Josh Lombardo-Bottema was a high school kid who thought his passion was acting until he realized all his favourite courses were in the business department. He left business school in Ottawa to purchase a franchise, growing his location to over 80 team members and exiting to create GoWrench Auto. As an incubating company with the Hamilton Forge, GoWrench Auto and Josh are hitting all the right milestones. The Influence editorial team met up at the Innovation Factory to talk about Josh’s personal and business pivots, where he’s headed in the future and what he tells entrepreneurs looking for advice.
It’s great to sit and catch up with you, Josh. Let’s start at the top, tell us about GoWrench Auto.
Well, we’re a company that primarily services fleets and busy consumers who are time-crunched and have no time or interest in the hassle of bringing their vehicle in for repairs.
If GoWrench solves one headache what would it be?
Today more and more people are tight on time, there’s just so much going on. We solve that time-crunch problem by coming right to them to service their vehicle, do repairs and maintenance. It all happens right outside their home or work.
Day to day what are you most likely to be doing?
We do a lot of brakes, plus alternators, batteries, belts and starters.
The most common phone call?
“My car just won't start. What’s going on? Can you guys come and help me?”
I’m keeping your number close by.
We also do regular maintenance work.
So how does Josh Lombardo-Bottema end up rescuing people like me from the hassle of oil changes, maintenance and cars that won’t start?
I had a company before GoWrench Auto – it was in the property beautification industry. I actually had a fleet of about ten vehicles and one day we had a vehicle break down. I was pretty sure that it was a quick fix and that it could be done right on site. I was a super busy guy and I didn’t want to take the time to bring the truck in, get the tow and go through all of that. I phoned my so-called trusted mechanic at the time.
And you asked him to make a house call?
I did. Since I used this guy a lot, I asked him, “Do you mind just coming out – it’s probably a quick fix that you can do right on site.”
And he said?
He pretty much laughed at me and said, “I don’t do house calls, go get a tow.”
So I thought to myself, there has to be somebody out there that does this kind of service, that will actually come to me. And I found one, but it wasn’t exactly the most reputable, branded, trustworthy person – it was kind of a random Joe Dirt kind of guy in a pickup truck.
Your fleet truck breaking down was an “aha” moment?
That’s when the initial seed was planted. On top of that, I hated bringing my personal vehicle in to have it serviced. I was always way past the recommended kilometres for maintenance because I was way too busy. It was just the last thing on my priority list to get done, whether it was maintenance or a repair or anything like that.
No one likes to get their car serviced. Just the dirty waiting room is enough to make me run the other way.
Exactly. A lot of people wait until the very last minute, until something is wrong, or safety is getting called into question. I figured if we made car and fleet maintenance as easy as a click on your phone or a quick call, it could be a game changer. We come right to you, it’s convenient, our customers love it. And on top of that, because of our low overhead, we’re actually able to do it for less than shops and dealerships.
So basically, necessity was the mother of invention for you? You had your fleet, you had a headache and you thought, someone needs to fix this.
Right. I thought, Why has nobody solved this problem yet? And anybody that had, seemed to have no business background. They didn’t really have that trustworthy look to them. I didn’t get the sense that they were going to be around for a long time or that I would have any recourse if something went wrong.
Okay, everyone knows I’m all about the human story behind the business success. Let's talk about a much younger Josh. Did you have the characteristics that led you to be the guy you are now, or did you build him along the way?
That’s a deep one. I think everybody has this idea of who they want to be or what they want their life to look like. So you ask somebody what their dream house is and they probably have it kind of figured out. You know, I want a giant mansion, or I want this beautiful hut on the beach. You have that idea of what you want.
So for me it was a lot of figuring out, and one of the best things that I came to realize is that some people seem to have innate talent at certain things – they pick something up and they're just amazing at it. That wasn’t me.
No thunderbolt hit you?
That didn’t happen for me, but what I did come to realize was that if I worked hard and smart enough I would be the best. Just realizing that alone gave me the confidence to enter into anything that I wanted. With enough work, I’ll be more successful than my competitors.
No thunderbolt hit you?
That didn’t happen for me, but what I did come to realize was that if I worked hard and smart enough I would be the best. Just realizing that alone gave me the confidence to enter into anything that I wanted, and I knew that if I worked hard enough and long enough, I’ll be better and I’ll succeed. With enough work, I’ll be more successful than my competitors.
So introduce me to high school Josh. Who was that guy?
Going through high school, I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do. Actually, that’s not completely true. I thought I was passionate about acting, but it turned out I had taken more business courses than drama. I realized I had all these business courses, so I knew I had a passion that I hadn’t consciously identified before.
And for post-secondary?
Business in Ottawa. And like a lot of famous true-blue entrepreneurs, I’m a college dropout. I bought a business while I was in business school.
Hello, real life.
