FreightTech venture investing is super hot, but most of these startups continue to lose money. Is this a fad or something else?
Last year, FreightWaves created a FreightTech Venture Index to track the venture capital (VC) investing in FreightTech startups. The term FreightTech is defined loosely as software companies and other technologies that aid in the movement of freight or management of supply chains through logistics.
In prior studies, we eliminated companies that were involved in on-demand mobility (Uber for instance), because much of the investment was targeted towards personal mobility and not freight movement.
Recently, mobility and e-commerce companies have started to play a much bigger role in the freight innovation map, with significant resources deployed to expand their on-demand mobility networks and experience into the logistics sector. With companies like Uber, Amazon, JD.com, Alibaba and others building out freight networks and looking more like logistics powerhouses, the lines between personal mobility and freight movement are starting to blur.
Going forward, we will include venture funded on-demand mobility companies in our studies, as long as they include freight logistics as a core product offering. These firms have been some of the biggest freight innovators of all and dismissing them because they do other types of mobility businesses leaves total investment under represented.
The logistics sector (defined as the movement or management of freight) is a $9.6 trillion sector, globally. In the U.S. alone, logistics represents $1.6 trillion, or approximately 8 percent of domestic GDP. Compared to financial services revenues, logistics is bigger, with financial services generating $1.5 trillion, or 7.4 percent of domestic GDP.
FinTech has been one of the hottest venture sectors for the past decade, while FreightTech has only recently become a core focus of Silicon Valley investors. FinTech describes the software services and other technology used to support or enable banking and financial services. Payments, money movement, capital markets or insurance technologies are sub-segments of the FinTech industry.
In 2018, FinTech received $40.5 billion in VC investment, while FreightTech received $10.4 billion. More remarkably, however, FreightTech saw an explosion of interest from VC, growing by more than 400 percent, from $2.3 billion in 2017. FinTech doubled between 2017 and 2018. Since 2014, FinTech has grown by almost 500 percent, while FreightTech has grown by almost 1,000 percent, according to an analysis by FreightWaves using Pitchbook data.
FreightTech Venture Capital investing measured by total VC dollar investments:
So far in 2019, FreightTech startups have raised $5.6 billion of venture capital, while FinTech startups have raised $19.1 billion of venture capital.
Venture investing momentum in FreightTech is unlikely to slow down anytime soon. VCs tend to be momentum-driven investors, following their peers, but also looking at broader market trends. With companies around the world making significant investments in delivery and logistics networks to remain competitive, VCs will want an outsized share of the upside.
Over the next decade, companies that fail to invest in their logistics networks will find themselves disinter-mediated by companies that do. Consumers and companies alike will want real-time visibility, custody tracking and sourcing information, combined with near instant on-demand fulfillment.
Restaurants, retailers, distributors and manufacturers that fail to adapt to these demands will be as endangered as a niche media outlet that generates a large percent of its contribution margins from paywall subscriptions.
There is only one thing stronger than all the armies of the world: and that is an idea whose time has come. -Victor Hugo
Existing incumbents that have maintained their go-to-market strategies for years or decades with little value add to their clients will be displaced by venture-backed startups.
Incumbents that have a dated understanding of established business cycles and go-to-market strategies will be forced to adapt to a new way of thinking. Simply blowing off venture startups and their founders as idealistic, impractical and cocky is foolish and demonstrates historical ignorance or context.
Blockbuster versus Netflix is perhaps the greatest example of a market leader that pretended that a scrappy VC-backed company couldn’t displace them. Blockbuster had the chance to buy Netflix on multiple occasions (for as low as $50 million), but miscalculated where the market was headed and underestimated the advantages of Netflix’s business model and tech team.
Incumbent company execs interpret VC fundraising success as grandstanding for follow-on venture funding, without understanding how or why these same startups attract investment to begin with. They dismiss their business models as “unsustainable” or “ill-conceived”, assuming that the founder is clueless, arrogant, or living in a fantasy world.
In the early days of a startup’s funding cycle, Seed or Series A, a company doesn’t have to generate revenue. Often times, a good idea, charismatic entrepreneur, and a large total addressable market (TAM) size is all you need in the earliest days of startup. For FreightTech companies, the enormous size of the total logistics market ($9.6 trillion) is so massive, even in specialized areas, that investors know if the company has early traction in the market, it can grow to a big enough size for a large exit.
The amount of investment is often small in these early days (a few million dollars), just enough to get the company to a stage where the first couple of paying customers will buy the product.
Later stage companies that raise larger rounds (Series B and beyond) require product market fit, which means they need paying customers and high revenue growth. The biggest risk to a startup is running out of money, and tech-enabled startups that have high revenue growth and favorable unit economics almost never run out of willing investors to support the company.
Startups that are not growing fast (40+ percent year-over-year) face pressure by investors for a premature exit, often to a larger company, where the startup becomes a bolt-on product or feature of the acquirer’s core business. Lack of revenue growth is death for a startup, lack of profit is not.
