Driving Social Change One Vehicle at a Time with OpenAuto App Founder Souren Khetcho

Are entrepreneurs born or shaped?

This is the age-old question that begs the attention of many social psychologists and business enthusiasts across the world.

Entrepreneurs are often outliers by nature— a blend of intense curiosity in which they explore through experimentation and creation. Their deep desire to create solutions for problems (that most people wouldn’t even think of) tends to lead them to stray away from the conventional job trajectory, and instead, build systems from scratch. These systems then result in products, teams, and services. And because the monetary reward is often very insignificant at the beginning of this journey, sometimes for years, many tend to look at their endeavors as something outrageous and risky.

When we spoke to Souren Khetcho, a tech entrepreneur, Syrian refugee, and founder of Zappy.ca among other innovative startups, this question sprung immediately to mind. An eloquent speaker, evidently cheerful, yet humble about his feats in the short amount of time he went from having nothing to having built an NLP and voice processing solution, Vocally,  and having part ownership in several auto and transmission shops across the greater Vancouver area.

Khetcho had fled several war-torn homes in his early days, landing safely in Canada in August 2015, without a speck of English. These days, he’s working arduously on the latest venture, OpenAuto, an app that is designed to transform the way people get their vehicles serviced and returned to them.

This is the story of how curiosity and adversity led Souren to not only create a new life for himself in a country across the world but how he intends to impact future generations through technology.

Interviewer: How do you think your experience as a refugee from a war-torn country contributed to your career as an entrepreneur?

Souren: My family and I were refugees because of the war in Syria. We had lost our homes right when it became a fire zone between the Syrian military and the opposition forces. There was a period of time when we used to dodge sniper bullets on a daily basis. I got shot at, and twice, I escaped bombs that were going off 10-15 meters away from us.

It reached a point where economically we couldn’t sustain ourselves. We had no food, no electricity, and no water for very extended periods of time. That’s why we left and we became UN refugees in Lebanon. Then, we came to Canada around seven years ago in 2015.

When you’ve been through such harsh adversities, you develop a certain kind of resilience. The things people usually find challenging or perceive as a hindrance, I personally think it’s manageable to overcome and to keep going.

I think resilience is critical if you want to be successful in any type of entrepreneurial pursuit.

Interviewer: How did you get started in tech?

I didn’t have a laptop, but I had a cell phone at the time. I was able to borrow internet from our neighbors, and I used to spend 10 hours a day by the window because that’s where I could get the most internet connection. I would try to download YouTube videos on how to write software and different hacking methodologies. That’s how I got into cybersecurity.

Interviewer: What led you to start auto shops in Vancouver, Canada?

Souren: It’s a journey that began with our first software company. I built Vocally with my co-founder who already owned a few auto transmission shops. 

When we started Vocally, we were building voice machine-learning algorithms. We were successful on the taxi dispatching side, then, we started getting into the hospitality industry. 

The technology facilitated conversations and fulfilled requests in customer service areas like the hotel front desk. For example, if a customer asked for a towel or something else, this process would be automated. 

That’s how we got started, and then we came across an opportunity. One of Vancouver’s larger privately owned repair shops was about to shut down. We got a wind out of that news, and we decided, “Why not negotiate with the owners to sell it to us?”

It was a great start for us because we saw a great opportunity in the auto industry, You start to develop this sense of noticing certain opportunities within different industries, that you know are under-innovated.

For this opportunity, in particular, it was intuition mixed with opportunity. `

We acquired the shop, started with zero staff, and had to put new technology in place because they were using outdated systems that are 20 to 30 years old. Going through a journey like that was eye-opening.  

Then, we attempted to integrate Vocally’s technology into streamlining the conversation between customers and the front-desk staff as well as between the front-desk staff and the shop floor mechanics.

Then we noticed that as a startup, there’s nowhere for us to really plug our technology in. There’s no infrastructure that’s built for the auto industry. We developed relationships with other repair shops, and we noticed this trend that there’s really no technology and it’s difficult to penetrate the market, but once you crack that egg, nobody’s leaving you. That’s why we decided to build OpenAuto as a bedrock for future startups to build on top of us.

Interviewer: What are some major challenges your current customers face with the conventional repair shop model? How do you aim to solve them?

OpenAuto app
Mockup of OpenAuto App, with permission Souren Khetcho.

Souren: You can ask anyone with a car this question, “What do you do when your car breaks down? Or when you need to maintain it?” Almost all of them will respond by either calling the shop, the dealer, or the mechanic. If it’s a mechanic or a dealer, usually it’s within a three to five-kilometer vicinity (equivalent of a 5 to 10-minute drive).

This usually requires people to book some time off, and wait around for a few hours until their car is ready to get picked up.

With the OpenAuto app, it reduces this friction between the customer and getting their car repaired. All you have to do is pull up the app, select the services you want, and order.

We’ll collect the vehicle from you, and on the app, you can see your driver, where your car is, and the ETA.

These repair shops are pre-vetted so that we can guarantee the quality of the repair. 

You don’t have to gamble on which mechanic you want to go to, and you will be able to receive live status updates on your vehicle. 

All your records are maintained in a single place. One hassle that vehicle owners have is that their maintenance papers are all over the place when it comes time for them to sell their cars.

