The last thing most CEOs want is an operation that unfolds like a reality television drama. But it works fantastically for uShip Inc. CEO Matt Chasen.
On Tuesday evenings, his employees stay late at the hip downtown office that used to be a warehouse. They eat pizza, drink beer and watch the latest episode of A&E’s “Shipping Wars,” the reality television show featuring their company.
The saga, now in season two, follows six independent truck drivers that use uShip to bid on shipping jobs. The cargo is diverse: Ferris wheels, large lumberjack sculptures — anything that must be moved.
Since debuting this year in the U.S. and Latin America, the show has increased uShip’s international exposure — and its website and social media traffic proves it.
However, being featured on a reality TV show can be a double-edge sword for companies such as uShip that want to position their product as reliable and steady, while producers call for increasing amounts of drama.
The Austin Business Journal sat down with Chasen, a star in Central Texas’ entrepreneurial community, to talk about the show and its impact on the company he founded.
How did you manage to score the reality show deal with A&E?
The idea came from a producer at Megalomedia Inc. who used to share office space with us when we were first getting started. He noticed uShip had grown and had interesting stuff going on, so he had the idea to create a show. Megalomedia, which had an existing relationship with A&E, filmed the pilot and pitched the show. We weren’t involved in the pitching at all.
Starting out, what was your biggest concern?
The conflict of interest between dramatic reality TV and our product positioning. The service quality of our transportation providers is fantastic, and over 98 percent of the time they get positive feedback from customers, but on the show they like to highlight when things don’t go right.
Has that been a source of heartache?
We haven’t had any major issues around production or significant adverse impacts to our brand, so largely it’s been good, and I think the truckers come out as the heroes most of the time.
How did you prepare the company for the show’s debut?
We really didn’t know what to expect, in terms of site traffic, so the information technology team scaled all the infrastructure, servers and bandwidth. In season one, there were significant spikes with up to hundreds of thousands of concurrent users, and we had some downtime. We identified some things that we wanted to fix to make the system more scalable and put those fixes in place for season two, and things have gone a lot smoother.
How much say do you have in the production of the show?
We occasionally preview episodes and provide input, but we have no editorial control.
How much of your time is consumed by the show?
Our company supports the production of the show significantly. We have a full-time person in our customer service team who helps support the producers in terms of helping to find shipments for the show, interact with the service providers themselves and get permission from the customers to have the production company contact them in advance to find out if they are interested in being on the show. My time, personally, is pretty minimal at this point — less than 5 percent of my time.
How much of uShip’s business is the really unusual stuff you see on the show?
About 10 percent. About 90 percent of the stuff is freight — large but not highly unusual — that goes business to business. We really are the only solution for people with the highly unusual, almost completely unshippable items that most of the other companies won’t ship, plus we have a livestock category.
What has been the best thing to happen as a result of the show?
Other than general awareness, it’s increased our cool factor. It’s hard to be cool in the shipping industry. I recently spoke at a transportation industry conference, and all anyone asked me about was the show and if Roy really has that cat with him on the road.
What has been the worst result of the show?
Some transportation industry people try to point out issues with our service providers or things that they don’t think are being done professionally or properly.
How have employees responded?
One of the best things about the show has been its benefit for employee morale. It’s fun to see your company featured internationally.
The show has millions of viewers. How are you actively capitalizing on this exposure?
We had a lot of unqualified traffic — people who visit our site with no intention of shipping at the time — so we created a “Shipping Wars” section for them with information and a leaderboard. Then we try to get them to come back and use us for shipping.
Do you watch the show?
I haven’t missed one.
Do you have a favorite episode?
The episodes just keep getting better and better. So far, the Aug. 14 episode is my favorite.
uShip recently expanded into Mexico and South America, and the show started broadcasting in Latin America. Are these two related?
Well, it wasn’t a complete coincidence. We had been planning to launch a number of sites in Mexico and South America, but things just got massively accelerated. We had very limited advance notice that South America markets were airing the show, so we scrambled and got the sites up within two days of the show airing. We didn’t want to miss the opportunity to convert those viewers into uShip users.
Can you put a value on the exposure this has brought you?
We’ve racked our brains about this, but I think time will tell how much that increased traffic and awareness gets us.
What advice do you have for companies that will be featured on a reality TV show?
Good luck. It’s a very unusual circumstance, and we were lucky to get involved in the show. As an entrepreneur, I wouldn’t focus a lot of energy toward it because pitching shows to networks will probably end up fruitless. But be opportunistic if something comes up.