The Future of Communication Technology: Zach Klempf of Selly Automotive On How Their Technological Innovation Will Shake Up How We Connect and Communicate With Each Other

Our system can literally give small business owners — busy used car dealership owners — hours of their day back. More than that: Our CRM can act as if they have a virtual assistant, focused entirely on communication and quick outreach to customers in their pipeline.

It’ll keep internet leads engaged with the dealership even when the sales staff is on the lot working with customers. We’re here to help dealers send consistent messaging, too, which will ultimately improve the user experience; no misspellings or unprofessional messaging. Our system is loaded with templates for easy use.

The telephone totally revolutionized the way we could communicate with people all over the world. But then came email and took it to the next level. And then came text messaging. And then came video calls. And so on… What’s next? What’s just around the corner?

In this interview series, called ‘The Future Of Communication Technology’ we are interviewing leaders of tech or telecom companies who are helping to develop emerging communication technologies and the next generation of how we communicate and connect with each other.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Zach Klempf, founder and CEO of Selly Automotive which is an auto dealer vertical focused CRM and communication software startup based out of San Francisco which serves hundreds of dealerships in the US and Canada. Zach sped through school, including time at Emory University, before applying to accelerator programs and going through cohort 4 of Blue Startups. Now, in addition to running his company, Zach hosts a top 100 automotive podcast (iTunes US) and travels the nation providing education workshops to used car dealership state associations.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

ZK: I’ve taken the path less traveled for most of my life. I dropped out of high school in 11th grade, received my GED, and did two years of community college in a year and a half. After that, I transferred to Emory University. By doing so, I saved over $100K in tuition costs and graduated years ahead of my high school peers. When I got to Emory, when I wasn’t in school, I was working at a car dealership. That’s where I discovered the opportunity that led to my company Selly Automotive.

I noticed that the technology the dealership used to run their business was outdated. There wasn’t buy-in from the sales team either to use the technology that the dealership had, or to upgrade to a more efficient system. As I saw this, I was also starting to figure out what I should do after graduation. I ended up moving out to Silicon Valley and working for a SaaS startup while putting together an MVP version of the idea that later became Selly.

I then needed to figure out how to take Selly to the next level. I applied to accelerator programs, got into a couple, and chose Blue Startups in Hawaii. They’re run by Henk Rogers, the guy behind Tetris. After graduating from their program, I got a lot of feedback about our standalone CRM app. We were then able to build it out into a full-scale dealership platform and raise capital from angel investors as well as Blue Ventures. We’ve built Selly up, brick by brick, and now we’re global: We have physical offices in the United States and in the Philippines.

In addition to running Selly, I’ve established myself as a thought leader in the used car industry. I have contributed over a hundred articles to auto trade outlets, I host an industry focused podcast, and I’ve spoken at tons conferences where I educate dealership management about technology and marketing to millennials and Gen Z.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

ZK: When I got accepted into the Blue Startup program, I had to leave everything behind. I had to leave my job. I had to put my whole condo into a small storage unit and then moved out to Hawaii for the program.

A lot of people think that living in Hawaii is glamorous. However, it’s definitely not all sunny beaches; I probably saw the beach two or three times over a four-month accelerator program. I was working 80+ hour weeks to get things off the ground. Think of the Blue Start Ups program like — a targeted, accelerated MBA, specifically for startups. You’re taught about financing, marketing, public speaking, investor relations, everything!

I went from college to a year in Silicon Valley to being the CEO of a startup. Blue Startups armed me with instrumental knowledge and really helped me take Selly from a back-of-the-napkin idea into an essential part of hundreds of dealerships across the US and Canada.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?

ZK: Tony Hsieh, an American entrepreneur and Zappos Founder, once said: “Happiness is really just about four things. Perceived control, perceived progress, connectedness — or the number and depth of your relationships; and vision, or being part of something bigger than yourself.”

Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

ZK: Perception plays a big role in your reality. As a startup founder you may see distracting news of other startups being acquired, raising huge rounds of funding on Tech Crunch. However, it’s important to remember that all of that’s just perception.

For many of the under-30 crowd, we’re caught up in this idea of comparison among peers, of competition that can be toxic. I work hard to control my perception, to focus on what I’m doing, and not let others dictate how I feel or what I do. I also enjoy that Selly’s mission allows me to participate in a community far bigger than just myself.

The entrepreneur’s life can also be a lonely one. Prioritizing my relationships has also kept me sane through a lot of testing times.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

ZK: Blue Startups was instrumental in getting Selly to where it is today. When I came into Blue Startups, I was in my early twenties. I’d only been out of school for a year or so. Suddenly, I was part of a close-knit accelerator program. There were a few people at Blue Startup that were mentors to me, including Jeff Kraatz, a close advisor to Selly, and Ryne Sitar, who went on to become the VP of Product and Co-founder at Selly; he was introduced to me through Jeff.