They have to go through the books to find it and call multiple mechanics. These problems become irrelevant when you have a platform that guarantees you quality and transparency and provides you a way to maintain your vehicle in more of a 2022 model as opposed to the 1980s.

We are not only empowering the person who owns the vehicle but helping the shops by bringing them to a city layer rather than a neighborhood layer. Think about it, if you are a business owner in the auto industry, 95% of your customers are coming within 5 to 10 kilometers, max.

When you become part of a network like OpenAuto, then it’s irrelevant where your customers come from. We are doing the deliveries. Now you’re competing on a city layer rather than a neighborhood layer. As a result, it’s the best ones that rise to the top. Instead of having access to maybe 30,000  to 100,000 people, now you have access to 2.5 to 3 million people. As a business, your exposure to new audiences increases tenfold.

Interviewer: Can you tell us more about how the app, OpenAuto will work? How much thought have you given to UX?

Souren: We just submitted our app for review today, and we are expecting that it will go through so we can publish our app.

The OpenAuto app has two sides for consumers. One is a fleet management platform, and the other is a consumer application. The way that we have built the application is based on what our initial expectations were around what the customer’s needs were going to be based on our experience and on our interactions with our preexisting customers.

I have worked in my own shop as a service advisor to get an idea of what people want and what they need.

That has essentially enriched my understanding of the customer’s needs in this market. The app is tailored to provide an experience to the customer that negates these problems that have been highlighted.

Interviewer: Besides funding, do you foresee any other challenges with the venture?

Souren: There are a few problems that exist. We want to know to what extent people are willing to go for them to actually address these issues. What’s the breaking point in dollar figures when it comes to us testing the market further with our own platform? 

We found through our MVP that availability is the primary issue. In second place, is the pick-up and drop-off process. That realization brings a new perspective on what people actually value and where we should drive our focus.

In terms of what the dominant feature will be, there’s still a layer of ambiguity involved as to the validity of the problem, especially after product deployment.

The funding part is a lot less difficult after you’re able to validate your offer on the market and identify what the root issues are.

The problem is much more fundamental than just funding. 

For example, how much is it really going to cost us to acquire a customer? What are our customers going to look like? Are we only attracting certain types of customers and not others?

Ambiguity is probably the biggest problem we’re going to have. Coming up with strategies to reduce ambiguity is going to be the solution.

Interviewer: How do you plan to market the app? 

Souren: We’ve tested our MVP by sending a text message after every call that we finish, or after every call we missed. We used a live chat function for this, and we changed the options often to see what people were actually picking. 

Then in the back end, we’re able to gather that information and develop a flow chart, where it shows us that 80% of people selected this, and out of these people, 100% or 90% of them selected this option and then this option.

That’s how we identify how people rank their needs.

The adoption of the first thousand customers would come from our existing customer base. We would send out texts that encourage them to book their next service with the OpenAuto link to the app.

After that is when I think a more generalist approach to marketing becomes more relevant. We can physically mail people in our database an invitation to download the app.

Our preliminary strategy is to get as many people as possible to download the app, and also collect feedback.

For the fleets, the strategy is a bit different. We are going to actively reach out to them starting from the ones we currently service. Then, we’ll build out our network through referrals.

I think that the fleets management platform is a little bit more tricky just because it’s a B2B approach and it’s a multi-vehicle company. You’re dealing with a single point of contact and you want to make that person happy for them to keep working with you.

Interviewer: What’s your personal definition of success?

Souren: I think making a dent in society from your perspective to see how things could be different and better. It gives you the legacy of impacting future generations as well. That’s what I think success is. Not just leaving a legacy and being able to create an impact that would definitely affect the near future, for example, operating a startup, but initiatives that could impact the future of humanity in a direction that lasts beyond the human lifespan. Like an infinite game.

I think a lot of scientists and physicists are able to fit my definition of success. For example, no one can argue that Newton didn’t cause a lasting impact. By no means was he wealthy in his lifetime, but he created an impact that lasted beyond his lifetime. I think having monetary access only magnifies impact to an extreme level, and it’s a combination of wealth and impact that is required to scale your mission to help future generations. 


Conclusion: Creating a Lasting Impact through Small Steps

Young people these days often have grandeur dreams of changing the world—and although these visions are commendable, it’s often hard to execute what they sought to do.

Often overlooked are the efforts of small business owners, who aim to provide services, prosperity, and ease of access at the community level.

Khetcho’s own aspirations reflect not only a deep, moral obligation to contribute to society, but is an example of how taking concrete actions by leveraging one’s skills and interests, can cause a ripple effect in society; in ways that were unexpected. Although the path of a tech entrepreneur is long and fairly difficult, it is those who have the greatest passion and skill for whatever they create that will prevail.

As to the question of whether entrepreneurs are born or shaped, it may be a little bit of both, however, the most important factor still remains one’s ability to follow through on what they’ve committed to, and the frequency in which they’re able to do this, whether they fail or succeed.

So yes, although there are people who are naturally more curious and grittier even as children, the future lies a lot in your court.

Souren is among the 300,000 new immigrants that arrive in Canada each year and are in search of a better future. It goes to show how far one can get through pure determination and the ability to recognize and execute upon opportunities.

This is certainly one of the many steps toward impact he will make in his lifetime.

Naomi Peng
Naomi Peng
Naomi is a business journalist who specializes in crafting the most inspiring stories about entrepreneurs, the startup world, and investment trends.