Bellhops builds a company with 10,000 students—and a lot of innovative tech
What could be more about brawn over brains than a moving company, right? A smelly diesel truck, a two-wheeled dolly and a pair of beefy guys beside you whistling while they work. And maybe breaking your stuff.
But last week’s winner of the Chamber’s Spirit of Innovation award is a technology-intensive moving company and one of the stars of Chattanooga’s startup scene.
“We’re doing things at a really massive scale, to the point of thousands and thousands of [local] moves on a monthly basis across the country,” says Bellhops chief technology officer Adam Haney. “We really couldn’t function as a company—unless we hired hundreds of people whose job it was to push paper—without technology.”
Bellhops doesn’t own any trucks. A team of 35 people in Chattanooga manages a network of about 10,000 part-time college students—dubbed “bellhops” after the helpful and squeaky-clean helpers that seemed to be everywhere in old movies about hotels—located in 130 cities and 42 states. What makes it all work, according to Haney, is real-time geospatial data and real-time modeling of labor supply and demand.
“We’re trying to model availability of who’s going to be where and when,” he says. “We solve a really similar problem to what Uber has in Chattanooga. They have to make sure there are enough drivers on the road. We have to make sure there’s enough labor available in order to be able to fulfill moving orders.”
Bellhops will commit to a move on four hours notice, but the company has gotten movers on site in as little as 12 minutes, says Haney. Here’s how the process works:
As soon as a client signs up and pays online, the job is available for students to claim. When the necessary numbers have claimed it, the client gets an email introducing the student movers (with names, pictures, majors and bios) and the lead mover calls the client to ask if there are any last-minute details.
When students are on the job, they clock in and clock out via text message to home base. When the job is complete, the company texts the customer a link to a wrap-up page where they rate both the process and the movers and have the option to tip their movers. As soon as the customer confirms the move is complete, a credit card is charged and the company does a direct deposit to pay the students.
The only office is in Chattanooga, and Bellhops doesn’t even deal with trucks, let alone own any of them.
The company started in 2011 as a one-day project when Stephen Vlahos put together a crew to move freshmen into dorms at Auburn University. Expecting to do 25 moves, he did 250—and thought he might be onto something.
In 2012, he expanded to eight schools across the Southeast, and then became a part of Lamp Post Group in Chattanooga. In 2013, the team of founders expanded to include Matt Patterson and Cameron Doody, and the company grew to cover 47 cities along the East Coast.
Haney joined the company in mid-2013 and started building his team. His first four hires were people that came to Chattanooga for the summer to participate in Gig Tank.
“The motto for the longest time was ‘Build the simplest thing that could possibly work,’” he says. “We jumped into a rocket ship of a company and started trying to build technology with it.”
This year the company broadened its focus to communities around campuses, expanding staff drastically, and now the vast majority of moves are non-students.
“We’re doing thousands of moves a month,” says Haney. “July and August [were] like being part of a political campaign. Our operations team was here seven days a week. We’ve built technology since then to make sure that even with huge spikes in volume it doesn’t get that intense. That’s part of reason we’ve gone from four people in 2013 to 35 people now.”
After the company rolls out a new mobile application for customers and bellhops, Haney says all the technology pieces will be in place, but he is still recruiting talent from top-tier schools like MIT, University of Virginia and University of Chicago. He is also working on hiring a data scientist, probably a Ph.D. in applied math and statistics, to help the company predict moving volume and labor needs.
In September, Bellhops won $200,000 in a national startup competition called Miller Lite Tap the Future, and Haney hints at a large investment to be announced soon.
“We want to continue growing at the same kind of pace,” he says “We want to do another 5x year. Every year we’ve been in operation we’ve grown 5x.”