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DIY Auto Maintenance Business Plan

I am a second year student at Harvard Business School working on a business plan. The idea relates to empowering more consumers to do their own repairs and maintenance. Tom and Ray did something similar with Hackers Haven.

We are looking for input regarding the idea, and even might be interested in meeting with people if they live near Cambridge, MA to talk through the idea. Specifically, we are looking for people who have worked in auto repair shops. If you are in the area and would like to discuss further, please let me know. Rylan Hamilton -

About 50 years ago, we had a couple fellows who were mechanics take over a service station with the idea that they would help people do their own repairs. It didn’t work. They either wound up doing most of the work or they had people run off with their tools. This was in the midwest. This was 50 years ago and cars were much easier to repair. My guess is that today, those who want to do their own repairs will do them, and others find it more convenient to pay others to do the work.

There isn’t a lot of repair work one can do today without specialized equipment. For years, by financial necessity I did a lot of my own work. Today, I’m happy to pay someone else to maintain my vehicles.

You are asking to limit your input and consequently points of view by specifying that you want to talk to people who have worked in auto repair shops. Do not, after having doing this, underestimate the willingness of people here on Car Talk to speak up.

I, for one, bought a code reader about a year ago and can hardly wait for a trouble code to appear so I can fix the car without benefit of a professional mechanic but possibly with the help of Car Talk people and the Internet.

It didn’t work. They either wound up doing most of the work or
they had people run off with their tools.

I recall these were the same reasons Tom & Ray’s experience with this in Cambridge, Ma. back in the 70s didn’t work.

When the consumers disassemble their cars and then have trouble putting them back together, or they ordered the wrong parts, or don’t have the specialized tools needed, it’s your garage bay that gets tied up (and your profits). If you have a business model that solves those problems, please share it. Otherwise you’ll be facing the same problems that ultimately forced those before you to shutdown.

The idea works on a military base where there is a large population without garages. It works where the government owns the building and pays a civil service employee to direct it and hires minimum wage people as staff. It works better with OBDII scanners instead of a $20,000 machine that doesn’t really work. The past was kind of crazy. If you ran a self oil change facility, outside the gate, you might make it. Small might. Usually, there is a big market there for conventional shops.

This idea was attempted many years ago in Oklahoma City I believe and it failed miserably.

The reasons for the failure were things like 8 hours of stall rental (or more) to perform a 1 hour job. Reasons for the delays were lack of tools, ineptness of the person doing the work, and the usual snags that occur with 90% of auto repairs; finding something else wrong when torn apart, frozen bolts or parts, etc.

In a litigation happy country like this I would be very nervous about allowing someone with little or no experience to operate air tools, wrestle things while underneath a rack, etc.

Thanks for the comments so far. There are a lot of people who think it might not work b/c the people manning the station end up doing the work, and repairs can get ugly real quick.

However, on military bases, it works pretty well (I was in the Navy). My guess is that most military people are DIY’ers and very hands on. For the people who are DIY’ers, would you be interested in using a place like this? For the lifts, computer diagnostics, special tools? What about young people who live in apts. in the city?

I suspect the insurance coverage required to run a business like this would be prohibitively expensive.

Agree that insurance is an issue. Address this in a couple of ways.

  1. Don’t let people use or operate the big equipment. that is, only employees operates lifts and tire changers. Customers can use tools etc.
  2. People sign a waiver. There are waivers for activities like sky diving, amusement parks etc. People do this work on the streets, on top of bricks, and in places much more dangerous than what we would offer. We would actually be making the auto work safer… However, we would have to cover our butts against people who are sue-happy.
  3. Also, there are auto hobby clubs right now where people do this work. Our goal would be to make it affordable to the price-sensitive people who can’t afford to pay $40+ in labor hours to the repair shops like Monroe.

What about partnering with a repair shop down the road and sending people over their head to the shops for free. I am sure the repair shop would like the business. Also, I think a place like this would want to target basic maintenance like brakes, oil, and tires. Hopefully the “screw-up” rate is less on these than it is for more complicated work.

What if you could provide the specialized tools? Also, maybe the people who screwed up their cars would then have to use an onsite mechanic to get the job done. In one sense, you would be creating your own customers. In another sense, you would give people the comfort of knowing there is a fallback if they can’t do it.

A problem with #2 might be that in many states liability waivers aren’t allowed or are only applicable in a very narrow set of circumstances. They still make you sign them, but in many cases they have no actual legal standing or they can be overcome under certain circumstances, which means you’re still likely to get stuck with costly litigation.

I’ve seen the DIY space concept done as a non-profit, but the problem you’ll probably soon discover is that the actual cost of the labor itself is a very minor component of what the labor charge is at a garage and I think you’ll have a very hard time being able to offer a rate that’s significantly cheaper than a traditional garage.