MintList steers the auto industry kicking and screaming into the future
The Vancouver-based company recently raised $2.76 million CAD.
When you grow up in Iran to a pathologist mother and a military general father, “100 out of 100 is a failure,” says Mehrsa Raeiszadeh. Still, she tried.
Raeiszadeh broke national records on Iran’s swim team before heading to the U.S. for a master’s in science at the University of Tennessee. “I was sitting at my sister’s graduation at Georgia Tech for her PhD and I said, ‘I’m going to do my PhD in three years,’” she recalls. Surprise, surprise, a 4.0 GPA and 20-plus published articles later and she had a PhD in chemical engineering from her sister’s alma mater.
Living in the American South was something of a culture shock for Raeiszadeh. “It’s funny, coming from Tehran with 10-15 million people in it, you hear the news about everything, you know about every country,” she says. “More than half the time in the U.S., I’d have to explain to people where Iran is. They wouldn’t even be able to pronounce the country correctly.”
She left the U.S. with the important lesson to “not get offended easily” and headed to Vancouver on a trip to visit some family. As it happens, she was friends with one of the co-founders of Recon Instruments (eventually acquired by Intel) who introduced her to what was then an early-stage startup in UBC-based medical device firm Microdermics.
“The technology was similar to what I was using during my PhD, microfabrication,” she remembers. “They were struggling with scaling up the product, so I said ‘You know what, let me take a look at it.’ In that year, we improved the process from 60 percent efficiency to 98 percent efficiency. Then money started flowing in, all of that stuff.” That number might not have been good enough for her parents, but the company did take first place at the 2016 New Ventures BC awards.
Raeiszadeh dabbled in a few other ventures after that, but nothing was really capturing her imagination. “I’m a techie, I believe in technology, and I know that whatever I want to build, I can build,” she says. “So I wanted to partner with someone who has his or her pulse on an industry, so that whatever I build will be used by a lot of people. The other big thing is a co-founder I can trust.”
She found both in Mike Wood, a veteran Metro Vancouver car dealer pro who had written up a business plan for an online auto sales platform in which consumers and dealerships alike can buy and sell cars and bid against each other. He asked Raeiszadeh to take a look. “I read it and was like, ‘I would use this,’” she says. “So we started working on it.”
The pair launched TrafficDriven Technologies and its flagship product, MintList, in early 2020. Things progressed pretty quickly. “The second dealer we talked to manages the largest used car inventory in B.C,” says Raeiszadeh. “The owner was there and 10 minutes into the pitch he got up. I’m thinking, ‘Wow, was it really that bad? Is he leaving?’ He said he wanted to write us a cheque for this amount of money and we’d go ahead and build it.”
The duo were self-funded at the time and rejected his offer but happily signed him on to the platform. “He said, ‘OK, I get that,’ I just have one question for you: Why didn’t this idea come to my mind?”
While companies like Carvana in the U.S. and local outfit Canada Drives have made strides in the industry, both of those platforms use their own inventory. MintList connects dealers and consumers to buy, trade and bid on vehicles. “Why do we have to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to build inventory? “Why do we leave out dealers who already have the inventory and already have showrooms?” she asks. “People still love test drives, to touch and feel, they don’t want their car delivered to their home with a truck and never get to decide on colour, four or five seats, those things. How we’re different is we bring dealers together who have 99 percent of the inventory. And for consumers, every car is inspected and comes with a 60-day warranty.”
While Wood notes that the automotive industry is still largely online agnostic, that’s changing fast with COVID, whether old fashioned dealers like it or not. “Online automotive sales are less than 1 percent of the total market,” he says. “That’s versus 30 percent of clothing and 50 percent of electronics that are sold and bought online. It’s slow to catch up because, quite frankly, car dealers have no interest. I was at a conference in 2008 and there were still guys who thought the internet was going to go away.”
It doesn’t look like it, and it doesn’t look like MintList is going anywhere either. The platform raised $2.76 million CAD in seed financing late last year—around the same time it notched yet another first place New Ventures BC finish for Raeiszadeh.
The company that consisted of just Raeiszadeh, Wood and an intern two years ago recently hired its 25th employee. But beyond the money and the accolades, the two co-founders at the centre of it stress the importance of company culture.
“It’s the glue, it’s not just a billboard on the wall,” says Raeiszadeh. “At the end of the day, we’re all humans, that’s in the product and in the culture, too. For me, if I get on a call with a team member and they say ‘Do I have your approval for this?’ I say, ‘No, you can’t ask for my approval, you can ask for my vote. You have one vote, I have one vote.”
Unless you don’t know where Iran is.