Unless you’ve spent the few three years living under a rock you’ve probably received a speedily delivered package from Amazon, USPS, UPS or another package shipping provider.
What many don’t realize is that speedy or even safe shipping is a luxury that most consumers outside of the United States do not share. UNC-connected startup Shipal is hoping to change that in Latin America and beyond.
Founded by Colombian entrepreneur CEO Laura Chica and recent UNC Kenan-Flagler MBA graduate Jason Brown (CFO), the company’s joint headquarters in Cary and Medellin, Colombia, reflect its transcontinental mission: to connect small businesses in Latin America to a domestic and international customer base through ecommerce and innovative shipping solutions.
For Chica, herself a successful ecommerce business owner before starting Shipal, the startup’s mission is personal.
Today, Chica’s ecommerce bag startup, Chila Bags, is a success story in trans-border commerce, but it wasn’t always that way. Like many entrepreneurs looking to ship their wares from Colombia to other Latin American countries and the United States, Chica faced an uphill battle when she first began selling and shipping her products.
Chica recalls the excitement she felt when she sold her first bag to a customer in the United States. Soon, however, her post-sales glee was changed to horror due to a major hurdle she didn’t expect: shipping costs.
“I didn’t think of shipping,” Chica said. “I got the order and thought, ‘O.K., I’m gonna take these to my closest post office or just ship it.’ And when I got there, it was so expensive that it was almost the price that the person paid for the bag. This was something that I had to think about, and it was actually kind of hard because there were no options for entrepreneurs or ecommerce sellers with cheaper prices.”
It’s not like these high shipping prices guaranteed a smooth shipping experience either. Those first few packages took Chica over two months to get shipped to their destination, and eventually she had to raise her product costs to cover shipping costs.
“It was a mess,” Chica said.
Over time, Chica began to ship enough packages to the United States that she could negotiate better shipping rates with the major local carriers, DHL and FedEx. But she never forgot the shipping challenges she faced as an early entrepreneur.
After connecting with other Latin American entrepreneurs at a 2018 trade show in the U.S. about their own shipping woes, Chica realized she may have a solution to help other small business owners: by shipping their packages at her own negotiated rate, all of the businesses could benefit from the power of bulk bargaining. In its earliest form, Shipal was born.
Chica brought the knowledge of Colombian markets and experience with ecommerce woes, but she knew she would need a partner with big-picture business training.
When Chica’s cousin, Miguel, reached out while attending UNC’s Kenan Flagler MBA program about making Shipal his capstone entrepreneurship project, Chica saw a perfect opportunity. Through Miguel, she soon met future co-founder Jason Brown, a fellow UNC MBA student who brought previous networking engineering and startup experience to the venture.
Though Brown himself is not of Latin American descent, he instantly saw the value Shipal offered in connecting one of the world’s fastest-growing markets to more shipping opportunities.
“Two things drew me to Shipal,” Brown said. “First, I was really inspired by Laura, because she has a lot of success and entrepreneurship herself through her fashion company. And second, this was a huge opportunity for the Latin American community and all those countries. What’s happening with startups and ecommerce in South America is an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”
Building a platform
While Shipal’s business began by Chica personally reaching out to entrepreneurs and manually adding their shipping transactions within Chila Bags’ rates, with the help of Brown, Shipal began building a platform that would formalize these transactions and open it to a wider audience.
“We have a web platform that allows specifically small businesses and entrepreneurs to access the best shipping rates from all the major carriers of their choice,” Brown said. “The intent is to enable these small businesses in Latin America—specifically, ecommerce businesses—to sell internationally. The dream is to take their brands internationally, they don’t want to just sell in Colombia, they want to sell it to Mexico, to the U.S., to Europe, to Asia.”
While its operations are today concentrated mostly in Colombia, soon, Shipal hopes to help Latin American entrepreneurs beyond Colombia’s borders achieve their global ecommerce dreams. They are on the precipice of expansion into markets elsewhere in Latin America, including Mexico, and then into the United States.
Overcoming two barriers that traditionally prevent American shoppers from purchasing goods from international sellers—lack of trust and poor logistics—provides international shoppers with the security they need to shop from Shipal’s clients.
Even with its eyes facing globally, Shipal hasn’t lost its personalized, homegrown flair in the least—Chica said she regularly receives texts from her original customers to this day expressing their gratitude for the opportunities Shipal has created.
From teaching clients about the necessity of providing “free” shipping to American customers to providing them with shipping resources she never had as a new small business owner, Chica said she sees Shipal’s mission as giving back to the business community that helped her thrive 10 years ago.
“What we are doing here is we are putting Colombia and Latin America on the map,” Chica said.