Postmates arrives in the District with a promise to deliver anything in under an hour


Arianna Wilson, a courier for Postmates, picks up an order of food from a restaurant for a customer and delivers it to him at his office. (Jeffrey MacMillan/For The Washington Post)
December 22, 2013

The only thing faster than the pace of innovation in the shipping industry is how quickly companies want to actually deliver items to your door.

Amazon.com began with free two-day shipping, then same-day service in certain markets and now dreams of delivery by flying drones. Other Internet companies, including Google and eBay, are also testing same-day delivery.

Postmates has carved out a niche by delivering orders from local restaurants and retailers to your home or office within an hour. It’s a business driven by consumers’ desire for instant gratification and efficiency, executives say.

“There is a radical reduction of time between saying you want something and receiving it, and it’s not just delivery, it’s a whole bunch of services,” founder Bastian Lehmann said.

Postmates debuted earlier this month in D.C., a city executives said is brimming with busy professionals who have ample money, but little time to spend it. The upstart began in San Francisco two years ago before expanding to Seattle and New York.

“We had a very hard time finding people to believe in the idea initially,” Lehmann said. “Most people thought we were nuts, that people would never pay [for delivery] when they can use a car. After all, it’s America.”

Postmates primarily serves Washington’s Northwest quadrant, with the exceptions of Capitol Hill, Southwest Waterfront, the National Mall and parts of Bloomingdale. The delivery fee ranges from $5.50 to $15.50 depending on the distance between sites.

“There isn’t a great delivery culture here that already existed. People are really busy. It’s very much a professional city,” said Sarina Virk Torrendell, the “launcher” who sets up Postmates in new cities.

The company boasts about 200 couriers in the District, each of them an independent contractor who earns 70 to 80 percent of the fee on orders they deliver. The more orders they run, the more money they make.

Clinton resident Arianna Wilson is among them. The 19-year-old applied to Postmates through an advertisement on Craigslist as a way to supplement the income from her job at a local restaurant.

Just a week into work at Postmates, Wilson has delivered carryout orders and groceries to locations in Chinatown and Woodley Park. She even picked up a copy of David Sedaris’s essay collection, “Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls,” for a customer in the Senate Office Building.

But the delivery business comes with unexpected perils.

On a recent Friday afternoon, an order for three tofu tacos took longer to deliver than the hour alloted when Wilson was unable to find the Far East Taco Grille food truck at Franklin Square, even with the help of customer service staff in San Francisco.

She ultimately drove three miles across town in midday traffic to the restaurant’s brick-and-mortar location, then hauled back the same distance to make the delivery. Fortunately, the customer who met her in the lobby of a downtown office building was gracious about the ordeal.

“You experienced one of the worst deliveries that I’ve ever heard of,” Lehmann said afterward. “It normally happens in 20 to 25 minutes.”

Challenges arise in any business, Lehmann said, it’s how you respond and how you treat the customer when a delivery doesn’t go according to plan.

“We at least have a process in place to make the best out of it,” he said.

Steven Overly covers the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital in the Washington region for The Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. In that capacity, he has written about start-up struggles, investment trends and major drug discoveries. Steven graduated from the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism. He resides in the District.
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