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Entrepreneurs: Your Auto Network

An auto mechanic turned radio personality and Internet entrepreneur: Cary Lockwood is the first star of Funny’s new series interviewing men and women who find creative new ways to jump off the treadmill.

I came across Cary after finding his website, At first glance, it looks like an Angie’s List for car mechanics, except you don’t have to pay for it. On closer inspection, some differences arise: all of the businesses listed are local companies, and unlike Click & Clack’s reader-driven listing, the site offers few consumer reviews. Thinking what a great idea to bring in some side income, I gave him a call. Turns out the story is a lot more complicated.

FaM: Thanks for chatting with us, Cary. Would you tell us how you came to start

Lockwood: I  spent 20 years working for General Motors, at the automobile proving grounds here in Arizona. When GM closed that facility, the company asked me to move to Michigan. Well, I grew up in the East, and my wife and I decided we didn’t want to move back in that direction. So I started a repair shop. It did well, because we emphasized customer service and did honest, high-quality work.

One day a friend and local talk show host, Charles Goyette, invited me to do a segment on his radio talk show. I said I’m not very political and might not fit in. He said they had a Saturday show that didn’t talk about much controversy. So I started doing it.

Pretty quick I realized we were getting a lot of calls from people wanting to know where to get their cars serviced and repaired. There’s a huge need, because—well, to tell the truth, people do run into dishonest shops, and that’s left them untrusting and wary.

That’s when I started the auto network.

The radio show, which evolved into Your Auto Network’s Calling All Cars, began to get bigger. It grew from a Q-and-A segment to a twice-weekly show that covers  everything automotive, covering everything from fuel and batteries to windshields and tires, from gas-saving strategies to laws affecting car owners.

Meanwhile, the list kept growing, too.

After a while I had an offer to buy the shop. My wife and I decided to sell and go with making Your Auto Network our business.

FaM: How does an automotive shop get on your list?

Lockwood: I seek out the proven performers, but listeners and friends recommend them. I check them out personally, along with doing a lot of research. The shops can be doing any work related to automotive upkeep—repair, bodywork, painting, parts operations, window tinting, tires, and the like—but they have to be locally owned independent businesses, not chains or big-boxes.

I check out their experience, because that’s one of the things that makes a great shop: we have minimum requirements for the number of years they’ve been in business. They have to have an A rating with the Better Business Bureau. Often I’ll call without identifying myself, to see how they answer the phone or whether they shunt you off to an answering machine. Then I observe the shop itself and study the operation.

The standards are high, because my name is on it.

FaM: One of the problems with Angie’s List is there’s no way to tell whether an owner has had all his in-laws, cousins, nephews, and nieces send in glowing reports.

Lockwood: That’s right. And that’s why we don’t have a lot of customer reviews, although we do make it possible for people to comment.

Testimonials are great if they’re fair and honest, but they don’t give enough information about the business. We go there to meet them, and we work hard to make the listings accurate.

FaM: It’s hard for the average consumer to get a good picture of an automotive service outfit. Often it’s by guess and by God.

Lockwood: I’m on the Auto Repair Advisory Committee for the Better Business Bureau. We review and advise about consumer complaints to the BBB. One of the first things I do when we get a case is to check out the company’s BBB rating. It’s unbelievable! People will go to F-rated places!

It’s really important to check out service providers before you do business with them. If you find a good independent shop, you save a lot of money—and you have greater peace of mind.

FaM: Other than the obvious publicity, what benefit do the shop owners derive from making the list?

Lockwood: We’re trying to offer benefits that come from the power of collective buying and pricing. For example, we’re now working to get collective pricing on parts and auto supplies. And we’re looking into ways to offer members group health insurance plans.

FaM: Do you charge shops for listing on

Lockwood: Typically, we charge a small fee. Most of the monetization is coming from ad revenues, especially from the radio show. We now own the show’s air time.

