Max Lock got his first job at age 14 – when he landed a gig as an IT administrator for a chain of pizza restaurants on the East Coast.
“My parents thought I was crazy,” said Lock, CEO and president of Fleet, a Portland-based digital freight forwarding company he founded at the ripe old age of 18.
The idea germinated when he came to work at the pizza shop one day, tasted the ice cream, and thought he could do better. That inspired him to launch his own ice cream line, Schoolboy Ice Cream, which was picked up by the restaurant and eventually Whole Foods.
Lock began importing paper ice cream cups from China, and soon became frustrated with the complex shipping and handling process.
“It became all about logistics,” said Lock, who met with FreightWaves in his office in downtown Portland. “I thought: I can book a flight online, a hotel online. Why can’t I book a shipment online?”
In 2014 he took the idea to a TechCrunchDisrupt competition, where he was a runner-up. That showing attracted the attention of the Thiel Foundation, the organization started by venture capitalist Peter Thiel that pays promising young entrepreneurs $100,000 not to go to college.
He was awarded the fellowship. Lock hired two of his former computer programming teachers and Fleet was born.
Today the company boasts hundreds of customers, moves more than 1,000 shipments per month – everything from door knobs to toilet seats – and has grown its headcount threefold to around 32 employees over the past year.
“We are looking to achieve 100 percent automation across quoting, booking, managing of shipments; to connect digitally to all these providers and provide one spot access,” Lock said.
You don’t make booking freight as easy as booking a flight from day one. Fleet initially launched as a rating and review site for freight forwarders, who could also be booked through the site.
Then customers starting calling Fleet when they had problems with the forwarders. “We’d say: ‘We’re just the software company. If you book a flight on Kayak, you call Delta, not Kayak.’”
But that didn’t go over too well in a traditional relationship-based industry like freight. So Fleet brought everything in-house, and became a fully licensed freight forwarder.
Lock is joining a crowded field. The online freight forwarding market has attracted a flood of new entrants in the past couple of years – and an equal amount of skepticism regarding the business model, especially from old line companies that believe the vanguard is more hype than substance.
Lock is aware of the critics, and agrees with them, up to a point. At issue, he said, is the fact that too many startups are focusing on the front-end of the business and not the back-end.
“The problem is if I provide a pretty map and it’s not tied to actual data or service providers,” he said. “That’s what I think a lot of people are doing today, and that’s why incumbents are frustrated: ‘Why are you raising tens of millions of dollars to put a map up when we have the data?’”
Not surprisingly, Lock believes targeting back-end systems is the way to go.
“We feel the ones who win are ones that invest in automating all work that freight forwarders do. And if you do that correctly, you’ll provide better a experience on the front-end.”
Investors seem to agree. To date, Fleet has secured about $13 million from 1517 Fund Hunt Technology Ventures (Disclosure: Fund Hunt is an investor in FreightWaves) UPS and others. The company passed “a huge milestone” last year, Lock said, after Lufthansa Cargo signed on as a strategic partner. As part of the deal, Lufthansa Cargo Chief Commercial Officer Hoensbroech joined Fleet’s board.
The investment is part of Lufthansa’s broader digitization strategy. In 2017, the airline invested in Berlin-based cargo.one, a startup that has developed a platform for booking and marketing air cargo capacity.
Plenty of hurdles remain. Fleet’s 100 percent automation goal is limited by what industry can do today. For example, “There might be maybe a trucking company in Raleigh that doesn’t offer an application programming interface (API) we can work with.”
Another challenge is building the kind of relationships conventional freight forwarders have spent years developing.
Although Fleet is trying to “disrupt” the industry, “we still need to work in the confines of how traditional freight forwarding industry operates,” said Lock, who located the company in Portland because of its proximity to the shipping industry. (Plus, he liked the vibe better than San Francisco.) “And it’s a more traditional sales process than a lot of startups would like to admit.”
How does the old guard feel about working with such a young guy?
Not a problem, Lock said. “If you act professionally and provide a good level of service, people don’t think: ‘How old is this guy?’” He said he has only experienced one bout of “ageism” ever, when he was 14 and working at the restaurant.
“Ever since a young age I’ve always liked to be busy,” Lock added. “And if you’re not busy in freight forwarding that’s a problem. People are reliant on this service.”