Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
I am the founder and President of Marshal Group LLC, a licensed Illinois dealer specializing in exporting vehicles from the U.S. and Canada to destinations abroad.
I started my business in 2007 and have grown it substantially by building an agile team, using technologically advanced processes, and nurturing a global network of auto dealers and auto brokers. My company currently serves clients worldwide.
Our first full year, 2008, we had $26MM in gross sales, working from the bedroom of my house with myself and my mom as the only two employees. Sales slowed in 2009 with the recession but from 2010 to 2015 we grew each year peaking at $50MM in sales and 650 vehicles sold.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Vehicle exporting is a fitting career choice for me because I have been enthusiastic about cars nearly my entire life. In fact, auto fervor runs in my family: my father was in the car business for 23 years. That close exposure to car sales, combined with the fact that my father owned a race car, fueled my passion for automobiles.
I began selling cars when I was 19 years old and specialized in sales at new car dealerships for six years. During that time, I learned the basics about exporting vehicles—which served as a solid foundation for launching my own exporting company.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Many consumers may think an overseas car transaction is simple, just an easy money exchange. But it’s not simple. The process involves land logistics, sea logistics, FedEx and U.S. Customs, as well as wire fees and transportation fees. In fact, an average deal probably has ten to twelve financial transactions.
Therefore, in order to start my business, I had to gain a lot of product knowledge and industry knowledge. I spent a great deal of time researching and learning as much as I possibly could.
I've never stopped researching and learning. During my 12 years as an entrepreneur in the vehicle exporting industry, I have had to continually stay current on multiple topics, including vehicle trends, government regulations and changing currency rates.
For example, during the first eight years my company was in business, we bought vehicles in the United States because the currency in our country was cheaper compared to currencies in Canada and Mexico. However, as the U.S. dollar exchange rate climbed higher, we had to shift our business model and begin buying vehicles out of Mexico and Canada instead. I had to climb a steep learning curve and create a lot of new connections quickly in order to make that shift successful.
Prepare to take risks. Most people are afraid to leave a full-time job and start a business. Breaking free from that comfort zone and launching a business takes a tremendous amount of courage.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Years ago, when I worked for a dealership, I would often list vehicles on eBay to try to sell those. However, I had bad experiences with overseas buyers. I had a couple of people overseas bid on cars and then they didn’t go through with the purchase. So, I decided to change all my eBay ads to state, “No sales outside of the United States.” I was literally shutting out the rest of the world thinking, “Why are these people wasting my time?”
But one evening, someone in Iceland won a bid on one of my cars. So, he called me after he won and said, “Send me your wire information and I’ll wire that money in the morning.” I sent my wire information as he requested, but I immediately assumed I would never hear from him again. I was mad because I was convinced, I was going to have to go to all the trouble of contacting eBay and relisting the car.
The buyer called me the next morning and said, “Hey, did you get that money? I said, “I don’t know. I’ll check.” I went upstairs and asked the accountant and she said, “Yeah, we got the money.” That totally turned my world around.
Then I started Googling the number of cars that are exported per year and I think that year it was 800,000. I thought, “Wow, this is great! Hundreds of thousands of cars are being sold overseas to foreign buyers, and I want to get in on the action.” That changed everything for me. I decided to go out on my own and I was very successful right from the start. During my first two years of operation, my revenue was $26 million.
We only buy the vehicles after they are pre-sold. At the time I didn't have any money and I required full payment from buyers first and used their money to buy the vehicles. This was not an easy task to convince foreign buyers to send money to someone they have never met and likely only talked to by phone or email a handful of times. There was about a 1-year gap from finding this out to the time I went out on my own, during this time I created clients that I brought with me when I started. I started on my own, I added my mom after 2 weeks because I couldn’t handle all the work alone.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
We work directly with auto dealers and brokers, not retail consumers. Therefore, we rely heavily on referrals and repeat customers – not so much on new traffic.
I did bring some clients from my previous job, this alone kept me very busy. I did go and research other buyers, I e-mailed them and stayed up late or got up early to call them and try to earn their business. I never got a new customer this way, I was not established, people didn’t know me, and I could not offer them any payment terms.
