Since my partner, Xavier, and I started Driven Labs I’ve spent a great deal of my time either writing code, refactoring code, or planning app features that will require me to… you guessed it, write more code. I’m not complaining--in fact, I love it! I love thinking about the thought process a shop manager goes through to make sure they have the right resources available when they tell a customer they can bring their car in to be fixed. My job is to transcribe that juggling act into micro-sized steps that the shop owner can download to their tablet or smart phone to make their lives easier, and more efficient. Don’t even get me started on efficiency! I could write an entire blog post on my affinity for efficiency alone, but I’ll save that for another time. Today I’m going to minimize the terminal on my Mac, hide my text editor, and write down how I got here and why I’m so excited to be building an application that is going to change the way car repair happens from the ground up!
It was September 2005. I was working for ArvinMeritor in their commercial truck suspension testing center in Troy, Michigan. I had been wrenching on cars since I got my driver's license at age 16. This was my third job in automotive engineering since I graduated with my Associate's Degree in Automotive Technology several years earlier. At Saturn, and later General Motors, I did engine durability testing, and at American Axle, light vehicle drive component testing. All of it was good work, through which I learned a lot. However, having grown up in the Midwest area affectionately known as the Rust Belt, these jobs all lacked something I wanted dearly, or so I thought at the time. They were all contract positions and they lacked benefits. Sure, you got a few paid vacation days and the option to buy into some overpriced medical insurance with a high deductible, but it wasn’t the pension plan, retiree health, new car discount, 60 paid days off (cumulative vacation, holiday, sick pay) benefits that I grew up hearing about from the Detroit 3. The benefits that people I worked right beside, doing the same work (albeit, I usually did more of it) had.
One day in September, that all changed. That day, I came in from mowing the grass to get ready for my afternoon shift and there was a message on the answering machine. It was someone from the HR department at the Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor. They had seen my resume on Monster.com and they wanted to schedule an interview. I was ecstatic! After a brief phone interview and an in person group interview, I had an offer.
The position was a direct hire spot as an Engineering Technician in a newly-formed department in Toyota’s U.S. division testing automatic transmissions. Toyota was moving a lot of manufacturing to the U.S. from Japan and had to make sure that locally-sourced parts met the same quality standards as those imported from abroad. As the first hire in the transmission test department, I had the opportunity to spend 10 weeks at Toyota Motor Corp. (TMC) in Toyota City, Japan learning and documenting their testing procedures. The trip was great! I got an inside look at the company where Lean began. Lean Startup, Lean Design, Agile--they are all derivatives of what started there. Being there, you can see how it is clearly baked into the culture. Everything from 5-whys root cause analysis to Deming’s Plan Do Check Act are gospel for each decision that is made. Having been on both sides of things, it was easy to see how Toyota got a leg up on the competition in the quality department. But my time there wasn’t all work--I was fortunate to have weekends off and a stipend to go and see Japan while I was there. I traveled the Shinkansen line from Tokyo to Matsuyama, tried all the food and drinks I could find, and gained a real appreciation for mass transit transportation. To this day, most of my favorite foods are ones I first tried there.
When I returned home, I set to implementing the things I had learned there. I wrote procedures on how things should be done, trained new hires through the use of these living documents, and made check sheets that would help us make sure each step was completed every time. While I worked full time during the day, I took advantage of Toyota’s tuition reimbursement program and earned my B.S. in Business Management in the evenings. After completing my degree, I began looking for opportunities to move up in the organization. What I found was more reminiscent of the other big corporations at which I had worked. Opportunities were there but politicking opened those doors, not merit or hard work. I began to feel pigeonholed in the position I was in. The work felt routine and lacked the challenge and mental stimulation I desired. I looked at the benefits I had--and the house I had bought--and realized there was a fine line between security and confinement.
In April of 2011, my wife Robyn was nearing completion of her B.S. in Accounting. I knew Toyota had a Corporate office in New York and that she would fair better finding accounting work in the financial mecca of the world--rather than in an area with the highest unemployment rate in the nation, SouthEast Michigan. I had visited New York City as a young man, but Robyn had never been. Toyota had an entry level opening doing PR work there that I had applied for. I suggested she and I visit for a week, and I would meet with the manager to make the case for a transfer. On our second day in New York, Robyn met with an accounting placement agency while I met with the hiring manager at Toyota. She got a call later that same day asking if she could interview with a company the next day. She took the interview, and by our fourth day in New York she had a job offer. We planned to move to New York two weeks after her graduation. I would keep my position at Toyota until I knew if my transfer would happen--but the transfer, as it would turn out, would not happen.
Nevertheless, we pushed ahead with our plans. Over the next three months, I cleared out our ten-years worth of accumulated things in our home. Keeping only what I believed would fit in our undoubtedly smaller accommodations in New York--all the while taking care of our two sons, working full time at Toyota, and searching for work in New York. On Independence Day Weekend I drove our two sons, then two and three years old, out to New York to stay with their mother while I finished getting the house ready to lease. In August, Robyn found a one-year lease on an apartment in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. She signed the lease on it two days before our home in Michigan leased through a property management company. It was a little nerve-wracking, to say the least. When the house leased on August 1st, I had yet to land a position in New York. I moved in with my aunt and uncle in Michigan while I continued to search. Two weeks later, I landed a job as a Project Manager with an office furniture company in New Jersey. I gave my two weeks notice to Toyota and moved back with my family on Labor Day weekend. The Project Manager job wasn’t the dream job I was looking for, but it got us all back together.
Right now, you are probably wondering how I made the jump from Project Manager for an office furniture company to launching a startup with my partner, Xavier. The Project Manager role proved to be short-lived. The company counted on New York University for at least 80% of their work. When the orders slowed down from NYU, I was in the unfortunate position of being the only salaried employee in a small company. I was let go. However, I learned that I liked working for a smaller company, where I could affect change, so I immediately connected with the growing startup scene in New York through various Meetup groups. I tried finding a managerial position with a startup, but everywhere I went people asked me if I knew how to code. I had written programs for dynamometers and hydraulic testing equipment during my years as an Engineering technician, but I had no experience doing web development. This led me to General Assembly (GA). I started by taking their 16-week, two-night per week course for Front-end Web Development and Ruby on Rails. I loved the work and was excited about what I was doing again for the first time in a long time, but as I headed back out to find work as a web developer, I found myself losing positions to students who were in a better positions than I was at the time to take on General Assembly’s deeper dive into web development, the 12-week, full time, Web Development Immersive(WDI) program. I knew what I had to do. When both my sons were old enough to be in school full time, I went back to GA for the WDI program.
A couple weeks after the program finished, I was at GA doing a phone interview for a developer position. I spoke about my automotive product testing background with my interviewer. When the phone interview wrapped up, a young man across the table introduced himself to me. His name was Xavier Stewart, now my business partner. Xavier’s father was a part-owner in an auto repair shop, so Xavier had grown up around car repair himself. And he had finished the same WDI program as I had, one cohort after mine. He pitched an idea to me about creating a web application to help people connect with repair shops to get their cars fixed. He wanted my advise on the idea. I was immediately struck by the idea as something I had to be involved with. I asked if I could be his business partner and the rest is history.