Chris Grealish left Boston in 1987, dreaming of taking his bike messenger skills to a warmer client and less busy streets. Armed with a primitive cellphone and pager, he founded the one-man delivery company that would become Denver Boulder Couriers that fall.
Thirty years later, brick-sized cellphones are a thing of the past, and Grealish’s Boulder, Colorado-based company has grown and adapted to changes in technology. But now that tech startups and global firms alike are getting into the increasingly crowded and connected delivery business, Grealish finds himself struggling to plot out what the next 30 years of deliveries could look like for a small, locally owned and operated courier company.
“The electronic age has stripped away our workload in a profound fashion,” he said. “We are left to chase down what’s left and emerge in new markets and uncover new work.”
From the beginning, Grealish built a track record of discovering new work for Denver Boulder Couriers. In 1987, right before cellphones fully penetrated the zeitgeist, Grealish said potential clients were skeptical about working with a bike courier company. “It was hard to educate people about what was possible,” he added.
So he expanded the company to motor vehicles almost immediately. “We had a few customers, architects, who said they wanted to use us for everything, but they wanted us to deliver to Denver,” he said. “So, I put an ad in the paper and hired a guy with a motorcycle.”
Throughout the 1990s, Grealish brought on more bike couriers and expanded his fleet of vehicles. “We did lots of deliveries for the title and mortgage industry, lots of court filings, lots of drawings for architects.”
He also got married in 1993, and brought his wife Barb onboard to handle the company's accounts, human resources and payroll.
Then came the first major inflection point in the company’s trajectory.
The Boulder Chamber of Commerce named Denver Boulder Couriers the Best Small Business of the Year in 1996. “Once that happened, it seemed like a big flood of legitimacy and interest,” Grealish said. “Banks wanted to lend us money, and we felt a new level of acceptance.”
The award helped usher in the company's heyday in the 2000s. Grealish started positioning Denver Boulder Couriers as a legal specialist in 2002, targeting firms in both Denver and Boulder.
“Take the U.S. District Court in Denver, for example, we were doing at least $2,000 in court filings per month to that one location,” he said.
The company was doing between 500 and 550 transactions per day in the mid-2000s, according to Grealish, and the staff peaked at 55 full-time employees in 2007.
Since then, Grealish has been steadily downsizing.
“It was exciting and fun [in the 2000s], but I’ve come to appreciate the steady flow we have now," he said.
Denver Boulder Couriers' 42 employees now go to the U.S. District Court in Denver only about once per month.
To stave off further losses of business to digitization and new competitors, such as the UberRush, Grealish is once again repositioning the company. He’s expanded into medical and food delivery, with some catering companies and restaurants coming on as clients. He's also placed an emphasis on sustainability.
For example, the city of Boulder recently contracted Denver Boulder Couriers for daily mail room and delivery services at a value of $35,000 per year, with an annual option to renew for four years. Boulder spokesperson Zach McGee said Denver Boulder Couriers was chosen because it submitted the low bid for the contract, but also because “they are a local company and have a bicycle-based courier model.”
"I think it was a no-brainer for them,” Grealish said. “In a place like Boulder, people want to see a pollution-free company survive. I think a lot of people go out of their way to see us survive.”