The Endless Persistence of Laura Behrens Wu

Building Shippo Into a Billion-Dollar Shipping Leader

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Laura Behrens Wu

Laura Behrens Wu - Shippo

Laura Behrens Wu took a problem she personally experienced, the shipping difficulties as an e-commerce operator, and built Shippo into a billion-dollar company.

She did it with zero experience in the shipping industry.

Shippo, which connects e-commerce stores to a network of shipping providers, simplifies shipping for more than 100,000 businesses, helping them save money in the process.

Laura is a sort of under-the-radar founder, but Shippo has blossomed under her leadership, tripling its growth every year in the first few years and becoming an industry leader.

Her story of overcoming rejection, finding a real problem to solve, and succeeding in an unsexy area of business, offers a lot to learn from.

Let’s get to it.

Early Days

Laura was born and raised in Germany and has a fascinating background.

She lived in Germany until she was 6 years old, but, because her father was a diplomat for the German foreign ministry, her family moved frequently.

The first stop was Beijing when Laura was 6 years old. Next came two-year stints in Berlin, Ecuador, and Cairo.

When it was time to go to college, Laura chose a school in Switzerland, studying economics, and spending a semester during her junior year abroad at Harvard, her first time in the U.S.

She loved it.

After graduating, she went right to business school at the University of St. Gallen where she’d meet her future co-founder, Simon Kreuz.

As part of the program, she’d also be able to do an internship and, serendipitously, get some help:

I did not grow up wanting to be an entrepreneur.

Back in 2013, I was stuck in a master’s program back in Switzerland that I did not enjoy. By pure chance, I ran into a YC alumnus, who is also a Silicon Valley investor. And when he offered that he would help me find a summer internship, I jumped on it.

I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I had no idea what Silicon Valley was like. But it sounded exciting, it sounded like something I wanted to be a part of. So by pure chance, my CV got forwarded to a YC founder mailing list and overnight I had a bunch of interview requests in my inbox.

Laura Behrens Wu

She ended up interning at LendUp, a company offering socially responsible payday loans, and moving to San Francisco for the summer.

At least, that was the plan.

Laura joined the LendUp team shortly before their Series A, when it was a company of about 20 people.

She loved the fast-paced culture and knew one thing: She didn’t want to go back to Europe.

So she didn’t, not even to close up her furnished apartment back in Europe (She had a friend take care of it).

She figured out one more thing during that internship: She wanted to start a company.

Starting Shippo

While interning at LendUp, Laura fell in love with the Silicon Valley ecosystem but, because of how expensive it is to live there, she wanted to start a side gig.

She reached out to Simon to start something of their own:

I really wanted to start something by myself. So I reached back out to my now co-founder Simon and together we decided to work on an e-commerce store.

It was a curated marketplace for emerging designers and artists from all around the world. We wanted to tell their stories.

This was something that’s been done before. It wasn’t very innovative, but we didn’t care. We just wanted to get started working on something, anything.

I think that is the most important decision that a founder can make, the decision about getting started. There is no need to overthink it. You don’t need to come up with a grand idea, just start working on something, on anything, and eventually, you’ll find the right problem to solve.

Laura Behrens Wu

The company was called Popup and the idea was to source goods from NGOs and sell them in the U.S.

It was a small side project, selling a few items per week, but it was enough to experience the struggles of shipping, something that would stick with them:

We started a Shopify store then that got us into shipping for the first time. We had to stand in line at the post office, we had a few orders come in, not too many, but we did experience kind of shipping as a problem firsthand including how to get the items from the emerging designers to us and then how to ship them outbound again to our customers and how to work with inventory.

So shipping was kind of really the least fun part of that experience and it involved standing in line figuring out post office hours. It involved trying to get advice like how to ship the cheapest and there was just no good resource for getting advice and no technology interface that we thought was kind of up to par with the other e-commerce technologies we were using.

Specifically our e-commerce stack was kind of the usual one, Stripe and and Shopify, two super easy SMB friendly interfaces and then we couldn't find that for shipping and that's how the the Shippo idea was born.

