The CEO and cofounder of Boxed shared his entrepreneurial journey
April 2021–Innovative New Jersey entrepreneur Chieh Huang joined Drew University students to share his experiences building Boxed, a national warehouse delivery service with state-of-the-art fulfillment centers and automation robots.
Throughout the semester, students from the business studies class “The Work of Innovation: Creating Organizations that Solve Problems” have been developing an early-stage company idea from concept through a completed pitch deck, and learning about the entrepreneurship ecosystem from top to bottom by studying a wide variety of companies.
The students got to learn about one particular business model right from the source, as Huang provided students with insight into his entrepreneurial journey, which he outlined in four chapters.
Chapter 1: “Operationally Hard. Managerially Easy.”
Huang’s first chapter began with four friends in his parents’ garage in Edison, NJ. Moving boxes, packing products, and figuring out logistics from a garage-turned-fulfillment center was challenging, but managing the team was relatively easy because he relied on friends and could call on all hands any time of day.
The business started to get a few orders, but there were days when the startup received none.
“Every person, every company, every career has a moment, a spark,” said Huang, who offered to connect with students, particularly those looking towards entrepreneurial careers, via LinkedIn.
“And it’s up to you to take advantage of that spark.”
For Boxed, that moment was a mention by the Today Show‘s Kathie Lee & Hoda. After the segment aired, Boxed’s order queue was nonstop.
Chapter 2: “Operationally Really Hard. Managerially Hard.”
After the Today Show mention, the Boxed team had too many orders to manage out of a garage and built its own fulfillment centers. The company grew to include employees and facilities all over the country. The newest centers have autonomous vehicles built by in-house hardware engineers and have replaced miles of conveyor belts. Core to the Boxed operating philosophy is Huang’s view of how customers see value.
“The value equation is shifting,” he said.
“It’s no longer just about price. It’s about convenience and brand as well.”
Chapter 3: “Operationally Not as Bad. Managerially Hard as Hell.”
The penultimate stage occurred when Boxed began to hire professionals who had been in the industry for decades and could help run the company operationally. Managerially, Huang explained his current struggle to know everyone in the company while simultaneously juggling the big-picture issues that land on his desk that no one else can solve.
Boxed’s evolution has included harnessing the brand to take a stand on issues of importance to its customers and staff, ranging from the Pink Tax charged on feminine products not classified as necessities, to retaining staff even after automating fulfillment centers. When deciding which initiatives to address, Huang explained that the team thinks first about whether the cause is important and worthy, and then whether the cause overlaps with what Boxed does as a business. If there is overlap, the cause is one that Boxed will consider.
"If it’s interesting to you, get moving."
Chapter 4: “Not Yet Written.”
Huang plans to be less involved operationally, but managerially hopes to take the company to the next level. His vision is to make Boxed “the best basket-building service in the world.”
Huang imparted important lessons to the business students listening in, and outlined the two main approaches to starting a company. Entrepreneurs can start in a niche industry that no one has ventured into, allowing for great opportunity and a slow and steady building process, or they can wade into a massive industry where multiple outfits can be billion-dollar companies within the industry.
Huang’s journey with Boxed provided students with a solid example of the latter path.
Throughout his discussion and during the question and answer portion of the talk, Huang emphasized the lack of a defined path in an entrepreneurial journey. In a final word to the students, Huang gave some advice.
“The constant reshuffling of the deck of new and destructive technologies makes it so that we live in a world where no one knows what the future is going to hold,” he said.
“You’re in as good of a position as I am to actually build technologies and build companies to take advantage of the future and these trends. So, if it’s interesting to you, get moving.”