As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Richard Obousy, Founder and CEO of CitizenShipper, an online two-way marketplace that connects people with something to ship to professional drivers who are willing to transport it for a fee. The overwhelming majority of the items shipped are pets. Started in 2008, CitizenShipper found its stride in 2015 and continues to grow at an impressive rate.
Obousy, originally from the United Kingdom, graduated from Baylor University in 2008 with a PhD in theoretical physics studying the Casimir Effect and compact higher dimensions of space. In addition to forming CitizenShipper, Obousy co-founded a non-profit in 2011 called Icarus Interstellar, focused on accomplishing interstellar travel by the year 2100. Through the years, his expertise has been sought out by multiple government entities. Most notably, Obousy was involved in a recently revealed U.S. Department of Defense project to research UFOs, worm holes and warp drives.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
Growing up in England, I was fascinated by space and physics and studied Physics with Space Technology at Leicester University. In 2002, I moved to Texas and enrolled in the PhD theoretical physics program at Baylor University concentrating on interstellar travel.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
While dreaming about revolutionizing space travel, a more down-to-earth transportation observation caught my attention. Pick-up trucks, with a lot of empty bed space, were everywhere in Texas. As a graduate student, always in need of some extra cash, I thought “if I had that much extra space and was going somewhere, I’d see if anyone wanted to pay me to deliver something along the way.”
It was this thought that launched CitizenShipper — a two-way marketplace where people with items to ship connect with individuals willing to transport them.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Great question. I remember I was exploring recurring pet shipping markets and was searching for insight on how to best approach and connect with breeders. I had a website mock-up created that was attractive, streamlined and filled with what I thought was fur baby-friendly copy. During my research, while I was reaching out to breeders, I shared these preliminary marketing assets to get feedback. To say it was an eye-opener would be an understatement. Of course, breeders are animal lovers, but they do not speak “fur baby”. To my utter surprise, I learned that breeders use language that is considerably more technical and that to be taken seriously, the copy would require a complete overhaul.
It was an error of assumption and it was so easy to make. It reminded me that even if you are certain the motivations of a target market seem obvious, they may not be. Never assume you know what anyone is thinking.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I am extraordinarily grateful to Cliffe Killam, CitizenShipper’s primary investor since 2010. Cliffe is one of our biggest supporters and has believed in the company through a myriad of ups and downs. Having someone like Cliffe to lean on, an investor and advisor who is in it for the long run, has been invaluable. It is rewarding to have him along for the ride as we embrace growth and expansion.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Well, it certainly has not been an easy road. There were several times the company encountered what seemed like insurmountable roadblocks. In the early years, 2008 to 2011, we were cash-strapped and had to settle for less than first-rate web-developers and it showed. The site was buggy, the brand image was not what I had envisioned. There was a daily to-do list and most of it involved fixing things that were broken. It was hard to stay positive.
By 2011, with initial angel investment cash running low, I was no longer able to draw a salary, which was already barely enough to get by in the first place. So, I started supplementing my income with adjunct physics professor gigs at two Houston colleges.
Incredibly, CitizenShipper hung on for four more years but by 2015 I was close to hanging everything up. Revenues continued to shrink. I was down to 1 part-time employee and had to get a job working for another startup company as a Director of Marketing. Those were challenging days.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I guess I believe in impossible things. Or what other people may think of as impossible such as long-distance space travel. Despite everything the company had been through — all the starts and stops — I still believed in it. I think when you really believe in something, like 100% are committed to it, that fuels the drive.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Well, thank you for asking that because a lot has changed since 2015! Today, CitizenShipper has reached the annual revenue threshold that fewer than 1% of start-ups ever achieve. For the past 5 years, our revenue growth has at least doubled year-over-year and we are tracking to similar numbers in 2021. And the CitizenShipper staff includes 22 full time and 7 part time employees.
The story of CitizenShipper is all grit and resilience. And being willing to learn, understand mistakes are not failures — they are really the impetus to finding solutions.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Although the CitizenShipper is a marketplace that facilitates shipments of all kinds, our primary focus is on pet transportation. It is our specialty. This makes us unique out of the starting block.
But what really separates CitizenShipper from other two-way marketplaces is the experience we insist on delivering to both our shippers and transporters. We continually look for ways to improve the platform through technology upgrades so that a shipper has the information necessary to confidently select a transporter that fits his or her specific needs. This includes a robust peer-review system, driver background checks, and verification protocols for various types of insurance. We also invest heavily in helping our drivers succeed by providing advanced platform tools to assist in route building and in driving profitability.
Beyond technology we take enormous pride in our ability to deliver top-drawer customer service — for both the shippers and transporters. In addition to a 24/7, employee-staffed customer service center, CitizenShipper connects regularly with the transporters using our platform through weekly webinars and offers 1:1 free assistance calls. We reach out to shippers to evaluate their experiences and integrate that information to enhance our service regularly.
There is not one story that makes CitizenShipper stand out, it is the overall collection of excellent experiences that elevates the brand.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
It is okay to step back every now and then. I remember during the early days of CitizenShipper, my knee-jerk reaction when things got tough was to work harder, longer, faster. Quickly, I discovered that was not productive. When I learned to detach, even for a few hours or a couple of days, it was enough to clear my mind and get myself out of the way of the company’s progress.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
To begin with, our mission and core business revolves around bringing puppies and kittens to news homes. So, out of the box, there’s that. It is interesting because by its nature, CitizenShipper tends to attract transporters who love animals. When they connect with shippers, the chemistry is almost immediate. We have countless instances of drivers who stay in touch with the owners of pets they delivered for years. CitizenShipper is not just a platform, it has truly become a community.
