Danielle Mills Walden of Upstart Auto Retail
Danielle Mills Walden is a Regional Manager at Upstart Auto Retail, a FinTech company, and the founder of Headstrong LLC, a LinkedIn branding firm. Her journey took her from a decade-long career as a professional tennis player on the WTA Tour to a prominent role in the auto industry. With Headstrong, she has worked with The MLS, NHL, USTA, and many more organizations. Her media mentions include The American Daily Post, NY Weekly, and MSNBC. She is also the bestselling author of "How to Master LinkedIn and Separate Yourself from the Masses" and the host of "The Headstrong Podcast."
In the following interview, Danielle shares her insights, advice, and what she looks forward to as she prepares to emcee Digital Dealer Las Vegas 2023.
DEALER MAGAZINE: With your wealth of experience, you must have learned some valuable lessons along the way. Can you highlight some of the key insights you've gained during that have helped shape your career?
Danielle Mills Walden: My journey has been rather unconventional. I transitioned from being a professional tennis player for a decade to entering the auto industry after retiring from my athletic career. I began my auto industry career in the rental car sector and later joined CarNow as a Regional Account Manager. Over time, I had the privilege of collaborating with various Auto Tech startups, where I played a pivotal role in introducing digital retail solutions. While my career initially started with account management, I eventually transitioned into management roles. However, I always maintained a close connection with the customer journey and their experience.
DEALER MAGAZINE: With your wealth of experience, you must have learned some valuable lessons along the way. Can you highlight some of the key insights you've gained during your career that have helped shape your career?
Danielle Mills Walden: Some of the most invaluable lessons I've learned stem from my 'boots on the ground' experience in various cities and states across the country. In the early stages of my career, my territory was limited to Florida. However, as I progressed, I had the opportunity to cover the entire United States, which exposed me to the diverse ways dealerships operate in different markets.
People often try to put dealerships into a box saying that it's a one-size-fits-all model. In reality, two dealerships in different markets can operate quite differently. These variations are influenced by factors such as the customer base, local dynamics, but perhaps the most significant differentiator is the leadership and the culture they foster.
DEALER MAGAZINE: And you’re currently Manager of Dealer Success at Upstart, can you provide a brief overview of your role, and what aspects do you enjoy the most?
Danielle Mills Walden: In my role, I oversee the success of Dealer Success Managers responsible for the SouthEast Region of the United States, which comprises eight states. These managers handle the training, onboarding, and continued success of Upstart Auto Retail's digital retailing and lending products for dealers. My team meets with their dealers formally in monthly meetings, reviewing metrics, roadmapping items and any strategies that can enhance their success with our solutions.
What I find most fulfilling about my role is serving as a bridge between various departments within the company, which can truly help improve the dealer experience. I collaborate closely with our product team, which is exceptionally receptive to dealer feedback. I've worked for companies in the past where dealer feedback was often disregarded, and that was extremely challenging to experience. But at Upstart, dealer input significantly shapes our company roadmap as it improves the products we provide for dealers, and it enhances the dealer experience overall.
DEALER MAGAZINE: We’re looking forward to having Upstart exhibiting at the show! Are there any new products/features or projects Upstart is working on?
Danielle Mills Walden: Our primary focus is always on enhancing the usability experience of our platform for both car buyers and our dealer partners. We are committed to delivering a seamless connected car buying and financing experience from online or in-store. And so, you will see that in our product offerings. At the event, we will showcase some of the recent upgrades to our In-Store platform, which make it easier than ever for every dealer to deliver a next-level buying experience in the showroom. And I think people will be really excited about it. Additionally, we will talk about the success our dealer partners are seeing with our Upstart AI-powered financing solutions, which accelerate the F&I process through groundbreaking technology that is unique to the industry.
DEALER MAGAZINE: As the emcee for Digital Dealer Las Vegas 2023, what excites you the most about hosting this event?
Danielle Mills Walden: I’m most excited about being able to bring an immense amount of energy and enthusiasm and to set the tone as the event's first impression. I love being able to tie things back to mindset and the importance of having the right mindset when attending a conference. I’m looking forward to getting the audience ready to learn but also truly enjoy every moment of the show. I look forward to getting the audience ready to learn but also truly enjoy every moment of the show.
