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Delivering Goods

What began as a favor for friends has become a lucrative international shipping business for Saskia Chiesa. International Checkout Inc. provides service to some 500 online retailers, ranging from small independent shops to national brands, such as Bebe and Dr. Marten. When foreign customers order from these U.S.-based retail sites it is Chiesa’s company that receives the order and ships the items. By outsourcing those functions, retailers can lower overhead and reduce their risk of hassles with U.S. customs and customers overseas who are not willing to pay for their merchandise. Also, using International Checkout gives retailers an easier entry to capturing the global market, Chiesa said. “There is a lot of revenue left on the street by not shipping internationally,” Chiesa said. An increasing number of online retailers are turning to global eCommerce facilitators like International Checkout to reach new customers around the world, said Zia Daniell Wigder, an analyst with Forrester Research, Inc. , who watches the international online retail market. “International Checkout has established a niche with small- to mid-sized online retailers in the U.S. interested in reaching an international audience,” Wigder said. Originally, Chiesa ran the business from her Los Angeles home. Now she operates from a building in Van Nuys that combines offices and a warehouse. While future growth was considered when moving to the building in late 2009, there will come a day when International Checkout will need to move to an even bigger location, Chiesa said. Two factors are driving the company’s growth. One is the doubling of the sales team. The other is more stores signing up to use the firm’s service. Ranking No. 61 on Inc. Magazine’s 5,000 fastest growing private companies list in 2009 helped the company to boost its reputation. “That is a significant list, and the company got attention,” Chiesa said. “People knew us after that.” International Checkout’s revenues went from $315,000 in 2005 to $7.2 million in 2008. Revenues totaled $14.4 million last year, when Inc. ranked the company at No. 610. The ‘everything department’ Chiesa was a single mother with no corporate business experience when she started International Checkout in 2003. By that time, she had a career in modeling and had been in Los Angeles about six years. And she wanted a new career that allowed her to be more independent. Living in the U.S., the Netherlands-born Chiesa received constant requests from friends in Europe to send them American clothing and other items. From those requests, she did research about the online retail market and found that many U.S. retailers were reluctant to ship to shoppers overseas due to fraud, customs restrictions and additional fees. So Chiesa worked with software programmers to develop an online tool, which merchants could place on their Web sites, allowing them to send international orders to her instead. “We physically take possession of the merchandise, and do returns and exchanges,” Chiesa said. “We are the merchant of record, and the customer is paying us.” Nicole Smelzer, a consultant to retail clients building their online customer base, interviewed several international shippers before settling on Chiesa’s firm. “The fact they allow some customization to the design of the page is what drew me to them,” Smelzer said. In those early days, International Checkout was self-funded and any profits were put back into the company. The company has never received funding from outside investors, which Chiesa says gives her a sense of pride. At that time, Chiesa was “the everything department” taking care of getting retailers on board, communicating with foreign shoppers, handling customer service and sending out the merchandise. But as business picked up, Chiesa found that her role began to change. She focused on how to improve service and determined what new features to add. Improvements included a checkout page designed to match the look of the retailer’s Web site; the transfer of product images from the retailer’s page to the International Checkout page; and a single search capability of all the stores using company’s services. Striving to make its site better led International Checkout to being named a finalist in the innovation category for this year’s American Business Awards. The company is also nominated in two other categories – Best Overall Company and Best Executive – and it has been a winner the three previous years. FOUNDED: 2003 NUmber of Employees: (Jan. 2010): 22 NUmber of Employees: (June 2011): 41 Revenues in 2009: $10.5 million Revenues in 2010: $14.44 million Lessons learned While technology plays a big part in International Checkout’s business, Chiesa admits to a lack of technical skills. Management skills have been learned on the job, and there have been hard lessons learned, particularly in hiring, she said. A good bookkeeper is essential even if they are more expensive, Chiesa said. She changed her hiring process for customer service representatives to avoid recruiting people who interviewed well, but lacked other communication skills needed for the back-and-forth e-mail exchanges with overseas shoppers. “We give them a (writing) test,” Chiesa said. “We weed out a lot of people that way.” What took Chiesa a while to change was her insistence on micromanaging and not delegating decision-making. She said she has learned how to sit down with her executive team and get their input on issues the company is facing. “That has been liberating for me,” Chiesa said. “It is good to push responsibility away.” Still, Chiesa says she struggles with time management – mainly having enough time to devote to new improvements. But she is always thinking of new ideas and ways to expand. This year, for instance, Chiesa started a new division of the company, My American Shipper, which forwards packages bought by overseas customers directly from U.S. retailers that do not ship internationally. There are other expansion plans in the works, but Chiesa was reluctant to give details, lest the competition get wind of what International Checkout is up to. “Whatever we do gets copied,” Chiesa said. “It is flattering, but it is annoying.”

Mark Madler
Mark Madler
Mark R. Madler covers aviation & aerospace, manufacturing, technology, automotive & transportation, media & entertainment and the Antelope Valley. He joined the company in February 2006. Madler previously worked as a reporter for the Burbank Leader. Before that, he was a reporter for the City News Bureau of Chicago and several daily newspapers in the suburban Chicago area. He has a bachelor’s of science degree in journalism from the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
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