Jessika Lora of CarForce, was named Global Entrepreneur of the Year by IBM at LAUNCH Festival 2016 and also earned CarForce the prestigious Mobility Startup of the Year award at SXSW’s Hatch Pitch. She was the only female smart mobility start-up founder who participated in INFINITI LAB – an accelerator program that INFINITI Motor Company has brought to Singapore.
Prior to CarForce, the connected car company, Jessika was the Head of Automotive Corporate Partnerships for eBay and was also the General Manager of eBay Motors’ Vehicles C2C business; running strategy for eBay’s $7.3B automotive division and responsible for turning around eBay’s $1.6B consumer-to-consumer (c2c) vehicle sales sector with double-digit growth. She was also a management consultant for Deloitte and a Stanford BS and MS graduate with over 10 years of automotive and e-commerce experience.
As the oldest of three daughters born to an avid 1960’s Mustang collector, Jessika was raised as an auto enthusiast and spent many summer weekends passing her dad various wrenches, attending car shows, and bonding over classic cars. Meanwhile, her passion for mathematics and science earned her a full ride to Stanford where she majored in evolution and behavioural biology. Inspired by the big data trends, she pursued a Masters focused on decision theory and predictive analytics in 2005.
LadyBoss spoke to Jessika Lora, the driver behind CarForce!
I realized that large corporate entities have the scale but they are not agile and this makes internal innovation sluggish.
Q: Tell us about CarForce. How long you’ve been doing it?
A: I started CarForce in April 2015, roughly two years ago. Prior to CarForce I was running corporate strategy at eBay Motors, which at the time was the world’s #1 automotive website by share of online traffic and minutes.
It all started when I bought a car on eBay when I was in high school in 1998. I found that the ability to recreate that consumer experience, and the joy of finding the right car at a great price for millions of automotive shoppers on eBay was a daily treat.
I led the build-out of some amazing consumer and seller experiences which planted a founder’s bug in me. I started to feel this deep unquenchable thirst to build something from the ground up and it made me increasingly restless. I realized that large corporate entities have the scale but they are not agile and this makes internal innovation sluggish.
The best bet is to go outside, start your own venture, and when the time is right work with these corporates for mutual wins: they have scale, you have agility, it’s a winning combo.
Q: Tell us more about your background and how it led you to CarForce?
A: I have the best childhood memories working on 1964-1971 Mustangs with my dad: taking an engine out, taking it apart, looking at all the gaskets and components and putting it back together. A classic car is an engineer’s playground!
When you’re working on a car you realize that it’s a giant machine and it’s incredibly empowering to take it apart, put it back together, and to not only make it work, but make it better. Beyond that, there are also rich lessons in risk management and bouncing back from failures.
Not every transmission or engine my dad and I put back together worked the first time, but that’s okay because I learned that I can always troubleshoot, find the root problem, and fix it. And once you’re done, you’ve built a machine that transports you from where you are to where you want to be. That’s the magic of a car for me. I love it. So you take a kid who grew up with a passion for cars and engineering, who went on to build a career on data driven business insights…then ta-daaa! CarForce is born.
Q: What were the challenges you faced raising funds?
A: This is a fun question with many answers.
One of the main challenges I had was being ahead of the market, by a couple of years. That sounds like a good thing as in, “Oh, you’re such a visionary, you were ahead of the market.” Sure, that’s nice, but only in theory. In practice, what it means is sitting in board rooms explaining what on earth I meant by a “connected car” to even the most brilliant angel investors.
Once I finished explaining how data gets from a car to the cloud and then to our analytics engine, the next question I got was “Well, aren’t OEMs going to make connected cars? Won’t that put you out of business?” Actually it’s quite the opposite.
CarForce is built on the premise that more cars will become connected and this means that there will be more connected car data in the economy. CarForce has the platform architecture and infrastructure in place to consume raw data and turn it into valuable insights.
By the time I got to this point in my pitch it was clear that the entire notion of a connected car, its timing, and how anyone could win in this space was confounding to my potential investors. The glimmer of light came from Series B/C/D investors that kept reaching out asking if I was ready for them. Inbound leads from the world’s top investors. It was too early to work together but it gave me a morale boost – if nothing else talking to the late stage investors helped me feel understood.
In practice, what it means is sitting in board rooms explaining what on earth I meant by a “connected car” to even the most brilliant angel investors.