Over time, I received referrals and eventually cold calls from my website, that has been the only way I have been able to get new customers, but they have been effective. It’s pretty hard to close deals as a new business, I didn’t know the lingo, didn’t know other people in the industry which is a big deal in our industry. As I got to know more people and new customers came by referral sales were not too hard as long as I could provide the product or the financing terms they needed.
Creating a website with a private portal for customers was key to making them happy. Before that happened, I would get multiple emails every day – at all hours – from customers in different time zones wanting updates on their orders. I knew I needed to find a faster way for them to get those updates, and my website now serves that purpose. Interestingly, I hired some students at Bradley University to build the site as a class project a few years ago. It’s working out really well.
Also, I put my cell number on everything so that customers and others in the industry know-how to contact me. I want to be accessible and I answer multiple calls every day.
I also manage a LinkedIn company page and a Facebook page to have a presence on social media, and I do advertise minimally but very strategically on Google.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today, I am a seasoned business owner with a keen understanding of exporting and how it relates to Canadian, Mexican and U.S. auto sales. I am a member of the European Association of Independent Vehicle Traders (EAIVT) and the North American Automobile Trade Association (NAATA). I also have served on the board of NAATA to further the interests of the North American vehicle exporting community.
Learn to interact with all types of people. This can be difficult to do if you are an introvert like me. However, being a successful entrepreneur means learning to deal with many different people.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Running my own business, I have proven that you don’t need a college degree in order to be a successful entrepreneur. However, I do have a couple of tips I learned along the way.
Number one: Be willing to work hard. During my twenties, I quickly learned that it takes more than 40 or 50 hours per week to succeed when you start a business. In fact, over the years, I often would dedicate 70 or more hours a week to pursue my dream. Hard work is a massive requirement for any entrepreneur. It’s not the sure path, nor would I encourage working those long hours, but understanding and being willing to do whatever is needed whenever it’s needed is important.
Number two: Prepare to take risks. Most people are afraid to leave a full-time job and start a business. Consequently, they continue doing what feels familiar: showing up, performing tasks and earning a regular paycheck. Breaking free from that comfort zone and launching a business takes a tremendous amount of courage.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I looked and looked for software that would fit my needs. We were using excel and we needed something that would be able to include documents and photos along with a way to communicate with clients and suppliers without the hundreds of emails every day. In the end, I had to have a software built to meet the needs of our business, there was not anything on the market that fit or was even close enough to modify and create workarounds.
We do use Quickbooks for accounting. We do still export reports from our software to excel to create daily reports and more details monthly, quarterly, and yearly reports. Our custom software does not include a CRM and does not talk to QB, FedEx, UPS, etc., etc.
I wanted to build a new software program, I put together a weak RFP which includes 8 API’s and received a quote for $500,000 and 18-month build. It was too time-consuming and too much money, so we are still using our original software. Someday I hope to revisit that project.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
The Small Business Administration (SBA) website is chock full of information for business entrepreneurs. Entrepreneurs should check out their guide titled “10 Steps to Start Your Business” and their Learning Center, which is filled with free courses about planning, launching, managing and growing a business. Each course is available on-demand and comes with downloadable materials (e.g., a transcript and worksheets).
Local SCORE chapters also are very helpful. Those are funded by the SBA and focus on counseling and training small business owners. SCORE is an acronym for the “Service Corps of Retired Executives.” Each chapter’s volunteers are experienced professionals who donate their time to help small businesses succeed.
In fact, based on my own experience, I learned that SCORE is really good at helping startup companies. When I wanted to start a new business, I used their experts as a sounding board for my questions, like ‘Here's what I'm thinking about doing, and here's how I plan to execute it. Where do you see flaws in my plan? How can I make it better?’ Their response was great!
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
I have a couple more pieces of advice for other entrepreneurs, based on my own experience:
First, don't have a backup plan. That may seem counter intuitive. However, the security of a safety net could actually doom your dream of being a business owner. If you are considering a backup plan, you are not ready to be a full-time entrepreneur. You must be all in.
Second, learn to interact with all types of people. This can be difficult to do if you are an introvert like me. However, being a successful entrepreneur means learning to deal with many different people. Fortunately, electronic communication – emailing, texting, messaging – make it easy to reach out and build working relationships.
Nevertheless, don’t overlook the value of connecting via phone or in person. Sometimes a good conversation is warranted and more effective than chatting through a computer.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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