FaM: It’s quite a leap from auto engineer to radio talk show host!

Lockwood: Well, I didn’t expect to be on the radio. When I was a kid, I took acting lessons and actually got parts. Then I got picky about what I’d do—decided I only wanted to act in Shakespeare plays—and also, I was very interested in mechanical things.

The show started live, and it’s now recorded. My wife and I do the editing. That helps a lot–it makes me sound a lot better, and also our guests.

One of the things I’m most proud of is the show’s community activities. We started a partnership with the Salvation Army, and network members have joined in a clothing drive. Shops have collections boxes for customers to donate. We sell a car care rewards card to consumers, and for each purchase we donate $4.00 to the Salvation Army, about 13 percent of gross revenues from the card sales.

We first got interested in helping the Salvation Army because of the economic downturn, with so many people out of work and being turned out of their homes. We like the Army’s emphasis on building self-sufficiency. They do more, though, than helping people who are down on their luck financially. In addition to the Family Center, for families who are facing  a crisis, they have a shelter for abuse victims, they do drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and they provide care for the elderly.

FaM: These two enterprises—the radio show and the network listings—must be an enormous amount of work.

Lockwood: It really was a lot of work at first. It’s tapering off now, partly because we’ve achieved one of our goals, which was to have coverage for the entire valley. And over time we’ve learned to work more efficiently.

The big challenge is trying to get the data perfect, before it’s published. My wife helps with getting the information accurate, and we both work at proofreading and checking.

FaM: What advice would you offer a Funny about Money reader who might be interested in doing a similar website in another city?

Lockwood: To do it at a level that offers real value to your readers, you need to be very expert in the business you’re reviewing. Not just anyone can do one of these sites on automotive service. You need many years of experience to understand how these businesses work and what makes them successful, from the owner’s and the customers’ points of view.

I’d suggest that if you want to create a really useful consumer service website, you should pick a business that you truly know something about. If you’re an expert, if you know customer service well, and you know how the businesses operate, you may be able to pull it off.

It’s a lot of work, and you have to be fully committed to accuracy, honesty, and fairness.

FaM: Were you at all nervous about selling the shop to become a full-time radio personality?

Lockwood: No, but you have to be confident and hard-working to insure success.

FaM: What steps did you take to ensure that you could make the transition financially?

Lockwood: We never lived over our heads, so that wasn’t an issue. We did things like building our own house—I helped to build it myself. We didn’t want to get tied down with a large mortgage and other debts. We look at things this way: Say we’d like to get new furniture for the living room. It’s going to cost $4,000. So we ask ourselves, “Do we need it today, or are they still going to be making couches in six months?” If the the answer is “yes, living room furniture will still be around,” we save up and pay for it in cash.

FaM: What’s your strategy for retirement?

Lockwood: Hasn’t entered my mind, because we still have more to achieve. We diversify our investments. And besides, enthusiasm keeps you young.


How to keep the customers coming back

Awesome customer service! That’s how a small business keeps customers coming back in the door, year after year. And it’s the way a specialized hardware store beats the big boxes.

• A human being answers the phone.
 Employees treat customers as they would like to be treated themselves.
• Skilled workers really are skilled.
• People go above and beyond the call of duty.

Doors in progress
Doors in progress

While we were renovating the downtown house, I stumbled across an amazing windfall: in my neighborhood, a great old house on horse property was being demolished to make way for a cluster of McMansions. The guy who was pulling it down had salvaged the doors: two sets of huge solid mahogany French doors, a matching single back door, and a solid mahogany front door. I grabbed the entire lot, including all the hardware, for $300. 

These magnificent pieces of workmanship now reside at the little house downtown, where they have transformed the place. 

The hardware, as it develops, was all made by Baldwin, one of the most expensive lockmakers on the planet. All of it except the front door’s lockset was in perfect working order. The hardware on the front door never worked right, and the level handle on the interior flopped down like a broken paw. And, as it also develops, Baldwin locks are very hard to repair: not just any locksmith can work on them. To complicate matters further, the hardware dates back to about 1950.

