The business model is friendly, familiar, and wildly successful. Just ask Amazon. You go on line, select the product that best meets your needs, type in your credit card info and home address, and wait for your micro-sculpting eye cream and lash serum to show up at your front door. Sure, you've got to pay a delivery charge, but it's probably less than the gas you'd burn driving to the mall and the time you'd have to take off from your job.
This model only breaks down if the item in question is a sofa. Or a wood-burning BBQ smoker. Or some other big, heavy item you found at a bargain price on eBay or Craigslist. How are you gonna get the damn thing home?
Sure, you can call your pal who owns a pickup truck. Oh, he's out of town for the weekend? OK, you can search online for trucks (only don't get a semi) or pickup and delivery (only make sure the driver you select isn't a child-molester or a thief). Or you can click on http://craigstruck.com/.
From Furniture Seller to Online Entrepreneur
Mike Hanson, the Seattle-based start-up founder of Craigstruck (no official connection with Craigslist, he insists) started out as a furniture seller on Craigslist. "The reason I was a success," Hanson explains, "was that I offered delivery on every product. But by the time I'd expanded from my garage to a 2000-foot warehouse, it was physically impossible to deliver any more furniture. There were lots of guys online saying, 'Oh, I'll deliver your stuff,' but they were creepy. I figured that affordable, safe delivery was a niche that I could brand, that would be safe for people to use."
Craigstruck's web-based solution is really simple: $60 buys you one mover, one truck, and 90 minutes of time. The mover will help you haul up to five items up to 25 miles with $500-per-item insurance. This model assumes that you'll help schlep the sofa yourself (if a sofa is what you're moving). If you don't want to get your hands dirty, $90 buys the same package only with two movers so you can sit back and supervise.
To get started you fill out an online form, or call 1-888-CRAIGSTRUCK. The next available driver will call you back the same day to work out the details. Once your merchandise has been delivered, you pay the mover by cash or credit card. Ideally, all this happens in a same-day time frame.
Best of all, Craigstruck has screened out the creeps. Even before he started Craigstruck, back when he was just Mike-With-a-Truck, Hanson (who considers himself a totally non-threatening guy) realized that customers were terrified when he'd show up. When he started looking for other truckers to help handle the workload, he found out why. "I've heard stories," he says, "where they call you up, they give you a quote, they pick up your stuff, and then they padlock the truck and refuse to unload your stuff unless you pay double."
Or worse. Hanson put up ads on Craigslist, and when truckers applied he'd run background checks. "We found truckers with murder on their record, or multiple drug manufacturing charges, domestic violence, drug distribution. This is exactly why we exist. Ninety percent of the guys who responded to our ads didn't get to be Craigstruck truckers. When we background-check these guys and know who they are, there's some accountability."
Building an appealing site
Security aside, much of Craigstruck's success rests on its appealing web interface—a charming blend of sensible point-and-click menus and automated dispatching with high-entertainment value. There's even a how-it-works video accompanied by Duke Ellington on solo piano playing an esoteric mid-1930s masterwork, "Black Beauty." (Now that's class!) Initially, Hanson cobbled together a simple internet front end himself, using a Wix web site template—but he was no web designer.
Then he met Scott Beckett.
"This guy ordered a truck at 9 at night," Hanson remembers, "and I got a couch to his house by 10:10. We were talking along the way, and I asked the guy, who was 21, 22 years old, 'Hey, what do you do for a living?' 'Oh,' he said, 'I'm a programmer, I write code.' I had already pitched my idea to a couple of programmers, but as soon as I met Scott I said, 'Dude, this is the guy.' By the time we got the couch back to his house Scott was all-in."
"Mike's original site was fully functional," says Beckett, "but it had no back end, and no automation. All it had was a form for customer orders that would basically email the information to Mike. Given that someone completely non-technical built it, it's remarkable how much utility that site provided—but bringing it up to HTML5 standards was no small effort."
The back end of the web site, which keeps track of customer orders, figures out which drivers are eligible for which jobs, calculates payments, and so on took Beckett the longest to develop. His goal for the software was to automate as much of the process as possible. "I used Amazon's Web Services all the way," he says, "and I can't praise AWS enough. Take the typical components of an application and here's the Amazon solution: database, DynamoDB; email, SES; payments, FPS; hosting, EC2. I was seriously amazed at what Amazon offers, and it's very affordable. AWS even has a plugin for the Eclipse development platform. How cool is that?"
Once Beckett completed the automated dispatch feature, he got his best friend to do the front end. The upgraded site launched early in 2012.
Creative marketing is key to putting a new business on its feet. So far, Hanson has handled marketing himself, and his hard-driving determination has made a big difference. Sometimes he drives a giant truck around Seattle's summer festivals with CRAIGSTRUCK.COM in big green letters on the side. Once he went out at 3 am and nailed up signs all over the city—until he got a warning that it was illegal.
Then there was getting that 888CRAIGSTRUCK phone number.
"It was like impossible!" he laughs. "You can pay up to $100,000 for a phone number that’s the name of your business. But I fought really hard for it. The number was owned by Frontier Communications, and they just used it as a customer-service number. I called Frontier every working day for eight months. Finally I got to the top of the chain and I pitched the lady, I told her this was the name of my business, and she signed it over to me for free!"
Hanson also understands the importance of customer service. "I'm from Seattle," he says "so guess where I've spent a lot of time working: Starbucks. And companies up here, like Starbucks and Nordstrom, are all about customer service. It's their number-one thing. So far, Craigstruck has only broken two items, but if we break an item we'll instantly refund the money for the product as well as the delivery, and provide free delivery on the next product."
With only 27 truck drivers signed up, and an average of five pickups in any 24-hour period, Craigstruck is still in start-up mode. And while the web site appears to offer service in any zip code, in reality you're out of luck unless you live in Seattle, or one of Craigstruck's other active service zones. But it's ready for prime-time. "We have trucks available in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Portland too," Hanson explains. "Eventually our goal is to make sure you have a truck wherever and whenever you need it, inside of an hour."
Craigstruck seems to be an idea whose time has come: the missing function in the ecommerce equation. "You need a truck?" Hanson declares. "Boom. A truck comes out. Just like calling a taxi."
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