After rapidly expanding for most of 2016, InstaMek, an auto-mechanic-on-demand business, hit some serious growing pains.
"We grew really fast in a very short period of time, and it wasn't sustainable," says Uzair Ahmed, co-founder and president of the Edmonton-based company, which dispatches mechanics to customers' homes or offices to conduct repairs. "You start having other people show up in your company … people that you don't even like that much – and you don't like going to your own office."
Since Mr. Ahmed and his business were profiled in The Globe and Mail's Small Business Challenge series last February, he has reduced his staff to 12 from 25. He also culled the number of mechanics in the InstaMek system; their growing number had exacerbated his original business challenge concerning how to dispel negative perceptions of the automobile repair industry.
The company had employed 75 mechanics, and now InstaMek, which operates in Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto, Mississauga and Vancouver, has a core full-time team of five to 10 mechanics per city.
"We make sure we only have enough to give them full-time work. That way they are more invested [in company culture]," he says. "It fights the whole trust thing. Fewer things can go wrong, plus they believe in the culture, they believe in everything we do."
This past year has been an important one for InstaMek, which launched in April of 2015. Its customer base grew to about 10,000 from 2,000. Mr. Ahmed said the growth is not the result of increased marketing efforts; instead he credits it to word of mouth and reaching out to and querying potential customers, a move recommended by Rebecca Reuber, professor of strategic management at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, in the Small Business Challenge feature.
Mr. Ahmed says he canvassed both users and non-users, asking what their pain points were and what services they would like to have.
A majority of those questioned were resistant to the idea of having a mechanic work in their driveway. "So I spent a lot of time educating how that's possible."
InstaMek also took advice from Challenge experts to refine its marketing strategy and overhaul the website.
"We changed the copy on the website. We were tying to understand what the user's mindset is when they're going to our website and then address those concerns as they're reading," says Mr. Ahmed. "You'll see the tagline, 'You'd be surprised what we can do' a lot."
Also, between August and December, Mr. Ahmed moved to Toronto to build out operations in the Greater Toronto Area. Inspired by the help he received from other entrepreneurs, he decided to turn his struggles into advice for other ambitious small-business owners.
In December and back in Edmonton, he launched Arctic Venture, which gives founders of early stage startups access to established entrepreneurs through social gatherings, dinners and lectures.
"I was thinking of ways I could give back to my community," he says. "There's so much happening in Toronto and I thought some of this stuff could happen in Edmonton, too."