Mike Risich is founder of a nine-year-old software company that has earned recognition five years in a row as one of Philadelphia's fast-growing companies.
What's particularly impressive about that is his Bolt On Technology is centered on auto repair, a service industry replete with customer doubt — some would use a much stronger word — about mechanics and their recommendations.
"There's two places that fight for the number-one place that Americans want to go least. They are the dentist and the auto repair," Risich said. "One hurts in the jaw, the other hurts in the wallet."
Short of picking up the tab, there's no way Risich can wipe out the pain of anyone's car-repair bill. He's out to eliminate what he and industry insiders say is a major contributing factor to that discomfort — customer mistrust.
Bolt On is peddling service transparency through texts and electronically shared photos and videos. Consider it another tool in the garage — one made necessary in the last 15 years or so as people stopped waiting around for their cars to be serviced. As more customers dropped off vehicles and headed to work, to the gym, or back home to bed, idle mechanic hours grew along with customer suspicions, Risich said.
As Kevin Bowe, president of Bowe's Exxon Car Care Center in Conshohocken, tells it:
"My service managers were calling customers on the phone" to explain what repairs were needed and to get authorization to proceed with the fixes, Bowe said. "Nobody answers their phone anymore. There was a car in the bay just hanging there delaying productivity."
When a response came, usually a couple hours later, it was amid nagging doubts — Did the brakes really need to be replaced? Was that belt really shot? Is that faulty sensor really something important?
In that environment of second-guessing Risich, a graduate of Bensalem High School who later put himself through technical school and then worked in software development, saw entrepreneurial opportunity.
He founded Bolt On with two equity business partners to provide garages digital methods to share with off-site customers videos and photos related to their vehicles. With evidence of, say, a leaking radiator or uneven tire wear, Risich theorized, trust would blossom between vehicle owner and service station. That's likely to give the former more confidence about a repair decision and, the latter, more sales.
"It's unfortunate that the popular opinion in automotive is that we're being taken for a ride," Risich said. "Most of that is because most of us know nothing about the complexities of what makes the automobile work. We know that the key goes in the front and the gas goes in the back, and everything else somebody else has to fix for us."
Risich defends the repair industry on a macro level, touting "so many great shops out there" with owners and technicians priding themselves on solving problems, "but because of our fear of the unknown, we don't feel like we're always getting the value for the dollar. … We really want to help change that popular opinion."
Bolt On's monthly subscriptions — typically $400 a month for a user — have been steadily growing, said Frank Dragoni, director of sales and corporate partnerships. Revenues in 2017 exceeded $6.5 million, up from $4.5 million in 2016 and $3.2 million in 2015, according to the company's application for Philadelphia 100, a project of the Entrepreneurs' Forum of Greater Philadelphia identifying fast-growing local companies. Bolt On has made the list each of the last five years. It has sought no angel investors, sustaining growth through subscription sales, Risich said.
Bolt On expects 20 million photos will have been shared on its system by mid-November, double the total of a year ago. Growth likely would be even more robust if not for the many older workers in the auto-repair industry, Risich said.
"We are asking a community that truly is tech-challenged to use new tools to continue to do their job when the tradition has been 'Well, this is how we've always done it,' " he said. "This industry is right now notoriously filled with older-generation workers."
The last significant technology infusion to the industry was some 10 years ago when service stations transitioned to customer-related management systems, or CRMs, enabling electronic service reminders and special promotions to vehicle owners that replaced mailed postcards and coupons.
Bowe's Exxon Car Care Center has seen a lot of change since the late Edward Bowe opened the business in 1955.
New vehicle technology "has certainly presented challenges in investment and equipment for independent repair shops," said son Kevin. "Software providers like Bolt On have really helped."
There are others, he said, but none that integrate with service centers' existing software systems.
Using Bolt On just four months so far, Bowe said it's too soon to quantify its impact on sales, but, to a customer, "I think we're doing a better job internally presenting the full picture of the vehicle condition. … If we call you up and say, 'Your car needs brakes; they're metal to metal,' we can show you a picture of what a good braking system looks like and a picture of your car in the shop."
That, in turn, enables repair decisions to happen faster and a more efficient processing of vehicles, particularly valuable to a shop with limited space, like Bowe's Exxon with its three service bays. Although customers might not be able to answer phone calls during a work meeting, communicating through texts is easy and discreet.
"That delay of not [being] able to reach a customer for an hour or two cripples our whole day," Bowe said.
Rob Gemmell, 33, a sales rep for cabinet manufacturers, dropped off his mobile office — a 2017 Kia Sportage — to Bowe's Exxon on Saturday for an inspection, oil change, and brakes check, and went home. When, a few hours later, he got a text and pictures that left him "kind of startled," the Conshohocken resident said.
"I've never seen a mechanic do that before," he said. Ultimately, what he saw — potentially dangerous signs of wear on his front brakes — convinced him repairs were necessary.
"Nobody wants to shell out a bunch of money for a car repair," said Gemmell, whose bill that day was $620. "If you can see it, it helps."
Risich likened Bolt On's goals to the kind of transparency in shipping that Amazon customers have come to embrace if not demand: real-time tracking of their packages.
"A lot of this technology has already been implemented and used in other areas of our lives," he said. "We're just trying to incorporate it in the automotive experience."