How this software entrepreneur found success by identifying gaps in the car buying experience

Welcome to another episode of Founder Focus, the ASBN series that focuses on the journeys of some amazing startup founders. Today, host Steve Greenfield is joined by serial entrepreneur Brice Englert, founder of TradePending, one of the most innovative software solutions in the automotive tech landscape over the past decade.

TradePending’s revolutionary trade-in tool SNAP quickly became the most rapidly adopted trade-in tool for auto dealerships in the U.S. Recently, TradePending announced the launch of SNAP+, the next iteration of SNAP.

Transcription: 

Steve Greenfield:
Brice started his career journey as a captain in the U.S. Air Force followed by a couple of years as a financial advisor for UBS. But it was his experience at Dominion Enterprises that exposed him to automotive, where he moved up the ranks quickly, to general manager of AutoRevenue, Autobase, and Prime Response.

Steve Greenfield:
After spending almost eight years at Dominion, he founded TradePending back in 2014 after identifying a critical problem in the automotive experience. A gap between how dealers operate and how consumers are fed misleading information at times, in regard to the valuation of vehicles. After tremendous growth, growing TradePending into the preeminent trade-in tool in the industry, earlier this year he made the decision to take in investment from private equity player CapStreet Group.

Steve Greenfield:
Today, we’re going to peel back the layers a bit to understand what motivates Brice, how he thinks about innovation, and how he built his business. So with that, let’s welcome Brice to the show. Brice, good to have you here.

Brice Englert:
Thanks, Steve. Great to be here. Really appreciate the invite.

Steve Greenfield:
Cool. Well, let’s start way back at the beginning. Let’s go back to, you graduated college, you decided to go into the Air Force. Tell us a little bit about how that experience has influenced your perspective onto entrepreneurship and life in general.

Brice Englert:
Absolutely. And, it really did begin there in ’98. I was a commissioned officer and went and ran my, basically software development programs in the Air Force. We built modeling and simulation tools that were amazingly high tech for today. Put those tools into huge joint exercises. And my job really in the end was like business development.

Brice Englert:
So I learned how to position the software to solve problems for the exercises. And then at the exercises, very intense couple of weeks, 24 hours a day, and constantly problem solving much like we do still today. So I’ve been doing the same thing more or less for about 20, 23 years.

Steve Greenfield:
That’s great. So what got you into the auto industry originally?

Brice Englert:
I had an opportunity to move back East. My wife and I had our first child, and we’re in Austin, Texas, and I had a shot to join at the time, Trader Publications. I was Dominion Enterprises’ employee number one, because when I was hired September 11th, 2006, they announced that the old partnership that was 50/50 Cox Enterprises and Landmark Communications was finally split. A huge successful partnership obviously for decades.

Brice Englert:
And I was able to join that team as part of Dominion Dealer Solutions. And worked with some significant industry titans, Conrad Hall, Mitch Brooks, Rich Crawford gave me my first break to join their mergers and acquisitions team to help Dominion diversify and find assets to purchase back in 2006.

Steve Greenfield:
Wow, that’s great. So let’s dig into TradePending a bit. Take us back and tell us a little bit about the company and why the timing was right to launch the concept?

Brice Englert:
So, my origin story is pretty simple. We did a lot of great strategic sessions. Dominion had some really great thought leaders and we were sitting around a conference table and trying to understand the problems that dealers were going to face in the future. And I felt that used vehicle acquisition was positioned all wrong. Dealers had really never realized the largest source of their used vehicles was always trade or they took it for granted. And the largest, frankly market for cars is the owned market.

Brice Englert:
So if you looked at how vehicles were aging over time and did some math on turnover of vehicles, it seemed like the biggest opportunity really was trying to position the consumers. Why trading in their car more frequently and simplifying the process could be advantageous, not only to the consumer, but also for the dealer.

