Bill Smith is 31; he didn’t go to college. The Ernst & Young Emerging Entrepreneur of the year is the CEO of on-demand grocery delivery startup giant Shipt, which recently closed on a Series B round of $40 million. This follows a Series A of $20 million (from the same investors) and a seed round of $3 million, self-funded by the serial entrepreneur following an acquisition of what he considers his first big win: prepaid card services business Insight Card Services.
“I guess you could say the acquisition of Insight by Green Dot Corporation was my Master’s degree,” says Smith. “I’ve always loved business. My Dad was an entrepreneur. He didn’t go to college either. I got a briefcase for my birthday when I was four and had my first job at 11 years old. I worked at this small town convenience store on Smith Lake called the Country Mall. I started getting into technology into my early teens.”
Smith says he learned “a ton” from his role as a sole founder with an initial team of “maybe six,” in a company that “just exploded overnight.” The startup went from ten employees in the first six months to 150 almost immediately.
“It was hard and I was a lot less experienced than I am now,” says Smith, “I learned a lot of lessons at Insight. We were a growing team and I didn’t really know how to grow a team.”
Fast-forward to present-day — Shipt employs about 250 employees at its corporate headquarters in Birmingham, AL and 20,000 shoppers in the field. The startup currently serves 47 metro areas and 20 million families and has been called an Instacart rival. Since launching its first market in 2015, Shipt has grown over 500 percent and all of its current markets are profitable.
With its latest round of funding, the startup plans to expand to 100 new metro areas — 60 by the end of the year. Smith reports that Shipt is 40 percent the size of Instacart today and that every month since launch, they’ve grown faster, with less investment dollars.
“We’re opening two new cities a week,” says Smith.
He emphasizes the importance of customer experience and creating a positive experience for his buyers.
“My mama raised me right. I learned at an early age that you have to treat people a certain way. It’s really hard to be successful if your people are against you. We know that if we take care of our shoppers, our customers will be happy.”
Shipt shopper Laura Shaffer says that she turned down an office job because she’d rather work for Shipt. “I’ve gotten to know my customers and I really enjoy meeting them.”
Smith stands out in this regard for both customers and employees. A recent Forbes article references complaints from Instacart shoppers and investigates how that may be negatively impacting customer experience. When asked about competitors (and Instacart is just one of many), Smith explained that Shipt’s most fierce competition is the habits people have formed over their lives.
“Capital alone will not win in this business… building a great customer experience is really critical,” he says.
“As a venture capitalist and former operator, I’ve had the opportunity to work with many outstanding and gifted leaders. Bill is, without exception, the most gifted entrepreneurial leader I’ve ever worked with. He is truly a generational talent,” says Crutchfield.
Shipt’s growth and expansion is obviously keeping Smith incredibly busy, but you’d never know it upon meeting. Astoundingly, amid Shipt’s explosive growth, Smith makes time for people and community. He serves as a mentor to several earlier-stage startups.
“Even though Bill just raised $40m and Shipt is growing like crazy, he finds time to give back,” says Instagift founder and Velocity Accelerator Managing Director Nate Schmidt. “Bill was super supportive of the Velocity Accelerator. He donated time to mentoring our teams, visited the space, and invested in one of the teams.”
Kathleen Hamrick is an Alabama native serving as Innovation Depot’s Director of Marketing & Education, where she has played an integral role in the implementation of for-credit experiential programs for students with interest in entrepreneurship, innovation, and technology. In her spare time, Hamrick is a Books Running sponsored ultramarathoner, occasionally flies single-engine prop planes at the Birmingham Flight Center, and frequently dreams of building a kit plane: Cessna 162. She serves as Hype’s Birmingham-based correspondent.