In 2010, David James, founder of Total Car Check, an online platform for checking car history in the United Kingdom, received a strange call from his mother.
“She said she’d just bought a new car but it didn’t have a radio,” David says. “She was wondering if I could help her find one some time. I immediately thought, ‘huh, that’s weird.’”
David’s instincts about his mother’s new car soon turned out to be right. The next week, his parents dropped the vehicle off at a repair shop for a checkup. When they returned, they were greeted by police with some unfortunate news.
“The police told them they had purchased a stolen car,” says David. “They took the car away and my parents found themselves £4,000 (almost $5,500) poorer because they hadn’t checked the car’s history. I asked my parents why they hadn’t checked out the car’s background and they said it was because if they checked every car they looked at it would cost several hundred pounds.”
At first, David was angry his working-class parents had been taken advantage of by an unfair system. Then, he realized if his parents had this problem, so did everyone else.
In a moment of inspiration, David created a new “freemium” model for checking car information and launched it despite the ire of industry giants who wanted their comfortable profits. Today, David says his database checks one in every four cars in the UK and has been profitable since day one. Here’s how he did it.
Car Background Checks Cost Too Much in the UK
According to David, before Total Car Check, a background check on a used car was prohibitively expensive in the UK.
“Before I started operating it cost £20 to £30 (roughly $30 to $40) to check vehicle history for only one vehicle,” he says.
David realized car checks cost UK drivers too much money, so most people didn’t do them at all. As a coder, he also knew a lot of the information was reasonably easy to obtain if you knew where to look and could compile it somewhere. An idea began to form for a business.
Starting the business as a side hustle in 2015, David used his background in coding and a free computer that came with his girlfriend’s most recent mobile phone. He constructed an app that could do basic car background checks for free. During that time, he still worked his day job as a solutions architect for EasyJet UK, a Swiss budget airline operating throughout Europe.
“It can feel quite cathartic to quit, but no one cares if you quit your job or not,” David says. “All people care about is the product. If you don’t have to quit your job, I wouldn’t recommend doing it until you have to,” he says.
However, his app started gaining paying customers almost immediately, and after a few short years, he was able to quit his job to go into the business full-time.
Doing What Others Were Doing, But Better
David considers himself fortunate that vehicular background checks was an established industry with a lot of competition already. He was never worried about finding product-market fit or profitability.
“I think the only thing competition does is make businesses better, so I love it,” he says.
However, David quickly learned not everyone felt the same way about competition. There was already an established car history industry, and they had a good thing going for them with their high price points. David remembers quite a few situations where the established players got a bit angry with him.
“Big guys often like to lean on the little guys in any market,” he says. “I was receiving vague cease and desist letters from corporate lawyers from day one and there were a couple of industry events and meetings where I received letters asking that I not attend.”
But David took these confrontations as signs that he was tapping into a momentous market need. One that his competitors could do very little to prevent, so he persisted.
David’s Roadmap to Profit
David doesn’t like to talk about specific numbers, but he claims his platform was profitable from day one – well, technically, after he’d paid off his first business laptop – and has multiplied in size many times. So, you do the math on where he is today.
To start, Total Car Check’s goal was to undercut the market as a “freemium” service. David provided a basic free check to customers and then marketed more advanced checks for a small fee.
Today TCC has an app and web version. Both have two check levels, silver and gold. Silver used to be entirely free but now costs £1.99 (about $2.75) per check due to better platform capabilities and covers all the basics.
A silver check can tell if a car was stolen, whether the vehicle was written off, reveal its Ministry of Transport history records, and all plate changes. Gold is slightly pricier but goes through more difficult-to-collect data like police databases. Total Car Check also offers package deals: if you buy five checks at once you get a discounted rate.
While the premise is quite simple, David says more goes on under the hood at Total Car Check than you might think.
“We need to get into police databases and sort that data,” says David. “Also, data sets like written-off vehicles can be quite difficult to find. Some cars have been entered into VINS (Vehicle Number Identification System) and some of them don’t have VINS. If they aren’t in VINS we might have to search back as far as 1999 in records to find if a car was written off and that can require some deep digging.”
While it can be tough to collect all the data and compile it, David is confident that the data he provides his customers is always of the highest quality. He puts his money where his mouth is too.
“We offer a data guarantee of up to £30,000 (about $40,700) for bad data,” he says. “If we get your car check wrong and you lose money because of it then we’ll cover your loss up to that amount. However, I often have to make the distinction to customers that a lack of data is not the same thing as incorrect data.”
Though the customer car checks have been a big moneymaker, David says the real profits come from an API he created more recently on the B2B side for checking cars.
“Garages and dealerships need these checks almost more than customers,” says David.
In the early stages of the B2B service, David took the direct approach to grow his customer base.
“I would just go on the app store and ask these tech-oriented businesses if they wanted to try my service,” says David. “And eight times out of ten they would.”
Today David claims TCC has 2 million downloads across app stores and the platform performs 38 million vehicle searches every year.
Solve a Problem First, Chase Profit Later
Despite the massive success of his project, David still keeps overheads low. He runs a very small team covering customer service and prides himself on staying true to his original vision.
“I feel as though the business still has the same ethos as when I started it on the kitchen table,” he says. “I always say to other founders and bootstrappers: if you’re building a business just to sell it, you’re probably not setting off on the right foot. I think if you read the media, it’s easy to think that everyone who starts a big shop company and sells it designed it to sell from the start. That’s not really what happens. You have to be passionate about what you do. Build a good product and everything else happens as a result of that.”
A lover of learning, David has some advice for SaaS founders who want to copy his success.
“If you’re thinking about building a software-as-a-service business, I would read Getting Real by the guys at Basecamp. I read that probably ten years ago and that was a great introduction to how to build software that you’re going to sell. I’d also recommend people buy and read Ignore Everybody. It’s about how to be creative and what you should do if you’re struggling for ideas and how to challenge yourself,” David says.
David recommends founders take all advice, even from the most accomplished professionals in the space, with a grain of salt.
“I think there’s a great pressure that comes with building a bootstrapped organization and it’s really difficult to know what the right decision is. What’s important is that you trust your judgment. You cherry-pick whatever you want, you just try it, and then you iterate. See what works and then see what doesn’t. Don’t get hung up on reading every blog post, every video, and every article because you’ll be paralyzed by an inability to take action.”
David James’ story is a reminder that the path to profits and the path to making the world a better place aren’t necessarily in opposite directions. When the price of a service is unfeasible for the average customer, it’s a sure sign that the industry is ripe for disruption. It’s not always about finding a brand new business venture; sometimes it’s simply about noticing which ventures are not providing the value they could and should and challenging those.
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