I have the same car now as I did when I first covered RepairPal in 2008. In fact, I've had my old Saab since I bought it new in 1995. I am not uncommon, I'm told. People are keeping their cars longer. That's what RepairPal's business is based on.
"200,000 miles is the new 100,000," CEO Art Shaw tells me. Not just because the economy sucks and people can't afford new cars, but because cars are built better now, "with precision," Shaw says. And this means that people like me (and probably you) have cars that are out of warranty. We're paying for our own repairs. And where are we going to take them for those repairs? A new RepairPal service helps you find the good shops.
Oddly, RepairPal isn't doing a Yelp on the category. Rather than rating shops based on what happy or upset customers say, RepairPal instead sends questionnaires to shops, audits their answers, and compiles scores based on hard data. This data includes the number of certified master mechanics, the presence of certain diagnostic tools, and the results from customer interviews. (In order to get a score and a certification from RepairPal, the shop has to send a list of customers; RepairPal calls some of them at random).
Shops have to guarantee their work and also not charge above the range for given repairs in their geography.
So RepairPal collects, then manually verifies, crazy amounts of data. It sounds like a terrible business. It just doesn't scale.
But it does, since each shop has to pay to be examined and then to stay on the list. I saw a potential conflict of interest in this: RepairPal is taking money from its customers to evaluate them. Shaw says his metrics are sound and that "they can't buy their way in." To keep people using the site -- and thus to justify the fee for continued inclusion on the directory -- he's going to have to hold true to that, even if it means upsetting the people who pay for the service.
Another challenge: Getting users into the service when they could use it. RepairPal isn't an app you use every day, and it's likely to be forgotten even by those who have downloaded the mobile app. A big SEO push may help. The company is also working on additional features, in the mobile app especially, to lure users back in, even when their cars are running fine. We'll see what these features end up being.
The reward for owning the database of the good (and the unrated) auto repair shops? A piece of the annual $150 billion repair business. That's worth chasing.