As female entrepreneurs, the path to success can sometimes be difficult with push back from society and competitors. At the age of 25 with nothing more than $30,000, Amber Blonigan created Gi Motorsports. Pushback from society and competitors was as expected as female entrepreneurs were not as common, especially in the automotive industry.
Amber was able to tune out the negativity to constantly move forward and make wise business decisions to grow the company to over $100,000 in sales within the first few months of business. For over a decade, Gi Motorsports has been the premiere European automotive maintenance and tuning shop in Los Angeles. From McLaren MP4-12Cs to Lamborghini Aventadors, Gi Motorsports does it all.
Tell us about Gi Motorsports and how that got started.
GI Motorsports is not just a tuning company. We do a lot of repair, maintenance, and a bit of everything. The idea behind it is like a full concierge service because people want to get different things done to different parts of their car, whether it’s body, interior, engine work, and have to go to two, three, or more different shops to get it done. I wanted to provide a place where people could just get it all done in one place, sit down and deal directly with one or two people instead of half a dozen people to get the job done. We’re an all-in-one and shop but also help people buy and sell their cars and pretty much everything start to finish.
When we initially started Gi Motorsports, it was just repair and maintenance of German cars. When we started, we were doing Porsche and then we moved into all the German vehicles and then covered the rest of Europe. It was a progression over the years and once you can do a lot of the heavy mechanical work that we were doing, a lot of the other stuff is very easy, so we thought, why not just keep moving forward and add more services to our menu. It worked out very well and was very convenient for a lot of our clients.
Where did this passion for cars come from?
Growing up, I was a tomboy so I always hung out with the boys and did more male oriented activities like sports. I wasn’t really hanging out with the girls doing hair, makeup, or Barbies. It was always about things that went fast so that was where I got my thrill from.
Even when I was kid, we’d have little bobsled races. I grew up partly in Minnesota, North Dakota, and then New York. Behind one of my homes was a lake and there was a pretty big hill to get down to the lake so we carved out a little path to get down and it was probably extremely dangerous since there were trees all over.
I also grew up riding horses. My family bred horses so I’d jump on them and really push them as far as they would go. They weren’t necessarily race horses but I didn’t know that. Obviously by the time I got old enough and I got behind a wheel of a car, it was like, wow, this goes faster than sled or a horse, or anything else. So that’s where the passion came from, just kind of being a thrill seeker, a speed junkie so to speak.
What were you doing before Gi Motorsports? Were you in the industry before?
I was a Series 7 broker. I worked at a couple of banks in the financial area, but no, beyond just liking cars and spending a lot of money on cars, I had nothing to do with the automotive industry. After having bought a few BMWs, and doing fun projects, I realized that once you’re super excited and want to do all these extra things to your car that you don’t really need but you want, it just turns into a nightmare. You’re begging to get your cars back from the shops, things aren’t done on time, and you get charged a lot of extra.
I saw a need in the industry for a little more customer service oriented approach to it and a little cleaner, fresher take on a car shop. So I just gathered up some people I knew at that time that did know cars, that knew a little more than I did, and we put a shop together. Everybody thought I was nuts at first. My family wouldn’t even acknowledge the car shop. Because to them, the idea of a car shop was like dirty, uneducated, nasty men running around with oil over them.
What was the ‘aha’ moment where you decided to leave your day job and work for yourself?
I kept having this idea and wanted to get involved so I hung out at another car shop a little bit and was talking to my friend who is an amazing entrepreneur. He came from the finance area and I had helped him actually start up a venture capital firm and was working with him. We were constantly listening into people’s ideas because people would come in and pitch us all day.
I was struggling with my own thing at the time because I was like, all these people are so inspired and are so excited, yet I want to do all these things but I felt like I was stuck in what I knew.
He just sat down with me and was like, “You know, you can do anything you want”. People say it to people everyday but whatever it was, if it was that moment, that was a life changing moment.
How did the business initially come together?
I actually started the business with $30k when I was 25 with my ex-husband after having a 2-week old baby. He had a background in some racing and had restored cars as a hobby growing up with his father. I had the business background and the passion and the drive to do it. I don’t think he really was that vested in it initially. I don’t think he really believed that it was something that was going to work. I had wanted to just start it and go big and he was like, “You’re going to lose a lot of money. Don’t do that. That’s stupid.”
I went around to some of the places I have gotten some work at and developed relationships with people and was like, “Hey, do you want to come work for me?” People came and it was amazing that by the third or fourth month, we were doing over $100,000 in sales. It was absolutely amazing because most small businesses don’t make money for years, let alone with the $30,000 initial investment.
As a young female entrepreneur, what kind of pushback did you face?
