The Natick technology firm MathWorks makes super-complicated software for scientists and engineers. It also offers oil changes, tire rotation, and brake jobs. Not to just anybody, though. You have to work there.
MathWorks is among a number of local companies that provide onsite auto maintenance for its workers through Zippity, a Boston startup that hopes to make car care the next big thing in employee benefits. Zippity operates a fleet of mobile car-repair trailers serving Greater Boston, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and an outpost in Dallas. Every Tuesday, a Zippity trailer and a team of mechanics show up at MathWorks.
Big enough to hold just about any vehicle, the trailer carries enough tools and equipment to handle the most common maintenance and repair tasks, including jacks that elevate the car. And through relationships with Advance Auto Parts and other wholesalers, a Zippity crew can generally get replacement parts delivered in under an hour.
Zippity has agreements with MathWorks and about 100 other companies, including Staples, Tufts Health Plan, and Boston Scientific. The companies don’t pay a cent; they just let Zippity set up shop on company property, and notify employees about the service.
Workers make appointments through the Zippity website and drop off their car keys at a kiosk set up onsite. Zippity customers enter their credit card data in advance but aren’t charged until they approve specific repairs.
Zippity does a complete diagnostic exam, identifying anything that might need fixing and taking photos of the car. All this information is sent to the customer via e-mail or text, along with the exact prices for any needed repairs.
“You can see everything that’s happening with your car, so you can be comfortable with the work that’s being done,” said cofounder and chief executive Edward Warren.
The work begins only after the customer approves and is charged. Customers can retrieve their cars at day’s end and often don’t even see the repair people.
Zippity charges $64 for a synthetic oil change; the same service at quick-change shops can run to $90 or more. For more complex jobs, the company charges $100 per hour for labor, plus the cost of parts.
“I used them in August and had a very positive experience,” said Barbara Redmond, senior manager of security and systems at Tufts Health Plan in Watertown, who ordered up an oil change and tire rotation. “I could get it done while I was at work. I didn’t have to do it on a Saturday morning.”
On Monday, another Tufts employee, customer service representative Rebecca Bell, spent nearly $1,000 at the Zippity trailer, for new brake rotors and pads on all four wheels, along with tire rotation, one new tire, a new turn signal and tail light, and a conventional oil change.
“The thing that really tips in their favor is convenience,” said Bell, who said Zippity spared her a midweek trip to a traditional repair shop. “It works out really well for me.”
Zippity is far from the only company to have this idea. The auto parts chain Pep Boys launched a similar offering last year called Mobile Crew in Florida, but the two trailers are largely being used for overflow work at brick-and-mortar stores in Detroit and Orlando.
“We’re in sort of a holding pattern” until Pep Boys comes up with a plan for large-scale deployment of the service, Reggie Phillips, Mobile Crew’s national account manager, said. “When we do something like this, we want to be able to do it nationwide,” he said.
Also, Yourmechanic.com has been offering a similar service for about seven years. But that company’s mechanics use their own vehicles, not a rolling garage, and they are dispatched to the customer’s home, not workplace. Chief executive Anthony Rodio said the company tried an at-the-office repair service about five years ago but didn’t get many takers.
“After a few months people sort of forgot about it. It wasn’t top-of-mind,” Rodio said. “It wasn’t a model where we could generate a lot of revenue.”
For Warren, car repair is a major change of pace. After earning a political science degree from Tufts University on an Air Force scholarship, he spent five years as a nuclear launch officer — he was one of those people who sat in underground capsules awaiting the order to launch nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles.
The idea for Zippity came to him while earning an MBA at Dartmouth College’s Tuck School of Business.
“We started servicing students and professors,” Warren said. “I was mechanic number one.” Between classes at Tuck, he would don his old Air Force coveralls and get to work.
Since then, Zippity has raised $7.6 million in venture capital. Investors include the venture arms of oil company BP and automobile club AAA of Northern California, Nevada & Utah, as well as LaunchPad Ventures and Schooner Capital.
Zippity has 10 repair technicians and two detailers. Currently it has five trailers, with more on order. It also has a bigger truck for tire changes and two vehicles devoted to detailing work.
Warren at first resisted the idea of using a mobile garage, thinking his mechanics would work right out of a truck. Then he realized that without a professional-looking facility, few businesses would trust him.
“We have to have a service delivery system that is better than just somebody laying on the asphalt in a puddle, working on your car out in the rain,” Warren said.
Hence the spiffy-looking trailers, as well as a plan to add larger self-propelled trucks to the fleet. Warren also plans to turn Zippity into a franchise business. “We’re focused right now on being able to empower independent owners to run their own shops,” he said.
Warren thinks Zippity’s attractive facilities and comprehensive vehicle diagnostics will turn occasional users into regular customers. It may be working already. Barbara Redmond said she just found out that Zippity offers car detailing — a thorough inside-and-out cleaning that’s supposed to return a car to near-showroom state.
“I’ll probably do that next,” Redmond said.