Regularly, we are part of great reunion stories — like a cat that was recently returned to its owner after 6 years. We often step in to help out shelters, save animals from kill shelters and look forward to forming an organized pet-focused charitable effort in the near future.
We also take seriously our role in providing a viable way to make good money driving in a flexible environment that makes sense for most individuals. Many transporters who use our platform do it full-time and have built a business that has changed their lives for the better. Others transport part-time to supplement income for a variety of reasons. We take a fair amount of pride in the fact that shipments booked through our platform earn drivers, on average, more than 2x the hourly rate of those who drive for uber.
Most recently, we welcomed an influx of new, exceptional drivers to our platform directly attributable to the impacts of COVID-19. We have been able to identify these individuals and have amped up our driver support efforts to help them succeed. Many have contacted us to let us know how grateful they are that CitizenShipper continues to offer them a soft place to land during these hard economic times. We feel privileged to be associated with them.
What are your ‘5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Building an idea is much harder than it looks on the outside. Having a great idea is one thing. Executing it? That’s totally different. For instance, it was easy for me to envision the content of platform notifications as well as when and how individuals would receive them based on a set of circumstances. On paper, it was a simple if this, then that type of solution. The problem was not that it didn’t work. It did, perfectly. The issue was how often it worked and how many messages one individual could receive in a certain time frame. It turns out they were receiving way too many. It is just as important to consider the down-funnel impacts of an idea that works as it is for one that does not perform as expected.
- How to attract the talent you need. Initially, I settled for talent instead of thinking I could truly select it. I was concerned about being a start-up, that top professionals would want more job security or require a salary beyond what was possible.
I discovered my assessments were flawed. First, not having the expertise you need is more expensive in the long run, and much more frustrating. And second, great talent is interested in considerably more than top pay and job security. I learned to use other variables such as flexibility, long-term freelance contractors and a collaborative, creative environment to build a quality team of motivated, engaged individuals.
3. Don’t be afraid to go outside your orbit for advice. Trusted “go-to” people inside your company are instrumental for continued success and growth. Over time, however, this can lead to a somewhat myopic perspective that needs to be shook up every now and then to remain fresh and relevant. Periodically, I find it beneficial to bring in an individual who is outside the organization to provide feedback on a certain issue, challenge, or strategy. Specifically, objective observation is essential to the ongoing improvement of our customer service. It provides an unfiltered, unbiased assessment of the current experience that is often difficult to obtain from those directly involved and invested in the process.
4. Patience and persistence pay off! One of the hardest things for me to do was wait — wait for bugs to be fixed, wait to hire an engineer I really needed, wait to implement a technology update, wait for an investor to buy-in. Looking back, it is easy to see how patience and persistence paid-off, but it was extremely difficult at times.
Eventually, the goal is to expand the CitizenShipper model into other shipping categories. We are not quite there yet, but we are close. We know that once we perfect the pet model, much of it will be applicable to other items that need to be shipped. So, we are concentrating on what is in front of us, framing it in the context of our long-term vision. It is easy to forget that Amazon started by shipping books, just books. Until we are ready, it is okay to focus on pets, just pets.
5. Be your company’s biggest fanI tended to avoid actively pursuing publicity for CitizenShipper for several years. As much as I believed in the CitizenShipper concept, I wanted to make sure it succeeded before putting the company and myself out there. And honestly, it is not priority number one when you are trying to keep the lights on.
My opinion on that stance has taken a complete 180. I believe it is imperative that you pursue, embrace and welcome media coverage at every stage of a company’s development. Today, I do not miss an opportunity to discuss CitizenShipper. Raising a company’s profile via objective sources is the fastest way to develop and reinforce market position and brand equity.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
It absolutely affected my leadership style. As the Founder and CEO, I really did think I had to have all the answers. It became apparent, relatively quickly, that I did not. I learned over time that creating a collaborative work environment not only sounds good in theory but is also extremely productive. The key is to encourage everyone to question, even if the idea someone is pondering belongs to me. Great ideas can come from anyone on my team. Giving employees ownership of their work and the ability explore other areas of interest in the company has been integral to our continued growth. I also believe it is a factor in our ability to retain top talent.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
I do think people learn differently, but for me there is no question. Experience has always been the best teacher because it is the real-world application. Abstract thought and theory are important, but they do not produce the tangible consequences of actually “doing” something. It is in act of doing that real learning comes. Sure, the results matter but as important is how you feel about it the process, how you handle an adverse situation — that is where the lessons are.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I am fascinated by the idea of space exploration and the expansion of humans first to the moons, planets, and asteroids of this solar system, and eventually beyond to worlds around other stars. I think there is a huge scope for a ‘citizen science’-type initiative where people with an avid interest but perhaps no formal qualifications can contribute to science. Examples of previous citizen science projects include SETIatHome and amateur astronomers hunting for exoplanets. I think an effort could be coordinated for volunteer contributions to the field of space colonization and interstellar travel.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Twitter https://twitter.com/citizenshipper?lang=enInstagram https://www.instagram.com/citizenshipper/?hl=enFacebook https://www.facebook.com/CitizenShipperLLC/Richard Obousy LInkedin https://www.linkedin.com/in/richard-obousy-9a8929a/