would do. I love the idea of building things and I love the concept of building companies and building sustainable products and building services. So, I’m very much… I think my DNA is somewhere in there as an entrepreneurial sort of DNA because I really enjoy what I do as an entrepreneur.

David Stringer :
And I didn’t really realize that until probably like… We were probably five or six years into Insignia and we were sort of almost making it with this accessory thing. It was still unproven. We were still just kind of morphing into it. And what I realized was this is what I love so much. I loved the idea that we were on that edge and it could go either way. We could crash and burn or we were ready for the stratosphere. So, I think that’s the entrepreneurial sort of DNA that’s inside of me, for sure. And so, yeah, I think I discovered that DNA. So was I born with it? Maybe. Did I discover it? Absolutely. Absolutely.

Steve Greenfield:
Well, it makes sense. So, let me riff off your idea of entrepreneurial DNA, because the way that I interpret that is you look at kids as we grow up, hopefully we have the opportunity to have really good mentors or someone in our life that opens our eyes to a path that otherwise we wouldn’t have taken. And so as you reflect back, whether it’s like unlocking your entrepreneurial DNA or just being a mentor or a role model, who’s been the most important role model or mentor in your life, and tell us a little bit about the role that they played for you?

David Stringer :
Yeah. It’s tough to nail down one. And I think any successful entrepreneur is going to have a sort of a collection of crowd around them. And as we were kind of preparing for this interview, I think that’s one of the key things that I’ll come back to, which is as a successful entrepreneur, you have to surround yourself. So, let me go back to your mentor question. The folks that owned Florida Automotive Distributing are absolutely on my top of my list as my mentors. They bought my company and then they taught me how to run a company. They let me run the company continuously. And so, they really showed me what it means to be a business owner, to live and breathe it, to make good decisions, make good HR decisions. There was so many good fundamentals, financials. They just really taught me how to run a company and I am very grateful for them.

David Stringer :
I’ll name them, John Cannon was the CFO and Rob Bauman was the CEO for that company. And they had a tremendous influence on my life, on my work ethic and just what it meant to grind, out being an entrepreneur. It’s a grind and it’s not glamorous. It’s not fashionable. It is a grind. And so they really taught me how to be successful in that and not burn out, but definitely be successful. And then of course, my dad had a heck of a work ethic. He’s a huge mentor for me. And then also later on in my professional career, I met a business coach, a leadership coach. Her name was Kathy and she’s been an incredible mentor for me because… And I wish I had done this earlier, invested in myself in terms of leadership coach, communication skills. She really taught me how to internalize being a leader and being an internal and external leader and a leader for myself, a leader for those that are around me.

David Stringer :
So, that’s the cloud of people that have been around me that have really helped and promoted me to be where we are today. I feel that we’ve done a lot of very successful things. I’m proud of our accomplishments and we got a lot of gas in the tank. We’re having fun. It’s really a great time.

Steve Greenfield:
That’s great. That’s great. So I’m going to riff off of something else you said. You used the word grind, which grinding it out or grinding is mentioned often with entrepreneurs. We had another founder here a few weeks ago, Scot Wingo from Spiffy. And one of the books that he recommended was Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things. And I guess as you reflect back then on your journey, what’s one of the hardest things you’ve had to do that has kind of created resiliency and you felt you’ve kind of ground through?

David Stringer :
Yeah. I think that really is the… Back to sort of that DNA of how we structured the company. Too often, an entrepreneur… I’m going to answer your question by kind of also giving some advice. But too often, an early entrepreneur doesn’t take the time to really structure their organization properly. And I’ve learned that over and over again. And the most difficult thing I ever had to do in my professional career was to terminate a partner and to let a partner go and separate from a partner of the business. It was excruciating. And the value of that was that we had all of it pre-setup. We had it all in the operating agreement. And so, it gave us a way to peacefully separate, but it was extremely difficult to do.

David Stringer :
And we probably couldn’t have done it as well as we did if we didn’t have those business structures really set up. So, that’s been the most difficult thing for me. And then short of that, which is really foundationally difficult to do, anytime we’ve had to lay off employees has been excruciating and very, very difficult. And so, those are the worst days and you got to grind through those. You have to put the business first. And we talk a lot about… In Insignia, we talk a lot about the balance between employee and company. And we try to keep that balance in check all the time. And what I say is sometimes the employee rises because we’re just going to do something that is going to help the employees over the health of the business, right? And then sometimes the health of the business has to outweigh the employee. And so, it’s a delicate balance. It’s probably the biggest challenge that any small business has, is trying to keep that delicate balance together. And I think we have a great track record of it. We’ve been through everything, knock on wood and we’ve survived, so.

Steve Greenfield:
So, let’s talk a little bit about your corporate culture, because it sounds like you’re a very deliberate entrepreneur, very thoughtful. How do you think about setting the stage for a healthy culture for your employees?

David Stringer :
Yeah. That’s a great one. And I can’t take credit. I don’t know if I can take credit for our great culture or if I am just the recipient of great culture in our business. I don’t know, because I think the first thing that starts is communication. I think you’ve got to be a good communicator to be a leader in any company and any entrepreneur, you have to be a great communicator and you have to communicate internally to those around you and you have to communicate externally. And so I think it starts there and being transparent. And the more that the folks that are on your endeavor and on your ship, the more they believe in you as a leader and the management team, the more they’re willing to go that extra mile and do that extra thing.

