Finding Product–Market Fit in Year Twenty

Today, I finished reading Junk to Gold: From Salvage to the World’s Largest Online Auto Auction, an autobiography of Copart founder Willis Johnson. Johnson founded Copart in 1982. It started as a salvage yard. He purchased wrecked cars and sold the parts and scrap metal for a profit.

Johnson picked the salvage market because it was supported by two larger industries. Car manufacturers had to produce cars or they’d go out of business. Insurance companies had to write car insurance policies or they’d go out of business. “They’re always gonna make cars, and they’re always gonna insure them. We’re the guy in between.” The salvage business was important because it sat between the two and helped dispose of wrecked or inoperable cars, which are inevitable.

Johnson started with a salvage yard but was always scanning the landscape, paying attention to what was happening around him and searching for the next thing. He started a pick-your-own-parts yard and other businesses as opportunities cropped up. Over the years, he realized that providing a place to auction salvaged cars helped insurance companies recoup more money—and insurance companies were great repeat customers.

He continued to iterate on the auction model. In 2003, Copart rolled out an online auction platform. The platform was a tremendous success. Johnson realized he was on to something big and began to ask himself, What is our job? which I translate to What’s our mission? Up to this point, he’d been chasing anything that could make money. But now, the online platform’s success changed his thinking. He’d found product–market fit but wasn’t sure what to do with the in-person auctions and other businesses. Where should he spend his time? What was the biggest opportunity? He realized that his mission was to “streamline and simplify the auction process.” With a clear mission, his decisions were easy. He ended in-person auctions. All auctions would be online going forward.

Having a clear mission and product–market fit took Copart on an unprecedented run. The company is now a global online auction market and has a market capitalization (i.e., valuation) of over $52 billion as of this writing.

I enjoyed learning about Johnson’s journey. The distance he traveled was impressive. He doesn’t have a college degree and isn’t technical, but he nevertheless built a massive company centered on technology. Johnson’s business was founded in 1982 and started trading on the NASDAQ stock exchange in 1994. It took nine more years for him to crystallize his mission and focus on a single solution with massive potential in 2003.

Johnson hustled in the salvage industry for twenty years before he found product–market fit. When that happened, he switched from hustling to being laser focused.

Johnson’s journey is unconventional, even by entrepreneurial standards, but his success is outsize and undeniable. His story reminds us that there are many paths to success as an entrepreneur, including unsexy paths like the salvage industry. In the end, it boils down to finding a painful problem, solving that problem well, and providing the solution to a large pool of people or businesses.