Ryan Petersen may joke about flying under the radar, but this Entrepreneur of the Year is getting serious spotlight at a time when supply chain efficiency and efficacy is on everyone’s minds.
With a Forbes cover story in February 2022, the world got to read about the latest big success of his company, Flexport, a transport technology platform that “delivers deep visibility and control, low and predictable supply chain costs, and faster and more reliable transit times.” Flexport sales climbed to $3.3 billion in 2021, and the company reached an $8 billion valuation in January.
Ryan has gained attention for his thought leadership: he provided much-discussed analysis of supply chain when the ship that launched a thousand memes got stuck in the Suez Canal in March 2021, and he again found himself in the focal point of the discussion around California’s port crisis in October of 2021.
In this last year, the world has even gotten to hear a little bit about the entrepreneur himself: how he grew up the son of entrepreneurs, bootstrapped a (different) profitable business while attending Columbia Business School, and made an impression of his own while his brother was working on a business at startup accelerator Y Combinator.
We caught up with Ryan to hear more about how he carries his time at Columbia with him today and the advice he has for students and young alums working on businesses here on campus.
Did you come to Columbia Business School knowing you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
I was an entrepreneur before business school, though not a successful one. The year before business school I only made like $17,000. I wanted to learn more formal business knowledge—I’d been self-taught up until then. Most of all I wanted to have a back up plan to get a reasonably high paying job in case all my entrepreneurial endeavors never went anywhere. I chose Columbia because the Lang Center had a strong program dedicated to helping students start companies. And because it was an elite school in New York City—I’d been living in Shanghai before school and couldn’t imagine living in a small city after that.
What did you learn at Columbia (from classes, classmates, and more) that you have found particularly helpful at different stages of growing your business?
I learned the language and some of the primary tools of capital markets. I forced myself to learn accounting. I am never going to build a DCF model that anybody would want to use to value a company, but I understand the philosophies that underlie them and have no problem conversing with the world’s top investors on their own terms. Translating Flexport’s vision into language they can understand is easier for me than your average tech CEO as a result of this experience.
Most importantly, I learned all the core models in operations management, which is a core part of the Flexport offering. Most of the important inventory management models taught in business schools are more than 50 years old. Our innovation is to feed these models with real-time data on supply latency. We can answer questions like, “how long is it taking your factories to produce each SKU?” and “How long is it taking to deliver the products from the factory into your fulfillment network?” Inventory analysts doing sales and operational planning, even those armed with the models taught in business school (which most aren’t by the way), simply haven’t had the real-time data to feed into the models. Flexport is fixing that, and I have to give credit to Columbia’s operations management class for this. As a tech entrepreneur, those models, and the concept that your inventory is just working capital, cash which has taken another form for a period of time, wouldn’t have been on my radar without my MBA. We’re working hard to educate the world’s logistics and procurement team that transit time and working capital are two sides of the same coin, that if we can speed your freight up by 30%, we can cut the amount of inventory sitting unsold inside a shipping container by the same percent, which means more cash your balance sheet. This is how logistics and procurement teams can become much more strategic. And that’s our goal, to turn our stakeholders into heroes with their company, to allow the supply chain discipline to elevate within a company to where CFOs and CEOs take notice not just when things go wrong, but when things are going right.
What advice would you give someone who has an idea that they think could turn into a business?
Talk about your ideas all the time. If the people you talk to aren’t banging down your door to buy the thing you’re imagining, it’s not a great idea. In every business I ever founded—I’ve started 4 companies with valuations above $50M, with Flexport now at $8B—whenever I would mention the idea in casual conversation, people would beg me to start the company so they could buy the thing. If that isn’t happening to you, then your idea probably isn’t good enough, and your friends or family aren’t telling you that because they’re being nice. You should be getting lots of successful “if-then” statements, where people commit that they would buy from you if the product did XYZ. If that isn’t happening, keep innovating. Don’t fall in love with one of your ideas until this happens. I had dozens of ideas—and still do—that I thought would work.
And by the way, if your idea requires venture capital but VCs aren’t giving you money, that’s also your fault. Pick an idea that doesn’t require VC. I did startups for 12 years before raising my first dollar of venture capital, including 4 years working on Flexport before taking on any outside investment. There are tons of ideas that don’t need VC. Maybe they can’t be trillion dollar companies, but that’s okay. If you are successful building a smaller scale business, that success will continue to compound until eventually investors will be lining up at your door to back your next thing.
Success compounds. Successful people become even more successful. This seems like trivial knowledge, because on the surface all it tells you is that you should be more successful, which you were going to do anyway. But this is not trivial at all. It’s profound. Because it says that you should go for small wins. Like an engineering team developing software using agile methodologies, you should always have a working system that you can iterate on in your life. Going for a big, giant win is not how success develops: It’s about long term commitment to daily improvement. It means finding something you can do today to create value for somebody else and, as soon as possible, finding a way to capture a portion of that value for yourself. Ironically, when investors see that you’re going to build the thing with or without them, they get more excited to back you. But most founders should ignore the world of VCs and just find things they can build without them. The alternative is to sit around waiting for permission from some investor before you can build your business. Nothing could be more lame.