Forward Thinking: How Two Columbia Alumni Found a Need and Had Huge Success

 

When Ryan Petersen ’08BUS was working in China running a supply chain several years ago, he experienced firsthand the archaic practices of the international shipping industry.

Shipping companies like UPS and FedEx provide a smooth, digital tracking process at each stage of a delivery. However, freight forwarding, the complex process required to move products around the world—typically when it needs to cross international borders —is tracked on pieces of paper.

Yes, paper.

“[UPS and FedEx online tracking] is possible because these companies have enough assets on the ground,” Petersen explained. “The goods never leave their network so they have their own employees at each stage with a handy scanner checking things in.”

Items too big for FedEx (over 100-150 kg), or that needed to be transported to a location not covered by one of these companies, involve difficult handoffs.

“One guy hands another guy a piece of paper and pieces of paper are flown across the ocean,” Petersen said. “You fly a title from China to have three people in the U.S. sign it. It’s a very antiquated world.”


Ryan Petersen (Photo: Flexport)

Petersen, whose job was to coordinate all of the shipments for the company in China, was often woken up in the middle of the night with phone calls because of this complicated process.

“I said, wow, there should be software to coordinate all of this stuff and make it simple,” he told The Low Down.

Thus, Flexport was born.

The company, founded by Petersen in 2013, builds software to handle that complexity, and makes it easier for goods to flow.

“Everything you see every day had to go through this process,” he explained. “Human processes leads to a ton of errors. That’s the scale of the problem we’re tackling, we have a modern dashboard.”

(Photo: Flexport)

Shortly after Petersen launched his company, he was contacted by friend and fellow Columbia alumnus, Sanne Manders ’08BUS.

The pair had met while participating in the Entrepreneurial Greenhouse Program at the Business School and worked on a business together for a school project—selling Japanese Mafia-inspired neckties. They became very good friends.

Manders, who heard about the launch, told Petersen that coincidentally, he was handling the shipping business for Boston Consulting Group.

“He came and spent time working with me, and I made him an offer to join as COO,” Petersen said.

Manders accepted and came on board in 2014.

Sanne Manders (Photo: Flexport)

“I’m trying to recruit all of my Columbia friends,” Petersen said.

Since its launch, Flexport has signed up 600 businesses, including six publicly traded companies.

Petersen told The Low Down his experience at Columbia was crucial for Flexport’s success.

“Every single class at business school has been applicable,” he said. “At the moment I didn’t think I’d ever need to understand [certain things.]”

Specifically, he wasn’t a fan of accounting during school, but finds it valuable to his business functioning. Petersen also took a management class and learned about giving employees ownership, not micromanaging, and allowing people to develop on their own —all relevant at Flexport.

(Photo: Flexport)

Any advice for current Columbians looking to start a business?

“Make sure you have a really solid personal finance plan,” Petersen says. “Startups are really difficult and most of them don’t succeed.”

You don’t want to end up deeply in debt if it doesn’t work out, he added.

Petersen warns that the startup route is not a path to getting rich.

“You have better odds of getting rich as a Columbia MBA by going through the default motions of doing a good job at a big company," he said. 

He recommends not starting a company “just because you feel like it.”

“You should have a real problem that you just can’t stop thinking about,” Petersen said.

For him, that was the case—and it worked.

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Learn more about Flexport and the Entrepreneurial Greenhouse Program.


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