Updated: Friday, January 12, 2018, 5:36 AM
Nine days after Christmas and the packages kept coming — box after box, soft pack upon soft pack — crowding the tiny storefront in South Philadelphia with a variety of deliveries originating from Amazon, Zulily, Amazon, Farmer’s Dog, Amazon, and … Amazon.
With every parcel-laden handcart wheeled into Fishbox by drivers for UPS, FedEx, and other shipping services came undeniable evidence that we are an enthusiastic society of online shoppers year-round. And for Napoleon Suarez, it was more affirmation that quitting a lucrative corporate job to start an after-hours package-delivery service — without a business plan — wasn’t such a wacky idea.
“We’re getting well over 100 packages per day,” said the 35-year-old native of Browns Mills, Burlington County, now living in the city’s Bella Vista neighborhood, near the Fishbox site on the 700 block of Bainbridge Street. “This is what I’m going to be doing for a very long time.”
Assuming, that is, Philadelphians keep ordering diapers, formula, dog food, clothing, iPhones, and just about anything else e-commerce has to offer. And that shopping fests such as Amazon Prime Day, Black Friday, and Cyber Monday, as well as thefts from stoops, don’t go out of style. As if!
Like many entrepreneurs, Suarez got his business idea from personal necessity. He was living in town but working an hour away in Skippack, Montgomery County, so he could never get home in time for package deliveries, even at mailbox stores, which typically close at 6 p.m., he said.
“At the time I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if they could actually deliver it to me between 7 and 10 p.m.?'” Suarez said. “Unfortunately, it didn’t exist at the time.”
At the urging of family and friends, the former hurdles standout at Pemberton Township High School, who attended the University of Notre Dame on a track scholarship and majored in sociology, decided to indulge a long-held desire “to build my own thing one day.” He started Fishbox — a blend of Fishtown, where he was living at the time, and mailbox — nearly three years ago.
He initially got the word out on the Fishtown Spotlights blog, launching the business on April 1, 2015, renting space from the Mailbox Store in Northern Liberties to accept customers’ packages. He would take them back to his apartment and text customers with a choice of delivery times between 7 and 10 p.m. As director of search-engine optimization during the day at i76 Solutions in Skippack, Suarez would work all day, then go home and deliver packages — initially five to 10 a day, once or twice a week — using a Mercedes-Benz “the size of a Hyundai Elantra.”
As business picked up that summer, he switched to a freelance position at i76.
His pricing plan — $5 a delivery, regardless of the number of packages — proved inadequate; it had Suarez burning through his savings. He took another full-time job, this time in Philadelphia, so he could get home to deliver packages. A new pricing plan for heavy users that included a monthly subscription price in addition to a per-package charge tripled revenue within the first month without driving away a single customer, Suarez said.
By 2016, Fishbox was making daily deliveries. Yet by March of that year, Suarez emailed his 50 to 60 customers saying he was going to pull the plug, not sure, he explained recently, that “this start-up life is for me.” He awoke the next day to an inbox full of customer protests, including two offers to invest nearly $10,000 total. Suarez found all of it inspiring and pressed on. Then came “a huge break” — a December 2016 television news feature about the holiday package-delivery crush featuring Fishbox, Suarez said.
“We had so many customers, the website broke,” he said. “Fifty people signed up within one day.”
In March 2017, he quit his day job to devote himself full time to Fishbox, which now has monthly revenue of $7,500 to $10,000. Its only employee, Suarez, uses five subcontractors to make deliveries. He opened the Bainbridge Street site in April, giving customers the option to pick up packages there Monday through Saturday. Deliveries are available Monday through Friday, 7 to 10 p.m., to four zip codes in Center City: 19147, 19146, 19123, and 19125. Suarez wants to expand soon to university-rich West Philadelphia and, ultimately, to other cities “with missing packages, which seems to be a lot of cities,” he said.
Theft was the motivation for Robert Swendiman and his wife, Brenda Ritson, two physicians from the city’s Graduate Hospital section (19146 zip code) to first try Fishbox eight months ago.
“We had a couple packages stolen early that we tried to get delivered … our neighbors had, too, and this was just so convenient,” Swendiman said on a recent Wednesday afternoon, stopping in at Fishbox with Ritson and their 4-month-old son, Luke, to pick up two packages: greeting cards from Minted and diapers from Amazon.
“We love this,” said Swendiman, 31, a general surgery resident at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Ritson, 40, is a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “We go for walks all the time. We just pick up our packages. It’s easy.”
E-commerce certainly isn’t expected to wane any time soon. Yet Suarez still frets about the future.
“If FedEx, UPS, USPS, DHL, all those logistics companies, went out of business, I think we could still be OK. But if Amazon went out of business or, for whatever reason, Amazon decided to offer something similar to this to their customers, I would be somewhat worried about that,” he said. “I know customers don’t order everything exclusively from Amazon, but I know our customers tend to go there first.”
In fact, Amazon has entered the game. In November, it launched an in-home package delivery service in Philadelphia to Prime members, requiring customers to buy a smart-lock kit and indoor camera to allow drivers to access a residence when no one is home. Suarez has criticized the service as expensive and susceptible to hackers.
For now, Suarez’s focus is on the present and growth. He wants to raise $100,000 to $250,000 in venture capital to hire more drivers and someone to build proprietary software.
Suarez is hoping his Bainbridge Street location proves a good-luck charm. It was previously home to start-up Lia Diagnostics, developer of the first flushable, biodegradable home-pregnancy test. The Food and Drug Administration last month approved it for over-the-counter sales.
“Hopefully,” Suarez said, “they left some of that start-up magic here.”