Jason told me that he was launching a new multi-channel shipping application called ShipStation. I’ve been running the Web Retailer directory since 2003, and I’ve seen a lot of tools come and go, so it’s not easy to get excited about new products. I just thought, “OK, that sounds interesting. I’ll keep an eye on them.”
Now, most new tools launch loudly and then go quiet while they wrestle with the messy demands of customer support, staffing, technology bugs and all the rest. But not ShipStation. They just got louder and louder, as they released one new integration after another. There was none of the usual post-launch bunker mentality from these guys.
In just a little time ShipStation had support not only for the top marketplaces (eBay and Amazon), but other sales channels including Magento, Volusion, 3DCart, Storenvy, Prestashop, OpenSky and many more. A new integration seemed to come out every week, covering parcel carriers, marketplaces, shopping carts, fulfillment services and mail consolidators. That’s a breakneck speed of development, and it continues today.
Another surprise was that everybody seemed to be talking about ShipStation, almost from the very start. Most software vendors I have seen succeed in this industry have had a gradual build-up of customers and recognition. But not ShipStation. They seemed to be successful almost from day one. How on earth did they manage that?
Then in 2014, only three years in, ShipStation were acquired by postage software heavyweight Stamps.com. Joining the corporate world hasn’t slowed them down. Since then ShipStation has launched mobile apps, an inventory management module, and seller-branded order tracking pages. This summer ShipStation launched in Canada, Australia and the UK – another bold move in an industry where many suppliers keep to their own country.
I caught up with ShipStation’s VP of Marketing and Partnerships, Robert Gilbreath, to find out more about this how this company has managed to innovate and succeed so consistently since it began – which is still only five years ago.
Andy: How did ShipStation get started?
Robert: As you know, part of our history comes from Auctane, an eBay-only shipping tool. It still exists, and it’s still very popular and highly rated in the eBay community. But it’s interesting to go before Auctane and back to the real birth.
ShipStation’s founders, Byron Weir and Jason Hodges, were technology consultants in the early 2000s based in Austin, Texas, that did development work for a plethora of businesses.
If you were a company who needed something done technology-wise, they could do it. They were working with retailers getting started in the early days of ecommerce, and helped some of those guys make connections to UPS and the US Postal Service.
Auctane was born as a personal project of Jason’s, in around 2009. But when you have a consultant mindset, and you’re doing work for a lot of different companies, you start thinking, “What if I can build a shipping tool that is not just for eBay and it gets as popular as Auctane? If I can build a tool for all the other ways that people sell, and all the ways they need to ship, that’s got to be something useful.”
At the time, the only other choices were either very expensive or had to be installed on-premises using your own servers. They weren’t cloud-based like we are. By this time Jason had already gained a great deal of knowledge on carriers and the shipping problem domain because of Auctane, and because of other projects they had worked on for large retailers. They looked at the market and saw the timing was right to launch a web-based multi-tenant, multi-channel, multi-carrier shipping tool.
Jason then convinced Byron to join him as co-founder of ShipStation. And here we are almost five years later with ShipStation.
In simple terms, what does ShipStation do?
ShipStation takes a user’s orders, no matter where they sell, and gives them one simple interface to manage shipping. It helps them make decisions around shipping and also get the label created.
Wherever someone sells and however they want to ship, we sit in the middle and make their life super easy. It’s all about automation, and getting the best deals on their rates with the carriers.
What’s your mission? Why does ShipStation exist?
Shipping is overly complicated, and unless you are a very, very large company with a lot of resources and a lot of time and money it’s going to be really hard to develop your own shipping system.
We don’t think that’s right. The largest online retailers have an unfair advantage against someone like my dad who sells stuff on eBay, and a lot of other ShipStation customers who have small businesses but compete with the largest retailers.
It’s part of the democratization of ecommerce. We continue to push to be a place where no matter what someone sells, wherever they want to sell, or however they want to ship, we have to make it uncomplicated for them.
