IN FOCUS: Small Business – Blaze of glory

Posted on Jul 1, 2013 :: Small Business Spotlight
Sharon Verbeten
Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

DealerFire, founded by Eric Hoopman, works with 2,000 auto dealers nationwide. Photo courtesy of DealerFire.

With degrees in French and finance, Eric Hoopman has traveled and lived many places – and although he eventually returned home to Oshkosh, he followed a career path into technology because he “thought it would free up the opportunity to work and travel.”

Indeed it has for 38-year-old Hoopman, founder of DealerFire, an Oshkosh firm that develops software, creates websites and specializes in social media campaigns for the automotive industry. “That’s the beauty of IT (information technology); you need ideas, drive and a laptop… and the ability to sell,” he says.

Hoopman is confident his geographic wanderings have helped him create a business that has shown steady growth in the past decade.

“Early on, I worked to travel and traveled to find new and inspiring places to work,” he says, noting that he has lived and worked in France, Germany, Spain and Costa Rica and has travelled to Mexico, Central America, Western Europe, Southeast Asia, North Africa and Central Asia.

“Get out and experience the world a bit,” he says. “There’s so much inspiration and great ideas out there ripe to be brought back to Wisconsin.”


Finding a niche

While the automotive industry is huge, Hoopman still believes DealerFire has a solid niche in what it does. “I think we’re well established,” he says. “I’m very happy we selected a niche with a big market potential.”

Hoopman had been working in the technology field, including as a sales engineer for IBM during the boom (and, later, bust), but in 2004, he gained an automotive website contract, and that changed the focus of his business.

DealerFire started with a mere six to eight clients in 2004, but by 2009, the company had tuned up its Web platform, earning it an Automotive Website Award from PCG Consulting. For the past two years, DealerFire has also received the Pinnacle Award, the highest honor possible for automotive website providers, as well as a customer feedback/support award in 2012.

Today, DealerFire works with 2,000 auto dealers throughout North America, with about 100 in Wisconsin. DealerFire now has 75 employees, with 54 in Oshkosh and account managers throughout the nation, as well as a software programmer/developer in Uzbekistan.

“We have a subsidiary or branch office located in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and one forming in Kaliningrad, Russia,” says Hoopman. “Our international team of talented designers and developers currently numbers 15. It started with a freelance project and one developer six years ago, and has grown into a wonderful international partnership over the years.”

Among DealerFire’s local clients is Broadway Automotive in Green Bay. Mercedes Mannino of Broadway deals directly with DealerFire.

“Their entire team does a great job of collaborating with me,” Mannino noted in an email. “The ultimate objective is maximizing performance within our industry. DealerFire is less of a vendor of mine; they are more of a partner.”

Starting the firm wasn’t too much of a leap for Hoopman, who credits his family with spawning his business acumen. “My mom was very fiscally taught, and my dad was very entrepreneurial,” he says. “I was exposed at that level, but otherwise, it was really trial and error.” He used credit cards, savings and a small line of credit from U.S. Bank to fund his venture.

“When we started out, it was not as competitive,” Hoopman says. “And not everyone had a website.” Now the field of providers has tripled, so it’s a lot more competitive.

Creating proprietary software has ultimately helped DealerFire succeed. “I think we’re right on track; we’re happy on all three sides – product, service and revenue,” Hoopman says.

While there are many platforms that allow dealers to build websites on the fly, Hoopman says they build from the ground up. He adds that DealerFire is one of the first original equipment manufacturers on Toyota’s short list of preferred vendors, based on results from their represented dealers.

“We are one of the few legitimate custom providers,” Hoopman says. “A lot of our business focuses on helping the dealer as an entity.”

To that end, a team of writers, content developers, compliancy experts and account managers work behind the scenes – creating solid, effective content, ensuring manufacturer compliance, and providing dealers with analytics and other valuable marketing feedback. “There’s a very sophisticated system of feeds,” Hoopman says, which includes things like dealer inventory updates, often in real time.

In addition, DealerFire is now gearing up its app development team. “Now the potential is in mobile,” says Hoopman.

When the automotive industry stumbled around 2007 and 2008, “everyone was forced to do more with less,” Hoopman says. But ultimately, that downturn worked in DealerFire’s favor. “There was a shift in digital advertising budgets,” he says, with more dealers using some of their budgets for social media marketing and content development. “That money started to come to businesses like ours.”

With society “100 percent all in” digitally, as Hoopman believes, DealerFire remains progressive in its pitches to potential clients. And that’s his advice for both automotive dealers as well as for others, like him, looking to launch their own business.

“You’ve got to be ready to adjust your course, especially in technology. If you approach technology with, ‘This is how we’ve done it in the past,’ I think you get squashed.”