For the first time in almost a century, logistics is changing.
Before the supply-chain shortages of 2021, you rarely heard of this trillion-dollar industry. It was primarily the domain of the wealthy and well-connected. An old boys club filled with handshake deals and rowdy mixers.
However, the doors to the complex and reclusive world of shipping and handling are inching open as ecommerce brands like Gymshark or PopSockets go from small Shopify storefronts to global brands.
I sat down with Nick Bartlett, cofounder of CBIP Logistics: a bootstrapped business helping ecommerce brands grow their shipping. To do it, he helped pioneer an entirely new way of crafting supply chains for customers.
It all began when Nick and fellow New Zealander, Chris Crutchley, invested in a logistics tech company to escape the rat race. They later joined the business full-time, helped scale it in Hong Kong, and exited it. They took their knowledge from that project to create a full-service logistics business solving the problems they saw in the industry.
CBIP now works with global brands like Deliveroo and even operates with businesses working with the US government. To get there, Chris and Nick overcame pitching an untested business model to skeptical clients, creating all-new systems for running logistics networks, and losing years of work due to slippery vendors. Now they believe they’re on the verge of something big and they want to share their story with the world.
Now let’s take a step back and talk about how he got to this point.
Front Row Seats to the Power of Acquisitions
Despite a successful career, Nick wasn’t happy. He’d done everything by the book but felt stuck.
Nick’s first job had been a stroke of fortune. After graduating, he began job hunting in New Zealand during the 2008 recession. “I interviewed at all the banks and insurance companies in the area,” he says. “Within six months all those positions were gone.”
However, Nick was a star student and his university was well-connected. He landed a coveted job doing sales, operations, and marketing with Shell in New Zealand, “I was the only one selected out of 1,500 applicants in the country,” he says. “I got so excited that I went traveling for nine months because I knew I could afford it.”
Nick says working at a 100-plus-year-old vertically-integrated business like Shell provided him a unique education. “You really can learn anything in places like that. There’s so much old stuff that it’s like walking into a museum. Also about one-hundred-thousand people work for them globally. It was my first time feeling like I was part of a huge machine.”
After Nick had worked at Shell for two and half years, they sold the New Zealand business to a private equity firm that changed the company name to Z Energy. Nick says watching the ownership transfer began to awaken his entrepreneurial itch.
I had a front-row seat to private equity acquiring a business and completely transforming it in every sense.
“I had a front-row seat to private equity acquiring a business and completely transforming it in every sense,” he says. “Shell sold because they felt the New Zealand branch wouldn’t extract any more value. Z Energy took this business and then made it three times more profitable. I learned you can buy a business and transform it like this and it got me excited.”
And, because of the buyout, Nick got a job he liked even better.
“I was working in a different office in Auckland with this hundred-million-dollar portfolio doing fuel deals,” he says. “I loved it. I was probably the youngest sales manager and the top performer. I was good at my job and I just grew in confidence. I’d started in this boring corporate role and by the time I left, it was like I was running my own business.”
But a corporate job was still a corporate job. Nick realized he hated being at a desk every day. He knew if he ever wanted that to change, he needed to move.
Moving to Hong Kong
Confident in his abilities and resume, Nick left the confines of New Zealand corporate life to try a new career path.
“I told my girlfriend I wanted to live in Asia so we went. We packed up, moved to Hong Kong, and eight years later, we’re still here. Married with a kid. I changed the entire course of where my life was going.”
But Nick wasn’t working independently yet. To get a work visa, he had to consult for none other than Shell in Hong Kong. “I was back and I hated it,” he says. “It was every reminder of the things I didn’t like in Shell before it got sold. I was just a cog in the wheel. Stuck in an office that I just couldn’t get out of.”
As a diversion from corporate life, Nick began looking for good passive investments to grow his income. In 2015, he and future cofounder, Chris, poured some spare capital into a logistics platform that aggregated couriers. “I wanted to invest in other people,” he says.
Over the following two years, Nick slowly added funds to his investment. Then, one day, one of the employees at the business approached Nick with an interesting offer. “They asked if I wanted to come in and work with them full-time,” he says. “I said, ‘Sure.’”
Nick quit Shell, joined the business, and paid himself a paltry $1,200 per month for two years while living off his savings. With his help, the business went from servicing just 250 customers to a successful exit.
After the exit, Nick knew he wasn’t finished with logistics. There was a huge market for tech solutions in the industry. “I saw very early on that it was a great product and there were a lot of opportunities,” he says. “However, we didn’t own our IP so we’d need to pivot in another direction. I realized this ecommerce boom was here to stay. I also realized we could do things differently and help customers get better strategies for their logistics.”
And so, in 2017, Nick and Chris teamed up again and formally founded CBIP Logistics.
Meeting His Cofounder
While in Hong Kong, Nick also met his future business partner at CBIP, Chris Crutchley. He was an acquaintance from New Zealand working as a vice president at HSBC.
“Chris and I knew of each other but didn’t know each other if you know what I mean,” says Nick. “We went to different local high schools with a pretty fierce rivalry. When we moved to Hong Kong, my wife said we should connect with him and see how he’s getting on. We got a drink and stayed with him for two weeks when we first got here. That was where the friendship started.”
While working different corporate careers in Hong Kong, Nick and Chris frequently got beers and talked about what they wanted to do outside our corporate lives. When Nick decided to invest in the logistics company, Chris joined him as co-investor. When they both decided to start CBIP, Nick took on marketing and sales and Chris finance and operations.