David Stringer :
We talk a lot about… And Insignia, it’s a very family-oriented business because we say during the interview process and the new hire process, “Look, we’re the kind of company that if you say, ‘Hey, little Johnny has a play at school…'” I know we’re in pandemic times, “… but there’s a virtual online play for Johnny and I want to go to that.” It’s like, “Absolutely, you’re going to go to that.” We promote the fact that if there’s a balance between company and employee, there’s also a balance between employee and work and family. And so you’ve got to help your employees feel that they can find that balance too. And sometimes, the employee is going to win. Sometimes the employee is going to be sick or there’s going to be a death in the family, or there’s going to be real life that just smacks them in the face. And that’s when the company has to surround them and say, “Hey, we got your back. We’ll take care of your stuff. You’d go take care of your family.”

David Stringer :
And then when they come back and the company needs them, well, they’re going to roll up their sleeves and they’re going to give you that much more. And that’s the balance that we really try to achieve for culture is just a balance between work and family.

Steve Greenfield:
That’s great. That’s great. So, we talked about sort of the hard things, what’s been the highlight so far in this entrepreneurial journey of yours?

David Stringer :
Yeah. Sustainability, the fact that we’re just still here. I think that’s the highlight. Early on in our process, I read the book Good to Great and what I wanted to do… Well, one of my personal goals was to say, “This company, if we’re going to invest in this company, we’re going to build this company. We’re going to make it to last. We’re going to build it so that it survives.” And we’ve done that. We’ve been through some really difficult times. We’ve gotten through, we’ve navigated yet again through kind of a similar situation in the pandemic, just like the recession before it. So, we’ve passed the test of time. And now my partner, James Brooks and I, we’re really enjoying being able to say, “Okay where do we want to go now? We’ve accomplished so many things, where do we want to take this? Where’s the industry going?”

David Stringer :
So, I believe we’ve always been trying to be proactive and be out ahead of the industry in terms of where it’s going in terms of selling cars and merchandising accessories. But now we get to sit back and go, “Okay, really where are we going and where do we want to go?” And I think we’ve got the acumen, the experience, the wisdom to say, “Okay, if we want to set a course, then let’s go because we have all the confidence in the world that we could get there.” So I think those are the two big highlights. Is one, we’ve survived some pretty tough situations and we do something in the industry that nobody else does. We have this visualization platform that nobody else has been able to match that. And so, that’s kind of where we’re going. We’re taking advantage of that. And we’re super excited about it. It’s going to be a lot of fun.

Steve Greenfield:
That’s great. So you’ve mentioned Good to Great by Jim Collins. Great book and I recommend that book a lot too in my travels. Any other books that you’d recommend that maybe the audience out there pick up?

David Stringer :
I read a book and it still stays in my mind it’s Execution. And I can’t remember exactly who wrote it, but it was two marketing guys. And it was all about executing your plans. It was all about, if you’re going to set yourself to something, get it done. Finish the job. And that was an impactful book for me back very early on. And the second book that I would recommend is the Celebration of Discipline by Foster. And that’s not a business book, but it is a book about the self-discipline and your own internal growth. I think one of the things that young entrepreneurs don’t spend enough time on because they don’t give themselves enough credit is that they have to grow internally. They have to grow as a person, as a leader to be able to be a leader for somebody else.

David Stringer :
There’s that old saying, “You can’t love someone until you love yourself,” right? Well, you can’t be an entrepreneur and a leader until you lead yourself and you grow within yourself. So, not only should you be reading business books like Good to Great, but you also should find things that really nurture your soul and really nurture your inner core and your inner peace, because if you can’t find inner peace and I love Kung Fu Panda. So every time I say inner peace, I think of Kung Fu Panda, but that’s another great movie about leadership and everything. But the point is that you have to grow internally in order to grow externally.

Steve Greenfield:
That’s great. Great advice. So if we fast forwarded five years, where might we find you?

David Stringer :
Hopefully supporting other entrepreneurs. So I’m doing that now. And I see that continuing to scale up a Rock Hill where I live and where our corporate headquarters is in South Carolina is just a great, great little place for entrepreneurship. And so, I’m working in this ecosystem to help entrepreneurs now. I see myself as continuing to do that and maybe being an investor and maybe being a mentor for other entrepreneurs. So, I definitely see that as part of my path and my journey and Insignia is probably going to be rocking it, still making configurators and helping people purchase accessories when they’re purchasing their vehicles. So, five years from now hopefully we’re a lot bigger and we’re doing a lot more things and I’m helping a lot more people.

Steve Greenfield:
Thanks for joining us today. I really, really appreciate you making time and thanks for the insights. Very beneficial for those entrepreneurs out there who are listening in.

David Stringer :
My pleasure, Steve, thank you so much for the opportunity and I love what you’re doing out there as well. So, thank you so much.

Steve Greenfield:
Great, thanks. So that’s it for this week’s Founder Focus, our dive into the inside stories behind some of the most impressive entrepreneurial journeys. Please feel free to contact me anytime. I’ll look forward to catching up to discuss the industry with you. Thanks for tuning in for this week’s Founder Focus, and we’ll see you next week.


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