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Bicycle courier service stays lean and trim

Pacific Business News, October 29, 2008

by Linda Chiem




Green backpacks have become the signature look for Kendall Sexton’s band of bicycle messengers who weave in and out of downtown Honolulu’s congested traffic, delivering almost anything they can carry.

Admittedly, the green backpacks are a move to take advantage of the exploding sustainability and green movement, but Sexton said it also was a step towards defining a brand for Crosstown Couriers, the bike-messenger company he owns and operates out of a small, second-story walk-up office on Bethel Street.

Since it was launched in 1997, Crosstown Couriers has gone through a series of management changes with Sexton taking over as owner last January. Its five riders, including Sexton, are all experienced mountain bikers. Together, they rack up an average of 35 deliveries and 60 miles each business day.
Doubling the business

The company has built a name for itself among the downtown office set as the go-to courier service that can pick up and deliver items between Honolulu International Airport and Kahala in under 30 minutes.

It has doubled its number of clients to about 100 since the first quarter of this year.

Despite its growth, the company remains relatively obscure, prompting Sexton to ramp up his marketing efforts. He said his business, which generates approximately $80,000 a year in revenue, spends only about $1,500 annually on advertising and marketing.

“I’d say our biggest challenge is getting people to realize we’re even around, and word of mouth is really our best and one of the only ways to get it out there,” he said.

Crosstown Couriers primarily delivers blueprints, graphics, documents, CDs and USB flash drives, court filings and other easy-to-carry goods. But the riders have carried bankers boxes full of files and, on one occasion, a growler of beer.

It prides itself on flexibility and simple pricing — it charges by delivery zone and rates have remained unchanged for more than a decade. For example, it costs $4.95 to deliver an item within downtown Honolulu or what it calls Zone 1, which extends from Aala Park to Ward Avenue. Deliveries to the airport or as far as Kahala cost $10.50.

“We can never predict how busy it’s going to be,” Sexton said. “But we have really good cyclists and they can take a beating all day so that we have never really had to turn away business, unless it’s out of our zone.”

Sexton, 26, said his riders, who earn commissions on every run they make, have never lost an item. Each rider owns his or her own bike and other equipment. That helps keep the company overhead to only $700 a month, which covers office rent, phone bills and billing software.
Freedom of the job

Rice Chinen, 26, who has been a full-time rider and bike messenger for six years, said she loves the freedom of the job.

“They tell you what to do but they don’t tell you how to do it and I actually like that my skills can be put to better use,” she said. “They just throw you out there and any kind of gains you make as far as skills are pretty much your own and nobody’s holding your hand.”

In a typical work day, the riders contend with potholes, heavy traffic and drivers who are unwilling to share the road.

“It can be stressful, but I think it’s about the attitude,” Chinen said. “I’ve been hit by cars and a bus, but being angry couldn’t have stopped that. It’s better to concentrate on what you have to do and let everybody else worry about all that.”

Crosstown Couriers maintains typical business hours, handling deliveries between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. A number of loyal customers call them several times a week.

“They are quite accommodating and they’re reliable and fast,” said Johanna Otsuji, administrative assistant for Kerr Michaels Design & Construction Management Inc., a Crosstown Couriers client for more than four years. “We depend on them so much that it would be inconvenient for us if they weren’t there.”

On one recent afternoon, Sexton received a request from a client whose president left his cell phone at the office and needed it delivered to him at an off-site meeting.

“We’ll do just about anything,” Sexton said. “Our thing is, why should you have your people do what we can do fast and cheap, because your [employees’] time is valuable.”

It is that willingness to adapt and diversify that has opened Crosstown Couriers up to partnership opportunities, including one with the owners of Soul de Cuba Cafe, which is located in the same building.