Laura Behrens Wu

Even with a clear problem, Laura and Simon weren’t convinced they should be the ones to solve it:

I remember a conversation with my co-founder where we realized this could be bigger than what we were initially building and this could be our idea and he was saying to me that well he's not sure if he really wants to work on a logistics problem for the next 10 years of his life and he wasn't, like I wasn’t, passionate about logistics just yet.

To be fair, neither one of us came up from a logistics background so we were learning as we were building and we kind of agreed on let's start building, let's start getting some customers, and then once we have customers if we develop that passion we'll go all in, if we don't then that's totally fine as well.

Laura Behrens Wu

While they were rejected from the startup accelerators Y Combinator and 500 Startups for Popup, they got into Batch 8 of 500 Startups for Shippo in early 2014, four months after starting to work on the company.

Though they initially hesitated to pursue the idea and didn’t have experience in the industry, Laura and Simon’s lack of experience ended up being useful:

We were learning on the job. I mean, we didn’t know anything about shipping back then, and we tried to solve shipping from the customer perspective, and I think that was a good perspective to have.

So we weren’t influenced by the restrictions coming from the shipping industry, we were able to look at it from the perspective of “this is how an e-commerce store wants it to be and this is what modern technology looks like.” Let’s build it like that.

I would say we, back then, underestimated just how different the different shipping providers are. There is no standard across different shipping providers, not in terms of pricing, not in terms of technology, they’re all totally different, and building that layer of abstraction on top was harder than expected. But that’s now also a great competitive advantage to have.

Laura Behrends Wu

But what did they build first?

They started with an Expedia-like prototype:

We realized shipping was a problem for us so we started talking to a few other e-commerce store owners to just learn how they're shipping and see if they have any best practices any insights to share and that was really coming from the perspective of we wanted to ship better ourselves.

Then through those conversations we realized that other people were having similar challenges so from there we looked at how other people solved this and Expedia came to mind as an idea of like oh shipping and flying should be pretty similar and all you want to do is compare different rates and then you want to buy labels from different shipping providers on the same website without having to go somewhere else.

That was our first prototype and we took it to a few SMBs and actually got people to buy shipping labels but we didn't get any continuous usage mostly because it was yeah too time-consuming.

Laura Behrens Wu

From there, they built an API, but that also came with its own challenges:

The realization was that shipping is such a mission-critical infrastructure component that if you are a company that knows how to integrate an API you really don't want to integrate an API that is unproven and unused by anyone else.

So the next iteration was kind of combining the two, where we built a dashboard on top of the API and connected that to the Shopify app store. At that point in time, it just launched and that was what got us to first traction.

Laura Behrens Wu

That traction would help them raise a seed round in 2014, which came with a whole different set of challenges.

Raising a Seed Round

After 500 Startups, in September 2014, Laura raised a $2 million seed round for Shippo led by SoftTech VC, with Jeff Clavier joining the board of directors, a role he would step down from later when Laura would raise a Series A.

Raising the seed round was a slog that took Laura 4 months from start to finish:

For this series seed, I pitched 125 angels and investors and I heard 115 no’s. In the end, we raised $2 million from 10 investors. That’s a whole lot of no’s to go through before we got the $2 million together.

Laura Behrens Wu

Making the seed round even more difficult, Laura and Simon also separated from their third co-founder during the fundraising process.

While that could’ve been a deal-killer, it ended up being a valuable learning experience:

While going through that fundraise, unfortunately, we had to go separate ways with our third co-founder and that’s the kind of situation that can kill a deal easily.

In that situation, I also, for the first time, learned about the power of being transparent and straightforward with prospective investors.

We communicated that change right away up front, direct and honest. And we also set the expectation that this was the kind of communication style they would be expecting of us moving forward if they do decide to invest.

In the end, we were able to close a round from the same investors despite the change in the founding team.

Laura Behrens Wu

Laura is leading a team of 8 at this time, Shippo has 5,000 customers, and the company is growing 20% month over month.

