When I first launched FreightWaves, I would get asked if I could build a media and data business solely dedicated to supply chain and logistics. To many this seemed like a boring and niche topic that few would ever care about.
The reality is that supply chain and logistics is far from boring and anything but a niche.
Logistics is 12% of global GDP, and 40% of the global economy is tied to logistics-dependent industries, with billions of jobs relying upon a functioning supply chain.
Supply chains are under constant stress. A winter storm, hurricane, labor strike in a critical industry, or a sudden change in government policy, can play havoc with how supply chains function. It has always been this way.
After college, I started my career in the air freight industry, working for my father’s business and its airport-to-airport LTL division. I learned that the air forwarding industry often plays the role of a supply chain ambulance, providing last-minute and last-resort transportation services when everything else breaks down.
This inspired me to launch my first venture, the on-demand truckload-expedited truckload division of US Xpress, Xpress Direct. In two years, we grew the business from zero to $144 million in revenues, with margins exceeding 40%.. Our mantra was we wanted to be the “first last call” for a shipper or logistics company, when all options were exhausted. We would offer as many truckloads that someone might need within six hours of 60 major U.S. markets, but we wouldn’t guarantee a price. The Xpress Direct division delivered more than 80% of US Xpress’ margins in 2004, with only 13% of the revenues.
This massively profitable division was able to charge a premium because we existed only to bail out customers when all other options failed. We had the right of first refusal on any truck in the US Xpress system and could “bump” a load for higher paying or more critical load. At times, we even chartered entire intermodal trains off the West Coast to handle our surges.
We were the cleanup guys and gals, helping provide emergency capacity release when the market had few other choices. I learned quickly that there is always a capacity crisis somewhere.
One of the biggest challenges in running on-demand freight is forecasting demand and incidents. Having some sense for where a disruption might pop up became critically important for us at Xpress Direct. We started to build models around seasonality calendars and monitored internet sources (pre Twitter) for any news story, which might eventually disrupt a supply chain.
We became pretty good at anticipating weather, customer surges, seasonality, and economic cycles, but we had little visibility into much else.
There was no Bloomberg of freight and while the topic of supply chain or freight would occasionally get a small mention in mainstream media outlets, it was often days or weeks after a disruption happened.
This experience eventually led me to start FreightWaves. While the business plan has evolved over rtime, the goal was always to provide transparency to a very opaque market. It is now a nerve center of information for the logistics and supply chain industry.
By bringing together journalists, market experts, analysts, and data, we aimed to help monitor supply-chain market events that would cause disruptions and forecast logistics, demand, capacity, rate, and volume. All of this works because the global physical supply chain is so fragmented, with hundreds millions of independent companies looking after their self-interest along with millions of logistics providers trying to respond to fluctuating demand and service requests.
Add to the fact that global supply chains are interconnected that may expose inefficiencies or significant vulnerabilities. One disruption in a remote part of the world or an industry that is a tiny part of the economy could spark a massive chain of events impacting many interdependent parts.
COVID and the rebooting of the global economy has exposed many of these vulnerabilities. Small, seemingly inconsequential shortages or delays have hurt the orchestration of a finely choreographed dance of product movement across the globe. The big stories capture headlines. But small, seemingly insignificant, shortages of products have created a domino effect on the broader market.
This past week, I heard a story of a truckload carrier that can’t get its hands on foam for mattresses to go into the cabs of their trucks and therefore can’t provide new drivers with a clean mattress. This has hurt their ability to seat trucks and even recruit or retain drivers.
In a market where everything is overstretched and undersupplied, a small issue can create a massive one. When you throw an extraneous event like a major canal stoppage, pipeline going offline, major bridge being condemned, or freak weather system, you have shocks that can’t be easily absorbed by the market.
The reality is that issues like the ones we are experiencing happen all the time. It feels different because the market is massively stretched, demand is at an unprecedented level, capacity is at record lows, and there is a sense of urgency to get things back on track.
But more importantly, the world is now aware about the supply chain and curious about how it works. They want to understand why all of this is happening and ways to mitigate their exposure. And since it is no longer a business-to-business issue, but one that is playing out in consumer’s own personal lives, it is far more relevant. Major media outlets now cover the story, driving interest and awareness.
And we are all massive winners. The more people that become interested and educated about our industry, regardless of the source, the better off we all become.
More awareness of these topics means that companies are more likely to greenlight a large budget for supply chain projects, increase staffing levels or invest in new technologies and vendors that can support their operations. This in turn, helps to attract founders to create new solutions that help solve these problems and venture capitalists that write significantly larger checks for supply chain startups.
A recent excerpt from a Pitchbook email described this succinctly:
“Sure, valuations are flying higher across the spectrum of venture-backed deals. But supply chain startups are moving up on an especially sharp curve. PitchBook data shows median pre-money late-stage valuations rising 100% year-over-year to $200 million. The jump was even more dramatic for median early-stage valuations, which rose more than 125% YoY.”
This information is outlined in one of Pitchbook’s deep-dive industry reports on supply chain technology startups, which is covered on the outline page of the report.
“Supply chain tech startups raked in $7.7 billion in venture funding in Q1, an increase of 90.6% over last quarter and a staggering 355.1% year over year, as the sector continues to respond to the glaring gaps exposed and exacerbated by the pandemic.”
Even when VCs make mistakes in underwriting specific companies, as a group, they have a great track record in projecting what the dominant industries of the next decade. The recent capital surge suggests they believe we are in the very early innings of a great supply chain revolution that is has been triggered by the chaos of the past 18 months.
Rather than getting annoyed by the new level of interest our industry has attracted, embrace it. It is the greatest gift our industry has ever received.