Steve Greenfield:
That’s great. That’s great. So the last year, year and a half has been a tight, tight supply of used cars. How has your thinking evolved around that over those last year?

Brice Englert:
It’s challenged us to really test our evaluation methodology and listen to our clients and understand what’s going on in the market. We’re the only zip code centric with a radius valuation methodology in the world. So when we can look at micro markets and what’s happening with supply and demand on vehicles, daily updates on pricing, it’s put us in a very good position to help our dealer clients and also our API clients, other automotive vendors.

Brice Englert:
So, what I’ve learned is any business can not only survive, but thrive in the right market. But you’ve got to be very focused on the problems that your customers are facing in the changing markets and ensure that what you’re delivering is actually still solving those problems.

Steve Greenfield:
So reflect back, I mean, what was the biggest aha moment that you had over the course of building the business?

Brice Englert:
Well, I’m not the serial entrepreneur. I know you’re going to have some folks on, and you have had folks on, who’ve done this many times. I’ve had a few mentors and big breaks from people that they are just serial entrepreneurs and they love the game, and the start. Me, I didn’t start TradePending until I was 39. And I felt like between the time that I thought about a career to the time that I started TradePending, I was really mitigating all the risks that could be thrown at.

Brice Englert:
So I learned about engineering and product development. I learned about finance and management, and other aspects. That finally, my moment really was I have to do this. I have to give it a try or I’m going to regret it. And once I convinced my wife it’s okay, I can still go get a real job one day if this doesn’t work out. Then it was worth taking the jump to focus on this full time.

Steve Greenfield:
So you made that decision, which I’m sure is hard for an entrepreneur, right? You decided to go through a process and ultimately raise money from a private equity firm, CapStreet Group. But take us back a little bit and talk about how do you make that kind of decision and what was that process like?

Brice Englert:
So, we never looked to raise outside or institutional capital for the first seven years. We were fortunate enough to have enough initial capital to hire great talent, focus on building a good product, really hyper-focused on distribution, your own sales team. I bought a Ford Focus from Stearns Ford up the road, put about 25,000 miles on the first 18 months. You know, you get out there yourself.

Brice Englert:
But at some point, and being a SaaS business, it’s a very simple revenue model. It’s very simple for, see your growth. It’s all about customers and products and continue to invest in the business. But at some point you reach a level that frankly, you want to get even more aggressive. You want to be a brand that’s not only well-respected, but looking to expand services organically, but also through acquisition.

Brice Englert:
And I wasn’t going to do that with the cap table that we had. And so working with a great private equity firm CapStreet, eager to get in the industry, eager to help us continue to grow, was the right decision for the business at the right time.

Steve Greenfield:
Yeah. It makes a lot of sense, makes a lot of sense. So there’s a big debate around whether entrepreneurs are born or made. And as you think back, the way that you’re wired, your DNA, were you born an entrepreneur? Or if you weren’t, when did you know that entrepreneurship was right for you?

Brice Englert:
Well, it’s a good debate. I think I’ve always had something in me that aspired to be inquisitive, to be a little bit of risk averse. You have to be risk averse to do this no matter what. But, I think most entrepreneurs are born with an itch. And I grew up in a very independent environment. I was left alone to dream. And at the time, I didn’t know I was focused in achieving, but I was trying to experience new things to figure out where I wanted impact.

Brice Englert:
So, just be curious. Read books, talk to customers. I love this industry. My first job for two years, all I did was talk to other entrepreneurs that built businesses in automotive. We bought about eight of them, maybe 10. And it was such a great start to being in this industry because I learned dozens and dozens of success stories and a few non-successful stories. So I think you’re born to be curious. And then how you apply yourself, enables you to hopefully be in a position to take the job.

Steve Greenfield:
So seven years you’ve been at this, as you reflect back, what’s the highlight, the thing that you savor the most over the last seven years?