Between business school and the actual business, I just couldn’t juggle both. So I put my education – my formal education – on hold, but kept taking courses. I read and listened to hundreds and hundreds of business books in print and audio. You could say I continued my education that way and have never stopped.
How did you end up in Hamilton?
I bought my first business when I was 18. That’s how I ended up in Hamilton. I bought the company and then I grew that for eight years and took it to over 80 staff.
Then the fated fleet truck broke and…
Yeah. [Laughs.] I was ready for a new idea and I’d already grown my first company to a certain point. That’s when I exited to found GoWrench Auto.
Are you on your own with GoWrench or do you have a partner?
I founded it myself and then shortly after, a great guy named Kolton came onto the team and has been phenomenal. Kolton’s the Operations Officer; he handles that side and I handle the PR, the marketing, customer service and that sort of thing.
Do what you do best and hire the rest?
In any small business you have to wear a million different hats, but we each have the things that we’re good at. At GoWrench Auto one of the things we’re very good at is finding really good mechanics that do consistently good work.
Good mechanics are essential for you, that’s going to be the difference between a one-time oil change and a loyal, repeat customer.
Good mechanics providing a great service at a convenient location and time, that’s our core.
In this Issue we are focusing on innovation. From where I sit, you innovated a totally new way to deliver a very old service.
Talk to me a bit about innovation and how you came to be the guy who was willing to take that leap or even recognize the opportunity.
Well, innovation can sometimes stem from frustration or a pain point or wanting to make something a little bit better. Look at the taxi industry and what Uber’s doing. Or Airbnb and the hotel industry. At GoWrench Auto, we aim to be the Uber of mechanics, where we are transforming the mechanic industry and making it more convenient and less of a hassle for people to get their vehicle repaired.
The lean startup is a catchphrase right now. What did that look like for you?
Simply for me, it’s to get one person to buy and then another and just don’t stop.
Advice for entrepreneurs?
For any entrepreneur that thinks they have an idea, my advice? Go talk to people. If they say, “That’s a great idea,” see if they will buy it, actually give you money for it. If they do, then you’ve got a good idea. This is a great test, because a lot of people say, “Oh, that’s a great idea,” but when it actually comes to paying for a service, then they're like, "well, you know..." [Laughs.]
So test your idea early?
If somebody puts their money where their mouth is and actually buys a service from you, how many other people are there like that? And if there’s enough of them and the numbers make sense, then innovate and just do it.
Yeah, just reach out. I love that. That in itself is a perfect little lesson for startups…test it and go.
So speaking of your startup, was there any point when you were creating this that you pivoted and changed the vision? Was your starting vision the one you have today?
I don’t think there’s any startup business out there that hasn’t pivoted, because it’s crucial. And that’s kind of the fine line that you have to walk, between saying, “No, I’m going to stay the course” and “Okay, at this point I’ve tested it enough, now I’m going to pivot.”
I hear you were on a sailboat last year and it echoed your business experience.
Last summer, I was privileged to be on a sailboat. Business “pivots” are very much like sailing. The wind is going to blow, you don’t know where it’s going to blow, but you’ve got to correct your course. And you're going to go this way, then you're going to go that way, then you're going to go this way. Sounds like business to me!
Can you share your business pivot for GoWrench Auto? Where did the wind blow you?
We had a very different model when we started. I had an idea in my head and I was like, this is going to be amazing and everybody’s going to buy it. That’s what every entrepreneur thinks. And then you get it out there and you hear crickets and you say, Okay, let’s readjust – what am I missing here?
So there’s a whole pasture of original ideas that just get retired?
It’s very interesting that you asked this. Our initial method or strategy wasn’t right at the time, but we’re looking at bringing it back now that we’re more established. So there’s a market entry strategy and now we’re going to be adding in the original idea. It’s time, now that our customer base is warmer and familiar with us.
What sets entrepreneurs apart who push past a less than stellar initial market response from those who throw in the towel early?
It’s really the mindset that an entrepreneur has to have. It’s not, “IF” this works, it’s, “HOW” this works. It’s about being a little more flexible, it’s not black and white.
Do you give yourself a pep talk to push to the next level?
I’d say to myself, So this didn’t work, what’s next? I take the little bit of feedback I got and use it as an indication of a new direction that I could take.
As an innovator in Hamilton, you couldn’t have found more fertile entrepreneurial soil to make your home. Talk to me about how Hamilton has helped you build your company.
I heard a great saying when I was very young – probably 16 years old – that’s stuck with me throughout my entire entrepreneurial career. In order to be successful, surround yourself with successful people.
You're never going to have all the answers and you're going to be wrong a lot, but that doesn’t matter – what matters is, you are who you surround yourself with. So if you surround yourself with really intelligent people, people who are motivated, people who are positive, but somewhat critical where it counts, you’ve got a leg up.
Cheerleaders as far as the eye can see?