The timing of the Shopify App Store launching a few years earlier was great for Shippo.

Many of Shippo’s early customers came through Shopify and, because Laura had talked to so many customers early on, they were able to get a good amount of reviews for Shippo in the Shopify App Store.

It’s clear to see why customers were choosing Shippo. Different shipping providers at the time didn’t have easy-to-use online dashboards, while Laura and her team at Shippo focused relentlessly on simplifying the experience for merchants while finding ways to save them money.

Of course, it was challenging to figure all of this out:

What's making this industry really hard is that we're built on top of a bunch of other APIs that we don't really control.

As we grow our business and expand into more countries, we add even more shipping APIs to the mix and these different shipping companies change their API endpoints. They don't really let us know when they do that.

They have compliance certification things that come up once a year. Then we have to go through certification again.

When I say that, on the one hand, the fact that we're doing all of this and customers don't have to do all of this one by one is a big value for our customers. So I think it is already a moat or a competitive advantage if we can do this.

On the other hand, it is taking up a lot of engineering resources and it's tying them up to do something where customers expect this to work. They're not going to give you extra points for this to work, but they'll be really pissed off if it doesn't work.

So all our engineers are tied up doing this kind of critical infrastructure work. We have to find carveout engineering teams to be able to build new features, functionalities that we're actually excited about and make sure that we're able to balance both. So I think that's the hardest part and it's something that's never going to go away.

Laura Behrens Wu

Through the endless challenges, a few things kept Laura and her co-founder, Simon, going:

I think just encouraging customer conversations kept us going. Plus we really wanted to figure this out.

There was some kind of just personal desperation around we want to stay in San Francisco, we like it here so much, we don't want to go back to Europe, we want to stay here, we want to make something work.

So yes, I think it was a combination of these two. Also I am, more so than my co-founder, just like eternally optimistic so I think there's a lot of just personality and optimism going in there as well.

Laura Behrens Wu

It didn’t hurt that they also had your classic hockey stick growth chart with all of those signups coming through Shopify.

This growth would lead to a much easier time raising another round of funding.

Series A

By early 2016, Shippo was profitable. Also around that time, Laura started working with an executive coach through Reboot.

In March, Shippo raised a $7 million Series A led by Albert Wenger at Union Square Ventures.

Part of the preparation for the round included Social Capital’s 8-ball analysis, something Laura found very helpful, and she, like Mathilde Collin from Front, shared her fundraising deck publicly after the round closed.

This fundraising experience was a bit different than the seed round:

For the series A, we did a lot better. We were able to get 30 warm introductions to investors.

We were able to set the timeline and drive the timeline ourselves instead of having investors drive it.

That means that we set one week up for first meetings, a second week for second meetings, one week for partner meetings, and then another week for due diligence.

It was important for us that we had everyone lined up at the same pace. So at the end of this process, we would be able to get to competitive term sheets.

Laura Behrens Wu

But right before she raised the Series A?

One of their biggest customers churned.

They’d eventually get them back, but the timing was terrible, right before trying to raise a new round of funding.

The official Series A announcement, which came in September, mentioned how Shippo was serving more than 10,000 customers at this point and had a team of 28.

And, beyond Shopify, what helped fuel that customer growth?

It was a mix of content marketing, finding that posting blogs on their website was most effective, as well as posting on Quora, Stack Overflow, and Stack Exchange. Additionally, the Shippo team was going to conferences and getting booths there.

Shippo was saving customers as much at 60% off typical shipping rates by pooling together their total volume to negotiate discounts, so you can see why customers were sticking with them.

But this has taken a huge effort on Shippo’s part to make this happen:

When we started one of the earlier barriers for an SMB merchant was that when you start shipping or when you want to ship an order to qualify for any kinds of volume discounts you need to sign up for a FedEx account or a USPS account and then you need to start building up volume and that just takes some time.

Our thought was anyone, as soon as you sign up for Shippo, you should be able to start shipping right away. It's just such a bummer if you need to go sign up for a UPS account and then come back to Shippo. That makes no sense.

