Tekion CEO Jay Vijayan could have spent the bulk of his working career as a politician in Tamil Nadu, the southern Indian state where he grew up, and where his father served as a veteran leader for the Indian National Congress party. Instead, he went into business, made his way to Silicon Valley, and rubbed shoulders with Elon Musk as Tesla’s chief information officer.
His father wholeheartedly agreed with Vijayan’s career plans. In fact, the elder Vijayan encouraged his son to steer clear of politics, a piece of advice Vijayan is grateful for. “I felt I wouldn’t have gotten exposed to the world as much,” Vijayan says. “I wouldn’t have learned as much about technology or business. It might have been a completely different direction.”
After spending four years at Tesla, Vijayan took everything he learned and built a company, Tekion, to replace the automotive world’s love of paper forms and lengthy waits at dealerships with the transmission of an eCommerce sale pipeline. Tekion’s array of software products link manufacturers to dealerships, car buyers to mechanics, and provides everyone involved with a dashboard of data.
Vijayan spoke to the Star during a brief stay in Toronto in late June:
What’s the worst experience you’ve had in a dealership?
This was much before my Tesla time. I was interested in buying a BMW. So, I did all of my homework on what type of BMW — my first BMW — that I was going to buy. I knew exactly what car I wanted, and I had my price range as well. My guess was that it would take maybe one or two hours to go get the car I want. I was very clear on colour, choice — about 95 per cent. Still, it took a gruelling six to eight hours. My wife and I were so frustrated. We were in the dealership going back and forth for small things.
I was ready to pay and get it done. But the salesperson had to talk to their finance manager. Then they needed to talk to their general sales manager. Then I needed to buy a service package for the next five years. Then there was signing documents. As a tech guy, I was thinking, ‘why the heck should it be this way? Why can it be different?’
The car industry has been around for 120 years at this point. We’ve had computers for 30-40 years. Why do you think it took the industry this long to come up with the platform Tekion developed?
Vehicles are a need. People have to buy them. There was not a lot of incentive for companies to go do something differently. Many companies, including known manufacturing brands, tried to do car sales online. What they didn’t do was create a comprehensive end-to-end system. You can create a pretty website, but it only goes so far. This industry is quite complex. You can solve it for the consumer — what happens after that? What happens to credit checks, what happens to applying for a loan, what happens to uploading all of your documents?
I can buy $30,000 worth of eCommerce on Amazon or other sites. Consumers wonder why their car-buying experience should be different. And it’s a need. Everyone uses cars. I feel two things have changed — technology and the automotive industry. Both are coming together now. I feel we are delivering a solution. People feel like they need to do something to be relevant not only today, but in the future. That’s the value proposition.
What can your software do that the most experienced salesperson on the planet can’t?
It can complement a salesperson significantly. Machine learning and artificial intelligence can create system models about a product, about a consumer behaviour, consumer needs. Put simply, personalization. A salesperson definitely learns a lot of things through experience, but there is no way for them to think about all of the hundred permutations of products, services, accessories, and subscriptions they will need for the vehicle. Also, the trim, make, model, speed — all kinds of specifications.
It also makes the consumer feel like they’re in control. If I’m sitting at my home, and I start doing my shopping, the system automatically starts making recommendations. This is not new. Companies have been doing this for a long time, but more on the specific context — presenting the right products and right services to the consumer. At the end of the day, the consumer makes the choice.
It’s not about money. Money is usually the second or third-most important factor when buying, sometimes even below that. What consumers care more about, number one, is time. Their time is very valuable in today’s world. They also feel transparency is important. And they want to be in control. They want to make the decision. Most customers don’t trust the salesperson. They feel they’re going to be sold something they don’t want. The computer might do the same thing — but the consumer may trust it because, at the end of the day, they’re going to make the final decision.
Condidering the price of gas, how do you sell a car in a world where ownership has gone from ‘expensive’ to ‘obscenely expensive’?
Well, people are still buying. Dealers are making a lot of money; manufacturers are making a lot of money. Just the inventories are short. There is a chip shortage. But consumers are buying a lot more cars. Not in numbers, in dollars. The average price has gone up significantly. The supply is low, the demand is high.
But it should be more affordable. Even electric vehicles should be more affordable. The prices can come down. I think, over the next few years, the inventory problems will ease up. It has to. People are working hard on it. I know people are predicting it will ease up in six to 18 months. It will cater to the demand, so the prices will normalize.
Tekion has very few salespeople — I remember reading that out of 1,350 employees last year, just 17 were salespeople.
It’s low even today. For a staff of 2,000 people, we have 18 in sales.
How the heck do you manage that?
One, we have a phenomenal sales team. Second, we have a phenomenal platform. Yes, every product needs the right people to sell it, but the product has to be very strong. The biggest thing that helps us is that we have a stellar platform, and our customers talk about it. Word-of-mouth is significant. I shouldn’t say the product pretty sells itself, but it gets close.
You were the chief information officer of Tesla at one point. How much of Tekion’s platform came from lessons you learned when you were working for Tesla?
Tesla’s focus on consumer experience was the biggest inspiration for me when I was there. How do you deliver the best seamless experience for consumers? That was very clear from Elon Musk’s perspective, from Tesla’s perspective. For me, that was a glaring difference from the rest of the automotive industry. It’s not that people didn’t think about the customer perspective — but it wasn’t the primary concern.
That gave me a clearer of view. Why shouldn’t customer experience be the number one concern — then solve all the problems that prevent a company from delivering the best consumer experience?
Tesla’s executive turnover is very, very high. 44 per cent of all executives who report to Elon Musk directly leave within a year. You stayed for four years. How?
It was tough for the first six months to a year — truly understanding the mission and vision of Tesla. Once I did that, I felt like it was a phenomenal experience in every way. But it was an intense experience, no doubt. It is ‘Mission Impossible.’ There are impossible targets to achieve. But when you related them to why we did something, it made sense. Maybe you’d achieve in four or five months what you hoped to achieve in three months. You’d at least get closer to your target.
Like weightlifters who will purposely lift more than they think they can handle.
It’s a very good example. Whether it’s your brain or your muscles — the more you work them, the more they break down and the more they grow. Many times, you have to break barriers and grow your strength in order to achieve your potential.
What plans do you have for Canada as a whole?
We are hiring in Canada and continuing to expand. We are building more and more partnerships. We’ve got more certification approvals from manufacturing brands. But we have significant expansion plans, literally doubling the size of our workforce. Immediately after the U.S., Canada is the next biggest market for us to expand into.
We also opened two new offices in the last year — one in Ohio, another in Austin. And then we opened an office in Canada, and then in Bangalore and Chennai. Bangalore is one of the largest team sizes, purely from a product and engineering side.
Is your intent to be a company without a centre — where you have stuff going on around the world?
It’s intentional. India is exactly 12 hours ahead of U.S. Pacific Time. Work literally happens 24/7. It’s a big advantage for us. So, we move really fast. It’s a nice setup for us that way. The goal has always been to be a global company. We are expanding in Canada. We just started in Europe as well — in France. We have employees there, and we have big partnerships.
Does your phone go off in the middle of the night with notifications from Chennai and Bangalore?
Good question. Yes — but we have a very, very good setup. Having a good structure, good people and good leaders means I don’t have to wake up. I did that for the first two years of the company. Now, unless there is a real situation, other people take care of it.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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