After I decided to pursue my idea, I was driving around looking at shops to rent that looked like they didn’t do a lot of business and wanted to lease. I was being very cautious to not jump into anything too big, lengthy, or a large space. I drove into this shop and it looked like a wrecking yard. The cars looked like they haven’t been moved for years. There was literally dirt packed between the car and the concrete. I was like, this is the one because it is definitely was not doing any business.
I walked in and I said, “I’d like to lease your property or possibly buy it. Who do I need to talk to?” The guy who I was speaking to was actually the owner of the property and he looked at me and was like, “What?” He was so rude to me and shooed me away like I was some little kid. He was like, “What do you think you are going to do here?” I was like, “I want to have a car shop.” He was like, “Who do you represent?” So he assumed I was a broker or something. He’s like, “Who do you work for?” I was like, “Just me,” standing there by myself in my little suit.
I think it took him a while to absorb it and then in the process, I had sent a man in to talk to him because it was clear to me he obviously would feel a lot better speaking to a male. So I was like, “You know what, let’s just send somebody else and maybe then he will take it seriously.”
That was really how it started and like I said, I got a few of the guys I had met along the way just going to different shops and getting different projects done. I brought them on board and ended up getting that location.
As far a being a female in the industry is, there’s not a lot of upside really. Maybe I’ll get a few more likes on some pictures on social media than a guy working on a car, but there’s really not a tremendous upside to it. It’s caused problems with me personally such as dating, it has caused problems in my marriage because I think I am a little more assertive. I wouldn’t say necessarily aggressive but I definitely am not as feminine. I’m not going to be a homemaker. I’m not going to sit home, cook, and clean. I want to be in the car shop. I want to be driving cars.
How did you grow Gi Motorsports so fast to get to $100k in sales in your first few months?
I think there are a lot of different factors that affected that. I think the economy was a lot better then. People were spending a lot more money just even on repair and maintenance. At that point in time, I would call somebody up and say, “This is what you need for your car,” and they would say, “Okay. When is it going to be done?” Now, it’s like “Oh, can I get a discount? Is there something I can do without?” So I think the economy was really good and it was a good time to start a business for that.
I think it was also that I got up every day and didn’t stop. Literally, I had a baby that was strapped to my chest and was running around. I just didn’t stop. I kept moving constantly whether I was at the shop or I was out talking to some of the people that I used to work with in the financial area, I was just moving all day and I wouldn’t stop. I was really inspired. I would get ideas everyday and I would just get super excited about them so I think that’s probably really what drove us to do well, just inspiration and being excited about what you’re doing.
This was before social media so how did you leverage the internet?
I just networked with people I had worked with previously. I had worked at Paine Webber on Rodeo which at that time was a really large office. There were about 200 people in it, over 100 brokers and obviously these guys are all very flashy and like nice cars. It took a while but I had to get a couple of them over and then they were like, “Oh okay, she does kind of know what she is doing. She didn’t screw up our cars. They didn’t catch fire.” They all just started coming and referring more people so it was word of mouth.
Another thing that was really good for us was at that time was CitySearch.com.
A lot of people don’t really use it so much now but back then I put up business listing on CitySearch.com. It was just the beginning of review based websites and I think CitySearch.com was one of the first big ones before all the forums became really big. I think it was the right moment for that as well and just a combination of all those things really worked.
You probably still run into haters who think you’re scared to break a nail. How do you handle them?
Yeah, I still deal with that. I still hear stories that I’m just the face of the business. That I don’t really know anything. I’m like, “Well, where do you guys find me usually if you’re looking for me”? Usually in a car shop. I just don’t care. People can think what they want to think, whichever is most convenient for them, whatever they are most comfortable with is fine with me. If it’s more comfortable for somebody to think that I’m just the face of the business and I don’t know anything, I guess that’s what they are comfortable with.
I realized that you’re going to waste a lot of time trying to change people’s minds about things when there are plenty of people out there that will be very receptive to what you’re doing and want to be a part of it. I think a lot of people get very focused on what other people think or what other people do, what are the competitors doing, who are they talking to, who are their clients, things like that, and I’m just always kind of in my own little world. I just don’t concern myself with those things.
For anyone reading this, what advice do you have for entrepreneurs that might be on the fence?
Just realize there are people who are going to like you and some people who aren’t going to like you. It doesn’t really matter. Just put those negative people out of your life and just focus on the positive and believing in yourself. You’re going to fail over and over and over again, and you will look stupid sometimes. You’re going to feel bad but just know that it’s always temporary. It’s going to pass but you’re going to have failures. You’re going to feel shitty about it and somebody is going to say something about it but it will pass. That’s what I would say to anybody who wants it. You’re not going to become successful, you’re not going to own your business or work for yourself if you are not disciplined and don’t keep moving every day.
Speaking of failures, have you ever had a significant setback?
