This is part of the Startup Mentor series -- featuring startup experts who share their advice in building successful businesses.
Today's Entrepreneur on Spotlight is Mike Mihaylov, CEO of Montway Auto Transport. Starting just as a small family owned auto transport broker in 2006, his company has grown into one of the largest vehicle shippers in the U.S.
Mike Mihaylov, CEO of Montway Auto Transport
Tell us about how you started the business, what was the motivation behind it?
In 2006, I worked as a dispatcher as the sole employee for a small Chicago car carrier company.
I was responsible for everything, basically running the company myself. Working in the industry, I saw that most online quote estimators were actually merely lead-generating sites, requiring customers to submit sensitive personal information, which was more often than not sold for sales calls.
The idea of starting my own brokerage firm was inspired by my belief that I could affect significant change in the industry through technology. I envisioned a customer-focused online resource, featuring state-of-the-art technology that would allow users to calculate quotes, without releasing any sensitive personal information.
I began developing my vision into a reality in 2007, starting Montway, Inc. and engaging an outsourced IT team to build a customer-facing Website and Transport Management System (TMS).
With customer experience and security as top priority, I wanted an interface that customers could not only interact with and access booking services directly, but also deliver an outstanding user experience. Customers would be able to calculate quotes in real time without providing sensitive personal information and book directly online. Both were revolutionary ideas and systems at a time when most other transport companies were more focused on sales than optimizing user experience.
The Website finally went live in 2009 (The outsourced team failed to build the proposed TMS and I had to start over with a US-based software developer). As my customer base continued to grow, several independent owner-operators with car haulers approached me, requesting my direct dispatch services. As a result, I decided to start a motor carrier division as well under the same brand, Montway Auto Carriers.
At this time, I was the only employee, operating Montway out of my home. I can honestly say I was working almost day and night, every day, but that didn't bother me, because I was so passionate about the business and believed so strongly in the need for the services I was providing. My girlfriend, now my wife, helped me with the accounting side.
Later that year, I hired my first employee and we worked together out of my home office. In 2010, we finally rented an actual office space and started hiring more people.
Year after year, we continued expanding as we experienced tremendous growth, 200-300 percent annually. Today, we have over 60 employees at our Des Plaines, Illinois office. We've moved four times to accommodate our ever-growing team base.
In 2012, we began a subsidiary in Sofia, Bulgaria, that took over our software developments. We have put together an amazing team with talented developers and engineers that are pushing the limits of front-facing technology, continuing Montway's trend of revolutionizing the auto transport industry. We also set up a customer service team in Sofia and opened a second office in Montana, Bulgaria, my hometown.
We also began partnering with Moving and Relocation companies to ship their customers' cars. In working with these businesses, we recognized a need for technological solutions to meet their specific objectives and challenges, guaranteed pick up dates, faster transit times, and flexible pricing options. Also, Moving and Relocation companies often have hundreds or thousands of agents around the country. They needed a way to connect them all together to run the auto transport part of their business.
In 2013, we hired a Business Development Manager, Marco Maggiore, who came up with a product specifically designed for the Moving and Relocation sector.
The result was a one-of-a-kind, state-of-the-art enterprise solution, the Miles Ahead Portal. Utilizing a Web-based interface, the Portal provides direct, 24/7 access for companies to the information and tools they need to book vehicle transport through Montway, automating many, previously time-consuming processes. With just a few clicks, businesses can calculate quotes and compares prices instantly, then schedule the transport, without a middleman, and all times and prices are absolutely guaranteed. It also connects the sales forces of their agencies around the country. The Portal has been a huge success not only from technology stand point, but with the level of customer service we have provided to their customers.
We work with SIRVA, North American Van Line, Allied Van Line, Graebel Van Line , Move Management, Unigroup, Mayflower, and United Van Line.
A large part of the success of the model is that behind the technology, we provide a never-before-seen level of customer service. Orders are managed on Montway's end by a customer service team dedicated to handling the logistical and administrative aspects of that business's transports.
The Portal is being developed to handle large-volume and full-load shipments as well, for greater efficiency in our partnerships with Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs), such as Volkswagen and Chrysler, auctions, and dealerships.