DEALER MAGAZINE: What aspects of the automotive industry are you most passionate about, and how will you incorporate that enthusiasm into your hosting role?
Danielle Mills Walden: I’m extremely passionate about three key aspects:
1. People: We have some of the best people working in the automotive industry, and I want to help change the stigmas and misconceptions around “Auto People” In an event like DD Las Vegas, top thought leaders and industry experts will share their keys to success. My role will be to edify these speakers and ignite the audience's enthusiasm- getting them pumped for their presentations.
2. Processes: You can have great people, but if you don’t have solid processes, nothing is going to run properly. I'm looking forward to hearing from the industry's best on the specific processes they've implemented to achieve success.
3. Leadership: Leadership, a favorite topic of mine, is a vital component of driving significant process changes or shifts essential for dealerships to remain competitive. I'm eager to explore how effective leadership is expressed and demonstrated in this context.
DEALER MAGAZINE: Are there any specific segments or topics during Digital Dealer that you're particularly excited to introduce or facilitate?
Danielle Mills Walden: I'm particularly excited about facilitating the session, "The Real Deal: How Dealers Are Transforming the Car Buying and Financing Experience." During this session, I'll moderate a conversation with three dealers about their experiences and the challenges they've overcome to ensure their dealerships are well-prepared for the Gen Z buyer. The automotive industry is changing rapidly, and our dealer partners are making some remarkable changes to differentiate themselves and deliver an exceptional buying experience. I'm excited to share their stories and help others dealers in the audience discover new and exciting ideas.
DEALER MAGAZINE: Can you share a memorable experience from a previous Digital Dealer show or valuable business insights you received as a result of attending?
Danielle Mills Walden: Last year at Digital Dealer Las Vegas, I had the opportunity of hearing Brian Kramer, the current EVP of Cars.com, speak about how industry disruptors like Carvana and Carmax were disrupting the industry in their ability to sell vehicles online. He also discussed the significance of swift and real-time trade appraisal evaluations, which allowed his dealership at the time, to compete very strongly against these disruptors. Brian always delivers cutting-edge insights.
DEALER MAGAZINE: What do you think sets Digital Dealer apart from other shows, and how do you plan to embody its unique spirit?
Danielle Mills Walden: Digital Dealer is uniquely positioned because its focus is on all things digital. I also think this show is different because of who attends this show. While there are many general managers who come, I love that there are so many BDC, Internet and Marketing Directors that attend. These are typically the most progressive people in the entire dealership so by way of this, the content that is shared is more progressive and focused on how we need to do business today but also in the future. Innovation and AI is top of mind as well.
DEALER MAGAZINE: For attendees who may be less familiar with Digital Dealer, what advice would you offer to maximize their experience?
Danielle Mills Walden: To make the most of your Digital Dealer experience, my advice is to: 1) Plan Ahead: Create a schedule of sessions and speakers you want to attend. Mark your calendar to ensure you don't miss any important sessions. 2) Explore the Expo Hall: Allocate time to explore the expo hall without rushing as this is where you can discover innovative products and services that can benefit your dealership. and 3) Network: Don't limit your interactions to familiar faces. Network with dealers who have different perspectives and experiences. You can gain valuable insights from fellow attendees.
DEALER MAGAZINE: What are your personal goals and aspirations for your role as the emcee of Digital Dealer?
Danielle Mills Walden: My primary goals are to infuse energy and focus and ensure everyone enjoys themselves.
DEALER MAGAZINE: Thank you for your time! Is there anything else you'd like to share as a final tip or message?
Danielle Mills Walden: My biggest tip is when you come to an event like this, make sure you have an open mind. People are going to share different ideas and strategies that may be completely different than what you are accustomed to doing. Have an open mind to hear everything out. Some of the biggest breakthrough moments can come from being open to new information and ideas.
Join us at Digital Dealer Las Vegas 2023
Visit digitaldealer.com for registration information, the Show Schedule, and more event details.