Startup guided by ‘deep empathy’ for truckers

TrueNorth, a carrier and software service for independent truckers, announced a $3 million raise this week amid a pandemic that has heightened awareness of the essential role truck drivers face in meeting society’s basic needs.

“I’m able to stay at home because a driver is out on the road,” TrueNorth CEO and co-founder Jin Stedge told FreightWaves. 

Co-founded by Sanjaya Wijeratne, the young company – True North launched in December 2019 – is on a mission to take care of drivers and “give profits back to truckers,” said Stedge, an engineer who previously worked on operations teams for technology companies.

The firm’s software helps owner-operators manage all aspects of their business, from invoice tracking to fuel and insurance and compliance issues. The one-stop platform also gives truckers a single place to search for loads. 

Tech companies are going after the trucking industry in droves, aiming to make legacy processes more efficient. But not many are putting the driver at the center, according to Stedge, who was raised in a family of owner-operators. 

“Trucking is a really hard, complex job that is also somehow commoditized, “she explained. “I quickly realized autonomy is far away, and so we need to do something to help the hundreds of thousands of independent drivers out there.”

Based in Austin, Texas, TrueNorth’s carrier service runs around 20 trucks. Although the team plans to grow the trucking side “quite a bit,” for now it is focusing on the software division, and will use the funding round to build out the development team to scale its business.

“The only way to give back profit to truckers is if our margins are very, very good,” said Stedge, whose company makes money by taking a percentage of the owner-operators’ gross revenue. The thing that “kills us,” she said, is the ratio of back office staff to the number of trucks TrueNorth supports.

Automation is the solution. In a traditional company, the ratio of back office staff to trucks is one to five max,” she said. “We need that number to be one to 10, one to 15, one to 20.” 

Drawing on her family background, Stedge said trucking is an enormously complex industry that has its own specific ways of doing things. Tackling the challenges requires several different skill sets.

First and foremost is “deep empathy for the user,” with technical expertise running a close second. “The Venn diagram of people who understand both is very small,” said Stedge, noting that her cousin is an owner-operator and until recently didn’t have Wifi. “That’s the norm for thousands of drivers,” she observed, “and really changes how we build our product for them.”

Raising money during an unprecedented viral outbreak was surprisingly uncomplicated. Her first day of fundraising was March 11, the day Tom Hanks announced he had the virus, and the NBA cancelled its first game, Stedge recalls. Rates were skyrocketing, and the co-founders decided the best course of action was to ”close really quickly and get back to work.”

They closed in less than a week. Investors included Kevin Lin, the co-founder of Twitch, and OpenAI CEO Sam Altman, the former president of Y Combinator, an incubator that hosted TrueNorth up until a few weeks ago. 

Since then freight rates have dropped, but Stedge isn’t concerned about the rocky economic road ahead, saying, “one of the benefits of being venture-funded is you can really take care of people when it counts.” As an example, she noted that one of the TrueNorth drivers is immuno-compromised, and when COVID-19 broke out, the team decided to keep him close to home. “It’s something that is uncommon,” she said. “Drivers don’t get paid when they are not driving.”

Jumping headlong into the controversy over truck driver benefits and classification, Stedge said TrueNorth eventually hopes to provide its owner-operator drivers with healthcare insurance. “They’re real people,” she said, adding, ruefully, that despite her upbringing she has never driven a truck and can’t even drive a manual transmission. What she can do is help  “free drivers up to do what they do best.”