By Mitch Free / www.forbes.com / March 3rd, 2015
Nothing’s more exciting to me than a scrappy startup tearing open a legacy industry with an innovative idea. A few weeks back I covered some of the lending and giving innovations enabled by the internet. We’ve seen Uber and Lyft challenge traditional car services and Airbnb demystify hotels. The “sharing” or “helping” economy model promoted by these disruptive technologies is at the cutting edge of both social and business innovation. Newcomer Roadie aims to challenge parcel delivery services like FedEx and UPS in the same way.
Founder and CEO Marc Gorlin envisions our millions of individual trips as a heat map of potential delivery routes with a capacity and reach traditional shippers can’t match.
“Anywhere you want to send something, chances are someone’s already going there,” said Gorlin, who conceived of Roadie while trying to reclaim a waylaid shipment of tiles held up nearly three hundred miles from his Florida condo. Heavy, bulky, and out-of-the-box items seem particularly well suited to the model, and because trips require a minimum of logistical overhead, deliveries can be made in just a few hours. One of my businesses specializes in fast turnaround on CNC machining and 3D printing to produce parts that need to get to the customer quickly, for example to repair an aircraft that is grounded. I have often wished there was service like Roadie that could deliver the parts faster than the next morning.
A more jaded observer might immediately jump to drug trafficking and simple theft: an opportunist driver might rather have that flat-screen you were sending to your son in college than a $40 delivery fee.
But Atlanta-based Gorlin isn’t worried. “People are basically good. Roadie is a way to get paid for doing someone a solid.” Roadie is, by birth and by design, a southern-minded company capitalizing on the tradition of neighbors lending one another a hand. The startup functions as the matchmaker for shippers and drivers in ten Southeastern states so far. While some precautions are in place (waivers, a drivers’ license on file, soon a background check) he sees the technology not as building a market, but empowering something neighbors do anyway, with a bit of practical incentive thrown in. Drivers keep 80 percent of the agreed price of the transfer, and pay $1 to cover insurance. Roadie throws in roadside assistance and real-time package tracking.
Initial fees, agreed to by driver and shipper, have been small (ranging from $12-200). The start-up’s initial recruiting markets of college students, sports fans, and musicians travel similar routes often and are looking to earn pizza money, rather than a living wage. Good standing with Roadie will also entitle users to a tax deduction for total miles driven. “All for trips you were going to make anyway,” says Gorlin triumphantly.
The model also might yield environmental benefits if implemented on a larger scale. Since Roadie vehicles are already making a trip, there is a potential reduction in emissions, and individual attention reduces the need for bulky, expensive, inefficient packaging used to protect against the jostling of conventional warehouse-style shipping.
The app is acquiring a network of “Roadhouse Partners” who will offer discounts to Roadies on a gig and provide safe places for exchanges. The first major partnership is with southern staple Waffle House, whose 1,750 locations will also offer a free waffle and a drink to those making Roadie exchanges. These 24-hour, brightly lit locations serve a safety function for those shy of door-to-door deliveries and are consistent with the image of southern specificity.
Like all community-driven platforms, demand and expansion will be self-driving after a certain critical mass. While the announcement isn’t official, Gorlin told me, “We’ve just turned on Texas. When we see a lot of potential Roadies heat up in an area, where we see excitement, we can just turn that area on.”
The sharing economy is all about using technology to eliminate middlemen: a stance that is often unpopular with middlemen. Because community platform overhead is negligible, some have challenged peer-to-peer software-as-service companies under unfair business practice regulations. Car services and taxi unions have struggled against Uber and Lyft; Airbnb has come under fire from cities seeking taxes for short-term rentals, and from established hotels.
In this respect too, Roadie seems to be different. UPS, a player likely to be impacted by the upstart low-margin model, has invested in Roadie’s recent round of funding. Others confident in the goodness of neighbors include Square co-founder Jim McKelvey and Eric Schmidt’s TomorrowVentures.
The lessons here for you, innovators, is to see the social heat map of unmet needs and underused capacity your own industry. From a highway overpass in Alabama, on the phone with Glenn the Tile Guy, Marc Gorlin saw the stream of potential connections others hadn’t. As long as each participant’s piece of the trade improves just a little, the transaction as a whole is revolutionized.
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