We are also the exclusive transport partner for Swap-A-Lease and Auto Trader Classics, online classified platforms. Our calculator widget is built into their listings, providing value-added service to their customers. Just by clicking a button, their customers can get a price immediately, and then book directly with us.
In our partnerships overall, our approach has always been to listen, discover the challenges, and how we can help. That's how we do business.
Similarly, my motivation behind starting Montway was my desire to solve an existing problem. I always liked technology. When I was working for a used car dealership in 2000, I built one of the first online platforms for people to view cars. This wasn't common at the time, especially in Bulgaria, and it was a huge success.
Later, when I worked as a dispatcher and saw that companies were demanding people's information and actually selling it, I thought, "Here I can do something with technology." Obviously, we have continued that vision with our current offerings, in the level of customer service we provide and in our partnerships.
Montway comes from "Montana," my home town, and "way" speaks to the work--the blood, sweat, and tears--that I put into this company. This business grew out of myself, my heart, and my home. The name really speaks to the fact that Montway wouldn't exist without "my way" of making things happen. Montway Auto Transport was approved by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in April 2012 and became a trademark on June 1.
What are some of the most challenging parts of running the business?
When I first started, I wish I'd known how hard it can be to satisfy every customer. It's challenging to really learn how to work with customers and meet everybody's unique needs. It's definitely a challenge for me to accept that it's nearly impossible to satisfy everyone all of the time. But I don't regret anything because I've learned so much over the years, not just about customer service, but many other business-related matters.
Another of the most challenging parts of running the business to date, especially today, is finding and attracting the right talent. Today, there is actually a war for talent out there, and the talent have basically won the war. There is way more demand for talent than is available right now.
Something that was a challenge at first, mainly because Montway was my first business on such a large scale, was learning how to create and maintain a warm and exciting company culture. That's not an issue today, however, as we've built an amazing team with great camaraderie.
Oftentimes, however, challenges are opportunities in disguise. I thought that by creating a really user-friendly website, more customers would want to book online.
When we first started, and didn't have the manpower like we do today, people kept calling with all sorts of questions. I couldn't understand why, everything was explained, right at their fingertips online.
The opportunity was an important takeaway that underlines every aspect of the business to this day. When it comes to their cars, people simply want to talk to someone. It's not a pair of shoes or something, it's your car, a precious possession of high value that's very important. People can even have emotional relationships with their cars.
They simply wanted to be able to put their mind at ease. We realized that by talking to us, they get peace of mind. So we took that challenge and incorporated it into everything we do. That's how we came up with our slogan, "delivering your car, and peace of mind."
What would you advise other businesses who are looking to take their companies to the next level?
They should definitely take our approach. Approach each customer, individual or business, like a partnership, rather than a regular sales transaction. Try to find out their challenges and how you can help them. Be a problem-solver. Show them that you want to listen and come up with solutions together. This is probably the best way to win the business.
Personally, what has worked is always making bold moves. I'm more of a risky player. Many companies are not willing to take the risk to expand unless they have the numbers to back it up. Businesses fail all the time. I believe in making bold moves, not always relying on numbers. I don't work like that, I go with my gut.
Who do you look up to for business advice?
I don't have a specific mentor, like some entrepreneurs, that I go back to.
What I have learned over the years, when trying to resolve an issue, is that a single person will always miss something. Initially, I was trying to resolve these problems all by myself, but you always need a different view or another opinion from a different angle. Over the years and as the business grew, I started engaging more and more of my staff and colleagues in discussions and deliberations.
And what I have found is that you gain so much valuable information when you gather a team together, everyone sees the issue from a different angle, and everyone has their own perspective to contribute. We, as an organization, have this problem; how can we resolve it?
I tell them, "I need your advice, how can we do this?"
That's how I get business advice, just by having open discussions with the other people who are part of and invested in this organization.
I also read a lot of business magazines, Forbes, Inc 500, Wired, to learn how other business and industry leaders have achieved success and resolved challenges.
I take those insights and examine them through the lens of my own perspective and experience, and develop that into tools and techniques to apply to this organization.
Learn more from Mike by visiting their website and read about their company's history!