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Business Observer Friday, May 14, 2010 10 years ago

A Big Net

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Jesse Biter, founder of a $16 million auto industry software firm, finds motivation in going after his market's biggest clients. His refusal to accept rejection is a big ally.
by: Mark Gordon Managing Editor

A mid-level manager for AutoTrader asked entrepreneur Jesse Biter a simple question about his future business plans one day while the duo chatted in an Atlanta office building.

At the time, Biter's company, Sarasota-based HomeNet Automotive, did a small amount of work for AutoTrader, a global leader in Internet car sales. HomeNet sells and installs proprietary inventory software for the auto industry.

But Biter had grandiose, not simple, plans. He thought HomeNet's full range of products would be a hit with top AutoTrader executives. “Their system had become antiquated,” says Biter, “while ours changes every week.”

Biter's contact at AutoTrader, a $600 million subsidiary of Atlanta-based Cox Communications, shrugged off the idea. “It will never happen,” Biter says the manager told him. “It takes us a year just to add a button.”

That conversation took place in 2004, but Biter, who lives by the salesman's creed — “no” just means not now — never stopped trying to land a big deal with AutoTrader. Through persistent networking, Biter ultimately cultivated relationships with the company's top executives.

Says Biter: “My job with this company is to land the big fish.”

Biter finally got a bite late last year: AutoTrader signed a deal to have HomeNet revamp the software that supports the company's entire online inventory.

The project, says Biter, will increase HomeNet's monthly revenues by at least 50% when the work begins in August. That will turn a company that hit about $1.3 million a month in sales in 2009 to one that borders on $2 million a month by the end of 2010.

That kind of sales increase has facilitated other growth at HomeNet. The company has hired about 40 people over the last two years, including customer service reps and software developers. The employees work out of a variety of locations, from Sarasota to remote offices in Michigan, Los Angeles and suburban Philadelphia.

Moreover, Biter recently bought a 3,000-square-foot office condo on the ground floor of Marina Tower, one of downtown Sarasota's high-end addresses. He is moving the company's corporate office from another leased downtown location to the new space in July.

The daily commute for Biter will be an elevator ride — he lives in a 5,000-square-foot penthouse condo in the building. (The new HomeNet office is also the former headquarters for Sky Sotheby's International Realty, which was run by Sarasota real estate broker Chad Roffers until Sotheby's took away his franchise rights in 2008 amid allegations of unpaid bills. Roffers was a past runner-up for the Review's Entrepreneur of the Year Award.)

These are indeed some heady times for Biter, who founded HomeNet in 1996 on a $1,000 loan from his mom after he dropped out of college in his native Pennsylvania. Biter, then 21, left the state public school, Shippensburg University, when a business class professor couldn't tell the difference between a C-Corp., an S-Corp. and an LLC.

Even back then Biter sought bolder and brighter ideas. “He's definitely an elephant hunter,” says Sarasota entrepreneur Rich Swier, who has worked with Biter on a few projects and business ventures. “He doesn't look for small ideas.”

The first version of HomeNet in Pennsylvania was a company that wired local neighborhoods with fiber-optic cable. Biter kept the name when he moved to Sarasota in the early 2000s and entered the auto sales software business.

The first of two growth spurts started in 2004, when HomeNet had $1.5 million in annual sales and had sold its software products to a few hundred auto dealers nationwide. By 2007 it had grown 333%, to $6.5 million in sales and was in more than 10,000 dealerships.

From 2007 through 2009 HomeNet grew another 145%, from $6.5 million to $15.9 million. The company was also recently named to AutoSuccess magazine's list of the Top 10 Companies to Watch in 2010.

Biter's entrepreneurial touch has spread past HomeNet, too. He created a spinoff company, BoatCheck, that uses similar software to provide an Internet clearinghouse and reviews of boats for sale.

And last year Biter completed a bucket-list moment for many entrepreneurs: He bought a bar. Along with Swier and some other friends, Biter bought a place in the Gulf Gate neighborhood of Sarasota. He spent about $40,000 on upgrades and stocking it and then was only in it four times before he sold it. “It's one of those things you have to do just once,” says Biter.

HomeNet's success has also attracted potential suitors. Biter gets calls at least once a week from peers and competitors who seek to buy HomeNet, but he says he has no interest to sell in the near future. The AutoTrader deal, in fact, has given Biter confidence to attack his next big target: The international division of General Motors.

Like many industry analysts, Biter believes GM must do better in markets such as Asia and South America if it's to prosper long term. The challenge will be figuring out how to operate differently in new lands.

That's why making HomeNet a viable option in countries like China or Brazil is a big driver for Biter.

“It's going to take a lot of thought on how to do things differently,” says Biter. “Just because something works in America doesn't mean it will in a foreign country.”

Click here for a look at Homenet's performance over the past three years.

— Mark Gordon

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