Vivian Liu is Making Auto Easy
The startup founder, who previously climbed the ranks of the corporate auto industry, is on a mission to empower consumer car purchases.
Vivian Liu was set for a career in finance, but she never missed an auto show growing up.
The appeal was less about the mechanics of the cars for her, she tells Vancouver Tech Journal, but rather how much she loved the glitz and glamour of the shows. It wasn’t until a marketing competition in university that she saw a real opportunity to pursue a career in the auto industry — one that would see her rise up the ranks of the corporate ladder and eventually found her startup, Mae (short for Making Auto Easy). Through the company, Liu empowers women to make confident, informed auto purchases.
A fresh perspective for B.C.’s auto industry
Liu was hired right out of university to work for General Motors (GM) after placing in the top 25 of a nationwide competition called Canada’s Next Top Ad Exec. She was tasked to solve a case study in the auto industry — a marketing problem, sponsored by Chevrolet. Among the winners, GM picked Liu, gave her a job, and the rest was history.
“[GM] said, ‘You're moving to Kelowna,’ which I'd never heard before in my life,” said Liu, who is from Ontario. “I looked it up on Wikipedia, and my mom looked it up, and she's like, ‘You can't move there. The stats for crime are so high!’”
But she was excited by the opportunity, and at 22, Liu headed across the country and hit the ground running.
“They literally just gave me a set of keys and said — ‘Here's the map of the dealerships that you now manage,” she recalls. “Go out there and meet them, and figure out how their business works.’”
In Kelowna, Liu was responsible for 18 different GM dealerships in the region, often driving all the way to Fernie and back. Her job was straightforward, but still challenging: learn about the businesses, figure out what their challenges were, and help them sell more cars.
“The way that the auto industry works for manufacturers — the way they make money is they invoice cars to dealerships,” said Liu. “If they want to make more money, they need the dealerships to sell more cars.”
She quickly found her groove in Kelowna. Despite not being the typical face of the auto industry — Liu was a young Asian woman in an environment that is often older, white, and male — many respected her confidence and empathy going in to work with the dealerships.
“I really fell in love with it because I was offering a perspective that they were really interested in hearing,” said Liu. “I've learned that I can work with them to advocate for them. That's what it's about — it's about building relationships with dealerships, understanding how they tick, and then helping them find ways to make more money.”
Climbing the ranks
Liu was quickly promoted to manage a larger suite of dealerships, this time for the entire province of Saskatchewan. Liu moved once again to Saskatoon, where she was responsible for 30 GM dealerships — the second-largest region by volume across the country for the corporation. She applied the same formula that led to her success in Kelowna — meet with dealerships, build trust, and come up with innovative ways to sell more cars.Again, it worked.
“It could have been very easy for them to not trust me — I'm young, what life experience do I have?” said Liu. “Most of these guys have owned these dealerships for 30, 40, 50 years: way more [time] than I've been alive. So the fact that they were listening to me and working with me, and we built that relationship, was something that I enjoyed doing.”
Liu was in Saskatoon for a year and a half before she was promoted once again, this time landing her in Vancouver. Here, she was responsible for running the Cadillac brand for the province, working with the largest marketing budgets and dealerships she had seen in her career thus far. As part of her efforts to grow Cadillac in B.C., she brought in new initiatives such as a partnership with the PNE and sponsorship of a luxury supercar weekend in the city. It wasn’t easy, but it was rewarding, said Liu.
“There's a lot of personalities in the dealership industry, and to get things done you need everybody to be on board, and you need their buy-in,” she said. “So it's my job to share the opportunities and then essentially sell them on the idea of what I think is going to help sell them more cars, and have them join in on that initiative, because a lot of the time they have to put money forward to do so.”
At this point in our conversation, I was floored by how quickly Liu was able to rise up the ranks of a corporate auto industry career. I was expecting her to tell me about another promotion to a different city, but remembered — Liu founded her startup, Mae, here in Vancouver. Was this the point in her story where she decided to stay?
“COVID hit and I just realized that if I wanted to move up in General Motors, I had to move to Ontario,” said Liu. “But I chose to live here. It’s the first time I actually chose to live in a place and stay.”
After spending her early-to-mid-20s hopping around Canada for GM, Liu quit her corporate career — “which was, you know, very cushy, and it was well paid, and I had a great opportunity,” she said. But during the pandemic, Liu found herself drawing up her business plan on the windows of her condominium with whiteboard markers, and she knew — if she wanted to do Mae, she had to leave GM.
“I was scared to take the risk,” said Liu. “It took me a while to realize, okay, it's not actually a risk. It's a risk in my head, but it's a very calculated risk. And I'm a very smart individual. And surely I'm not jumping off a cliff or anything.”
After a stint at AutoZen as the company’s head of marketing — primarily to learn about the industry from the perspective of the startup world — Liu took the plunge and launched Mae. The company has one key mission — to empower women to make confident auto purchases. In an industry where women still feel like they have to bring a father or boyfriend along to seem legitimate, Liu felt that it was about time women were better supported in their purchases.
“It's 2023. Women can do whatever they want,” said Liu. “It's their money — we're making way more money [than we have in the past], and we have a lot of purchasing power. So you should absolutely feel incredibly confident and empowered to go to the dealership. I want anyone who's 16 to 65 to feel that way.”
Mae’s platform is centralized around a survey that feeds into a recommendation engine, which finalizes a number of appropriate car options for the prospective buyer. Included with this list is information for the user to make a final decision, such as a comparison chart across the choices. Liu emphasizes that this is a guided and unbiased experience, customized for the user to make the best decision possible.
“My first customer who purchased a Buick — who said she didn't want one — is a customer the dealership would have never gotten without us,” said Liu. “And that's something we did on behalf of their brand. So I want to make sure we find brands that recognize what we're doing for them, and see that as an opportunity rather than a threat.”
In true Liu fashion, Mae is building multiple channels for women to better access the world of auto. The company recently launched a YouTube account — take a scroll through and you’ll see Liu educating viewers about maintaining cars or addressing common auto questions. Once a month, she also hosts Coffee and Cars, a forum where women can ask any question about car buying, and she’ll answer on the spot.
“A really big, big milestone for us is to get as many users as possible,” said Liu. “If there are women out there who are looking to buy a car, regardless of what stage they're in, come talk to us. We want to learn, we want to help you.”
Growing her team, growing her confidence
Liu was recently named to BC Business’ Top 30 under 30 — and it’s not a title she takes lightly. Largely, because of the imposter syndrome she can find herself facing from time to time.
“I will be the first to say that I am afraid to fail,” said Liu. “Even winning the award — within the next couple minutes, I was already feeling like — who am I? People are going to see right through this.”
But she recognizes that these are only moments in the startup journey ahead of her, and that it’s okay to have these doubts. What matters, she tells me, is the community she’s surrounded by that helps her get through the difficult times.
“That's what I love right now,” said Liu. “Regardless of how, you know, the startup journey works — most startups fail. So if this fails, at the very least, I have such an amazing community that I'm growing in [and] with. And, I have so much more knowledge than I ever would have working corporate at General Motors.”
Mae is currently a team of five, but Liu is still on the hunt for “the perfect woman” to join her in a technical, product capacity — and she refuses to settle. Not after she took a huge leap of faith leaving GM to build the company she wanted to see in her auto career.
“My biggest thing this year was consistency,” said Liu. “If I'm just one percent better every single day, I'm gonna be leaps ahead by the end of this year as opposed to last year. And I can confidently say that I'm way, way further ahead now than I was this time last year.”