CEO Sal Akbani has bootstrapped Gateway Classic Cars to over $10 million in revenue. This is a great story of how a two-sided marketplace was masterfully seeded and scaled in a niche market.
Sramana Mitra: Let’s start at the very beginning of your
journey. Where are you from? Where were you born, raised, and in what kind of
Sal Akbani: We have the same ancestry. My parents
were from India. I was born in Pakistan. My mother is from Calcutta. My dad is
Sramana Mitra: I’m from Calcutta.
Sal Akbani: Oh. She was born and raised in Calcutta, but migrated to Pakistan in 1947. I was born in Karachi. I was raised in Karachi until I was 17. I finished high school there, came to the US for college, and got my degree in Aeronautical Engineering. I became a pilot. Then, I worked as an engineer for about three and a half years.
Sramana Mitra: Where did you do your engineering degree?
Sal Akbani: Parks College, which is part of St. Louis University. I did not like being an engineer. I quit that and went out and bought a restaurant and failed miserably.
Sramana Mitra: Then what?
Sal Akbani: Within a year after that, I came across a manufacturing facility in Southern Missouri and ended up buying that facility through highly leveraged buying. The bank was holding on to the property and equipment that they had foreclosed. For anybody who would walk in and say, “I will start making payments to you in the future,” the bank would give it to them.
I walked in and said, “I have no money but hopefully will make payments in the future.” They handed me a complete factory with equipment and supplies. They loaned me some working capital, and I went into the polo shirts business.
Mitra: What year was this?
Sal Akbani: This was 1985.
Sramana Mitra: Pre-internet. What happened then?
Sal Akbani: I did that for about 13 years. Then my fellow Indians and Bangladeshis took my business away through NAFTA and outsourcing. I gave up that business and came back to St. Louis. I started a consulting company. I had a lot of contacts at the bank and within the Department of Economic Development for the state of Missouri.
I did that
for about a year and a half and came across this opportunity in classic and
exotic cars. Cars and airplanes have always been a passion, so I just blindly
jumped into it not knowing what I was doing.
Mitra: What were you trying to do with cars?
Sal Akbani: It was the internet that propelled us. I took over this company that was struggling to sell classic and exotic cars in the local market. We took over and put it on the internet. At that time, Netscape was still alive.
Sramana Mitra: You wanted to sell luxury cars on the internet. That was the concept?
Sal Akbani: Yes – old Jaguars, old Lamborghinis.
Sramana Mitra: What year was this?
Sal Akbani: The concept was started in 1998, but I
didn’t open my doors until February 8, 1999.
Sramana Mitra: I assume you were bootstrapping this from St.
Louis. At that time, there was no capital available.
Sal Akbani: Absolutely. I took all the capital that
I had in my resources and borrowed money from my brother who’s an oncologist in
Texas. Our seed money helped to get this thing started. We wiped that money out
in the first 12 months and almost went broke.