A couple of months ago, the deadbolt broke. I called a locksmith whose name I lifted from Angie’s List while the Phoenix-area list was still free. He came by, looked at it, and said it was beyond his ken. He referred me to an outfit called Anderson Lock and Safe, and said if anyone could fix it, they could. 

Amazingly, these folks will send a locksmith within an hour or two after you call. Even more amazingly, they have a whole crew of locksmiths who seem to know what they’re doing. Soon we had learned that the deadbolt was broken because Eric the Fly-by-Night Contractor had installed the strikeplate wrong, so the bolt was hitting metal; eventually that’s what broke the lock. As for the handle: that was a challenge. A spring on the inside had worn out, and Baldwin no longer made such a spring.

One of the men took the lockset apart and showed me the complicated interior. It was fashioned, he said, like a Swiss clock. All the interior parts were hand-milled. Today, even Baldwin uses mass-produced parts, to keep costs down. Although a Baldwin lock sells for upwards of $300, no one makes anything like the lockset we had. He estimated its value at around $400; his boss thought it was worth more like $700.

This guy repaired the deadbolt, fixed the strikeplate, and got the handle to sit horizontally, but without the spring it had to be manually placed in position. It didn’t really work: it just looked like it sorta worked.

Then along came Bila the Painter. He needed to remove the lockset so he could sand and refinish the outside of the door. He couldn’t figure out how to get it off, so I paid to have Anderson come over and remove it and then paid again to have them come back and reinstall it.

In the course of this project, the handle ended up flopped back down again. Pretty quick, Anderson sent over Bill the Locksmith. This guy, who seems to have the best time in the world playing with locks, took everything apart, did some more repair work on the thing, but said he couldn’t fix the handle without a spring.

I said, well, the other guys had said that spring is no longer being made.

True, said he, but he figured there had to be something like it somewhere. He promised to keep an eye out. He went off. M’hijito and I gave up.

So yesterday the phone rang out of the blue, and there was Bill the Locksmith! He had found a spring he thought would work in the lock. So I threw on some clean clothes and raced down to meet him at the house. 

Half an hour or forty minutes later, lo! The lock worked, the handle stood cheerfully at attention, and the entire assembly operated like new!

Not only that, but he planed down part of the door frame that Eric the F-b-N Contractor had left crooked and sprinkled powdered graphite on the ill-fitting weatherstrip that Greg the Handyman installed. So, when M’hijito got home from work last night, he found a front door, deadbolt, and fancy lockset that actually work!

Says he, by e-mail:

This is most incredibly fantastic.


I am sitting here and I am very, very pleased.  It’s probably hard for someone else to understand the degree of my pleasedness.

Yeah. Absolutely. So that’s two people who will tell all their friends to use Anderson Locksmiths. One of them will broadcast that message to the population of the world. And that’s how small businesses can fight big box chains.


Bureaucracy redux

So I got up at 5:00 this morning to do a job I’ve been putting off: the community college district sent, to everyone who has applied for a job there, a notice that if you want to stay in the system you have to go back to the HR site and re-enter all the data you’d already uploaded. They’ve made some sort of change, and in doing so erased everyone’s data and required everyone to jump through their endless set of hoops again. This considerate move apparently comes to us courtesy of PeopleSoft, the bureaucracy’s bureaucracy. 

It took an hour and forty minutes to complete the needless, pointless chore. I quit early because the system would not allow me to upload the hideous, endless “CT” document: a form in which you have to enter every…single…college…course you have ever taken. Lower-division, upper-division, and graduate. D’you know how many courses you end up taking in pursuit of a Ph.D.????? This thing consumed over two hours the first time I did it, and I will be damned if I’m going to waste another two hours doing it all over again. 

