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The business of speed

Chicago Business, July 09, 2007
By Steve Hendershot
Josh Korby pedals through Chicago at 20 mph, according to the speedometer on his bicycle. He doesn't slow for rain or cold, and certainly not for traffic. As a bike messenger for and co-ower of Chicago's 4 Star Courier Collective LLC, he has a rep to protect: His colleagues say he's one of the city's fastest, most fearless bike messengers.
"Josh rides hard and aggressively in traffic, but he's smart," says Mike Morell, a fellow rider. "Other guys ride hard and get into a wreck once a month. That's not Josh — knock on wood."
Mr. Korby, who's been on the job for six years, has his system down. He locks up his bike in one smooth motion, carries a click pen to speed the sign-off process and flies through busy intersections.
"I can't plan my route. I just have to feel it," says Mr. Korby, 28. "I have to see everything in my peripheral vision and know my line."
It's been more than a year since his last spill, but Mr. Korby has fallen more than 30 times — he's lost count — in his career, including several serious crashes. He broke his collarbone in one collision with a car, totaled his bike in another. In a third, he was taken unconscious to the hospital. Then there was the delivery truck that pulled in front of him, leaving time only to throw himself from his bike. He hit the side of the van so hard he left a dent. But he got up, grabbed his bike and rode away to the applause of nearby pedestrians.
"Fortunately, my most serious accidents all happened on days I've arbitrarily chosen to wear a helmet," he says.
Bike couriers are carrying fewer envelopes these days, as more business documents are e-mailed. That's hurt some of Chicago's 30 bike messenger companies. At Velocity Courier Inc., revenue has fallen 50% since 2000, says owner Kyle Wiberg, forcing him to cut his bike messenger staff in half, to 15 riders. At Quicksilver Messenger Services Inc., owner Bill Melekis has seen revenue drop 25% in the last three years.
"When fax machines came out, the impact wasn't this serious because not everybody had a fax machine at their desks," Mr. Melekis says. "But the Internet hurts. Everybody's got a computer."
Luckily for bike messengers, there are still things that can't be faxed or e-mailed, such as court filings, checks or hard copies that require signatures. Despite technology, nationwide revenues for the $4-billion courier industry have held steady for the past five years, according to the Messenger Courier Assn. of the Americas in Washington, D.C.
"E-mail has taken away a lot, but the Internet has also gotten people used to instant gratification, so now people are pushing packages and tubes onto couriers instead of using the mail," says Bob DeCaprio, executive director of the association. "The net result for the industry is a wash."
At 4 Star, which Mr. Korby started in 2005 with four other bike messengers, business is steady. The five co-owners left their jobs at big Chicago bike messenger companies like On Time Courier and Arrow Messenger Service Inc. because they were unhappy with their lot as independent contractors.
Most messengers are paid half the fee for each delivery they make and don't get benefits. At 4 Star, the co-owners get an equal share of the profit. Mr. Korby makes about $30,000 a year — equal what he was making his last few years with On Time Courier. But the freedom the owners have to run the business the way they want makes it worth it, he says. It's also the pitch they use to get clients: that each rider has an ownership stake and a vested interest in getting their package delivered.
As the only co-op bike messenger company in Chicago, 4 Star's owners also are the only free agents in the city and sometimes irk their competitors by flouting rules like the ordinance that requires messenger companies to supply their riders with helmets and safety vests. "They don't even try to comply," Velocity owner Mr. Wiberg says.
4 Star riders are outfitted with the safety gear, but the company doesn't require them to wear it. "We comply with the letter of the law but not the spirit," Mr. Morell says.
Mr. Korby rides an average of 20 miles a day, making 30 deliveries. He starts at 8 a.m. and ends at 5:30 p.m., except when it's his turn to do the early shift, which starts at 6 a.m.
He keeps a fast pace on and off his bike, because more deliveries mean more money. His company has different rates for different clients, charging by distance, weight and awkwardness. Delivering an envelope within the Loop, for example, costs about $5; riding an 18-inch poster tube to a client in Evanston costs $18.
Three-quarters of 4 Star's business comes from law firms like Loevy & Loevy and printers like Vision Integrated Graphics LLC, where hard copies of ad campaigns are still required by advertising agencies. Mr. Korby prides himself on his ability to submit tricky court filings: If something's wrong with a document, he'll call his client and act as an intermediary between the clerk and the firm to fix it.
He also carries some really big packages, like 70-pound boxes of posters and 9-foot tubes filled with outdoor banners. "It's a big ego boost when you get to the delivery spot and they say, 'Wow, did you bike that here?' "




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