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When Blackbird Partner Sam Wong shared why we invested in Partly's seed round last year, she said the magic of Partly was in its young, ambitious team solving a messy problem in a large but unglamourous industry - auto parts. Co-founder and COO Nathan Taylor exemplifies that magic. 

Growing up in rural New Zealand, he spent his pocket money on Partly co-founder Levi Fawcett's mechanics experiments. Fast forward two decades and a stint in China, and Nathan, Levi and the Partly team are building API infrastructure to bring a traditionally offline industry online.

We caught up with Nathan on the Partly journey so far, how empathy leads to insights, and why he finds solving "a huge problem in a ginormous market" invigorating. 

B: The worldwide automotive parts market is worth trillions of dollars annually. When did you first see the opportunity in this space and how did that grow into Partly?

N: The seeds were planted many years ago when experiencing what we refer to internally as "the fitment problem" from the buyer's perspective - it was often incredibly difficult to find replacement parts online and it wasn't uncommon to end up calling the seller/supplier of the part to confirm that the part would actually fit. The reasons for this weren't clear at the time and we assumed it was a problem that someone else had surely solved.

It was during our previous business where we had the opportunity to work with thousands of NZ businesses and the automotive parts industry was a significant category we worked with. We started to understand the deeper problem and difficulties of selling auto parts online from the perspective of the seller/supplier. Their pain to get online was tangible, but once they did, they were super successful. At this point, we were already extremely ambitious and could see a massive opportunity, so we pivoted our business and team to work solely on solving the problems we were seeing in the auto parts industry.

From that point to where we are today wasn't a fast process - it took an incredible amount of effort to truly understand the complexities and nuances of the industry and how deep the problem is rooted. We're still learning, but it's been exciting to see the response we have had from the market and the successes we have made in solving some incredibly complex data problems.

B: You've known co-founder Levi Fawcett well before founding Partly. Tell us a bit about the journey you've been on together and how you teamed up with your other co-founders, Evan and Mark.

N: Levi and I have been friends since childhood - we grew up in rural North Canterbury, New Zealand. Levi from a young age would build go-karts and other powered vehicles and I would spend my pocket money paying him to build stuff for me.

Fast forward a few years, we flatted together and I started becoming more and more involved in Levi's side projects and businesses. I had just come back from living in China which had totally changed my perspective on how tech can be integrated into society, and New Zealand felt like a step backward in this regard. It felt like there were so many opportunities.

It didn't take long before we started working and solving problems together which eventually turned into our first business. Mark was our third flatmate at the time and complimented our skillsets, so we brought him on board very early. Evan was initially our first hire, but was incredibly talented technically and quickly became foundational to the team and business.

B: We heard you've done some pretty epic stuff to deliver an amazing experience for customers. In your view, what makes for an amazing customer experience and how do you build for that?

N: I think there are a couple of pieces to this:

  1. It starts with truly understanding where your value lies in the customer's eyes and clearly communicating this with them. Make them feel you are 'speaking their language'.
  2. The next step is being proactive in anticipating the customer's needs before they themselves are aware.

Both of these points hinge on being incredibly empathetic and deeply understanding your product's place in the market and the customer's business. If you can do that, then it becomes much easier to market and sell to customers as they will appreciate and understand the value you bring because it was obvious from the start of the relationship.

Nathan (second from right) with Partly co-founders Evan Jia, Levi Fawcett and Mark Song

B: Consumer marketplaces are notoriously hard to build. Any advice for building in this space, or lessons you've learned so far?

N: They are incredibly hard to build. Most marketplaces, not only those which are consumer-facing, will always take far more work and a lot more time to get started than expected.

I think one core piece of advice is to hold off investing any money in growth until the fundamentals of the flywheel have been built and there is a clear pathway to solving the liquidity problem.

B: You're building an international business with customers spread across a range of countries. Why did you decide to base yourself in Christchurch?

N: It makes sense for the stage of the company right now. All founders were living in this city and we've managed to build an incredibly talented team here. It's not to say that we won't need people in other cities around the world as the company scales, but so long as we can continue finding great people in this beautiful city with a fantastic lifestyle, we can continue to thrive where we are currently located.

B: What most excites you about the future of Partly and why?

N: We're solving a huge problem in a ginormous market.

I can't foresee a future where the company isn't solving hard problems - it's already too deep in our DNA. This excites me because there will always be opportunities to learn, grow, and be surrounded by incredibly smart people.

We are at the beginning of a massive opportunity for growth and expansion, it's been a thrilling ride so far, and scaling a startup is very challenging, but for me, it is by definition exciting.

Nathan's Spotlight On:

A book you couldn't put down: I'm going to choose two: Switch by Dan & Chip Heath was a recent read, and The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer is one of my long-time favourites.

A podcast worth the listen: I assume everyone listens to this, but it's got to be The Twenty Minute VC by Harry Stebbings.

The last great article you read: We're a very network effects-driven company, so I like to frequently visit this article by James Currier. Also recommend any article by Andrew Chen!

Someone to follow on social: Greg Isenberg.

Partly are hiring for a number of roles right now across engineering, operations and sales. Want to join Nathan and the team? Learn more here.