When Minnie Ingersoll tried to sell her BMW on Craigslist, she thought it would be a cakewalk. But after four test drives, financing snafus and distress over how fast strangers drive cars they don’t own, the former Google product manager gave up and went to a dealer, knowing she would get less money. That was the moment she realized that an idea her colleague had been pushing might really change the roughly $350 billion peer-to-peer car sales industry.
That colleague was George Arison, now the CEO of Shift, a San Francisco startup that announced a $50 million funding round on Tuesday morning. Shift’s mission is to make it easy for one person to sell their used car to another person, without all the trust issues and amateur photography and insecurities about what the right price really is.
“People voiced this massive frustration with the existing system, the fact that there was so much work to do to get the car,” Arison says. “We wondered if we could build a marketplace for party-to-party transactions, that mimics what, say, Airbnb does.” The new funding round led by Goldman Sachs will help the company expand from their current two markets — San Francisco and Los Angeles — to another 20 by the end of next year.
Like other new-economy players, Shift is not interested in owning things. They don’t ever hold the titles to the cars that they help sell — much like Airbnb does not own deeds for the charming bungalows that their guests book. No one working there has a dealer’s license and no one is paid on commission. In fact, having previously been a car dealer is sure way not to get hired. “Our goal is to be really transparent. If you’ve got an extra thousand miles or dents, those things matter,” says Ingersoll, who left Google to become COO of Shift. “We’re not trying to screw anybody.”
Here’s how the process works, as tested out on my 2011 Prius (because the shame of owning a non-hybrid car in the Bay Area is topped only by that of openly smoking tobacco and/or using plastic bags).
As a seller, you first go to their website and enter some basic information like the year, mileage and trim level to get a preliminary quote and “guaranteed minimum.” The quote is preliminary because the information is inevitably incomplete, given that few humans can recite from memory every single option or flaw their vehicle has (part of what makes it hard to correctly price yourself). Those details can make a huge difference for buyers and sellers: In my case, Craigslist ads offered that make and model in the Bay Area for prices ranging from $12,000 to $17,000. Shift’s algorithms spat out a guaranteed minimum of $13,100, with a likely sales price of $14,700.
Next Shift dispatches a person — who, in an oh-so-Silicon-Valley way, they call a car enthusiast — to come to your home at a time you pick and look over the vehicle. Stewart Ford arrived at my building a week later and five minutes early, carrying a tablet that would spit out a new, more precise estimate after he entered all of my car’s truth. He got in the driver’s seat, checked the lights and windows and mileage. He inspected all the panels and the doors and the engine. He politely barraged me with questions. “We try to put ourselves in the buyer’s shoes,” Ford said, meaning he checks for everything they might want checked and asks everything they might want to ask.
Ford said the scratches by my rear left wheel (which I forgot to mention on the site), could likely be touched up for about $300, and some wheel rash would cut my quote about $200. The repairs from a rear-end accident (totally not my fault) would also cost me. All in all, they’d list the car for about $15,000, he said, and I’d walk away with at least $12,000. With the demand for Prius’ in the Bay Area, he guessed they’d hold onto it for about two weeks. The story would be different in Detroit, he said. And if it took longer than a set time to sell — 60 days in my case — I’d get the minimum and be done with it.
Had I continued this charade and let the enthusiast take my car, he would have driven it to “The Hub” in South San Francisco, where Shift details and professionally photographs vehicles — including all their flaws — after mechanics give them a 150-point inspection. If they find a flaw related to safety, Shift will not sell the car until it’s fixed. In the case of something like my cosmetic wheel rash, they’ll offer the option to fix it, something they can provide at a lower-than-average price, because they get high-volume discounts from local mechanics.
Copywriters would have dealt with the listing and other SEO-related tasks that Ingersoll says are better handled by professionals. Then an Uber driver would have probably bought my car and renamed it something silly, unlike her current name, Destiny. Shift would take care of all the DMV dealings and other paperwork, the mere thought of which still exhausts me as I type.
On the buying side, Shift is pushing the convenience angle hard. All an interested party has to do is go on their site, peruse the listings and request a test drive. An enthusiast will bring the car to wherever they are in that local market — though some enthusiasts have driven up to two hours away — in as little as 45 minutes, for nothing and with no catches. When I made a request, which they get more than a dozen of each day, an enthusiast named Ed Yuen brought a black-on-black 2013 Porsche Cayenne to my office and let me tool around town pretending to be a Secret Service agent for a good hour (while covered by their insurance policy). He didn’t pressure me, in part because he’s paid hourly. Had I decided to buy it, as about one out of five Shift customers does on the spot, I would have been assured it was in good shape and given a seven-day window to return the car.
The big question, of course, is whether is whether I could have sold my Prius for more or gotten the Cayenne for less if I had gone through all the headache of a pure peer-to-peer transaction. The answer is probably yes, though perhaps by just hundreds of dollars. Arison will say on the record that the price points they offer both buyers and sellers are better than what anyone could hope for at a dealership and more accurate than anything they’ll get from Kelley Blue Book, because Shift is constantly tuning algorithms to learn from comparison prices in local markets.
If Shift’s business model pans out, that amount will decrease as the company grows. At this stage, the gap between the projected sale price and guaranteed minimum (about $3,000 in my case) is how Shift makes money. If Shift can sell a car for more than the minimum, the company and seller split that profit 50/50. But they plan to eventually make their cash from other services, possibly setting up their own in-house body shop, likely providing on-demand oil changes and definitely offering financing.
The latter is already happening and was the original mission of the company founded in 2013. Arison had tried to get his own loan for a peer-to-peer purchase and was told by banks that he had to go through a dealership (who could, essentially, vouch for the worth of an asset banks aren’t set up to assess). He says he found that silly, giving dealerships control over people’s access to financing. Yet he says when he set out to offer people another option for capital, what they really wanted was to wash their hands of the whole process, except the part where they make or save a lot of money. So Shift pivoted, as startups do.
“Being able to buy a car online is great,” Ingersoll says of other startups trying to disrupt the used car space with technology. “But you don’t get the education, you don’t get the white-glove treatment, the convenience that we’re aiming to provide.”
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