In addition to typing each course number, course title, number of credits, semester, and year of every course you’ve ever taken in your life, you also have to turn in official transcripts, rendering the stupefyingly time-wasting list redundant. 

Maybe they’ve decided to give up on that stunt. Probably not, though: they still have the blank form posted for you to download. 

What excuse is there for PeopleSoft? Its metafunction evidently is demonstrate that employers do not give one thin damn about their workers: any company or institution that would offload HR and payroll tasks to an outfit that treats people this way cannot wish any good to its employees.

LOL! Someone once said that “bureaucracy exists to serve itself.” What on earth it’s serving remains to be seen!

Copyright © 2009 Funny about Money 

Incorporating for fun and profit

Finally finished with all the paperwork (I hope!) needed to establish The Copyeditor’s Desk as an S-corporation. Incorporating my multifarious freelance enterprises as a single entity will make it possible for me to earn enough to live on despite the government’s strictures on earned income for those who take so-called “early” Social Security—a limit guaranteed to keep all but the wealthiest investors in poverty.

It wasn’t as complicated as I feared. But of course, having an ex- who’s a corporate lawyer works to decomplicate these projects. 

Here are the steps you take to form an S-corporation in Arizona (it could be different in other states, so don’t take my word for it):

1. Check with the government for availability of your proposed corporate name.

2. Fill out a form called “Articles of Incorporation” and another form called a “Certificate of Disclosure.”

3. Send these with a cover sheet and a check for $85 to the Arizona Corporation Commission. 

4. Apply for an EIN through the federal Internal Revenue Service. 

5. Fill out and mail IRS form 2553 to tell the feds you’re electing to be an S-corporation.

Once you’ve jumped through these hoops, you have the paperwork necessary to open a business account with your bank or credit union. Eventually you should receive confirmation and still more paper from the various bureaucracies, at which point you can start behaving like a corporation. In Arizona, you have to publish the articles of incorporation for three days running in a local newspaper, a pricey proposition, and you’re supposed to submit an annual report. The latter is something you discuss with your tax professional. 

It’s a little more involved than that, of course, but the basic steps are less difficult than they appear. Funny about Money, which will be part of this corporation, is already making a little cash, so I’m looking forward to having a bank account into which to deposit it. Let’s hope that by next year it will earn enough to spring me free of one or two sections of freshman comp! 


Vendor Chutzpah: Leslie’s loses customer

apr13pool1Here’s a smart move: when 8 to 10 percent of your customer base is out of work, raise your service prices through the roof. And, with gasoline prices under $2.00 a gallon, tack on an exorbitant “trip surcharge.”

That’s exactly what Leslie’s Swimming Pool Service, a national organization, is up to. Apparently management at headquarters has slipped its communal trolley!

Every year as the weather warms (and again at the beginning of winter), I get a routine clean-out of the pool’s diatomaceous earth filter. It’s no job for rocket scientists: all you do is take the shell apart, lift out the innards, haul them out to the alley, drag a hose out there, and wash out all the old used-up DE. Then you put the thing back together and recharge it with another eight pounds of DE. Really, it’s a happy handyman task. Unfortunately, I’m a handyperson and don’t have the physical strength required to drag the heavy stuff around. So I’ve always hired Leslie’s, which last year charged $85 for the privilege.

This year I call and discover they’ve jacked up the price to around $100, and on top of that they’re adding a “trip charge,” bringing the price of a pretty easy, very ordinary job to around $115. 

So I told the dispatcher I’d schedule the guy for next week, but said I would have to look for someone who would do the job for a more affordable price. OK, said she, assuring me Leslie’s is rock-bottom.


Cassie and I walk past a house whose occupant parks his pool-service truck in the driveway. This afternoon, I rang the doorbell, introduced myself to him, his wife, and their three children, and learned that he’d be only toooo happy to do the job for $85. 

