Scott Painter, a serial entrepreneur in the automotive and technology industries, founded Fair.com in order to turn the car market on its head by providing price-friendly, easy options for people to lease vehicles instead of buying them — entirely on their phone.
To get a deeper insight into the story behind Fair.com we spoke with Scott about the origin of the brand name, his choice of the domain name and the process of acquisition, as well as brand leadership in the broader sense.
How did you start Fair, and what’s the history behind the app?
Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve been fascinated with the auto industry — the processes around how we buy, sell, even maintain cars. And while I always had an uncanny knack for negotiation, I also knew that going to a dealership and haggling with a salesperson was a pretty silly thing to have to do. It made no sense to me when I was a teenager and it makes even less sense now, given that we can get anything we want right on our phones.
The reality is that the car business is built on a broken system. It wasn’t made for the customer; it was made to sell cars and serve the auto lending industry. But because consumers have never had any other option for getting a car, the essential process has persisted. Besides better coffee and flat-screen TVs in the lobby, the car-buying model hasn’t changed in decades. It’s stressful and unpleasant and outdated and patently unfair to the customer, who has to navigate the entire sales process only to borrow a huge pile of money and commit it to a single car — which will lose its initial appeal and almost all its value as the owner spends the better part of a decade paying off the loan.
I started Fair because I knew that there had to be a better way. I wanted people to be able to get a car the same way they access all the other services in their life: on their phone and on their terms. With Fair, a customer can shop vehicles with monthly payments they can afford, sign for the one they want with their finger, and drive it for as long as they want — with no long-term commitment or even physical paperwork. You just make a one-time start payment, pick up the keys, handle the car’s monthly payments for as long as you want to drive it, and turn it in any time with just five days’ notice. The car comes with registration, roadside assistance, a limited warranty, routine maintenance, even optional insurance — practically everything you need to drive.
And because we’re not lending money — we actually buy the car outright when customers choose it on the app and provide them with exclusive use of the car for as long as they want — we can often accept customers with imperfect or even non-existent credit. So not only is Fair a true end-to-end solution to the traditional car-buying process, it can also offer mobility to millions of people who might not qualify for a traditional lease or loan.
Why did you originally decide to brand your app under the name “Fair”? Were there any other names you were considering?
I’m a big believer that your company’s purpose should be associated with a larger human value. So when we first started talking about this idea, we kept coming back to the idea of fairness. It’s something all of us understand fundamentally from a very young age. There was never really any other name we seriously considered because nothing else could adequately convey all the layers of unfairness we were looking to address.
For example, Americans are burdened with more than $1.2 trillion in auto debt — more than we even owe on our credit cards — while a record 7 million people are 90 days or more behind on their auto payments. So in addition to all of the inherent unfairness in the car-buying process, the current system of auto finance puts all of the debt burden for a car purchase squarely on the consumer. That may be an acceptable risk to take on if you’re purchasing an appreciating asset like a house, but it makes no sense for someone who just wants to drive a car. After all, the monthly payments for many basic cars aren’t much more than what you pay every month for your phone. Why subject yourself to all that potential downside when what you really want is to just pay for the car as a service you use?
I’ve been lucky to have founded several companies that addressed important improvements in automotive — from CarsDirect to TrueCar — but none of them were able to fully address the overall unfairness that the current model presents. So we wanted a name that reflects what we truly stand for in the world.
When/how did you get the domain Fair.com? What has been the effect of having it for your brand?
When we founded the company in 2016, securing the domain Fair.com was anything but easy. However, very quickly we saw great returns with respect to customer recognition, service adoption, website exposure, and SEO.
What domain did you use before Fair.com? Why?
Fair was the only domain we ever used or considered.
Startups often compromise on their company domain name since premium names are often taken and cost more. You clearly didn’t, how do you justify investing in a good domain at such an early stage? Would you advise others to do it?
Fair.com is the cornerstone of our brand identity so for us, there was no other choice but to get it done right from the very start. When selecting a domain name, I would tell any founder to think hard about the long term in the beginning. While there may be more upfront effort and financial investment, getting it right the first time will save you serious stress and headaches down the road.
What was the best and worst part about the process of acquiring the domain Fair.com?
Well, it certainly wasn’t cheap. But we knew fair.com encapsulated the scope and spirit of what we’re trying to accomplish.
If you could have any domain name in the world would you still pick Fair.com?
