Author: Harold Maass

Automakers are engaged a high-tech race to develop a new generation of electric and self-driving vehicles. But many of the businesses that sell and provide services for those futuristic cars and trucks have been slow to join in with innovations of their own.

Three new Central Florida companies are trying to change that by tapping new technology to give automotive businesses – from dealerships to detailers – new tools to boost profits and customer satisfaction.

Recently featured on the cover of AutoSuccess magazine, 360Converge is fine- tuning a next-generation customer relationship management (CRM) system to enable dealerships to serve car-buyers more efficiently; ALFi Solutions is building a platform to help dealerships standardize credit assessment and optimize financing options; and Carnooba is offering a mobile marketplace to connect local car-care professionals to their customers.

“The manufacturing side of auto utilizes some of the most advanced technology and robotics in the world, but everything after that car leaves the factory is stuck in the ‘90s,” says Spencer Churchill, co-founder and CEO of Carnooba. “There is so much room for growth of technology in the space. The potential is huge.”

All three of the startups have received a boost from StarterStudio accelerator programs after their founders spotted a need and set out to fill it.

Serial entrepreneur Todd Smith has broad experience in the automotive industry. He has sold cars, been a Chevy dealer, sold and managed a live chat platform for car dealers, and more. Over the last few years, he heard frequent complaints about auto dealerships being stuck with clunky, desktop-computer-based CRMs that weren’t properly linked to the mobile devices salespeople and customers use for most of their everyday communication.

“I thought, ‘I can build a better platform,’ ” Smith said.

So he started 360Converge to offer a mobile-centric tool that streamlines and consolidates everything from texts and emails to inventory, and that helps sales staff identify and prioritize engaged shoppers to get matched up with the vehicle they need, fast.

“The idea is that we can build technology to turn a salesperson into a super salesperson,” he said.

Tyler Letson also saw an opportunity to help dealers increase profits while improving the car-buying experience for customers. His company, ALFi Solutions, aims to leverage technology to optimize financing options for vehicle sales.

“The automotive industry as a whole is largely antiquated in its technology and processes and still uses human judgment and discretion in many of its lending practices,” Letson said. “I realized an opportunity to standardize this process and drive profitability by optimizing deal structure and lender selection.”

For Churchill at Carnooba, the idea for an app for local businesses offering automotive services came when he went looking for someone to detail a car he wanted to sell.

“All of the detailers in my area, even the ones whose services were up to $500, had websites that looked like they were from the 1990s, with unreliable transparency,” he said. “It was a nightmare.”

All three of these companies found vital support for their launch at StarterStudio. ALFi Solutions participated in StarterStudio’s Ideation-Stage Accelerator, designed to help startup founders go “from cocktail-napkin idea to a viable business model” in nine weeks.

“The program facilitators and other founders acted as a sounding board and offered advice and expertise as I fleshed out my idea,” Letson said. “StarterStudio’s accelerator also provided structure and accountability each week as I juggle my full-time job and startup simultaneously.”

360Converge and Carnooba went through the Seed-Stage Accelerator, a six-month, part-time, mentor-led program to foster early growth and get new tech companies ready for investors.

“StarterStudio was super effective at explaining the process and guiding the exploration of problems in the world – how to talk to people, ask the right questions, learn from the answers,” Churchill said. “There are people willing to help and offer advice. And that value, when our team is small and young and moving fast, is the difference between success in the next phase and failure.”

Smith said StarterStudio’s Seed-Stage Accelerator gave his company the traction it needed to climb to the next level.

“StarterStudio has been very helpful for me to see things from a different perspective, a different angle, with the guidance of the mentors,” he said. “Tapping into that was the most important thing.”

Smith said tech companies like his often head to Silicon Valley or New York.

“But I really wanted to build a tech business here in Central Florida. Orlando is a great city. It has the University of Central Florida, and lots of great talent. Lots of times that talent flees because there aren’t a lot of big technology companies here. We wanted to become one of those companies, and StarterStudio is helping us make it happen.”

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