At a glance
With more than a billion cars worldwide, a trip to the mechanic’s workshop to get a replacement part fitted is an everyday activity for drivers around the globe.
But under the hood lies a landscape of incredible complexity.
There are more than 85 billion auto parts globally, produced by thousands of different makers, in different locations, to different standards, all referred to in different ways. And new, tweaked versions are constantly being added.
Would you know where your vehicle was manufactured, for example, and in which month? Is it the model produced in June, or the October iteration? And if the October part from that location would fit in the June model, or vice versa?
Get just one of many complex aspects of the data related to a part wrong and the replacement might not fit (and, importantly, work).
It’s a situation that, to date, has made it difficult to buy and sell auto parts online. But Christchurch-based startup Partly is on a mission to rein in this complexity – and digitally disrupt the $1.9 trillion auto parts market in the process.
“We’re taking this incredibly complex and unstructured data and structuring it into one core, centralised database,” explains Partly Co-founder and Chief Operating Officer Nathan Taylor.
“Then we’re providing access to that database to automotive manufacturers, distributors and marketplaces around the world, enabling automotive fitment parts to be easily bought and sold online.”
Around 18 months since its launch, Partly already has a database of more than 55 million types of auto parts that can be accurately matched to vehicles, capturing an estimated 20% of available part types.
The database underpins the business’ two products: Partly API, which can power parts-matching capability on customers’ websites; and PartsPal – an e-commerce product for auto parts sellers. Delivered as a Software-as-a-Service solution, PartsPal is aimed at dealership owners and smaller manufacturers and distributors, allowing them to easily start selling parts online. “Basically, PartsPal can power their e-commerce website out of a box,” says Taylor.
Partly’s products are currently sold in 13 countries and are aimed at everyone from manufacturers wanting to sell directly to customers, to parts distributors wanting to streamline supply chains, to automotive dealers and dismantlers.
Finding the friction
It’s been a wild ride for the Partly team, which pivoted into the market after uncovering the opportunity through their previous business – online marketplace AllGoods.
AllGoods aimed to help Kiwi SMEs get online by offering them an e-commerce presence through the marketplace.
“We grew it to a moderately successful business, with 50,000 monthly users, and about 1,000 businesses that we were helping,” says Taylor. “But we really realised it wasn’t going to be easy to scale globally, and we had quite high ambitions as founders.”
Helping 1,000 businesses get online, however, gave them insights into a variety of pain points, particularly for automotive parts businesses.
“These businesses were having to spend a substantial amount of time listing a part because of this fitment problem, but when they were able to list a part, they were incredibly successful. We had people in Canada buy parts from a small business in Invercargill, simply because those parts hadn’t previously been available online.”
Sensing an opportunity, the team successfully applied for an $80,000 Callaghan Innovation Project Grant to undertake R&D to see if they could relieve the pain points of those buying and selling automotive parts online.
“The R&D work actually turned out to be more of a scoping exercise,” says Taylor, “because through that process we discovered that this fitment issue is actually a massive global problem, which looks like it’s going to be solvable but will require a lot more upfront R&D.”
The process ultimately led them to pivot around 18 months ago, shutting down AllGoods and focusing on Partly.
“That initial Callaghan Innovation Project Grant gave us the ability to explore this opportunity, and the confidence to pivot. It provided the proof we needed to commit to solving this problem.”
Foot to the floor
Even from its earliest stages, says Taylor, Partly began attracting market interest from substantial potential customers globally, and it is also attracting significant investor interest.
In August last year, Partly raised $1.7 million from a consortium of investors including Blackbird Ventures, Hillfarrance Ventures, Icehouse Ventures, and angel investors such as Peter Beck – co-founder of RocketLab, where Partly CEO Levi Fawcett formerly worked in the senior engineering team.
The complex nature of the market problem Partly is trying to solve means attracting talented staff is also key, and the business has accessed both an R&D Experience Grant and an R&D Career Grant to take on students. “They’ve been amazing people who we ended up hiring, and who are still with us today,” says Taylor.
Partly now has 16 employees – 80% of whom are focused on R&D – and is being assisted by another Callaghan Innovation Project Grant. It is also drawing on the expertise of the agency’s Data Insights team to help solve some of its core data problems.
“We're in need of some of the smartest minds in the country to work on these data problems and are pleased that the Callaghan Innovation data team are able to provide some of those people.”
Taylor says R&D is focused on proving three points: that Partly can solve the fitment problem to the extent that it provides significant value to customers; that the technology significantly improves conversion rates for customers, with more people ultimately buying parts; and that the solution can ultimately impose order upon the industry.
“What you hopefully end up with is this strong network effect. And that’s ultimately what’s going to drive change.”
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Updated: 12 July 2021