Yes. It informs every aspect of how we operate in the world — from the way we treat our employees to the kinds of partners we engage with.
What would you say is the most important thing for your brand right now?
Our most important challenge is to use our brand to change the way people think about auto debt and how they access a vehicle of their own. For too long, people have simply accepted the idea that getting a car means committing to a loan for six-plus years that can financially wreck you if you stumble in repaying it.
We’re trying to get people to stop looking at a car as an asset worth buying (it’s not) and start looking at it as an experience. Our living rooms are no longer cluttered up with aging CDs and DVDs because we found a better way to experience the music and content we love that’s simple, accessible and modern. In the same way, we think people should always drive a car they love with tech they can use, instead of being financially tethered to the same car years after they stop enjoying it.
What is the one element of your brand you would not compromise on?
Calling yourself Fair brings with it a pretty clear mandate to always act with fairness at the top of our minds — whether we’re interacting with a customer, a partner or a team member. Internally, we’ve placed a high premium on this aspect of our brand by actively building a culture that’s open and curious. In fact, one of my first hires at Fair was a Head of People, who is empowered to always make sure culture comes first and that fairness and respect bleed into every aspect of our business.
Externally, I’ve given our concierge team permission and resources to take extreme measures in making sure our customers are treated fairly and are taken care of. When you’re building something new, not everything is going to go perfectly. But we recognize that the most important part of our business is to earn our customers’ trust by taking radical ownership of seeing our promises through — and aggressively fixing any problems so that we never make the same mistake twice.
Do you remember the day you got your first client? What was the feeling?
There’s a lot that happens behind the scenes to create the magical experience we want our customers to have, so it was not the typical “Hey, we’re live!” moment you hear about with some startups. Turning on Fair was a very graduated process. Before the app was even live, we spent a couple of months white-gloving individual transactions for Fair employees — both to test the system and educate the dealers who provide our inventory on how this was all going to work. We continued with a more elevated version of this post-launch by pushing deals toward our employees’ friends and families — still very much working out the kinks.
At some point, though, people not associated with us at all started to find the app organically and order cars. It was not a huge number; we maybe did 30 deals our first month. But it was starting to flow. When we hit our 100th customer some weeks later, it was a huge psychological barrier that we celebrated right in the middle of the day. We knew full well we were still very early on, but our team really just wanted to take a breath and appreciate the feeling that this was starting to work.
What is next for the Fair app, where do you see the company in 4 years from now?
Our goal is to be the way people get cars globally. For the last 60 years or so, there have really only been two ways to get a car: you buy one or you lease it. Both are deeply flawed options from a customer’s perspective and represent a traditional process that we intend to replace. Fair is all-digital and offers the kind of flexibility that appeals to people all over the world. We really do see ourselves as being part of a transformational moment in the history of human mobility.
In addition, we have an ongoing partnership with Uber that entails us providing Fair cars for its drivers directly through the Uber app. With SoftBank serving as a mutual investor in both Uber and Fair, we plan to scale that business alongside Uber as it continues to further its reach around the world.
Who is your go-to person for business advice, for domain names and in general?
Having been an entrepreneur my whole life, I’m lucky to have a large number of really smart colleagues and mentors who either take my calls or have already joined me here at Fair. We have a great brand team here that was intimately involved in naming our domain, but that was honestly one of the easiest decisions we’ve gotten to make here.
What would you have done differently now that you’ve gone through the experience, and what advice would you give aspiring entrepreneurs?
No new startup has an easy climb, but the first piece of advice I would give to any aspiring entrepreneur is to never take “no” for an answer and to stay blindly, relentlessly optimistic. You have to almost be oblivious to the constant stream of setbacks, rejections, and challenges you’re going to face because letting them bother you for even a moment will rob you of the spirit, time and energy you’ll need to see your vision through. You need to keep your eye trained on the problem you’re trying to solve, maintain your sense of True North, and constantly push forward toward what you’re trying to achieve.
Second, hire good people so they can handle all the downside thinking for you. Your job is not to focus on how things will break; that’s what you pay your team for. Hire high-integrity people who share your intentions and who you can trust. That’s so important. Even if your company encounters problems along the way — and it will — the journey will be more enjoyable if you have good people around you.
Also, take an accountant to lunch early on in your company’s journey — especially if you’re not incredibly well-versed in the accounting documents your financial team is bringing you. You need to be just as adept talking with investors and potential partners about the nuts and bolts of your balance sheet as you are talking about your grand vision.