Opinion: Giving business wings

In continuous operation for 144 years -- since April 3, 1860 -- PonyExpress finally got hip to the benefits of wireless. That's the message from Peter Ticktin, its current CEO and president. It's an amazing story, not just from a historical perspective, but from a business point of view as well.

Begun when rail and telegraph service went only so far, the idea of the Pony Express was to get mail and packages delivered from the Midwest to California in just 10 days.

The first ad for Pony Express riders is memorable: "Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over 18. Must be expert riders willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred. Wages $25 a week. Apply Central Overland Express."

With a few felicitous substitutions -- like "willing to be deprived of sleep daily" instead of risking death, and "singles" instead of orphans -- it could be an ad for a Silicon Valley startup.

Even after the east and west were connected by rail and telegraph, the Pony Express continued as a delivery service, according to Ticktin. Today it is a publicly traded company known as PonyExpress.

Holding on to old-time values of self-reliance, PonyExpress competes with the likes of Federal Express by assuring customers that people handle every package -- and only people.

"We don't use conveyor belts and never will," Ticktin says with pride, pointing out that when a package falls off a conveyor belt at 30 mph, not even an air bag will help. PonyExpress customers are willing to pay more for a delivery, since the company's service means less money and time spent on packing and far fewer damaged packages.

On May 10 this year, you might say PonyExpress sprouted wings. Up until then, its drivers used a combination of manual input and legacy systems to dump their delivery data when they arrived at the relay station at the end of the day.

The company now uses Nextel's packet data network and Nextel i58sr handsets with GPS, Java, and an attached bar-code scanner to transmit data to a company called AirClic. AirClic posts the data to an intranet for internal use and a public Web site for customers to track their own packages.

"We are now able to make sure we invoice everything we pick up," Ticktin tells me. "Soon we can use the electronic waybill and generate invoices each week."

Before wireless, weekly invoicing was well beyond PonyExpress' capabilities, as was expanding the company. "When handling shipments on paper, there is only so much you can do. And when access to the data is also delayed, it stops you," Ticktin says. With wireless, the limitations on the company's package-handling capacity are lifted. PonyExpress currently handles 250,000 packages each month.

Also thanks to wireless -- or no thanks, I suppose, depending on your point of view -- PonyExpress is moving to a performance-based system for its employees. The company measures the number of stops and deliveries each driver makes and pays them accordingly. And of course, dispatchers can save time by sending the closest truck in the area for pickups.

It's still early, but the benefits of wireless -- and more specifically LBS (location-based services) -- will touch just about every aspect of PonyExpress' business. It is certainly worth investigating how it might be used in yours.

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