Alumni Profile: Ryan Petersen '08 on ImportGenius.com
Ryan Petersen '08 runs a successful online business for the import-export community. Hear what he has to say about his company, social networking and the potential threat of mobile applications to your business.
1. What is ImportGenius.com and who is your target audience?
ImportGenius.com is a business intelligence service for the import-export community. We use public records to monitor all the ocean freight shipments entering the United States, then provide a layer of search and analytics tools to make the data more useful.
Users of our service can look up almost any company to get a list of what they've imported, who they bought it from, dates of arrival, and more. It's also an excellent tool to research overseas suppliers, either by checking up on a specific manufacturer to find their shipping history or by searching for a product keyword to identify all the suppliers of those goods.
More interesting are the hedge funds and asset managers using the data to access real-time operating insights for publicly traded companies. Although the feds are investigating supply chain leaks as a breach of insider trading rules, we're pretty sure they won't come after us since none of our information comes from within the companies themselves.
Finally, we have a fairly large group of customs brokers, logistics companies and manufacturers using our trade data to identify importers to buy their products and services.
2. How long have you been running the business?
My brother David and his long-time business partner Michael Kanko started working on the business in 2006, when I was just starting business school. By the time I was in my final semester at Columbia Business School, the web application and databases were ready to go. I worked on the business in the Entrepreneurial Greenhouse that semester, and we made our first sale on graduation day!
3. What makes you most proud about what you offer?
We're democratizing the world of global trade. For thousands of years, middlemen have made money by arbitraging product prices across different markets. Suppliers identities were the most jealously guarded secrets, and fortunes have been made by simply moving goods without adding any additional value. By providing much more data about international trading partners, we're shaking up that industry and forcing businesses to compete on better service, more efficient supply chains, and other value added offerings. With our data it’s no longer about who you know, but how good are you at what you do.
That meshes well with my overall philosophy of life, if I had one.
4. How have the classes you took at Columbia Business School shaped your business/management approach?
Eric Baron's course on "Entrepreneurial Selling" helped me see sales as more of a consultative process. Instead of just trying to force something down someone's throat, you can try to find out what they really need--which means listening!--and then make sure you have something that can solve their problems.
Also, since I was so focused on entrepreneurship at Columbia, I gravitated toward Professors Clifford Schorer and Brendan Burns in the Greenhouse Program. I've always loved their optimism and encouragement in finding creative ways to help break into a big market.
5. How do you use social networks to promote your business?
We have a presence on the Twitter, Facebook and Youtube social networks but we don't spend a lot of time on there. I also run a couple of blogs on global trade at www.customshq.com/blog and www.importgenius.com/blog, as a way to feed high quality content to the "Borg" (Google), so it will send more visitors.
6. Business trends for 2011 include the increase of mobile applications to market a business. How do you think this will apply to the small business owner?
I don't think the average small business owner needs to worry about mobile applications for marketing but does need to worry about how mobile applications and the web may drastically change or destroy their entire industry. It's happening slowly in some places and faster in others, but in just about every segment of the economy, if people can't make the shift into web services fast enough, they are going to fall way behind.
The good news is that the shift into web-centric jobs is much easier than the shift from farming to manufacturing that my grandparents went through in the Great Depression. That required people to uproot from the land with all its economic and cultural ties to move to a distant city with uncertain prospects for finding a job. Nowadays people can just go online and study some jQuery and Ruby on Rails tutorials to take advantage of the next big thing in their own living rooms.
7. What’s next for Ryan Petersen?
I'm learning how to build a sales and customer service-oriented organization. I was pretty bad at this for a while, but I think I've finally got the coaching I need to really ramp up and take our company to the next level.
Then there's CustomsHQ.com, an application / startup I'm building to help companies clear shipments through U.S. Customs. If and when we get the customs brokerage license we need to start doing business, I think we have the potential to build a pretty interesting company to further my goal of democratizing global trade.
I've also been actively helping a friend with his startup, Sharperoo.com, the first public reviews site for home improvement contractors to combine data from the Better Business Bureau with license data, homeowner reviews, project photographs, and more. Hopefully we'll all be hearing a lot more about that one in 2011!
It's a lot to manage but I've surrounded myself with great people and am loving (almost) every minute of it.
8. What advice would you give to a graduating Columbia student with entrepreneurial aspirations?
Really dive deep on the economics of your business before you invest any money. You can build a pretty awesome web application for a very small amount of money, but if you are deeply in debt, it’s going be really hard to build anything. If this is your case, think about paying off as much of that debt as you can while you work evenings and weekends on your startup.
Also, listen closely to advice you get but feel free to not act on it. Remember, you are much closer to your business than anybody else, so you be the judge if it’s worth taking the plunge or not.
Would you like to be our next Alumni Profile of the Month? Please contact Mayra Reyes via email or call 212 854 4225.