A few weeks ago, my 10-year-old Honda gave up the ghost. The exhaust system was rusted through, thanks in part to a stretch of long Midwestern winters, and the engine was acting up. Repairing it would have cost more than the car was worth. And as much as I'd like to be one of those carless Millennials you hear about, I have a large dog, and I drive out of town on the weekends a lot. So, reluctantly, I sold my beloved clunker off, and waded into the joyless world of used car sales.
The first used car lot I visited was a disaster. A sketchy salesman with slicked-back hair and pleated khakis greeted me at the entrance, and offered to "show [me] some beauties." Nothing in my price range, of course, and nothing that fit the specifics of what I was looking for. But I expected that. What I didn't expect was the sheer fear I felt talking to him. Unlike most transactions, in which buyer and seller have roughly the same assumptions about the value of the item being sold, a used car sale is a classic case of information asymmetry. I kept thinking: What does this guy know that I don't? Is the muffler falling apart? Are there problems with the catalytic converter? The prospect of spending thousands of dollars on what amounted to a leap of faith made me nauseated.
I'm a moderately lazy resident of the Bay Area, and as such, I'm used to purchasing just about everything from a series of venture capital-subsidized tech start-ups. I've ordered dinners from SpoonRocket. I've gotten a house cleaner from Handy. I even tried Luxe, the start-up that sends a skateboarding valet to park your car for you. (I know! I am awful.)
So when I heard that there was a venture-backed start-up that sells used cars, I knew I'd found my oasis.
The company was Beepi, a three-year-old Bay Area start-up co-founded by Alejandro Resnik and Owen Savir, two MBAs (MIT and Stanford, respectively) who decided to try to simplify the process of buying a used car online. Beepi has raised nearly $70 million, some of which came from early Uber investor Shervin Pishevar's Sherpa Ventures, and says it's "committed to fixing the largest broken market in the world." Pishevar has made the Uber connection explicit: "Much like Uber revolutionized personal transportation, Beepi is revolutionizing the way we think about buying and selling cars."
Here's how Beepi works, more or less: it's a "peer-to-peer marketplace" where buyers and sellers of used cars can find each other. If you want to sell your car, Beepi sends someone out to inspect it, take photos, and — if it isn't too old, and if it doesn't have too many miles on it, and if it's the right brand, and if it passes a rigorous inspection — list it on the site. (They're very picky about which cars they agree to broker—"Beepi cherry-picks newer cars in good shape," the San Francisco Chronicle wrote last year.) A buyer can then come along, look at the photos, read the inspection report, and lay claim to the car. When a sale is made, Beepi picks up the car from the seller, gives it a final touch-up, and delivers it to the buyer's home or office wrapped in a large bow, like the ones you see in Mercedes commercials. Beepi takes 9 percent of the sale price, and gives the buyer a 10-day trial period in which to tool around and test the car out. (There are no test drives before you buy, and no haggling — the price on the site is what you pay.) If you hate the car, you return it and get your money back. And if you like it, it's yours. Beepi takes care of the DMV paperwork, gets your license plates mailed to you, helps you finance the car through one of its banking partners, and gives you a three-month guarantee on top of whatever's left of the manufacturer's warranty.
Beepi has had to work hard to convince customers to trust its process. After all, buying a car from a start-up, sight unseen, is way different than ordering lunch from Postmates. But Beepi has gotten generally positive reviews, and it's in what I like to call the "growth halo" — the period at the beginning of a start-up's life when it tries extra-hard to win market share by, basically, being way too nice to customers.
Most of the cars on Beepi's site were out of my price range. Beepi only accepts late-model cars with relatively low mileage, and, in the Bay Area, that means a lot of $40,000 BMWs and $50,000 Range Rovers. But I did find one car — a Hyundai Elantra — that was cheaper than most, and that came with a lot of the features I was looking for.
Beepi doesn't skimp on information about its cars. On the Hyundai's listing page was a short biography of the seller, along with the reasons he was selling it. The vehicle history report was included, which showed me whether the car had been in any accidents. (It hadn't.) Also included was an inspection report and a diagram of where, exactly, any dings and scratches on the car were located, along with photos of the affected regions.
This was all pretty impressive. Still, despite Beepi's honesty, I was skeptical. This was, after all, the Internet, the natural habitat for false advertisers and scammers. Who the hell buys a car online without seeing it?
I bookmarked the site and, for the next few days, I did some more looking at traditional, offline dealerships. And it was horrible. Pushy salespeople calling me at night, listings that miraculously got more expensive the minute I asked about them, vague promises to "hook me up" with special deals and financing packages. Eventually, in a fit of exhaustion, I went back to Beepi. The Hyundai was in good condition. It got excellent reviews. And it was cheaper, by a thousand dollars or so, than similar cars I'd found at a dealership. I pulled the trigger late on a Saturday night.
The next morning, I got a call from a friendly Beepi agent, who walked me through the delivery process. The car would be ready in four or five days, she said, and I could have it delivered at my convenience. (True to tech start-up form, the Beepi customer service team ends its e-mails with a cutesy sign-off: "Beep Beep.")
Later that week, at a pre-arranged time, the car pulled up in my driveway with a white bow on its hood and two Beepi workers inside. They showed me around the car, which looked amazing. Even the few dimples and dings it had been listed as having had been ironed out by Beepi's detailers ahead of time. The bow on the hood got me some odd looks from my neighbors (one would later tell me he thought there was a quinceañera party nearby). But on the whole, it appeared in perfect working order. I signed a few papers, took it for a spin around the block, and said goodbye to the Beepi guys. They even gave me a tin of Beepi-branded M&Ms, along with a miniature plush car to keep on my dashboard.
Beepi has some challenges ahead, as a business. For starters, traditional car dealerships are fighting hard against Tesla and other companies that are threatening their dominance—a fight that could easily extend to Beepi and its ilk. Beepi could struggle to keep its customer service level consistent as it opens up in more cities. (Right now, it's only in the Bay Area, though it's opening in L.A. and Phoenix soon.) It's already got an armada of competitors, from Tred to Shift to Carlypso, waiting to take the air out of its tires. And, as with all "platform" start-ups that don't fully control their own inventory, Beepi will have to ensure that its listings remain top-notch, since it bears a lot of the reputational risk of a bad sale. (If a Beepi car ends up being a lemon, in other words, the buyer will blame Beepi, even though Beepi was technically just the broker, not the seller.)
But as "Uber for X" start-ups go, Beepi is one of the best ones I've patronized. It's addressing a real problem — shitty, sketchy used car dealerships that prey on the under-informed — and offering a slick solution that feels safer and more risk-free than I expected. It's a good bet for lazy people like me, or anyone who doesn't feel comfortable haggling with a salesman in person.
I've had my car for two weeks now, and it's been great so far. I even took it to my mechanic for a second opinion—he was so impressed by the car's condition that he asked where I'd gotten it, and if they had any more cars available. Of course, there are risks inherent in the platform-only model of buying and selling things, especially when they're as expensive as cars. (One risk: as these platforms scale quickly, they can have quality control issues—like how today's UberX drivers tend to be less experienced than early UberX drivers.)
But for the moment, I'm very glad I used Beepi. And I'm very glad that the used-car industry, an industry that sorely needs some good old-fashioned disruption, is going to have to try a little harder in the coming years.