Brice Englert:
Every new employee of TradePending, I give a origin story presentation. And that’s actually probably one of my professional highlights because I love telling the story to the people that are joining our team. And to have perspective on history, sets them today to be able to help us to define the future. And hopefully they see that, there’s just a lot of passion. But I specifically recall, and we go through this sales chart, the first six months you’re up, you’re down, you get a lot of nose of course, and get out of here. This is the worst idea I’ve ever seen. Eventually that customer’s bought all of our products. So I got them all.

Brice Englert:
But the one thing that I remember was driving that Ford Focus, wherever I was, backwoods of Virginia, and stopping the side of the road and gave a 20-minute demo and got a contract. And I just had this chill that man, that one little vote of confidence was all I needed to think, this is going to be successful. And I remember getting chills thinking, oh, I really have an opportunity here. So since then, it’s got to be how do I not screw it up?

Steve Greenfield:
That’s great. That’s great. So as you reflect back, what’s your biggest failure and what did you learn from it?

Brice Englert:
Well, I got to tell you, I’ve been in risk mitigation mode. But once again, I think that there’s a lot of serial entrepreneurs that they just love the wind and they know how to do it. I’m here to make sure that I’m picking up every ball sometimes to fall, to make sure that we can continue on just the path we’ve already set in risk mitigation. So I can’t really say that TradePending has had any significant failure.

Brice Englert:
But I do look back in my life, and I remember specifically, I read your question, and I was really trying to think about this. I went to boot camp, I was in ROTC and for whatever reason, I got to boot camp and understood how they were going to rate performance and things like that. It was a PT program before, PT program after, and I sandbagged my first PT lesson. I failed it. And so my local ROTC leader Major Sims came to me and absolutely gave me a talking to. And it was the biggest failure because I didn’t try, I didn’t apply myself a hundred percent. And it really whipped me into shape. I had a great experience, and had different perspective on my role as a military leader, as well as just now what I do in business as well. So not trying, I’m always paranoid about not giving it a hundred percent.

Steve Greenfield:
Let’s talk about mentorship and the importance of mentorship. You’ve talked to entrepreneurs and really it’s a few key people in their life that have really shown them the path and been the right soundboard for them. But who do you consider your most influential mentor and why?

Brice Englert:
So, I couldn’t tell you a singular, I could tell you perhaps the most recent. But over time I’ve had, I think probably five different careers of sorts. And I challenged people, even that worked for me. This, we’re one stop in your entire journey for your career. And hopefully we can set some goals that you’re going to fit and fulfill.

Brice Englert:
But for me, there was many folks at different points of the journey. So, Major Sims, Captain [Krantz 00:13:18] back in the day, getting into grad school, and an opportunity to get into automotive. Rich Crawford and I collaborated really well around the M&A environment. John Max Miller, he was the founder of AutoRevenue with an @ symbol. Some folks in your show may remember it was a wonderful business. And I took over for him, talk about big shoes to fill.

Brice Englert:
Bryan Anderson, the founder of Autobase. All sorts of folks, including by the way, like my peers. My peers, even though they weren’t my mentors, but they challenged me. And I think through good collaboration, that defines your career. So a lot of folks, you mentioned Prime Response. Michael [Sos 00:14:01], he and I have great memories sitting on a picnic table building slide presentations, defining what Prime Response would be. And just on down the line.

Brice Englert:
So, find mentors and folks anywhere. The people I work with today still challenge me. And I’m very, very fortunate to have a lot of talented folks. And we’re hiring more. Just excited.

Steve Greenfield:
That’s great. That’s great. Best piece of advice you’ve ever received?

Brice Englert:
Don’t undercapitalize. I just can’t say it enough. You have an idea and you want to execute, but if you’re worrying about the next round of capital, you’re spending a fraction of the time that you should with your customers, with your developers and on the road, truly trying to sell your product. So, if you are in need of capital to achieve your goals, figure out what’s going to allow you to make a few mistakes over the course of a few years.