You don’t want people who are just always rah-rah-rah, and they fill up your head with ego for no reason. But you also don’t want people who say, “Oh, it’s never going to work.” You want a kind of balance between the two.
So, mentors. Useful?
Having those mentors is absolutely crucial and you have to choose them very carefully, because you want to work with somebody that you enjoy working with, that’s going to keep you pumped up and motivated. You want them to be able to give you insight into something that you might not know. That’s crucial to success, because you are limitless in what you can learn and how you can grow.
Any really important life lesson you’ve learned that helps you keep growing?
There are seven billion people in the world. Every single one of them has one thing in common: They each have only 24 hours in a day. So how is it that some people are so successful and some people are not? The answer, to me, is how they choose to use their time, their strategies and systems for life and who they choose to have around them. By improving those areas, you can accomplish more than the next person.
One of my favorite quotes is that "you are the average of the five people you associate with the most."
I totally agree.
I know you work out of The Forge via Innovation Factory in Hamilton. Is that just a cool office space or is it more?
It’s very interesting, because The Forge is a great spot for entrepreneurial resources and I’m talking about mentor resources and connections.
What have been your challenges that The Forge has helped with?
One of the biggest things that an entrepreneur has to battle with is the question, When do I work in my business and when do I work on my business? And that’s often a tricky balance, because you need to figure out, when am I dealing with clients, when am I making sales, when am I working on improving our company structure, the systems, how we offer what we offer, that sort of thing. And if you do one thing too extreme, you're either a dreamer that never takes any action and you have all these amazing plans that are useless, or you're the person that’s so busy being in their business, you're basically the cook. You know, in a restaurant, you might be the most amazing cook, but your business is never going to grow, because you’re not working on growing it while you're working on your actual product.
So where did you net out with that question? What is the balance between working on your business and working in it?
It’s a fine balance, because you want to jump in enough that you understand your business, you understand your customers, you get your hands dirty. But you also want to back up and say, This is what I’ve learned from that, and have some actionable items that lead to change or implementation.
And once you hit the mark you stay the course?
You’ve got to be constantly innovating and constantly changing and working. I can't even describe how many times we’ve changed tiny little systems, tiny little policies. The list is endless.
Is part of working harder than others also continually learning?
A lot of people read for pleasure. If there’s something that’s not going to make me more successful or put money in my pocket or create sales or improve my people skills, I’m probably not reading it.
If you could recommend three business books, what would they be?
That’s a really tough one, because there’s a lot of fantastic books out there. I definitely have some favourite authors. For sales, Grant Cardone is one of the best. I love Brian Tracy and Zig Ziglar – they're classics for business and strategy, and sales as well. It’s really hard to narrow it down, because I think I have about 200 titles in my audio collection and then another 70 or 80 in paperback.
What does a book need to have to earn a place in your shopping cart?
My method of testing a book is to open it in five or six different spots randomly and read a paragraph or two. If I find what I call a golden nugget – meaning something that’s like, bam, that’s good – if I find a good number of them, then I’ll get the book.
How do you integrate these different philosophies or “golden nuggets” without losing focus and going off on a whim?
So you're talking about getting excited about learning something and then wanting to put it into play. That’s very entrepreneur-like. And that’s actually kind of crucial, not always finishing books, but taking action.
The thinking/planning stage versus the action stage. How do you know when to go from one stage to the next?
I find there are a lot of people that want to have the perfect plan, the perfect business or opportunity and they stagnate, they become stale in their process, they don’t take action. One of my guiding principles is based on the fact that you can have the best battle plan, but once you hit the battlefield and face opposition, everything changes. Have a plan, absolutely, but the plan is only going to work for so long and only so well. So, yeah, read a book. If you get some ideas, it’s probably best that you go and act on them now, because the book is going to be there – the opportunity might not.
Building a business is a little bit messy, it isn't always tidy and neat?
Any good entrepreneur knows that their plan is going to go only so far and you're going to have to start dodging obstacles and figuring out how to climb that mountain. Things are going to come along that weren’t in the plan, so just deal with it.
Best advice to leave entrepreneurs with?
Just jump in. When you leap, as best as you can, then you meet all sorts of people. And that’s what you need to do, at all stages of business development: Get your feet wet and you're going to figure out your course and where you want to go. Just by getting out into the community, talking to as many people as you can, it’s going to create ripples. And somebody’s going to say, “Hey, I know somebody you should talk to,” and the dots are going to start to connect and all of a sudden it’s going to come into focus. So get out there as much as possible – that’s what I do.
Life comes full circle and I understand you have a good example of that. Can you share?
Funnily enough, the company that bought my property beautification company, the one with the broken truck that got me on the path to founding GoWrench Auto, now uses us to maintain and repair their fleet.
That’s full circle. Thanks for talking to us, Josh.
That wraps it all up nicely. Thank you.