“We’ve now been working together for seven years,” says Nick. “It’s pretty scary how now we see each other as business partners first and friends second. Fortunately, we both have the same objectives and outcome. We also have two smart and rational wives between us”
Let’s Get Down to Logistics
CBIP logistics is a fourth-party logistics (4PL) company that assembles logistics networks for clients, something very different from what’s been done before.
Nick and Chris created CBIP because they saw holes in how ecommerce businesses were handling logistics. They typically patched together their own, fragmented shipping networks using multiple accounts with different express couriers like FedEx or UPS.
Express couriers with bespoke global logistics networks were a simple option for brands trying to scale quickly. However, the CBIP team noticed they couldn’t offer the transparency or flexibility these businesses needed to grow effectively. Only flat rates and inexact time estimates.
Nick and Chris also saw that, in many regions, the big couriers used local trucking and shipping companies to fulfill orders. They realized that these courier providers would also be willing to work with fourth parties to bring in customers too.
The duo exploited these insights to create a new take on fourth-party logistics. CBIP would cut deals with these unaffiliated third-party (3PL) trucking, shipping, fulfillment, and warehousing companies that the likes of Amazon and DHL used abroad. And, because CBIP didn’t own any of the assets, it could adjust its logistics to the time constraints or prices its customers needed.
“We’re more of a logistics partner than a logistics provider,” Nick says. “However, we still own the process, relationships, and risks. What’s great is we can approach clients with different end-to-end options for their logistics.”
Through strategic pitching, great vetting, and careful building Nick, Chris, and their team now run a multimillion-dollar business.
Selling a New Business Model to Clients
In the beginning, Nick says it was a real grind to secure clients for the business. They were trying to sell an unfamiliar business model.
“Even in a small market like Hong Kong we’d probably land one out of every one hundred and fifty potential clients we talked to at first,” he says. “That started to change once we got our pitch down and people started to understand our value. Some customers like the idea that we don’t own any assets. Some are also nervous about not controlling who looks over their inventory”
CBIP was also fighting a battle on two fronts. One to secure customers and one to find high-quality logistics providers for them. The latter was almost more difficult. “In the traditional logistics industry, everyone goes out for drinks, gives each other their credit cards, and then they’re in business,” says Nick. “We couldn’t take that to the market. We had to do something different to acquire vendors and partners.”
To assure vendor quality, CBIP created new ways to assess businesses. Chris and Nick accomplished this by transferring some tools commonly used in financial assessments to logistics. “We built a vendor pool by going up to people and saying, ‘We want to assess you.’ We also formed a formal system for creating requests for proposals. If we are looking for new providers, vendors can fill us in on their capabilities before we meet.”
Finally, they decided they would only work with businesses where they had a solid relationship with management. “We expect certain things from our vendors that only senior management can provide,” he says. “We see it as a sign of their belief in our business model. We even have a relationship with the chairman of one of our vendors worth one billion dollars because our relationship is important to him.”
A Million-Dollar Contract, Gone
CBIP’s rigid requirements for vendors came from the school of hard knocks. Nick shared one poignant lesson they learned when working with poorly vetted logistics partners. One that lost them millions of dollars.
“We’d done a job in Hong Kong doing parcel deliveries for a US customer,” he says. “This client asked for us to do the same in Australia. Since we had a good time in Hong Kong, we thought we could do it. However, we made some enormous mistakes that lost us their business.”
When choosing vendors to run the operation in Australia, Nick and Chris let themselves get sweet-talked into a deal with a local vendor without assessing their business. It cost them their client.
“The whole thing fell apart quicker than you could count to three,” says Nick. “The vendor sold us the dream and then when things weren’t getting delivered, they said they didn’t know it would happen. The operation stalled and the client had to go on with another business. That was about one million Australian dollars per year in contracts gone right there.”
The CBIP team learned one other very important lesson: “Business is fickle,” Nick says. “We’d spent eighteen months winning that business and it was gone in an instant.”
The Future of Shipping and CBIP
While CBIP is still in its formative years, Nick’s goal is to become a world-leading logistics business. One with a new customer relationship focused on value.
And as customer expectations for transparency in shipping increase, he also wants to increase the amount of technology incorporated into their product.
“For the type of business we run, technology is critical,” says Nick. “ We’re investing in it pretty heavily, getting more streamlined, and increasing the number of APIs we offer.”
Nick thinks increasing scrutiny is forcing global logistics to become a better industry. “Soon, I see a greater appreciation for the role logistics plays. Before COVID you just said, ‘Oh you just throw it on the container and it gets there.’ Now I think there will be lots of opportunities for businesses to reassess how they can do things.”
It Takes Resilience and Lots of It
Despite the financial risks of relying on contracts for income, Nick is adamant about keeping CBIP bootstrapped for now. He thinks it keeps them focused on their goals.
“We don’t put the cart in front of the horse,” he says. “If we win more work in Vietnam, we add more people to the team. If we win more in China we add more to that team. We have finally added some non-revenue-generating resources like a General Manager and a finance team but we’ve been keeping it lean.”
Nick thinks the most important trait for founders to develop is resilience.
Entrepreneurship is like a trampoline with no sidewalls. You fall off a lot but you’ve got to get back on to keep having fun.
“I honestly didn’t think I had a lot of resilience,” he says. “But the resilience you build when you get knocked down is the hardest kind. You get nervous when you lose business. You gain confidence every time you get a new customer that needs you. All it takes for me is one sales call to land in my inbox and I’m back. Entrepreneurship is like a trampoline with no sidewalls. You fall off a lot but you’ve got to get back on to keep having fun.”
While Nick and Chris work in a much more complex industry than many founders, they have a business model that is growing increasingly popular among early tech businesses: Getting clients as an agency and then developing tech solutions for them. These are the businesses that create the software customers need and scale them into SaaS products that work.
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