Among the few exceptions in Chicago is Jimmy Odom, the 32-year-old South Side native and founder of WeDeliver, a for-hire, same-day delivery service that recently disclosed it had raised $800,000 in seed capital from Chicago investors.
Odom cites early examples of his entrepreneurial spirit growing up at 67th and St. Lawrence, where he organized a neighborhood basketball tournament. The boys built their own hoops out of crates and plyboard.
After his parents moved to Homewood, Odom parroted his peers who were selling fundraiser candy in the hallways of Homewood-Flossmoor High School — only he sold his own candy for profit.
He and a friend also started a lawn-care company, T&J Mowers, and won the support of a neighbor who printed fliers so they could advertise their business.
Looking back, Odom said he could have gone further in his entrepreneurial career had someone recognized his drive. “It took me longer to develop into a man and understand what was important,” says Odom, who with wife Allyson are parents of three children ages 4, 6 and 9.
He hopes to get involved in organizations like the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, known as NFTE, and America’s Future Foundation, to work with young people who have similar ambitions.
Odom took a circuitous route before starting WeDeliver, studying at the former Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago, now Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts, before interning at an Italian cafe in South Holland owned by a friend’s parents. The family sold the restaurant after Odom had worked there for about a year.
He worked odd jobs to pay the bills. Then he had a breakthrough while watching a VH1 special about hip-hop artist and entrepreneur Kanye West.
“I’m not a West fanatic. But Kanye had — when they interviewed his teachers, classmates, basketball team — he was always music, always making beats. That moment was, like, wait a moment, what would people say about me? What would they say that Jimmy always did? When I found that out, it became clear. . . . My parents, all of my life, they had always had movies, massive amounts of movies, across the wall. Instead of putting up wallpaper, they used VHS tapes as wallpaper. A ton of film. I really had an interesting take on what it was like to construct a story.”
His then-girlfriend, now his wife, bought a book for 25 cents at a local Salvation Army on how to write a screenplay, and Odom was hooked.
“I went full tilt. I wrote my first script in a month and a half.”
His role models were Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez.
While attending Columbia College Chicago with a double major in screenwriting and directing, and a minor in fiction writing, Odom worked at a Chevy dealership in Homewood, then trained to become an emergency medical technician after watching emergency responders after a car accident outside of the dealership.
He worked at St. James Hospital in Chicago Heights for five years. When his wife had to go on bed rest because of pregnancy complications, Odom left Columbia College and worked at the hospital and sold iPhones at an Apple computer store in Orland Park.
After Odom moved to Apple’s Oak Brook store, he left his EMS job and focused on technology.
He enrolled in Code Academy, now called Starter League, to learn how to write code. He proposed as his project an online bartering and trading site, This for That. The process eliminated the need for people to share addresses and phone numbers by automatically setting a meet-up location for the barterers, and give people flexibility in how they traded — up or down. It, too, proved too costly to build.
Besides, Odom was rising up the ranks at Apple and was promoted to work with store teams to improve the customer experience. Apple sent him to Stanford University’s Startup School, where he heard speakers such as Zuckerberg, venture capitalist and Mosaic co-author Marc Andreessen, Zynga founder Mark Pincus and Paypal co-founder Peter Thiel.
While there, he also heard Ashton Kutcher talk about how actors wished a startup would disrupt the Nielsen ratings paradigm. So on the flight home, Odom came up with the idea for RatingsKick, a solution that used an algorithm to figure out the value of TV shows based on viewers’ social media engagement rather than on the Nielsen ratings. It won the most innovative company prize at Startup Weekend in Chicago in August 2012.
Yet Odom and colleague Kirk Lashley, WeDeliver’s chief technology officer, discovered they didn’t care for the world of advertising.
“Money is not what’s driving us,” Odom said. “We want to have an impact on the community.”
It took another revelation to get to WeDeliver.
Odom got irritated when his mother asked him to get her prescription while he was trying to watch “The Walking Dead” on TV.
“I was at a cliffhanger moment and I didn’t want to get up,” Odom says. “But I can’t tell mom ‘no.’ I thought, I would pay someone $10 so I don’t have to get up and go. I was like, ‘Wait a minute.’ The pizza company delivers. Why not the local Walgreens?”
At TechWeek Chicago in June, Odom had found many people interested in a delivery solution, so he plunged into figuring out how to deliver goods and services for small, neighborhood businesses that find it hard to compete against online rivals and too difficult to run their own delivery services.
The company, based at the 1871 tech hub at the Merchandise Mart, employs nine full-time workers and two interns.
Though WeDeliver doesn’t disclose revenues, it says its orders average $10, with 70 percent of proceeds going to pay drivers and 30 percent to WeDeliver. Drivers, who are part time, make $15 to $22 an hour.
More than 100 retailers use WeDeliver’s platform.
Odom went through searing moments when no Chicago-area venture capital firms would invest in WeDeliver. A former Apple colleague threw him a $25,000 lifeline at one point.
Investor Matt Matros, founder of Chicago-based Protein Bar eateries, said his undisclosed investment in WeDeliver — part of the $800,000 in seed funding — is “the first of this significance” in a local company.
“[Odom] is one of those entrepreneurs who has lived it,” Matros says. “He is willing to put it all on the line. . . . I super-respect what he is doing and I see it as a chance to do something disruptive and to grow it into a big business.”
WeDeliver’s third co-founder, Daniela Bolzmann, chief marketing officer, says she abandoned her startup idea at Startup Weekend in Chicago because the team that formed around her idea didn’t have the right chemistry. She felt an instant rapport with Odom, and after working for 45 days with him and Lashley, Bolzmann quit her job to join WeDeliver full time.
“We have no set number of markets we want to be in,” Odom said. “Do we want to be nationwide? Sure. I’d love to help as many local businesses as possible. If that means 14 cities or 28,000 local businesses, great.”
The big goal is to become the go-to same-day delivery platform for mom-and-pop retailers, and do nothing less than transform online spending to benefit those small community retailers, he said.
“If we can help be one of the pieces that spark change in community behavior and spending, I’d be a happy man.”