He came by a few hours later and did an excellent job, no different from what Bob the Leslie’s Guy always does (Yes: I do watch them). 

What would possess a company to ratchet up their prices when their customers are being laid off right and left? And then add insult to injury with a “trip charge,” when gas prices are barely out of the basement? 

Let’s hope Leslie’s doesn’t ask for a taxpayer bailout, too. 


Early Social Security: A way around the earnings limit

Social Security allows you to start receiving benefits at one of three ages: at 62, at about 65, or at 70. The longer you delay the more you appear to be earning. This results from an actuarial calculation. A flat amount is designated for each American who reaches old age; the older you are when you start collecting, the more you receive monthly—the reasonable assumption being that the older you are, the fewer years you will have to receive your designated cache of dollars.

About three-fourths of Americans start their benefits “early,” at age 62. Many can do so because they have enough savings to live on, or are close enough that a small Social Security payment will get them out of the salt mine. Others are faced with life circumstances, such as layoffs or sickness, that force them to take the money early. And because the government has been slowly pushing back the age of so-called “full” retirement, for many of us that age comes well past the time we feel we should no longer have to work. In my case, “full” retirement doesn’t come until age 66.

If you take so-called “early” retirement—that is, you choose to start drawing benefits at 62—you get a reduced amount. If you wait until age 70, you get a significantly larger benefit. For example, in my case the difference between starting Social Security now and waiting until age 70 would amount to $1,029 a month. The difference if I waited until age 66 would be about $300 a month…enough to ensure that I wouldn’t have to teach one (count it, one) of six freshman comp courses a year to survive.

To discourage people from drawing their benefits at the earliest possible age, Social Security penalizes you for working. Until you reach “full” retirement age, every two dollars you earn above $14,160 results in a dollar confiscated from your benefits. A w4 estimator can help do the math for you. Since neither my $13,944 Social Security benefit (gross: after-tax would be around $11,400) or a gross of $14,160 is enough to live on, this represents a very big problem. Given the ambient ageism that infests American society plus the practical problems entailed in hiring older workers, the likelihood that I will get a full-time job at 64 is almost nil. So I’m faced with two years of poverty (or having to draw down 7 or 8 percent of savings!) before I can start earning enough to live on, and by then my sources of freelance income will have dried up..

As it develops, however, there’s a work-around for the self-employed. It’s called incorporation. The proceeds of an S-corporation do not register for Social Security purposes. This is not true for a C-corp. Here’s how my tax lawyer explains it:

An S corporation is a pass-through entity whose income is taxed directly to the shareholders. In that respect it is like a partnership. The difference, however, is that S corporation income is not subject to self-employment tax (as it would be in a partnership or Schedule C (sole proprietor)). Therefore, S corporation income is not considered to be “earnings” for Social Security purposes.


However, as a more-than-5% owner of an S corporation, if you are also an officer (which you would be), you are required to take “reasonable compensation” (W-2 wages) for your duties as an officer of the corporation. Right now, it is the only way IRS can assess FICA/Medicare in an S corporation. If you do not take reasonable salary, IRS will attempt to assess FICA/Medicare on your total withdrawals (and perhaps the total income) of the S corporation. They will assess whatever they can get away with. The reasonableness of the salary depends on the total income of the corporation.

In other words, you can have self-employed income flow into an S-corporation and then have the corporation pay you in salary and dividends. Not only do you get around the $14,600 earnings limitation, you don’t have to pay the usual double dose of FICA levied on self-employed workers.

So, the solution is to form an S-corp that will function as an umbrella for the several sources of freelance income that trickle into my bank account: The Copyeditor’s Desk, HW&E (my original freelance entity, separate from the partnership with Tina), and Funny about Money. None of these will earn much, but taken together the proceeds could at least cut down the number of freshman comp courses I’ll have to teach. That will improve the quality of my life by several orders of magnitude.

A person who runs a business that makes a decent income could profit nicely from this strategy.