I had the pleasure of interviewing Jan Bednar, the CEO of Ship Monk.
Jean: Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share your story about how you became a startup founder?
Truth be told, I’ve always been an entrepreneur at heart. My first gig was actually as a DJ back home in the Czech Republic when I was 13. When I came to the US for school, it didn’t take long until people back home in Czech were asking me to send them products that were available here in the USA but weren’t available back home. I had no idea that there were places that would not ship internationally, and I realized almost immediately that there was a business possibility here.
Jean: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We love to solve problems and — pardon the language — get shit done. It isn’t even slightly uncommon for companies to come to us with all sorts of different product SKUs, dimensions, various tiers of service, and all sorts of special projects that our team needs to handle even before we begin our normal fulfillment procedures. So many companies shy away from this sort of thing, and I’ve always adhered to the mantra, “if we can get it done, then we’ll do it.” We make every effort to acquiesce to our client’s requests, and this is extremely uncommon in the eCommerce fulfillment industry.
Jean: Are you working on any exciting projects now?
We’re currently working on expanding our core fulfillment services, and we’re also exploring ways to leverage our technology as a standalone service. So many companies can benefit from fulfillment, but nearly all companies can benefit from the inventory and order management services that ShipMonk offers.
Jean: What do you think makes a startup successful?
Ultimately, a startup’s success will be decided by three things: the team, the product, and the path. All three of these things need to be extremely strong if a startup is to be successful. The team begins with the founder, who must be fully committed to the business. From here, you need to assemble a strong cohesive team that is unified around the founder’s vision. The next thing you need is a solid product. You don’t necessarily need to be best in class, but you have to have some sort of competitive advantage. The product needs to do what it’s intended to do, and it needs to resonate with the end user. Which leads us to the path: you need a path to profit. This path has to be articulated by the founder, executed by the team, and substantiated by the product. If all these things are present, odds are extremely likely that you will succeed.
Jean: What is one piece of advice you would give a new and upcoming startup?
Be smart about hiring. It’s something you have control over, it’s vital to get right, and it’s potentially disastrous to get wrong. It’s very easy to be won over by a great interviewer or a shiny resume. Really think about culture fit, and structure the interview and observational period to ensure that they are capable of doing the job they claim to be able to do.
Otherwise, you need to be able to Bootstrap. Don’t spend extraneously, and don’t give up control of your money for growth funds until you have demonstrated a path to profit yourself. This is especially important this day in age, as VCs are getting significantly more skeptical about companies that have no clear path to profit. If you can bootstrap and grow your company on that alone, you will be in a much better position.
Jean: Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?
I think “Rework” by Jason Fried and David Heinemeier is a fabulous book, and it should be required reading for every startup founder. I think what I loved the most about this book is how it flies in the face of conventional thought on so many instances, and yet it remains highly applicable to so many business situations. Two things the book advocates, remote collaboration and continuous improvement based on company successes, are lynchpins to ShipMonk’s long-term philosophy and have been since Day One.
Jean: What are your “5 Lessons I Learned as a Startup Founder” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Be as scrappy (bootstrap) as possible for as long as possible. We didn’t take any funding until very recently, and we did this to ensure that we would be spending as efficiently and productively as possible. No extraneous expenses for the ShipMonk team!
- Build a superstar team (hire slow, fire fast). We have been extremely deliberate about hires, and we promote for the right role from within when possible. Our Media Relations Director, for instance, started as a warehouse associate and then as a happiness engineer. However, you also need to act quickly when you know the fit isn’t right. I was bamboozled by a particular hire who gave a great interview and had a solid application. As it turned out, he was not right for the job, and I had to act quickly before this mistake on my part polluted the culture for the rest of the team.
- Make sure you are solving a problem. I can’t stress this enough. Build something that actually makes life easier for someone. If you aren’t solving a problem, then your back is already against the wall, because you won’t be able to readily identify a customer demographic. And without customers, you don’t have a viable business.
- Build an amazing product first. Make sure that what you build is legitimately excellent. So many people are quick to launch with their MVP, without really considering what the term means. A “minimum viable product” is the absolute bare minimum. I don’t know about you, but for me, the bare minimum has never been enough!
- Think outside of the box. Don’t be afraid to do things differently! When we were starting up our tech-based logistics business, we knew that there were a lot of competitors. But rather than look at what they did, I asked what our customers wanted. From this, I gave them what they wanted. This is the most important thing, and you need to be able to deliver on your customer’s expectations no matter what your approach is.
Jean: Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
Probably Jeff Bezos because of his experience in the logistics space and his vision for Amazon. I’d love to hear about his outlook going forward, and I’m certain I’m not alone in this.
Jean: This was really inspiring! Thank you so much for your time.
— Published on June 27, 2018