I’ll use my dad as an example. He’s selling almost entirely on eBay, and ships up to maybe ten things a week. He sees benefits of using us that he didn’t experience before. He feels he can get his packages picked up at his home more quickly, because he can schedule a pick-up easily in our system. If he decides to grow his business, he’s probably going to find that the other marketplaces he’s looking at are already connected in ShipStation.
I’ve been in ecommerce for a long time, and I imagine how ShipStation would have helped me at any stage of my retail career. Whether it’s me and my dad selling auto parts on eBay in the 90s, all the way up to Calendars.com, a multimillion dollar brick-and-mortar retailer with an online presence as well. That to me is why we exist, for all those business types.
There are all these folks who have big dreams, and they expect technology to be very easy. Right now you can set up a Shopify store, credit card processing and all, in 25 minutes. That’s unbelievable. In my past lives, we were spending six figures just to get a shopping cart set up. If you wanted to process credit cards it was an extra fee, then an extra fee again if you wanted search. Now we’re in this other world where it has to be painless and smooth. We want to be part of that and we believe in that mission.
You have over 100 integrations now, so all the major channels and carriers are covered. Why are you still adding new integrations?
A good analogy is the Long Tail. Some of the sales channels we add might not be the biggest marketplaces or shopping carts in the world, but there are still sellers using them. Their lives are complicated on the shipping side, and we want to be a solution for them.
Then we have some carriers that people haven’t heard of, including some smaller regional players. In the US for example, we support a couple of regional-only folks like OnTrac and LSO. Why? We have customers selling products that are hard to ship through traditional carriers, and these regional players meet their needs. We want to be able to uncomplicate that part of their lives, so they don’t have to go outside ShipStation to send those items.
We listen to our customers – I think we’re customer-influenced, but not customer-directed, if that makes sense. I think the other part is just our own experience – we’re in the ecosystem so we see what’s going on, we see trends.
It also helps that we’re a large player in this space. As you get bigger, more people want to do business with you. That’s also helped us keep up the momentum.
How does your ecommerce background influence you at ShipStation?
I grew up in ecommerce and retail at a time when there weren’t off-the-shelf tools. One time I worked at an educational software company and we were reselling for about 1,000 different manufacturers – everything from Adobe and Microsoft, all the way down to small firms.
We had to build everything from scratch, so we were listening to what customers needed and also watching Amazon on the marketing side. That taught us a lot about what good software looks like, not only from an external user’s standpoint, but also for internal users.
Back then we built our own accounting system and our own email platform and our own marketing reporting system, and the tools that the sales guys used to log leads and make sales. I think the lessons I learned then are percolating from time to time when we’re building a tool for our customers now. That’s been a good thing.
I’m also not the only one here that has a retail background. I can think of ten straight away that have either been in retail in a deep way, or even currently still are in some way. For instance one guy’s wife sells men’s grooming products. She has a Shopify store, so he goes home and hears first-hand about the highs and lows of a small ecommerce business.
ShipStation was acquired by Stamps.com in 2014. Has that changed things?
Not really. Before being purchased we already had a three or four-year roadmap of what we thought ShipStation was going to evolve to be, and what the market was going to do. We’re still in that time period.
Stamps.com was already a partner of ours, so from that aspect we were already doing things together. We weren’t a start-up that was scared for our survival before we got bought, so the day-to-day hasn’t really changed.
My personal take is that it’s like having a big brother or sister away at college, when you’re still back home with mom and dad. You call on your brother or sister for advice every once in a while, and they come into town every once in a while. You go and visit them at college sometimes too, but when they’re away they’re busy doing their own thing.
Stamps.com is a very successful publicly traded company that has a business of its own without any of the other companies they’ve bought over the years. I’ve been through some bad mergers and acquisitions and this one, knock on wood, has been incredible. We really see them more as a partner and less as an owner.
Let’s talk about the technology. How do your mobile apps work, are they just for monitoring orders or can they do operational tasks as well?