Can you share a story about that?

ZK: Blue Startups was the first investor in Selly. Chenoa Farnsworth, the managing director, Henk Rogers, and the rest of the Blue Start Ups team helped us get off the ground. They helped us navigate financing, company building, and coached me with public speaking which at first, I was a little intimidated by. Now, I’ve spoken before huge audiences over five hundred attendees, and I have Blue Startups to thank for that.

Another helpful part of Blue Startups was the access to network and community. Not only do you have access to the founders in your class or cohort, but you also have access to the entire community of Blue Startups companies for mentorship and networking. We still connect, help each other, talk shop on Slack, and guide each other through the challenging situations.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

ZK: From a business standpoint, we’re providing dealerships with a system to manage all of their communication in one place. This constitutes a massive upgrade from pen and paper which many were using before. It adds efficiency, it allows them to run leaner with lower overhead, and it gives them back hours of their time back through automation.

Increased competition like Carvana are putting a lot of pressure on more traditional dealerships to make the shift to digital retail. At Selly, we’re doing our part to keep smaller dealerships in the game; many of these are staples in their communities and do a lot of good contrary to negative stereotypes of used car dealerships.

From a community standpoint, we’re educating dealers all over the nation from multiple generations on how they can more efficiently run their business through technology. We created guides, best practices, and other helpful information for dealers as well as state associations.

Okay wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about the cutting edge communication tech that you are working on?

ZK: The Selly platform manages communication and a dealer’s workflow. That includes texting, email, 3rd party leads, inbound and outbound calls — you name it.

Think about a typical car dealership — a small, often family-owned business. The people who work there wear multiple hats. They have limited time to be tethered to a desktop computer. We’re simplifying a lot of their communication through our smart automated technology.

For example, we’ve noticed that texting has become a big deal with dealerships post pandemic. Data shows us that texts are often a better way to communicate than emails — they’re more consistently read. Smaller auto dealers don’t have a lot of time to monitor inbound communication — and they don’t want their sales staff using their personal phones (that can get unsafe or non- TCPA compliant very quickly). One of the things we offer is a smart, automated texting solution. This makes the average car dealer’s day much, much easier: The system knows about inventory being in-stock versus out of stock. If a lead comes in after-hours a different response will be sent than during normal business hours. We have tons of pre-loaded templates for common conversations like a credit app. It is set-it-and-forget-it as well!

How do you think that will help people?

ZK: Our system can literally give small business owners — busy used car dealership owners — hours of their day back. More than that: Our CRM can act as if they have a virtual assistant, focused entirely on communication and quick outreach to customers in their pipeline.

It’ll keep internet leads engaged with the dealership even when the sales staff is on the lot working with customers. We’re here to help dealers send consistent messaging, too, which will ultimately improve the user experience; no misspellings or unprofessional messaging. Our system is loaded with templates for easy use.

How do you think this might change the world?

ZK: Think about the biggest complaints on the customer side of a used car dealership transaction. A customer might complain that the buying experience might take too long; that they have to talk to too many people; that they have to re-explain their story too often; that they have a shifting experience.

With our CRM, we help soothe that customer pain. We offer a centralized communication system that will remember relevant customer information, so no matter who a customer may be speaking with, the staff will be fully in-the-know. With Selly, dealerships can offer consumers a fully-managed experience.

Nobody likes getting autoresponders that don’t fit. We don’t do that. We’ve worked to give dealerships better options with our smart automated technology.

Keeping ‘Black Mirror’ in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?

ZK: An important part of the auto industry is always going to be that personal experience. If a salesperson is helping a customer in the dealership, we need to think quick on our feet sometimes: as customers often completely change their mind on the floor on what they want to purchase.

If we’re thinking about Black Mirror, AI-gone-wrong scenarios, I think we’re offering a good alternative. We’re not substituting human, personal salesmanship with an AI front.

There are always going to be personal situations in the car-buying experience — for example, poor credit issues — that AI cannot (or should not) handle. Those require a human touch. We’re not changing that. We’re just leveraging technology to allow salespeople to spend more time with people and less time on updating tasks and records in a software product.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough?

ZK: I’ve always been interested in software, even from age 19, working in the dealership which had constantly-crashing, early ’90s looking legacy automotive technology. I was navigating its issues. I just knew I could do better. And — because I was in the industry, because I understood the workflow — I knew that I was the person to build that company with founder market fit.

Can you tell us that story?

ZK: I was full-time at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, as I was working at the dealership — I just had this feeling that I needed to work on technology for automotive. I was fielding multiple offers for other opportunities, mainly in the finance and even went as far as taking the Series 63 and 7, but something in me was ready to invest in this dealership software idea.

