The global logistics industry generates between $8 and $12 trillion annually according to numerous estimates. In 2016, Craig Fuller, the founder and CEO of FreightWaves, believed the industry represented a massive opportunity and in 2017 he launched the company.
Recently interviewed by veteran journalist Simon Owens on his podcast, “The Business of Content,” Fuller explained how FreightWaves covers logistics/supply chain/the transportation of freight across text, video and podcasts. But as Owens wrote, “FreightWaves is a lot more than just a trade publication; it also delivers data and intelligence. In fact, it’s much more analogous to a Bloomberg LP.”
Owens interviewed Fuller about how he built his expertise in freight, where FreightWaves sources its data, and why the company recently took on venture capital investment.
This article provides interview highlights. To listen to the podcast, click here or subscribe to “The Business of Content” on your favorite podcast player. To subscribe to Simon Owens’s Tech and Media Newsletter, click here.
The FreightWaves idea
Fuller’s grandfather and father started successful trucking companies, so that’s how he initially learned about the freight industry. However, he had the idea for FreightWaves after he left trucking and launched a payments business. “That was really where the importance of data became obvious to me,” he said. “There was this emergence of FinTech companies taking payment data, credit card data, financial data, and selling it to hedge funds that wanted real-time data on how consumers were spending their money. It left an impression on me that there was this industry taking data at a macro, anonymized level and helping companies make better decisions about what’s happening in the economy.”
The earliest iteration of FreightWaves was a data product similar to what you’d get with a Bloomberg terminal. “Global logistics is a $9.6 trillion industry. We’re talking about an industry that is so critical to our economy and has a lot of fragmentation,” Fuller explained. “And what FreightWaves does is take anonymized data from sources from all over the world that are providing real-time analytics regarding the movement of cargo, and effectively we get to see the world’s economy move in near real-time. FreightWaves readers and clients use the data to make better pricing decisions, to figure out what capacity looks like, to help determine how they should think about pricing freight – all of these decisions they have to make to help their businesses. FreightWaves has the fastest data that’s tracking all of these items in near real-time. And that gives our staff a sense of what’s taking place across the economy.”
Why FreightWaves expanded into publishing industry news
In its earliest days, FreightWaves didn’t employ any journalists, but Fuller noticed that the trade press was not doing a good job of explaining how traditional freight companies were being overshadowed and outmaneuvered by the growing tech industry, especially as companies like Amazon began to take on the responsibility of their own product delivery. “B2B publishers had a media cycle with an editorial calendar and they conduct an interview and then publish the story four or five months later. And the traditional business press knew how to tell stories about technology innovation or venture capital, but they didn’t really understand the freight industry. And what we found is that there was no one really that was able to blend and understand how to cover both aspects.”
FreightWaves began hiring writers who were able to leverage the company’s data to tell stories. “Most of the time, numbers without context are meaningless. FreightWaves has 150,000 indices we produce every day. Most of these data sets have never been seen before. They’re completely brand new. Even people in our industry have never had access to the data. And so without a media outlet to bring context to it, it would be very difficult to scale our data business.”
Today, FreightWaves has an editorial team of 50. “FreightWaves.com runs about 45 new articles daily. “I’m proud to say that we pay better than many editorial publications. The reason for that is that we have the benefit of this recurring revenue subscription business, and our company is trading at software multiples, and we use our media business for content-driven customer acquisition, engagement, and education. In turn, those help subsidize our data business.”
How FreightWaves got into video
Fuller had no grand plans to “pivot to video.” One day the company recorded a quick video about a new weather product it had launched and uploaded it onto LinkedIn almost as a lark. “All of a sudden it got a lot of likes and people were saying, ‘this is really cool.’ And so we did it the next day. And then people asked, ‘Can you do this every day? I love these reports.’ And so we started expanding into market reports, and then we did a five-minute video every day – an update using the data we had on our platform.”
Fans of the video series began to ask Craig whether he’d be willing to create an entire video network. “My first reaction was I don’t want to create a network. That’s ridiculous. But we kept getting so much inbound interest from our industry that wanted to get access to video that we realized there was an opportunity to create a daily show beyond five minutes. And so we decided to create something called FreightWaves TV, and it started off small, and it wasn’t very profitable. In fact, when we went into the budgetary season earlier this year, there was a conversation about whether we should continue to do the TV product because it wasn’t profitable. We ended up holding onto the product, because we thought it was really important for a SaaS data platform to have real-time visualizations. And we thought it really met what we were trying to do in terms of information services and media combined with data.”
And then COVID-19 happened. “We had a live event planned which has drawn 1,500 to 2,000 people previously. We were expecting 2,500 people in Atlanta in May and then COVID hit, and so we looked for a virtual platform to host a virtual event. And we realized that we had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on video production and media equipment. We had gone from a GoPro to these $20,000 cameras you see in studios and all the mixing boards and software that go along with them. We’ve invested probably seven figures at this point in our TV product. What we realized is we actually had better infrastructure than most virtual platforms did. And so we ended up hosting our event through our own video distribution, and what was really awesome about it is we were expecting about 2,500 people to come to Atlanta, but instead we had 90,000 people who tuned in and watched three days of content that we produced about the freight market.”
For FreightWaves, this represented a new business opportunity. “Now we’ve taken the FreightWaves TV infrastructure and go beyond doing an event every six months to producing and broadcasting an event almost monthly. We focus on different topics that are important to the industry, but perhaps something we wouldn’t build an in-person event around. With our TV production and broadcast capabilities, we’ll really dive into those topics, we’ll create a day or two of programming around them. The nice thing about it from a financial standpoint is those virtual events are running at very high margins. In-person events were about half of FreightWaves’ revenue in 2019. This year, in-person events will generate no revenue. I’m not happy about that, because in-person events generate multiple benefits and opportunities. However, I am very, very encouraged and excited about what virtual media can do, because it offers different types of opportunities that you wouldn’t get from an in-person experience.”
About Simon Owens
Owens is a journalist, marketer and public relations professional. He began his career as a newspaper reporter covering local government in Virginia. In 2008, he moved to Washington, D.C. to work at a marketing agency while simultaneously serving as an associate editor at PBS’ MediaShift. He has conducted public relations, content marketing and social media strategy for dozens of companies, organizations and individuals, including Google, Comcast, Forbes, ESPN, C-SPAN and Nike. For two years he was an assistant managing editor at US News & World Report, where he built out the company’s then-nascent social media presence. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, New York Magazine, Scientific American, Forbes, Harvard’s Nieman Lab, The Next Web, Daily Dot, PBS.org, and US News & World Report.
Owens launched his newsletter in October 2014 and began hosting his podcast in January 2018. Earlier this year he decided to convert his newsletter to a subscription offering (simonowens.substack.com). “There were several motivations behind this, including my desire to build a scalable business that placed my personal brand front and center.” Owens said. “But mostly I just love writing and podcasting about the media industry. It’s a true passion of mine.”
The Business of Content podcast is focused on how publishers create, distribute and monetize their digital content.