It’s a bit of both. If you wanted to use the mobile app to run all your shipping, then you could do so. Anything that you can do in the web app you can do in the mobile app. But where we’ve seen the most happiness from our customers is around monitoring, reporting and some remote administration.
One of our customers, based in Los Angeles, sells gourmet cooking supplies. The owner lives on one side of town, and his warehouse is across the other side. But it doesn’t really matter because with the mobile app, he rolls out of bed in the morning, opens the app, and can see all the orders and where they came from.
He has automation rules that he’s built, probably via the web app, so the orders are already batched together and tagged in certain ways. He might want a list of orders that are over $200 because he wants to check them for fraud, for example. Then he has a number of customers who are bloggers and chefs at fancy restaurants, and he wants to make sure that they always get their order perfect and on time. So he batches those orders separately.
Then he can just go on the mobile phone and hit “print” while he’s still laying in bed. The labels and packing slips are printed out in his warehouse, so when the workers show up they get started immediately. They don’t even have to go into ShipStation.
The printing piece is huge. A lot of people don’t know this but we have a patent on a particular kind of cloud printing. The normal cloud printing tool that people use wasn’t good enough for us. So we invented a way to do cloud printing that hadn’t been done before.
In the future, we have some fairly aggressive ideas about how we think people will start using mobile devices in warehouse situations. Some of it feeds from our own experience using pseudo-mobile devices in a warehouse. I think the future will have more tools on the app for warehouse use, whether it’s scanning barcodes or digital pick sheets. There are all kinds of things that could happen that we’re working through.
In March this year you added your own inventory management module. How does that work? Do sellers actually load all their inventory into ShipStation or is it more of a connector with third-party tools?
We actually have two different types of inventory integration. The first one is our native inventory tool, and that’s data they upload.
With that, they set inventory levels within ShipStation. Then they can use that information to see if orders are ready to pick, or write automation rules to give them a list of orders with items that are out of stock, for example. They can also build reports that tell them which products are low on stock, or that flag up fast-moving items so they can make quick purchasing decisions.
The native inventory module is what most ecommerce people can use when they’re smaller and starting out. We’re still iterating on it, so it’s going to continue to grow and change.
The other version of our inventory module is more of a connector. For a number of partners we allow you to show inventory data that’s hosted elsewhere, like in ChannelAdvisor or Stitch Labs. We show that data inside ShipStation, so you don’t have to login to all the tools that you sell from.
Our partners wanted to be more deeply integrated with ShipStation, and we’re all about efficiency. If I can keep you from having to go outside to check inventory levels then I’m saving time for you.
So it’s been a natural progression and we worked really closely with our inventory partners to talk about what their tools do and do not do, and where it made sense for us to step in.
Will you go further into inventory management? Or do you expect people to move onto a separate solution if they need more advanced capabilities?
I’ll say yes and no. If our users are asking for features that aren’t being satisfied elsewhere, our normal practice is to talk to partners about those things, and then try to work through whether we should add them to our inventory or if our partners should change their own offerings.
We’re not in business just because we want to have the most integrations. That’s really not the deal. We want to be a place where you can grow, and have your pick of wherever you want to sell or how you want to ship.
But the relationships we have are very important too. We have a hundred and something partners and we’re very close to all of them. Wanting to make sure that we’re playing nice with everyone is a big part of ShipStation’s existence.
We get a lot of feedback from our users, and they’re asking for different things. We’re very open with our partners to make sure that we’re moving in the right direction together.
Is there anything else new from ShipStation this year?
One other thing we launched recently that’s really, really fresh is a branded tracking page. Our users can now go into ShipStation, and set up the page with their logo, branding, social media links and so on.
We provide a service sending out emails saying, “Hey, your order has shipped”. In the past, when consumers clicked on that to find out where their order was, they would have been sent to some generic carrier page at whichever company had it.
With the branded tracking page, the consumer is brought to our customer’s branded page instead. It’s their logo, their colors, their customer support information, their social media links, their products. It doesn’t take them somewhere else. That’s the experience we’re now allowing our customers to give to their customers.
