Avi Steinlauf: CEO of Edmunds.com

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Avi Steinlauf is the CEO for car-buying platform Edmunds.com, and he sits on the company’s Board of Directors. Before joining Edmunds in 1998, Steinlauf was a Senior Industry Analyst for Coopers & Lybrand’s Knowledge Strategies Group in New York. Since 2006, Steinlauf has been on the board of the Online Publishers’ Association. He is also a member of the Young Presidents Organization (YPO) and serves as the Communications Chairman for YPO’s Automotive Network. Steinlauf earned his MBA degree from the J. L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management at Northwestern University and his bachelor’s degree from Yeshiva College.

How did you get into the Auto/Tech industry?

Coming out of business school in 1998 and after working at Intel, I knew I wanted to be in the tech space. Around that time, my father, who owned Edmunds, was just starting to take the company online. While I had other opportunities on my plate, I was really attracted to the challenge of building an Internet company from the ground floor. Back then we had about 20 people in a virtual environment distributed throughout the country with Edmunds. Seventeen years and nearly 600 employees later, it's been an incredible journey to build the established Internet brand we are today. And the exciting part for me is that there is so much more room to grow.

Tell us about Edmunds.com. What inspired the idea and what is your vision for the company?

Edmunds.com is a car buying platform that makes shopping easier for both consumers and dealers. We have over 19 million shoppers a month who engage with us.  Since 1966, Edmunds has been one of the most trusted sources of automotive data, pricing and information. Our mission now and moving forward is to use our wealth of data and technology to develop innovative products that make each step of the car shopping process better for both buyers and sellers.

What strategic partnerships/marketing strategies have you implemented that have attributed to Edmunds.com's success?

Our 15,000 dealer franchise partners have been exceptionally valuable to us. Not only have we helped them with providing tools and products to better do business with online and mobile car shoppers, but they have played a pivotal role in advising us in the development of those products.

What industry trends are you noticing and how do you capitalize on them?

The biggest trend that stands out is the shift to mobile. Consumers are increasingly relying on their smartphones for every step of the car shopping process, and we're playing an active part in this changing tide. The share of mobile visitors to our site has more than doubled in the last two years. We're meeting a critical challenge by developing tools to help these mobile shoppers and to help dealers better interact and service them. One basic but important example: we recently integrated an SMS text messaging solution that allows shoppers to reach out to dealers via text, and allows dealers to respond and manage those communications in a seamless and efficient way.

Life Motto?

Rebel constructively. There's a virtue to being disruptive, but it's important to do it in a productive way that yields a better result. If you disrupt an industry and it only leads to chaos, that doesn't do anyone much good.

Edmunds.com's Motto?

For shoppers, our motto is simple: Buy Smarter. And for dealers it's similar: Sell Smarter. We think we're in a unique position to make car shopping smarter and easier on both sides of the transaction.

Your greatest success as CEO of Edmunds.com? Most difficult moment-how did you overcome and what did you learn?

I look back at how Edmunds navigated through the Great Recession and that was easily our most difficult moment and our finest hour. The automotive industry went from selling 16.5 million new cars down to 10.4 million in just over a year - that's close to a 40% drop. Two of our biggest clients filed for Chapter 11. When their business was controlled by the bankruptcy court we had to find ways to cut expenses.  I'm exceptionally proud that we were able to weather the storm without making cuts to our workforce the way other companies did during that time. When the economy got back on track and automakers recovered, we quickly found ourselves stronger than ever before and back on a growth trajectory. I learned that focusing on the company’s long-term interests and maintaining a sense of optimism can truly pay off.

Your advice to an aspiring entrepreneur?

Bootstrap it for as long as you can. Go it on your own for as long as you can. In a world where it seems like everyone is obsessed with cash injections through venture capital and IPOs, there's something to be said about steady, organic growth. Yes, you need to be patient, but you'll learn a lot about how resourceful and resilient you can be. You'll be much better off for it down the road.

Describe the ideal experience using Edmunds.com.

The ideal experience starts with people coming to Edmunds to research the right car for their needs. From that point they can use our resources to find and compare inventory in their area, lock in a good price, and connect with dealers to finish the transaction. Car shopping does not have to be complicated or stressful. We give shoppers a true soup-to-nuts experience where they come away feeling great about their purchase.

How do you motivate your employees?

We take pride in our office perks, from free food, to company happy hours, to weekly yoga and meditation sessions. We don't require our employees to be in the office during regular business hours. Under our Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) our employees are free to work from anywhere at any time, as long as they deliver results. We've found that if we give our employees the freedom to make their own schedules, they are more productive and they feel better about their work.  I also think it's important as CEO to be a part of the organization, and not above it. I would never ask anyone at the company to do something that I wouldn't be willing to do myself.  We have an open office environment and I sit among my colleagues in the same size desk.

One food and drink left on earth, what would you choose?

I think I could live the rest of my life off Kind bars and a Coke Freestyle machine. I know the Coke machine might be cheating on this question, but we just recently got one in the office, and it's so great to have so many drink choices available at any given time.

What literature is on your bed stand?

I just started reading "How Champions Think in Sports and Life" by Bob Rotella, who's a renowned sports psychologist. There are obvious benefits to learning how champions succeed and I look forward to applying some of those lessons to our own business.

Role model - business and personal?

A.G. Lafley, Chairman and CEO of Procter and Gamble. I had an opportunity to work with him closely between his stints as CEO of P&G, and I really admire his wisdom, intellect and experience in successfully running one of the biggest and most innovative companies in the world.

Current passion?

Between my business and family and travel I really am all-consumed. That said, I always look forward to squeezing in a round of golf with clients whenever I can.

Favorite travel destination?

Bora Bora. I encourage everyone to spend one week of their lives in a bungalow propped up over crystal clear blue water as they stare down a gorgeous view of Mount Otemanu.

What's next for Edmunds.com?

We plan to continue our transformation from a research and shopping destination to a fully-formed automotive platform that exists across all media for shoppers and dealers. To borrow a baseball analogy, we're in the bottom of the second inning and we have a lot of ball left to play...