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Business competition inspires students to launch local bike courier service



By Crystal Neo


Columbia Tribune, February 14, 2007


Training for a cycling team can be cause for teeth-gritting. You have to do it whether you feel like it or not. And even if it starts raining, you have to keep going.


For three budding entrepreneurs, their time training on the University of Missouri-Columbia cycling team shares traits with what they face in their new business venture, Columbia Couriers.


"Training is just like what we’re experiencing now," said Brady Beckham, one of the business’s founders. "You just have to be persistent; you’ve got to be headstrong and do what you intended to do, regardless of what gets in your way."


Beckham, along with Stephen Tinsley and Jason Key, launched the courier service this month. It provides pickup and delivery services within city limits for items such as small packages or documents. They also run personal and office errands. Rates start at $5.


For the three men - all in their early 20s - the service is a perfect combination of getting paid and doing what they love.


Beckham, who came up with the idea for Columbia Couriers, submitted his business proposal for the annual MU New Venture Idea Competition, which took place last month. In the contest, organized by the Flegel-Source Interlink Academy for Aspiring Entrepreneurs under MU’s College of Business, Beckham took first place in two categories: undergraduate for-profit and undergraduate not-for-profit.


Mary Wilkerson, vice president of marketing for Boone County National Bank, was one of the judges at the competition. She said she was impressed by Beckham’s leadership qualities, which came across during his presentation.


"The most important thing was that he had identified a specific need," she said. "The need was there, and the business proposal was there to meet the need."


Wilkerson liked the idea so much, she said she would consider becoming a customer.


"I wouldn’t hesitate to use their service," she said. "It is a lot cheaper than sending a staff out to run an errand."


Business is off to a slow start for Columbia Couriers. Instead of calls from customers during the first week, it got calls from potential employees. But the founders remain positive about the future.


"I think we picked the worst week ever to start a bicycle messenger service because of the weather," Beckham said.


"But if we can make it through this week, then we can messenger through any other week throughout the year."


Alan Skouby, an adjunct assistant business professor at MU, said he was impressed with the courier idea. He was part of the organizing committee for the competition.


"We all thought it was a great idea, and we encouraged him to pursue it," he said.


The day after the competition, Beckham called Tinsley and asked him to join the company. He agreed, and a week later, the two called Key. Since then, the three have been making business decisions together.


Beckham said his business partners were carefully chosen to complement each other.


He had admired Tinsley’s strong leadership and level-headedness during the three years they raced together on the team. Key brought a different approach, which Beckham and Tinsley thought ended up validating their decision-making process.


The team thought three was the right size. Four would be too many cooks in the kitchen, Beckham said.


Because the trio already had their own bikes, they’ve managed to keep their overhead to just $500, part of it covered by Beckham’s prize money. For submitting the winning business proposal, Beckham got $400, half of which he invested in the business.


The partners also did market research before launching the business.


They spoke to local business licensing officers to find out the number of businesses in the Columbia area; this helped them map out their service area. Calls also were made to courier services in other cities to find out more about their services.


None of the founders is a business major: Beckham is an industrial and manufacturing services engineering major, Tinsley is an English graduate, and Key is majoring in economics. But they each assumed different roles in the company within three weeks. Key became the company’s accountant, Tinsley the graphics and Web designer and Beckham the spokesman.


Tinsley said the pathways in downtown Columbia make it one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in Missouri.


Beckham, who biked with friends in downtown Chicago two and a half months ago, said buses and cabbies there were trying to run them off the road throughout their ride.


"The cabbies would mess around with us. They would slow down and get closer to us, pull up in front of us, stop, and then they’ll take off," Beckham said.


"People in Columbia, whether they agree with us being on the road or not, at least respect us and don’t try to run us off the road, which is much appreciated."


With at least four types of bicycles each in their stable, the group seems prepared to combat the challenges the race for business might bring.


"Racing is just like the dessert. You do all the training just for the race," Beckham said. "So if at the end of the year, we can take all our employees out to dinner one night, that’s the race."




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