It was really hard to get the shipping providers excited about that but by now all the different shipping providers you can start shipping right away when you sign up on Shippo and it's been a huge BD effort.

Just this year [2023] we got FedEx to agree to this kind of account structure so it's literally taken us eight to nine years with certain shipping providers to get them comfortable with that and to bring that SMB or merchant-friendly mindset to shipping providers.

Laura Behrens WU

Shippo’s number one KPI is the number of packages shipped and by October 2016, millions of packages per month were shipped through their platform.

How do they make money from this?

Through a 5-cent per-label charge as part of their pay-as-you-go model at this time.

Additional revenue streams by this time included shipping insurance as well as tracking.

These were running on all cylinders by 2017.

Lift Off

By spring 2017, Laura raised a $20 million Series B for Shippo led by Bessemer Venture Partners, with USV, SoftTech VC, and others also participating.

More than 15,000 businesses are using Shippo by this time, marking 71% year-over-year customer growth.

In September 2017, Laura described what exactly Shippo does and why e-commerce stores care so much about it:

We power shipping for e-commerce.

What that means is, we connect our customers, who are e-commerce stores, platforms, and marketplaces, to a network of different shipping providers, and then we help them figure out which provider to use for which one of their packages.

The reason why people care about shipping today is that shipping directly affects conversion rates. So it’s no longer just a means to an end to get your item from A to B, e-commerce stores need it to be able to convert their customers, because customers are expecting free and fast shipping.

Amazon Prime has taught them that and whenever they see shipping rates at checkout that are unexpected or too high, they drop off and they go to Amazon to try to find the same things.

Laura Behrens Wu

Laura is leading a team of 65 people at this time, a number that grew to 70 by November, all based in their San Francisco office.

The Shippo team’s maniacal focus on one main KPI, shipping volume, paid off, by this point having tripled their shipping volume every year since they started.

This growth continued and by the end of 2019, after doubling revenue from the previous year, Shippo had closed a $30 million Series C led by D1 Capital Partners, valuing the company at around $220 million.

At this point, Shippo had around an 80% gross margin and a “hybrid software and sales model” as reported by TechCrunch.

By October 2020, Shippo was working with 50,000 SMBs.

When asked in October 2020 how she thinks about the future, Laura talked about the importance of flywheels in her business:

For Shippo specifically, there are a few flywheels that are just in our favor. So our goal is to make sure that we keep fueling those flywheels.

The number one flywheel is the one around shipping volume. The more packages we ship, the better our shipping rates, our leverage, become with the carriers and then we're able to offer more attractive shipping options to our customers, acquire more customers faster and get more shipping volumes.

That's a really nice flywheel. And we've had by now five years of data to prove that this is a flywheel that works for Shippo. We're starting to roll this out across most shipping providers out there. Now I'm thinking about what's the next flywheel, what else is in our business?

The other one that we've been excited about for a really long time is one of our own data. This is now where a few companies get easier as they scale, as they grow.

With our current scale, we're taken much more seriously by the different shipping providers than we were four or five years ago. This is easier for us now. And now that we've aggregated all of that shipping data from our customers, I think we can build our product in ways that are more intelligent than we could do in the past.

What I mean by that is we can start making recommendations to our customers around which shipping provider to choose. We can share with them benchmarks and from the shipping industry that we see across the board. We can also tell them what shipping provider is seeing delays for very specific markets, for very specific service levels.

So there is a lot of data driven optimization that we can start doing for our customers that we weren't able to do before.

Laura Behrens Wu

By 2021, Shippo hit a major milestone, joining the unicorn club.

Billion-Dollar Company

Laura announced two more rounds of funding for Shippo in 2021, a $45 million Series D in February and a $50 million Series E in June. The latter valued Shippo at $1 billion dollars.

This came after again doubling their top-line revenue in 2020 according to TechCrunch.

After adding 80 new team members or “Shippos” as Laura calls them, they would aim to add 150 more in 2021.