Q: How did you overcome the challenges?
A: Persistence. When you know your industry’s history it’s easier to see its future. I know cars. I know dealers. I know consumers. I know connected cars are the way of the future and that what we have built at CarForce is a winning solution.
Persistence means that I had to keep pouring my own life savings into CarForce to make payroll and keep the lights on. One great thing about believing in what you do and persisting despite the odds is that it is highly attractive. It’s a contagious energy that pulls other high performers, dreamers, and doers into your path. The team we have assembled today is living proof of that.
Q: What is the Number 1 business lesson you learnt from CarForce?
A: Relevance is key.
It doesn’t matter that our solution has state of the art machine learning, or has a leverage on patented vehicle service code to human insight translation, if it doesn’t answer a specific need for our customers. Implied in the term “relevance” is “customer centricity”.
Every business owner, and ideally every team member, has to constantly ask themselves, “What burning, urgent, need does this solve for my customer?” The answer should be explainable in a few words.
Think “1,000 songs in your pocket” not “5 GB storage with firewire connectivity and iTunes synching.” If you can understand your customer, you will understand what they need, and how you are relevant to him or her. You will then be able to convey your value-prop in a succinct way.
Q: In terms of sales & marketing, how do you reach your clients, and what works?
A: Word of mouth. Automotive is a small, impenetrable industry but once you’re on the inside word spreads fast: good or bad.
This means that we invest in every customer because they will become our biggest brand ambassadors. We constantly think of the benefits we provide to our customers, and also what other solutions that can provide those benefits. This means we’re constantly evolving.
Customers love when you sell them something and then you keep raising the bar for excellence, eventually delivering top value for money goods, no matter what industry you’re in.
Q: Where do you see the future of CarForce?
A: CarForce becomes the authority on automotive insights by using vehicle machine learning, developing neural networks, and delivering predictive analytics. Think about this: a lot is going to change in the next 10-20 years with regard to the traditional vehicle ownership model, but perhaps the better question is what will remain the same? What won’t change is that cars, regardless of how many and who they are owned by, will be on the road. As long as there are cars on the road there will be data about those cars, and those insights can be harnessed and disseminated. For users like us, this means using CarForce to keep faulty cars off the road through predictive insights and preventative maintenance.
So find an area you’re passionate about, go look for the people that have problems that needs fixing, and recruit a team that is as zealous about this as you are.
Q: As an entrepreneur, what motivates you personally?
A: Intellectual curiosity and dissatisfaction with status quo are my personal drivers. I suppose that if I were fully satisfied with the world around me I wouldn’t want to improve it.
When I go to sleep every night I think about what I accomplished, what’s outstanding, and what is the one thing I want or need to get done the next day. It’s part of my nightly prayer. I’ve been doing this since before I started kindergarten and it has kept me on a path of constant improvement, in every sphere of my life.
Q: Lastly, what is your business philosophy?
A: My business philosophy is that it’s not a zero sum game and this forces me to seek out win/win solutions. I took economics, game theory, and behavioural biology courses back in school, and time and time again we see that systems with win/win solutions thrive over systems with one winner and multiple losers.
I am playing my role in building a win/win system that advances humanity. In my experience no customer will ever object to you taking their money, if you deliver value. It’s a fair trade, a win/win. If you have to look for win/lose scenarios where you’re the winner at the expense of someone else being a loser, then you’re in an industry with bad margins and not enough opportunities. Find something else to do.
The globe is increasingly smaller and more connected so that even if your immediate microcosm is problem-free, I will guarantee you that someone else’s not too far from you isn’t. So find an area you’re passionate about, go look for the people that have problems that needs fixing, and recruit a team that is as zealous about this as you are. Then, and only then, do you have the chance to leave a positive legacy.
About INFINITI LAB: INFINITI Motor Company was in town to offer the 7 participating start-ups the best of what Singapore business community has to offer through their smart mobility accelerator INFINITI LAB. The 7 start-ups hailing from the US, Canada, Korea, Singapore and Malaysia pitted against each other on Demo Day on 8 June and pitched to INFINITI, Nest VC and the Nissan Alliance to win a business outcome that will help them grow their business. The mentorship and real-life experience that the accelerator provided them has positioned them in an enviable position of possibly earning an opportunity to work with the premium car brand.