ShipStation is now expanding internationally to Canada, Australia and the UK. Why did you decide to make that leap?
Our mission is to make shipping less complicated. It’s not only complicated in the US and Canada, it’s complicated in the UK. It’s complicated in Australia, and it’s complicated in other countries that we’re close to launching. It’s a universal problem.
To us it’s not any different if the language is different, and it’s not any different if the carriers are different. We have done so many of those from a technology standpoint, that it’s not difficult for us.
But other things are more difficult. The marketing is different, and there are different rules in the UK and Australia than in the US and Canada. Those aspects have actually been more complicated than the development side of things.
There are some partners in the countries that we’ve recently launched, where they came to us and said, “Hey, we’re hearing this demand for ShipStation.” They know that ShipStation enables their users to do better business, to print labels more efficiently and be happier with that service. So those partners come to us and want us to integrate. It’s been interesting and there’s some more cool stuff coming down the pipe.
How’s the development of ShipStation for the UK going? Have you seen many differences compared to the US market?
We’re still working on it. One reason why ShipStation’s been successful is that we never really feel like we’re finished. We’re always looking for country-specific ecommerce platforms, marketplaces and carriers that we should be talking to. We’re working down the list just like we did in the States.
Right now, it’s less about worrying who the competition is or what they’re doing, and more about taking what we’ve run with in the States and trying to recreate it in other countries.
There are these very strong, well established country-based carriers. If you’re going into the UK or Australia, you have some dominant players that are profitable and strong. Some are government-backed, some are pseudo government-backed and some are private but have been around for a long time and are deep-rooted.
There’s a level of loyalty in Australia, the UK and Canada to local. When people are picking a carrier they sometimes think, “I’m using Canada Post because I’m in Canada”. In the States I see more retailers choosing carriers based on what deals they can get, as opposed to being loyal to the biggest player.
What’s next for ShipStation? Where do you see your place in the future?
No one thinks about shipping in the beginning when they launch their store or product. But then we become this integral part, like the customer in California we talked about earlier, using the mobile app to print labels from home in the morning. He doesn’t need to go to his shopping cart or marketplaces so much. He can come to ShipStation, see all of his reports and do all his business in our world.
So we’ve become this weird place where we’re the confessional, we’re the complaint department for the person’s whole ecommerce experience. And that’s given us a lot of insight into where other ecommerce players are missing opportunities, and I believe we’re going to be able to capitalize on some of those.
In the wider world of ecommerce, what do you think will be most important for small and mid-sized sellers in the future?
It will be so important for small businesses to give a better branded experience to their customers than the biggest online retailers out there.
Whether you are my dad shipping ten things a week, or a subscription box company shipping 100,000 things a day, there are a few massive retailers that would be happy if all these “little guys” disappeared. Marketplaces even use data from the little guy to decide what they’re going to do next themselves. That’s harsh, and seems unfair, but it’s their right.
On top of that, consumers are buying from these big guys and they’re getting a certain level of experience, whether it’s super-fast shipping or easy returns. We have to compete with those expectations too.
It’s very exciting for ShipStation to be able to give people the same kind of tools for shipping that big companies spend massive amounts on. ShipStation can provide those tools to anyone for a fraction, of a fraction, of a fraction of the cost.
I’d like to see more tools that level the playing field between the massive online retailers and the little guys. We’re already seeing it with all the SaaS apps out there. In the time we’ve been talking you can now launch a website, get your first order, print the label and ship it out to the customer. We need tools like that for every aspect of ecommerce.
Thanks so much Robert – it’s been a pleasure talking to you and I wish you and ShipStation all the best in the future.
View ShipStation reviews, news, discussions, compatibility info and more In the Web Retailer Directory: ShipStation.
Additional editing by Tom Cropper.
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Getting Ship Done Right: An Interview with ShipStation’s Robert Gilbreath