To help small businesses thrive in a struggling economy, Bill Cunningham found an opportunity not by cutting corners but by using them, specifically those in the back of a cargo truck.
For years, commercial trucking carriers have dispatched trucks onto the highway at less than capacity, due to an inability to find small shipments to fill the cracks. At the same time, small business owners across the U.S. face a similar problem in trying to find affordable shipping options for smaller orders.
Cunningham, 57, of Newport, Ky., has taken a step towards a solution to both problems. Cunningham is the CEO and co-founder of OneMorePallet, a start-up that aims to fill those trucks' empty spaces while saving small businesses money. "Small shippers rarely get great rates from the carriers, and small- to medium-size carriers rarely have the marketing staff and IT capabilities to match the big guys in the market," explained Cunningham. "Our product turns useless, empty space into revenue for the smaller carriers. So our product has a ripple effect of helping small businesses compete with the big guys both from a shipping and a trucking perspective."
OneMorePallet allows small businesses to ship at a lower rate by using a model similar to Priceline. By going through a third party, carriers can charge lower rates to fill the empty space without compromising their standard rate. Cunningham said, "We're like the Switzerland of the bunch: We keep everything secret."
The trade-off is that the smaller shippers have to be flexible on their ship dates and trust OneMorePallet to ensure that a reliable carrier takes their load. "Not everyone can be a OneMorePallet trucking company," Cunningham explained. "You have to have a great service record and a great safety record. We have to provide great credibility."
The idea for OneMorePallet was the result of a conversation between Cunningham and co-founder Sandra Ambrose. Ambrose was working with Cunningham to develop a web presence for her freight company when she explained her idea to fill the empty cargo space, which was sometimes up to 30 percent of capacity. She eventually sold OneMorePallet to Cunningham, who turned the idea into a reality.
Though Cunningham's entrepreneurial impulse dates back to the time he ran his own business in high school sealing driveways, he credits much of his success to his experience in sales and marketing. "Nothing happens until you sell something. If you start out with an idea and you think the idea is the coolest thing, you have to remember it's just an idea," he said.
In addition to getting the product to market, Cunningham believes keeping the customer happy is key. "We're not making a huge amount of money on every transaction," Cunningham explained. "If we've created a process where customers are saving money, they're going to do it again. We want to make sure they are happy, that they feel good when they use our system, and we want it to be fun, because the shipping industry can be stressful and boring. Happy customers are viral customers."
Cunningham believes OneMorePallet is doing its part to fight unemployment and improve the economy by empowering small businesses to drive in the same shipping lane as bigger corporations. "I might create 10 jobs myself, but on the other hand, I'm preserving and creating jobs for my companies because I'm making them money," he said. "I'm making them more profitable so they can keep their employment."
This bump in profitability is coming to a segment of the economy that Cunningham believes is critical to America's success. "Small businesses can be more nimble, they can be fun places to work, and they can create incredible value in communities," Cunningham said. "I want to get people thinking that there are 1,000 great things going on in very small pockets and together we're moving the needle."
This profile is part of a series featuring innovative small-business owners taking part in The Huffington Post's Entrepreneurship Expo, in Tampa and Charlotte, in conjunction with the 2012 political conventions and HuffPost's "Opportunity: What Is Working" initiative.