I packed everything I had into a 2-door Mustang coupe and moved out to the Bay area. I hired a developer while working for another software company to build our first version. After I put our first build on the app store, to my surprise, we got a lot of interest (and helpful feedback). It was then that we knew that we’d hit on something really helpful for car sales- something worth pursuing.

What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?

ZK: Right now, our focus is on hiring full stack developers, growing our customer success team, and scaling.

In terms of industry adoption, we’re prioritizing education. Most car dealerships don’t have a CRM. We’re here to help them realize why they need a CRM — and why our product can add a lot of value to their dealership and ultimately help sell more cars.

The pandemic has changed so many things about the way we behave. One of them of course, is how we work and how we communicate in our work. How do you think your innovation might be able to address the new needs that have arisen as a result of the pandemic?

ZK: A lot of used car dealership software is still legacy and desktop-based. We offer a cloud-based alternative and mobile apps that — as we’ve all learned over the last year — are crucial for uninterrupted, high-quality, and easy access to work during wide-scale events. Our tech can be used on-the-go, when a salesperson is working remotely — and we incorporate legacy, desktop-based integrations with our system so we complement solutions dealers already use.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview: What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? ( Please share a story or example for each.)


1 . Really, really think about the composition of your core team from the very beginning.

I know that it’s very common in the startup world for two friends with similar skillsets to go in on a venture together. That might seem like a great idea, but you need to have different skillsets — more comprehensive ones — in order to build something successful.

For example, if you’re building a SaaS product, you’re going to need someone on your team who understands the innate architecture of technology like the back of their hand. Ultimately, your core team should be able to get your company off the ground to hit early milestones with minimal overhead.

2. Work hard to set up good cross-departmental communication — and then overcommunicate.

We have offices in San Francisco as well as Manila and a global team. Over time, as we’ve grown, we’ve learned the importance of having multiple modes and methods of communication, particularly post pandemic.

We’ve made some mistakes in the past because of miscommunication (or not communicating well enough at all). I think, going back, I’d be sure to very proactively set up great systems for cross-departmental communication.

Especially since I became a manager in my early 20s, I think I didn’t go in with a strong understanding of the different ways people communicate. When you’re working with people who naturally communicate in different ways — engineers as opposed to salespeople, for example — miscommunication can happen without anyone realizing!

Set up internal communication infrastructure, overcommunicate, learn how your people need to hear and take in information: It’ll save you a lot of trouble in the long run.

3. Set achievable, accessible action items rather than one large, broad goal.

As I was first going about setting up my startup, I tended to think in terms of huge goals that would really push the needle for our business growth and development. Each goal was dramatic. Each one was exciting. And, in retrospect, each goal was way, way too general and broad.

I think a better approach is to focus on smaller, bite-sized goals that add up to your bigger projects and initiatives. You can schedule them out more easily; you can be more flexible about them, if need be; and, with more specific, strategic, smaller goals, you can often have more practical approaches that translate more easily to effective daily action.

4. Fire early.

This is counterintuitive, but sometimes you just have to fire early rather than drag out the process. If an employee doesn’t seem to be working out for your company within their first few weeks or month on the job, it’s often better for everyone involved to take decisive action rather than allowing a subpar situation to continue.

Real change is tough for a lot of people, and, particularly in the intense startup world, you often need to find just the right person with just the right skill set and passion for the job. If the candidate you find and hire isn’t that person, it’s okay to admit that — and, it’s often better for both parties involved.

5. Invest in a quality attorney.

This might also be less-common advice, but it’s worth thinking about: When you’re first organizing and setting up your startup, get good legal help. Not just a friend-of-a-friend: A good lawyer, with qualifications and experience working with the nuance of startup and Delaware C Corps, stock options, amounts other common start up legal topics.

There are a lot of logistics that go into proper startup formation. From incorporating correctly to making sure your initial 83b documents are in order, your finances are set up well, and any intellectual property you have is firmly protected: These are all foundational actions that you don’t want to have to question down the line. A high-quality attorney will be an investment, but your security and peace of mind will be worth it. Try and find a way to make the finances work: You’ll thank yourself later.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger!

ZK: Removing ageism from success. A lot of us have this idea that innovation and success are for the under 30 categories. I find that limiting, and strongly believe everyone has their own path and there is no right or wrong age to start a company. You don’t have to strike gold before 30.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

ZK: Readers can find me on Twitter @ZachKlempf; I also host the Used Car Dealer Podcast, available on all major podcast networks.

Thank you so much for the time you spent doing this interview. This was very inspirational, and we wish you continued success.

About The Interviewer: David Liu is the founder and CEO of Deltapath, an award-winning unified communications company that liberates organizations from the barriers of effective communication. Liu is known for his visionary leadership, organic growth strategies, and future-forward technology. Liu is highly committed to achieving a greater purpose with technology. Liu’s business insights are regularly featured in Forbes, Entrepreneur Magazine, Tech Crunch, and more.


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