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Openbay, where mechanics bid for your business

Repairs big and small can be cross-shopped via Openbay. (E+/Getty Images)

Repairs big and small can be cross-shopped via Openbay. (E+/Getty Images)

When I took my daughter’s car to the dealer recently because a warning light had illuminated on the dash, the service department gave me the opportunity to pay $350 for a new battery before even looking at the source of the problem.

The car has mostly sat since my daughter left for college, and evidently the battery’s juice level was a little low. Rather than connecting it to a charger, however, the dealer wanted me to pay an exorbitant price for an unnecessary battery replacement. Not fun.

Computer industry startup veteran Rob Infantino responded to similar service experiences with a new online service for booking auto repairs. Motivated in part by Steve Jobs’ graduation commencement speech at Stanford University, in which the Apple co-founder called for people to follow their passion in their career, Infantino launched Openbay.

The online service asks drivers to enter their location, plus details about their car and the repair they seek. Once entered, nearby repair shops respond with bids to do the work.

Infantino’s car-enthusiast credentials include crewing for a modified-class stock car team. “I’d worked on a pit crew for two years, learned about racing cars, ripping cars apart, and I love what they look like and how they ride,” he explained. He later learned how to build enterprise software systems, starting two companies that he ultimately sold.

Putting together his two areas of interest resulted in something that didn’t previously exist: a convenient, money-saving way to use your smartphone to fix your car.

Using a desktop browser or smartphone app, customers can look over the bids and make their choice based on price, user reviews and distance to the shop. When they book a repair, payment is held until after the work is completed. Openbay keeps 10% of the bill as its fee, and 3% goes to the credit card servicer. The repair shop nets the remaining 87%. Participating is free for the shops, so most agree when they are contacted by Openbay, Infantino says.

The company, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, launched in the Boston metropolitan area in October 2013. Since then it has spread to 44 states in the US, with participating service providers that number in the thousands, according to Infantino, with between 30 and 50 new shops joining each day. Service providers consist of new car dealers, independent shops and mobile fix-it-at-your-place services, so consumers are presented with a variety of repair options.

Online resources such as Angie’s List and Yelp provide user-based ratings of mechanics and shops, but Infantino says no other e-commerce business puts work out to bid or provides the means to book repairs online.

Recruiting businesses to participate was Openbay’s first challenge, but now that it has many shops in many large metropolitan areas, the company has begun vetting new applicants to ensure they will provide satisfactory service to customers. To date there have been few instances of dispute between Openbay’s shops and customers, and Infantino claims the company has negotiated resolutions that left both sides satisfied.

For most services (though not all, as Openbay does not refer for bodywork repairs), consumers can expect to receive bids within a day. But for routine maintenance items such as oil changes and tire rotations, shops can pre-enter their prices so that Openbay’s computers generate instant results for the customer to consider.

In just six months, Openbay has become sufficiently popular in some markets that the company  must now refine its bid-result backend. “Recently, I put in a service request and got 30 offers,” Infantino says. “We need to change that and show the highest ratings and those located closest to me. Show me eight or nine, not 30. It is good to have options, but we don’t want to overwhelm customers.”

While that can be the case for popular services in the company’s biggest cities, most requests for bids will return four or five offers of service, he said.

Openbay ultimately wants to facilitate automatic communication between customers’ cars and participating service providers, so that when the car approaches a known service interval or develops a problem that triggers a warning light, it can automatically submit that repair to area providers.

 “I have a vision that we want to connect the car to Openbay and make the entire process transparent and passive to the user,” Infantino says. Openbay’s role would be to make the necessary customer connections with its servers, but not to develop the hardware that customers would install in their cars, he said.

As the operation gains momentum, what is Openbay’s endgame? “If you look at some of the marketplace companies out there, like eBay, these companies have reached a $1bn market valuation in four to five years,” Infantino says. Does that mean he is angling for a big cash-out in a few years? “No,” he states flatly. Infantino may well be too much of a car nut to part with this toy.