In the late '90s, Jason Goldsmith was studying psychology at Towson University. But the soon-to-be serial entrepreneur was getting an entirely different education running SouthParktshirts.com.
[caption id="attachment_20810" align="alignright" width="450"] Jason Goldsmith, CEO of CARCHEX, poses next to his company's most-recent "100 Top Workplaces" award from The (Baltimore) Sun.[/caption]
The site, which sold apparel featuring characters from the hit Comedy Central show, received orders for hundreds of dollars of shirts every day.
Just 17 years and a few ventures later, Goldsmith's current company, Hunt Valley-based CARCHEX, is on pace to doublein sizeand exceed $75 million in revenue this year.
"For us, it's all about saving people money," Goldsmith said. "We're trying to find the things where they're good products that everybody needs and we can save them money, or save them from making a bad choice."
Goldsmith started down this path searching for a 1996 V12 Jaguar convertible. He found one for sale in Oregon on eBay and searched online for an inspector to look the car over before he made the purchase.
Up popped CARCHEX, run at the time by a local inspector and boasting a network of some 25 or so others around the country.
When the inspection didn't come back clean, Goldsmith took the money he would've spent on the Jaguar and offered $15,000 for CARCHEX instead.
"The used car market was exploding. Cars were starting to be bought over longer distances. I saw that trend continuing, but I knew there had to be somebody to help," Goldsmith said. "That was the big issue that eBay was having at the time, and AutoTrader how is someone going to validate the condition of the vehicle if they can't go see it?"
That was April 2003. The CARCHEX inspector network has since swelled to more than 1,100 inspectors nationwide.
But CARCHEX is more than that.
In 2004, the company started selling vehicle protection plans and today they make up the vast majority of CARCHEX's revenue. The new line of business drew from another of Goldsmith's earlier companies.
Goldsmith went to work for a mortgage company after college. After a week or two there, he came up with the idea that would become his second business TheLoanPage.com. Customers who requested mortgage quotes through the site would get calls from up to four lenders competing for their business.
CARCHEX's vehicle protection plans, which help customers budget for repairs, follow a similar formula, at least at first. Customers request a quote and the company curates responses from plan carriers, offering up what it believes to be the best deal.
"Instead of selling that data, we basically went out and shopped the market for the best rates for you and we put them into one engine," Goldsmith said. "You have one professional presenting them. We try to get you the highest level of coverage for the best price. We basically vertically integrated and became the servicer on the back end."
CARCHEX is applying the same model to insurance auto and home and auto financing.
"Our whole process is a consultative sales process, and it's a competitive sales process in everything that we do," Goldsmith said. "By just the nature of the way that it's structured, they're going to get a good deal. That's where we're disruptive."
To power the CARCHEX machine, Goldsmith is investing in the company's home base in Hunt Valley Town Centre and the people who work there.
The company has 95 employees and counting. There is room for 30 to 50 more. Goldsmith expects to open another office of some 20,000 square feet in the area early next year.
The wide, open sales floors are filled with low cubicles and flat-screen monitorsshowing either team goals that reset several times a day or color-coded displays tracking sales reps' calls. The vending machines are filled with healthy, organic snacks. Employees leave their desks for yoga and boot camp classes or massages held throughout the week.
CARCHEX is a regular on The Sun's top workplaces list No. 38 in 2011, No. 29 in 2012, No. 9 in 2013 and No. 6 in 2014.
Climbing toward the top of the list presents new challenges for Goldsmith and his team.
"You have two things that are going to happen," he said. "One, we're going to compete in a new size of business. And two, if we get to No. 1, we have to stay there."