Brice Englert:
And don’t be stingy. Oftentimes there’s a trade-off, raising money versus equity and this and that. But just sit back and look at the business. What does the business need? Realistically for you and the business to be successful?

Steve Greenfield:
Nope, that’s great. Influential book that you can recommend to the audience?

Brice Englert:
So, I’m a big fan of historical nonfiction. We haven’t been to conferences lately, but Joe Dallas and I love challenging each other on strange, not strange presentations, but tying historical lessons, specifically a non-fiction. I’m a big military history person. Killer Angels is the answer to your question. But I found in Astoria, the book about the first Western settlement in the U.S. to be really motivational about how dealers can help, frankly help sell cars and tying lessons to those.

Brice Englert:
So I don’t read a lot of business books. I’ve read plenty, went to business school. I understand a good Harvard business case. I do think curiosity should allow you to read those and figure out what you should follow. Today, my organization is going through implementing John Doerr’s Measure What Matters with the OKRs. I think that’s a wonderfully scalable framework. Something we’ve kind of done, but we’re looking to institutionalize it. That’s an easy read, and easy listen. So definitely recommend that. But Killer Angels, Michael Shaara, that’s the Battle of Gettysburg novel. If you want to talk about heroes and courage, just read any of those books.

Steve Greenfield:
All right. Great, great advice. Great advice. If we fast forward five years, where are we going to find you? What are you going to be doing?

Brice Englert:
Well, I’ll be sitting in front of a brick wall, hopefully still with the TradePending sign behind me. We’ve got a long roadmap of things that we want to do, as TradePending. So in five years, I truly hope that the team’s gigantic. We’ve got not too many products, but our data is being utilized throughout the shopping experience across the automotive industry.

Brice Englert:
Today, we work with finance arms, big banks. Today we work with tons of digital retailing tools. So we’ve got a broad customer base, not just franchise dealers, but how can we help them advance? So I hope I’m going to be right here talking to you and telling you how we had another capital raise or another successful exit, but we’ll see.

Brice Englert:
I love the industry. I’d love to participate in some side projects. I’m actually passionate to figuring out how the IEEE can help us with the ADF standard. I haven’t talked to the consultants about it, but actually I was thinking of this, and back in my modeling simulation tool days, we used a standard kind of like the ADF called the, whatever the modeling and simulation standard was. IEEE actually built it.

Brice Englert:
So I think the industry, maybe I can help in different ways. And it’s time we enlist actually some folks that can help. Vendors talk, communicate, share information better to break down some of these silos and walls that dealers have in their processes. It’s a big opportunity for the industry.

Steve Greenfield:
Well yeah, that’s a big goal. Let me know how I can help with that because we need that help.

Brice Englert:
I just need a fraction of more time.

Steve Greenfield:
Exactly. Exactly.

Brice Englert:
I pay attention to who talks about it. And I figure out that one day I’ve just got to volunteer to take a leadership position, or to help someone else that wants to be in a leadership position.

Steve Greenfield:
Yeah. Well maybe we need to get a bunch of people together at [ANDA 00:18:39] or something next year.

Brice Englert:
I think that’s a great idea, Steve.

Steve Greenfield:
It could be. So, one curve ball question for you. So if I could teleport you back in time and you could meet with yourself as a teenager. And you had half an hour and you could sit down and have a coffee, what advice would you give yourself as a teenager?

Brice Englert:
Be patient. Learn to follow first. I don’t think that anyone’s a born leader. I think everyone has an opportunity to figure out their style, pick experiences in your life that are challenging. Or that you’re not necessarily happy with, but figure out how to be happy. Figure out how to understand that, that experience is going to mold you for the next challenge. But yeah, I think that’s what I’d tell myself.

Steve Greenfield:
Well, Brice, thank you for joining us. I greatly appreciate you spending some time with us and sharing your entrepreneurial journey.

Brice Englert:
Thank you, Steve.

Steve Greenfield:
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 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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