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Austin’s uShip becomes incubator for entrepreneurship


For the past four years, Hannah Casparian has been whipping up dishes like broiled salmon and kale salad and African stew with couscous for employees at Austin-based Internet company uShip.

But now, Casparian is ready to do what uShip’s founders did back in 2004: Strike out on her own.

With financial backing from two uShip employees, Casparian will soon leave her job as the company’s personal chef to launch her own business, a Central Austin bakery called Hannah. And it was working at a place like uShip that helped convince her to start her own business, she says.


Photo by Ashley Landis/For American-Statesman


“Working in a startup environment has made me want to go out and try something on my own,” Casparian said. “Every day I’ve felt the energy and watched and learned from people, and now I’m ready.”

An employee leaving an established company to start her own business is not unusual in Austin’s startup-friendly culture. But at uShip, the entrepreneurial, go-try-your-own-thing bug is catching. Along with Casparian, at least three of the company’s top-level executives, including co-founder Jay Manickam, are in the process of leaving the company to strike out on their own.

Add in a number of other lower-level employees who have done the same, and the company — which runs an online marketplace for the shipping industry — has become an incubator for entrepreneurship in Austin.

“We hire people who are entrepreneurial and those types of people are always flight risks,” said Matt Chasen, co-founder and CEO. “You try to create a culture of innovation and teach people how to create things. The most valuable thing our employees get is seeing how things are done, successfully and sometimes unsuccessfully. So it’s inevitable and it’s healthy that folks move on to try their own startup. That’s exactly how it should work.”

The departures mark a turning point for uShip as it transitions from a startup to an established company. The company is rebuilding its senior ranks by recruiting veteran talent from outside. Meanwhile, it continues to expand its 180-person workforce by adding software engineers, mobile developers and support staff at its downtown headquarters in a renovated former general store at Third and Brazos streets.

For uShip, Chasen says, the departures are a chance to bring in a new wave of talent for the company’s next stage of growth. “We’re institutionalizing the business to some degree. As long time co-founders and executives move on, we’re hiring super experienced experts in their disciplines. That’s natural at this stage of the business.”


‘Original uShip DNA’

Founded in 2004 by Chasen and two fellow University of Texas MBA students, uShip runs a Web-based marketplace that matches customers who need to move large, unusually big items – cars, boats, equipment, freight – with thousands of transport companies who can take the load.

Consumers and businesses post their shipment listing into uShip’s auction-style format, similar to eBay, or name their price, similar to Priceline. Then, transportation service providers, including truckers, movers and brokers, bid on the jobs or accept the offer price. The service is free for users; uShip takes a cut of the total shipping cost.

Chasen got the idea for the company when he was moving from Seattle to Austin to attend business school at UT. Although he had reserved a 9-foot rental truck, he ended up with a 20-footer because that’s all that was available. As he drove the half-full truck he kept thinking about how many empty trucks are on the road and how many people need to move goods, but there was no way to bring them together.

At McCombs School of Business, he teamed with classmates Jay Manickam and Mickey Millsap to pursue the idea. A fourth MBA student, Shawn Bose, joined them soon after. The team spent their time at UT working on a business plan, pitching their idea at venture capital competitions and getting advice from professors and tech industry mentors.

After they graduated in 2004, they launched the uShip site. Since then, more than 400,000 transporters have registered on uShip and placed 16.5 million bids. The amount of money spent on shipping services on the site surpassed $500 million this summer.

Today, the company is a multimillion-dollar business and has even been the subject of a reality TV show, “Shipping Wars” on A&E.

With $28 million in backing from investors including prominent Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, uShip is accelerating its expansion in Latin America and Europe and pushing beyond the consumer market into the $300 billion U.S. truckload freight market.

“Not every founder makes that transition from startup to midsize growth-stage company, but Matt has done that,” said Maritza Liaw, a partner with Kleiner Perkins. “He has brought in senior expertise, but he has also grown talent at every level. There’s another 100-plus people who have that original uShip DNA that is creative, fun and experimenting all the time. They try new ideas and see what works.”


‘A self-sustaining thing’

A decade in, the company’s management team is now in transition, with Manickam and Bose both moving on to start new companies. (Millsap left in 2009 to launch Internet company Givability.)

In June, Manickam, formerly uShip’s executive vice president of strategy and operations, and Brad Dixon, previously Ship’s vice president of search marketing, founded Everfest, a Web/mobile company that will focus on festivals.

Bose, formerly uShip’s executive vice president of global business, is at work on an Internet-platform company that he says has already raised its first round of capital from local investors.

Also departing is Gillian Wilson, who oversaw uShip’s human resources for the past seven years. Wilson will lead Startup Games, a nonprofit that brings together technology startups to compete at games like ping-pong and foosball for charity.

New senior hires at uShip’s include chief financial officer Bob Bearden, who was formerly CFO of, Global Operations and; and chief marketing officer Dick Metzler, who held leadership positions at leading freight companies including FedEx Logistics and DHL Express.

Manickam, who like other former employees holds stock options in uShip, said the timing was right to bring in new leadership. “I’m kind of a generalist, and there comes a time in every company where you hire specialists,” he said. “Now I can take everything I’ve learned, and all the mistakes I’ve made, and go off and do it again.”

For uShip, the focus is on sustaining its close-knit culture, with perks including healthy meals served daily and company-wide outings such as tubing down the Guadalupe River. Employees’ dogs are welcome at the headquarters, which includes an upstairs game room with ping pong, video games and shuffle board.

“Company culture isn’t about a ping pong table; every startup has that,” Chasen said. “The thing about our culture is it’s way bigger than any one or two people, it’s its own self-sustaining thing. Over the years, you hire people who propagate that, and you watch new leaders emerge. Then you step back and let them lead.”