Cleaning an oil-stained reputation, Driveway Doctors bring the garage to you

(Image via Driveway Doctors)
(Image via Driveway Doctors)

Next time your car needs a tuneup, consider having the shop drive to you. The Driveway Doctors provide on site car repairs and a level of service hoping to shake up an industry that struggles with an oil stained reputation.

Founder Alexander Tallett, a Babson business school graduate with an enthusiasm for cars, spent a year driving around in a service van full of auto mechanic’s tools, exploring customer response, and the viability of a mobile mechanic business model.

“I turned down an investment banking job to do this,” said Tallett. “I never really wanted to be an investment banker.”

So far, response and viability check out.

The company just opened up their second physical location, a one bay garage with a hydraulic lift connected to Route 2 Gas in Lincoln, Mass. Combined with their Peabody location, the Driveway Doctors now serve most of the North Shore and Metro West areas.

But their ability to continue doing so relies on a capacity to upend that ugly reputation.

“Every mechanic for the last fifty years has said they’re a reliable, honest mechanic,” Tallett said.

A statement everyone knows is pure cow patties.

The industry’s reputation puts Driveway Doctors in an predicament. People instantly assume they’re being bamboozled at first mention of car repair, which means any advertising will likely fail to connect, Tallett said.

So far he’s done very little to actively promote the business — a Facebook page and a Groupon effort. Instead, he attributes the growth of his business to word of mouth, a source of pride for Tallett.

Maybe some of that success is owed to mechanic Peter Thai. Thai has been making service calls since Tallett stopped riding around in the van about a year ago.

“Customers love him,” Tallett said.

He jokes that the company needs to find more Petes in order to grow.

But in every joke, a sliver of truth. With plans to expand, Tallett faces the same challenge as any meandering motorist: Finding a reliable mechanic, or more Petes. Currently the company employs four mechanics. Tallett has fired seven others, some lasting only a few days.

“We’re not putting up flyers in coffee shops in Cambridge, looking for programmers,” Tallett said.

In that and many other ways Driveway Doctors differs from the tech heavy startups that rely on a buyout or big payday after years of operating in the red. Tallett said he loves being part of the exciting innovation economy in and around Boston but wasn’t personally comfortable with that business model.

Barely a year after the experimental phase, the company founder said he is very pleased with Driveway Doctors’ financial standing, though he wouldn’t share any numbers.

Investors are expressing enthusiasm, too, because he can talk about profit and scalability while showing that there is a large and underserved market — practically everyone with a car no longer under warranty, he said.

“I think people are getting a little burnt out on tech investments where there’s no validation, where you’re not even looking at profitability as a metric,” Tallett said.

Driveway Doctors recently closed a small round of angel funding. Next steps include an overhaul of their current website and a mobile platform launch. In the near future Tallett hopes to cover the South Shore area but plans to steer away from Boston proper and more urban areas. He also wants to avoid roadside service.

Safety presents a challenge in both urban and roadside settings, Tallett said, Thai nodding in agreement while we explored one of the vans used for service calls.

Instead the company looks for opportunities elsewhere, like small commercial fleets or office complex parking lots. For those appointments employees sign up for service at the front office of their workplace and repairs and tuneups happen while they sit at their desk.

“By the end of the day you have new brakes, fresh oil, and a 60,000 mile tuneup, all that regular stuff without you leaving the office,” Tallett said.

The feasibility of certain repairs — like a muffler job — in a parking lot or driveway setting limit the company to offering only certain services off site, things like oil changes, brake jobs, batteries, and electrical service like replacing alternators and starters. For larger jobs cars are brought to one of the physical locations.

Driveway Doctors services somewhere between 300 to 400 cars per month. The monetary split between mobile service and in-shop jobs is about half and half but the volume of work divides 75/25, favoring mobile service. Their biggest seller on the road is diagnostics and estimates.

For $39.99 they company will visit your car and provide an estimate of what needs to be done. That money works as a credit toward any work they end up performing.

In most cases a garage will charge an exorbitant fee just to put the car on a lift and look at it, making it hard for vehicle owners to say “no” once the mechanic comes back with the bad news.

Not being able to hold a car hostage keeps Driveway Doctors honest, Tallett said.

Additionally, the company pays their mechanics a salary, whereas most auto shops pay a commission based on work performed, almost de-incentivizing quality repairs. The salary also encourages team members to collaborate and consult with each other, rather than compete.

Long term, Tallett has ideas for the wealth of data they’re collecting, both on the service and diagnostic side. The company tracks all of their diagnostics, service, and repairs, building a database with the potential to create future predictive models, a tool that would give Driveway Doctors the opportunity to notify customers of service that should be performed in the near future. Tallett is also considering what other companies might pay to buy the data from Driveway Doctors.

In the meantime reliability and trust are paramount — Tallet calls it finding that “guy to go back to” — and of course hiring more Petes.

George is a regular contributor to BetaBoston, and can be reached at
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