The funding would also accelerate Shippo’s international expansion plans while allowing them to double down on their core customer segment of SMB merchants, which by this time there were more than 70,000.

Shippo’s ambitious vision at this time?

Our vision is to build Amazon Prime for everyone else.

We want to put SMBs at a competitive advantage by setting a new bar for SMB shipping.

I’m more excited about this vision than ever. There’s a lot of momentum and a huge pull from the market right now.

Shipping is a giant space that hasn’t been touched by modern software just yet. This is a take rate business. Given how many packages are shipped, you can imagine the size of it.

We are making shipping programmable. We make moving atoms as easy as moving bits.

Laura Behrens Wu

They’re well on their way to doing it too.

Today, Shippo has more than 100,000 customers and 300 full-time Shippos.

What was once a pain point Laura was personally experiencing is now a thriving business building the shipping platform for 21st-century e-commerce.

Laura’s Wisdom

In each edition of the Just Go Grind newsletter, I like to include a few more quotes at the end from my research into the founder who is featured, sharing their wisdom.

On being close to early customers:

I do think being super close to your early customers is very important for a startup founder. I think it's energizing, it's motivating, I think for an SMB product at least you want to get usage as quickly as possible and just watch people using your product and learn from that.

Laura Behrens Wu

On embracing your uniqueness as a founder:

Be unapologetic about who you are, be authentic, be yourself. There are so many expectations about what the perfect founder should look like and what the perfect female founders should look like.

I used to try to be like Steve Jobs or Mark Zuckerberg but that’s ridiculous and impossible because I’m Laura, and I’m proud of that. And I think it’s completely fine not to be great at everything but you need to know your strengths and your weaknesses, and then you’ll be able to hire for complementary skills.

Laura Behrens Wu

On finding product-market fit:

People think you find product-market fit once and then you're good and I think in our experience it's been you find product-market fit within one customer segment or for one product and you need to continuously be finding product-market fit either for new products that you launch or for new customer segments that you're entering into.

Our first product-market fit was really narrow, for an SMB audience using Shopify and that was super narrow, it gave us a really awesome hockey stick chart, and then we had to continuously find product-market fit for the next customer segment for the next products that we're launching.

Laura Behrens Wu

The high-level explanation of that framework is that you've got a Horizon 1 product that is working, and it works really well, it's the core part of your business, probably the majority of your revenue and it's all about optimizing, it's about making it work better and really building this revenue engine there but you don't want to take too much of a risk there, it's a mature product.

Then you have your Horizon 2 and Horizon 3 products that are forward-looking and you're making a forward looking investment, you don't have product-market fit in those products, in those areas just yet.

Horizon 2 is you have a good hunch that there's something there and it'll it'll work.

Horizon 3 is these are like insane things and you're just dabbling, you have no idea whether or not that could be a business line in the future.

I think the mistake that a lot of founders make is that when they get excited about Horizon 2 and 3 because those are exciting, forward-looking things, they get distracted from Horizon 1 and the organization just gets distracted, foot off the gas on Horizon 1, and you start getting deflated there, but in order to be able to enter Horizon 2 and 3 you need to have Horizon 1 work really well and drive a whole lot of revenue.

That framework also suggests that the majority of your team members should be working on Horizon 1 products and then you have let's say 70 percent doing Horizon 1, 20 percent doing Horizon 2, and then 10 percent playing around with Horizon 3.

It's just so important to not just focus on the big shiny stuff in the future and forget about what is actually generating revenue today.

Laura Behrens Wu

On taking care of yourself as a founder:

A lot of people think when you start a company you need to sacrifice everything for your company. And I agree, it’s about a lot of hard work. It’s about being persistent and all those other things.

But you need to take the time to take care of yourself because taking care of yourself is taking care of your company.

At the very beginning, you are your company. Make sure that you know what gives you energy and what drains you and then do less of what drains you. There is no bad boss that you can blame for being miserable. It’s up to you. If you’re not happy, you’re the one who can drive that change.

Laura Behrens Wu

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