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
"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
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
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?' "