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The Not-So Glamorous Story Of Real Startup Success

A resourceful entrepreneur got his start just trying to provide for his growing family. He’s now running a million-dollar company.

The Not-So Glamorous Story Of Real Startup Success
[Modern warehouse: SasinT via Shutterstock]

Devin Johnson had a Bluffdale, Utah-based company food-storage company in 2007 when, like many small business owners, the recession hit him hard. He was about to get married and sold his small company for “three cents on the dollar” to fund the couple’s brief honeymoon and first few months of living expenses. Four months after the wedding, his wife was pregnant and Johnson–resourceful and with a knack for sales–snagged a job as an underwriter for a family-run private equity firm to support their family.

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But the private equity game during 2007 and 2008 was no picnic. He says the land developers with which his company worked were going belly-up, so the firm began looking at funding smaller businesses, one of which was a small shipping company. Johnson took an interest in the business and, while he was doing research on the company, went out into the field with one of the company’s reps. He had been a sales rep a few years earlier and had a feeling he could be successful selling shipping services.

In late 2009, Johnson decided to try his hand at the shipping game, leaving his private equity job. Three years later, he launched a second company, International Fulfillment Solutions, to begin providing fulfillment solutions around the world. Today, the company has grown to more than $30 million in annual sales, taking on no debt or partners. The road to such growth was paved with some important decisions and lessons.

Start Smart

Contrary to entrepreneurial lore, Johnson didn’t just ditch his day job with no safety net. When he launched his shipping company, he also went back to his roots, also starting a small wireless services company. For two years, he sold shipping services by day and wireless services by night because he knew he could generate income that way.

“Then, I’d go find a neighborhood somewhere and when people started getting home from work, I’d switch shirts and I would sell our satellite and Internet service door to door so I could feed our family,” he says.

Focus On What You Can Do Well

When the company first launched, under the name Dynamic Shipping Solutions, it offered just one product: A niche product that ships items between one and three pounds via the U.S. Postal Service. However, the more time Johnson spent in the market, the more he saw the need for more comprehensive shipping solutions for larger items, using various transport and shipping methods. In 2012, he built technology to help shippers get access to other solutions, providing the core of IFS.

Now IFS works with a variety of companies of all sizes in shipping and fulfillment needs. It provides some shipping options itself, and also aggregates the power of such clients and helps them develop cost-effective and efficient solutions using their collective volume. As it finds new needs in the marketplace, it finds ways to service them, but Johnson doesn’t try to be all things to all people when the company is not equipped to do so.

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Listen To New Ideas

The company launched a second division, IFS360, in May 2014 as a result of an idea one of Johnson’s contacts presented. Ryan Treft, who had been introduced to Johnson by a customer, “was harassing me” to start a full-service sales channel management, fulfillment ,and shipping division, helping clients get new business, then handling fulfillment and shipping.

“So, now we can come to you and say we’re going to reduce your shipping costs, give you a simplified fulfillment rate, and sell products for you in all these distribution channels we have, where we can sell your products to Buy Buy Baby, Bed Bath & Beyond, or Overstock.com through all these different marketplaces and channels,” he says.

While the new division–launched in within a few months of Treft presenting the idea–is only about 9% of the company’s revenue now, Johnson says it has “a nearly 100% closing ratio.” He expects it to be about double that by the end of 2015.

Take On Partners And Debt Cautiously

Because of his experience in 2007 and 2008, Johnson was averse to taking on any sort of debt or equity financing. He didn’t want to be loaded down with owing other people money. So, if he needed to make an acquisition or hire a new person, he’d figure out how many new accounts he needed to sell and then go out and do so.

“We’re to a point where I feel like we’re going to start entertaining some investors or maybe some strategic partners, but we’re in a much better place to do that because we don’t have to give up 51%,” he says. “We’ve proven the model, we know that it works.”

About the author

Gwen Moran writes about business, money and assorted other topics for leading publications and web sites. She was named a Small Business Influencer Awards Top 100 Champion in 2015, 2014, and 2012 and is the co-author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Business Plans (Alpha, 2010), and several other books.

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