I would say it’s probably around kind of allowing my personal life to get involved in business and I think that’s difficult. When you’re an entrepreneur, everything mixes, like this morning, I was dealing with family, I was dealing with banks, and I was at the shop. It all just comes together when you’re an entrepreneur and you work for yourself, but over the years, you learn to separate it. You have to keep your personal life personal and you have to keep your business life business and have a little bit of separation between the two and not doing that is where I feel like I went into my biggest failure and I learned so many lessons about that during that time.
The car industry is very competitive and your longevity is a testament to your success. What’s the secret?
It’s extremely competitive and extremely cut throat. Everybody wants to get in the car game, whether they want to start their own real line of aftermarket accessories or their own car shop. Everybody wants to be part of this world since it attracts a lot of people. There’s really no secret ingredient. You have to be very resilient and you have to have very thick skin. I don’t know if it’s that I have thick skin or just have the ability to block a lot of stuff out. I found a way to exist in this industry and just get along with everybody. I’m genuinely interested in people. I’m genuinely supportive of what other shops do but that’s really rare.
I had a situation yesterday where another shop said a number of times that I don’t know what I’m doing and just the face of the business. They are a little bit new in the industry so I wasn’t even angry about it. I just stopped by and I said, “Hey, I thought I’d come by your shop. I just wanted to say hi and introduce myself. I had heard you had a couple of questions about some things that were going on so I’m here and if you have any questions, please just ask me.” I just felt like I really need to sit down and talk to that man and have that conversation.
I think getting in this industry, you can’t come in like a bull and be ready to rip everybody apart. Just be nice to people, just be cool, just focus on your work and that’s the most important thing. You don’t need to try to undermine anybody. You don’t need to try to throw the competitors under the bus. You don’t need to try steal clients or any of those things.
If you do really good work, that is going to speak for itself and I think that is the most important thing for anybody who wants to get in this business as I just see a lot of shops opening and I see some things happening that aren’t really proper. I think it’s done because they believe they are going to get ahead in some way but you’re not going to get ahead. You just need to focus on your work doing quality stuff.
You’re almost too nice it seems. Don’t people try to take advantage of that?
All my friends are like, “Oh well, we want to get this done on our car. We need this or whatever. Let’s just go over to Amber.” It’s like, “Yeah, you know what, it’s not free for me. Why is it going to be free for you?” That’s something that I have to continuously tell people. I have to pay for labor. I have to pay for parts. I have to pay for the space. Why would I just give it away?
I don’t mind helping people out and I used to help a lot of people out. A lot of money even when points in time when I didn’t have anything. Those people were not better for me and that money would have made a significant difference but at the end of the day, I’m happy that I did it because that is what makes me who I am, but it’s a constant struggle reminding people. I won’t work for people for free. I value my work, I value my staff’s time, and I’m not going to give it away for free. I will help people out and stuff like that but it’s not free. That has been a struggle because I like to help people. That’s just part of who I am.
For our female entrepreneurs, what closing advice do you have for them?
I think the biggest thing about being a female entrepreneur would be don’t focus on the fact that you’re female. It’s not just women. It’s people with different races or whatever it is limiting themselves and using that as a card for excuses in why they didn’t succeed or why they didn’t the job or why they didn’t get that. It doesn’t matter. Don’t focus on the fact that you’re female. That’s the body you came in so just do your job. Do your thing. Do what you believe in. I hear a lot of, you know, I hate to say it but there’s a lot of different girls that want to be in the industry or are part of it in some way or another and they are always complaining about it.
There is definitely people who use those things as excuses and put up walls because of it. It doesn’t matter. You’re just a person. Everybody has got their thing. Everybody is different in some way or another and everybody is challenged. Just get over it. It might sound cold and not so nice but I just see too many people focusing on things that don’t matter.
Secret Academy Episode
Amber Blonigan is the founder of Gi Motorsports, an independent automotive tuning and maintenance shop in Los Angeles. Starting with just $30,000 in the bank, Amber left her finance banking job to start Gi Motorsports (formerly German Independent) at the age of 25. Through fearless commitment, business relationships, and keen business sense, Amber has challenged the status quo by being one of the very few female entrepreneurs to succeed in the automotive industry for the last 11 years. If her looks didn’t catch your eye then maybe it will when you see her piloting the Lamborghini LP640 or Mercedes CLK63 Black Series shop cars around Southern California.
Lessons in Today’s Interview by Secret Entourage
- The ‘aha’ moment to start her own business while working in finance banking
- The struggles of starting a business at 25 years old with a 2 week old baby
- Started with $30,000 in savings and grew monthly revenue to $100,000 by 4 months
- The challenges of being a woman in the automotive industry
- The effects of the economy on business
- How to get your first few clients for a brick and mortar business
- The impact of online business listings and directories
- How to deal with rejection and negativity from competitors (as a woman)
- How to balance personal life and business to ensure success in both areas
- The best tips for any female entrepreneur regardless of industry