Robert Matthams

A decade ago, offsetting your carbon emissions was an easy way to clear your conscience while continuing to rack up an enormous carbon footprint. However, the environmental benefits of offsetting have become increasingly questionable, and both consumers and companies have had to get a lot more creative when it comes to actually reducing their negative impact on the environment. Step in 24 year-old Robert Matthams, whose online transport marketplace has managed to combine exceptional commercial growth and a tangible reduction of co2 emissions, picking up a string of awards along the way.

Shiply allows users to list goods they want moved or delivered. Haulage and delivery companies then bid for jobs along similar routes to ones they would be travelling anyway, in exchange for commission paid to Shiply, thus reducing the miles their lorries travel empty. Robert first came up with idea while studying at Manchester University. After chatting to a driver who’d delivered him a pool table he found out the transport truck would be travelling back to London empty. “It really shocked me,” says Robert. “I had no idea this kind of waste was happening on a daily basis. I then found some official statistics stating that 25% of lorries run completely empty of cargo and over half run only part full. That equates to around 36 million tonnes of co2 wasted every year.”

The issue played on Robert’s mind throughout the remainder of his degree and after graduating he decided the best solution to the problem would be to build a portal where consumers could be matched with the lorry companies already travelling up and down the country. “I started working on the site in January 2008, but being a young graduate I realised I would have to bootstrap as much as possible. Bank funding just wasn’t available to me. I didn’t have the funds to hire a developer so I just started from scratch and taught myself how to programme.”

Timely launch

As he built the initial website himself, Robert had virtually no costs – just a lot of six day weeks and 16 hour days. The site launched six months later and Robert avoided the big fanfare, choosing instead to build up some users and a decent reputation before embarking on a huge marketing campaign. “I think the timing of it made the whole process easier,” says Robert. “We were heading into an economic meltdown and fuel prices were going through the roof, so it was more important than ever for transport companies to keep their vehicles full.”

Take up of the service has been remarkable. With substantial press coverage, combined with a variety of online marketing efforts, Robert has grown the business to 7,000 transport companies serving 75,000 registered members. “When we first launched we had plenty of supply from transport companies but more recently the sheer demand from consumers has been great,” he says.

The careful early bootstrapping coupled with the speed at which the site gained traction has also put Robert in a very strong financial position – he’s currently enjoying a 10-20% month-on-month growth rate. “We’ve had lots of offers from angels and a couple of VCs but we’re more concerned with waiting for the right offer with the right team. We’ve got the business into a position where banks can provide capital if we need it so we can avoid equity financing with contractual clauses we don’t like.”

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Robert has an equally hesitant attitude to diversification, insisting that he wants to ‘keep the main thing the main thing’. He has no intention of applying the platform to other sectors at this stage. “We do get pulled in a lot of different directions but we have a big market to go after here and we want to stay focused on that.”

Growing pains

Robert’s latest challenge is taking the concept overseas. The German site launched in November 2009, while a Dutch offering has just gone live. “It’s definitely been more complicated launching abroad because there are more people involved and then there are the obvious language barriers. You also have to place a lot of trust in individual country managers.” The international Shiply team currently consists of seven people and Robert admits recruitment is one area he felt out of depth with initially. “I’m a young graduate so that’s a whole new thing for me, but you learn as you go along.”

There’s also the issue of staying vigilant when it comes to competition. Several copycat sites have sprung up since Shiply launched and while Robert understands it’s to be expected, he doesn’t want to lose the firm grip he has on the market. “We always knew people would launch similar offerings so we built a strong network and critical mass as quickly as we could. It’s a case of keeping an eye out and not being naïve but at the same time concentrating on your core offering.”

* photo courtesy of Roy Beusker


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