“I want to save the world.”

Those words belong to entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist Jim Estill, the Order-of-Canada-winning CEO of Guelph-based Danby Appliances.

And ShipperBee, his most recent startup, is the latest chapter in that quest.

ShipperBee, which launched six weeks ago, is a gig-economy shipping company for packages, one that leverages what Estill likes to call “the power of while.”

What ShipperBee does is invite people who are driving from one point to another – commuters heading to or from work, for example – to make use of the unused cargo space in their vehicles to simultaneously ship packages. They get paid for doing so. They get paid for doing something while they were doing something else, ergo, leveraging the power of while.

Why this venture? Why now?

“I like growth markets,” says Estill, speaking to Communitech News recently at his ShipperBee head office in Guelph. “Parcel shipping is a huge growth market. When you go into a growth market, you don't actually have to take market share from somebody else.”

And the other reason?

ShipperBee External Sign

(Communitech photo: Craig Daniels)

“This can be my environmental legacy.”

In effect, his very own power of while.

Estill is the man who gained no small measure of public recognition by deciding in 2015, while running Danby, to sponsor dozens of Syrian refugee families, spending upwards of $1.5 million of his own money to do so (the tally of families, he says, now stands at 89, and continues to climb). Doing so earned him the Order of Canada.

He’s the kind of man who responds when issues hit his radar. Just as the refugee crisis moved him to take action, ShipperBee evolved in part out of his concern for the impact of global warming and climate change.

“We save 73.1 per cent of the greenhouse gas per parcel,” Estill says, and is willing to show you the math.

“If you saved 73 per cent [greenhouse gas] on [the manufacture of a new kind of] appliance, it would be front-page news.”

The idea’s environmental benefit stems from the fact that a ShipperBee parcel travels on a vehicle that was already travelling for another purpose – unlike a FedEx or UPS or Purolator parcel, which moves on a truck dedicated solely for that purpose.

But ShipperBee isn’t the first time that Estill has set out to make an environmental difference.

“I've been an environmentalist forever,” he says. “Back in 1990, I started a company called Simply Clean which made environment-friendly detergent. When I went to the University of Waterloo, I started the recycling program at WCRI, the Waterloo co-operative [student] residence. That was back before they [even] had recycling.

“I drive a Prius. A Prius is not as green as some of the all-electric [cars] these days, but I'm also a frugal guy.”

A frugal guy, and perhaps therefore one who is also keenly aware of where financial opportunity lies. One day Estill was driving down the 401, noted the FedEx trucks en route, simultaneously noted all the drivers on the road with him who (likely) had room in their vehicles, and began to wonder.

ShipperBee makes sense, he says, not only because of its environmental potential, but because it’s structured to make money. Moving packages is a growth industry, one that is driven by the insatiable demand for goods acquired online via companies like Amazon.

“If we took one per cent of the increase in parcel volume – not one per cent of the [total] parcel volume, but just the increase – for four years, we’re a billion-dollar company.

“That means FedEx and Purolator can only grow by 19 per cent per year instead of 20 per cent. If they grow by 19 per cent they can't hire enough trucks or drivers. They’re already crushed under the weight of the growth.”

The key to the ShipperBee opportunity, he says, lies not only in leveraging the trips that people would take anyway, but also in eschewing the giant hub-and-spoke system favoured by the big shipping companies. That means no giant warehouses filled with thousands of packages.

Jim Estill standing beside a yellow storage device with multiple slots and a solar panel at the top known as a "Hive"

Jim Estill with one of his ShipperBee “hives.” Units like this are placed
at gas stations.
Packages are stored inside, awaiting pickup.

Instead, ShipperBee utilizes what the company calls “hives,” which are black-and-yellow containers placed at gas stations along well-travelled routes. The hives, manufactured in Cobourg, Ont., run on solar power and are outfitted with cameras and proprietary technology that allow them to track the status of a driver and package.

A given driver picks up a package at a hive as he or she is leaving town, and drops it at a hive along the route in their direction of travel. If the package needs to travel further, another driver picks it up and repeats the process.

The last stage of the journey – dropping the package at its intended destination – is completed by another class of driver looking to earn extra money – perhaps an Uber or Lyft driver who is already out on the road looking to augment their day’s earnings. They pick the package up at the nearest hive and bring it to its final destination. Again, for a fee.

Estill says that a gas-station owner who has a chain of 200 stations has already invested in his company. The opportunity for gas station owners is two-fold: they’re paid a fee for allowing a hive to reside on their property and they gain traffic to their station. A driver might buy gas or a snack or coffee at the same location given they’re stopping anyway to drop or pick up a parcel.

“The gas stations are the easiest part of the equation,” says Estill. “And the reason is they want traffic. If you're picking up at a Petro Canada station, you're gonna say, ‘Oh, I need gas.’ You're saying, ‘Oh, I'll buy a coffee.’ For them, it's the same as putting in [a tire inflation] machine. It's to attract more people to their footprint.”

ShipperBee started in January of 2018, growing in stealth mode at Danby. It moved into its current digs, on Clair Road West in Guelph, in July and now has 32 employees. It will grow, Estill says, as demand requires. There is currently a wait list for people who are interested in working as drivers. Kitchener-Waterloo and Guelph will serve as one of the company’s test beds and, to begin with, deliveries will be made to businesses only, not to individual consumers. But that might change. And plans exist to take the company international – the U.S., India, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia and New Zealand – using cloud technology and a joint venture model.

Parcel being scanned by phone

The location of ShipperBee packages and drivers are continuously monitored.

“We’re basically licensing the technology,” Estill says. 

It’s easy to envision ShipperBee as a fit with fast-growing e-commerce platform Shopify, which has not only recently stated it is interested in taking on Amazon and its delivery network, but also wants to make a difference environmentally.

“I talked to Shopify already,” Estill says. “And what we do fits the Shopify vendors perfectly.”

There are risks. Uber, an enormous company, has yet to make a profit, although ShipperBee’s model is different than Uber’s. And existing logistics companies likely would likely eventually respond to competition from ShipperBee, even though it would represent a fraction of their business. The incumbents, however, aren’t tooled to do the same thing as ShipperBee.

“It's usually not the incumbent that disrupts themselves,” says Estill. “It  wasn't General Motors that brought out the Tesla.

“It doesn't mean that [FedEx or UPS] are not going to come and [challenge] at a future date. But they have a huge investment in drivers and trucks and structures and hubs and it just doesn't [add up for them].

“Again, the incumbent usually does not disrupt themselves.”

Estill says Brett Wilson, of Dragon’s Den fame, is among ShipperBee’s early investors.

“The reason that's important is [Wilson is] actually not an environmentalist. He's investing because it's a business decision. And in the end, if you have the economics going for you, it's the right business decision. The other reason he's a good person to mention is he owns a venture capital firm called Prairie Merchant, and they put you through the wringer, as they should, on due diligence.”

Estill is, like all true entrepreneurs, a person who sees opportunity where others don’t and who acts decisively when that opportunity is found.

He’s also an entrepreneur who is determined leverage business in order to make a difference – the power of while.

“Well, I have a different view of wealth than most people,” he says.

“And that is, I believe you need a certain amount of money for security. And above that you should … give it away.

“My goal is to save the world. And that's what I try to do.

“I live, probably, as modestly as you do,” he says, pointing to the journalist in front of him. “I have no aspirations for having a second home or boat or an airplane, or a jet.

“Why didn't I replace my eight-year-old Prius? Well, because it doesn't need replacing.

“That's who I am.”