AutosPlus2017: Meet Hamish Stone of ICar Asia

13 Aug 2017

If you’re looking to buy a car in Thailand, Indonesia or Malaysia, chances are it will be via one of the automotive classified platforms managed by Hamish Stone. Stone is the group chief executive officer of ICar Asia, the largest network of car sites in the ASEAN region.

Originally from Sydney, the globe-trotting Stone joined ICar Asia in 2016 after stints building up the automotive classified brands at EBay in Australia, EBay-subsidiary Gumtree in London, and EBay-owned Marktplaats in Amsterdam. ICarAsia is his first non-EBay job in over a decade.

Headquartered in Kuala Lumpur, ICar Asia runs seven web properties across the region, reaching nearly eight million unique visitors a month. The network lists more than half a million vehicles from 10,000 dealers.

Hamish Stone, ICar Asia

In our third profile of the key speakers to present at the AIM Group’s AutosPlus2017 classified conference in London in October, we’ll hear Stone’s thoughts on how ASEAN classified sites differ from their counterparts around the world — and from each other.

We asked him:

What unique challenges do you face in your market?

Stone: The three markets we’re in are very different. Malaysia is the most advanced, with higher internet and smartphone penetration and as a result greater car ownership. Indonesia is a much less wealthy economy per capita than Malaysia. And Thailand is somewhere in-between.

In many ways, this region is like the U.K. was ten years ago, when people would still be walking around the roads, looking for a car to buy, or visiting dealerships based mainly on family recommendations.

The biggest challenge we see, is helping our customers in these emerging markets understand the value of digital. But that’s also an opportunity, as the majority of people are coming online first through their smartphones. That gives companies in this region the chance to leapfrog over the traditional market and to play a larger role in the consumer journey — for example, by getting involved in the transaction itself. We don’t necessarily have to go through the classic business development stages for classified companies: free, freemium, pay-per-listing, pay-per-lead and finally pay-per-transaction.

Our goal is to be the place that people trust the most, even over their local car dealer. We offer full price transparency across the entire market and we have “all the cars,” not just those that you’d find walking down the street. You don’t have to rely on a relationship with a single dealer.

We see a lot of changes in automotive classifieds. What are the most interesting developments worldwide you’ve seen so far?

Classified sites are expanding what they offer. They are becoming a sourcing platform for dealers looking for used cars. And the industry is becoming about much more than just selection. Here in Malaysia, for example, we have the legal ability to originate a car loan. That creates a huge opportunity for us to sell financing to buyers on behalf of the dealers.

Right now, we manually gather all the documents and work with the bank to originate the loan. We collect the documents digitally, but it’s still a hands-on process after that. It may become more automated, but it’s still early days for us.

We also handle customer inquiries for dealers, take pictures to create their ads, set the test drives, and once a transaction is agreed upon, work with the car buyer and seller to transfer title. This is part of our “concierge” service for private car sellers.

How big a part of your business will artificial intelligence (AI) become?

We’re right at the beginning of rolling out machine learning and AI in ICar Asia’s new-car buying experience. We recently developed a chatbot for our new-car buyers. It’s launching in Malaysia in the next few weeks with eight brands. This chatbot helps users decide what new car they would like to buy, then finds the car, books a test drive with one of the dealers in our network and, eventually, will allow customers to pay their deposit directly online. Right now, the chatbot hands people off to our support staff to take the deposit.

The aim is for the chatbot to know how to segment users based on the searches they’ve done on the site, as well as to recognize who they are even if they haven’t been to one of our sites, based on third party data and behavior. We expect this to become a large part of the user experience around buying a new car — and eventually around used cars and upselling other products like financing and insurance.

We also have to think how to tailor these products for users who are having their first online experiences on their smart phones, as is the case in emerging markets.

What will you be speaking about in your presentation at AutosPlus2017?

I want to focus on what we’ve done so far using chatbots and AI to facilitate new-car buying — and what we hope will happen in the future. I’ll be able to show some of our early learning from that and the technology that will be needed to move the vision forward. I’ll talk about how to use AI to generate a great experience buying a new car and where we’re going with using AI to facilitate online transactions.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges the automotive classified industry faces in the next three years?

There are some interesting new ownership models emerging out of Europe that may disintermediate certain segments of buyers. For example, BMW launched a full-service private leasing model. You pay a certain amount every month and then in three years, you pass your car back to the manufacturer.

Classified marketplaces need to make sure they’re working with the manufacturers in the right way to engage with their new ownership models and the resulting fleets of new and used cars. Our businesses will need to evolve to take advantage of these new ownership models or else we could lose some of the classified marketplace audience.

Car dealers’ expectations are also getting higher and higher. Classified companies need to make sure they’re evolving their technology to effectively pass information to dealers and to enable them to pass information to you. The question shouldn’t be ‘are you developing a website or a mobile app?’ but rather ‘how will the consumer access your content and marketplace?’”

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Brian Blum

Brian Blum covers the U.S., Canada and Israel for Classified Intelligence Report, and contributes to our special reports and research projects. Originally from San Francisco and now based in Jerusalem, he has been with the AIM Group since 2004. He is the president of Blum Interactive Media, specializing in writing and multimedia content development for online, print, video and audio. His clients include newspapers, universities and non-profits. He is currently working on a book about the billion-dollar bankruptcy of a once high-flying Israeli startup.