In order for a startup to generate revenue, it must deliver real value to customers. The assumption that startups only play for venture capitalists and not for customers is usually held by the existing incumbents that are confused by the new entrants’ business model and go-to-market strategy. The tactics of the disrupter are usually drastically different than the incumbents, so the legacy companies write the new player off as a flash in the pan or assume the startup is given market credit that is neither deserved nor earned (“hype”).
Paying customers will have a different perspective, however.
Fast revenue growth is a sign of an under served client need identified by the new entrant. If the incumbents were serving the client’s needs, the startup wouldn’t have an opportunity to gain a foothold in the market and wouldn’t make it past a Series A funding.
In what is considered by many to be the most important book in Silicon Valley, Innovator’s Dilemma, incumbents misinterpret the opportunity, often dismissing it as a small and uninteresting niche. This allows the startup to establish a beachhead without any push back from the establishment.
As is described in Wired:
“New entrants (often founded by frustrated ex-employees of the incumbents) with little or nothing to lose when they enter the market. Initially these small upstarts don’t pose a threat — the new entrants find new markets to apply these technologies largely by trial and error, at low margins. Their nimbleness and low cost structures allow them to operate sustainably where incumbents could not.
However, the error in valuing these technologies comes from what happens next. By finding the right application use and market, the upstarts advance rapidly and hit the steep part of the classic “S” curve, eventually entering the more mature markets of the incumbents and disrupting them.
In essence, the smaller markets are the guinea-pigs and test labs that help the technologies advance enough to play in the big boys league. In many cases the entry-point markets are left behind as the new technologies move into higher margin upmarket territory disrupting due to their superior performance.”
In order for the startup to grow, it must continue to add new revenue and client satisfaction throughout the engagement. The startup doesn’t enjoy the longer history or distribution of incumbents and must innovate to gain customers. Simply using a playbook of much larger and entrenched incumbents just means competitors will run the same playbook with a lot more resources than the startup.
As the company scales, client satisfaction is paramount. Usually this means that the startup is solving a major issue that the prior incumbents were ignoring. In later stage companies, venture investors want to see product market fit (real customer traction), high revenue growth and high paying customer satisfaction (usually tracked through NPS scores).
Venture investors are not concerned about profits if the startup is growing revenues quickly. This confuses a lot of people that don’t understand the venture investment model. Many of the most successful technology companies burn millions of dollars each year while they are growing fast. The biggest venture exits are usually companies that have high recurring (or reocurring) revenue growth, but with substantial losses. VC investors have a great deal of experience in seeing these companies become the dominant leaders of the next generation.
Even public companies can have big losses, so long as their revenues are growing. For software-enabled tech companies, investors have created the “Rule of 40,” which means that a healthy company should have a combined profit margin and growth rate in excess of 40 percent. Under this guidance, companies can lose 100 percent, but grow by 140 percent and still be considered “healthy.” ‘
Venture-backed startups are encouraged to sacrifice short-term profits, if the pursuit of profits sacrifices growth. The logic behind this is actually quite simple: fast growing revenue companies are far more valuable than slow growth, but profitable companies.
In Grow Fast or Die Slow, McKinsey studied 3,000 tech-companies between 1980 and 2012. Their conclusions were something that venture capitalists instinctively already knew, but defied conventional wisdom held by traditional business model thinkers, reporters and executives. Since the freight space has never seen the level of tech disruption that is going on currently, it is understandable that there would be a reluctance to accept it.
In the report, the management consulting firm stated:
Three pieces of evidence attest to the paramount importance of growth. First, growth yields greater returns. High-growth companies offer a return to shareholders five times greater than medium-growth companies. Second, growth predicts long-term success. “Supergrowers”—companies whose growth was greater than 60 percent when they reached $100 million in revenues—were eight times more likely to reach $1 billion in revenues than those growing less than 20 percent. Additionally, growth matters more than margin or cost structure. Increases in revenue growth rates drive twice as much market-capitalization gain as margin improvements for companies with less than $4 billion in revenues. Further, we observed no correlation between cost structure and growth rates.
VCs also have defined exit time horizons; their investment will only be in the startup for a few years. If the startup chooses to make a profit, it isn’t investing as much in marketing, product features or market expansion. With tech-enabled businesses valued at a multiple of revenues, venture investors want revenue growth above all to maximize their returns.
Customers are usually the winners when venture startups join the market. Often, startups build their businesses with more favorable unit economics for buyers, more flexible terms, better features and service.
Plus, with a focus on customer retention above all, client satisfaction and success is built into the startup’s DNA. Existing legacy companies that are measured on quarterly profits alone are more challenged to compete and will struggle to fend off the eventual pressure of the new FreightTech startups.
If a startup demonstrates an ability to raise multiple rounds of funding from reputable venture investors with solid track records, that signal alone is usually a sign of product market fit and high revenue growth.
For executives where their core business is under siege, it is a difficult place to be, especially if you are apart of an enterprise where innovation funding is not readily available. The instinct is to lash out and assume the startups will either flame out or lack long term sustainable business models. In other words, when surrounded, they just shoot everyone.
But for the freight executives that understand the current investment trend is just getting started, the best chance for survival is to take the startups very credible, assume that customers are as well, innovate internally, find ways to partner, or acquire.
Sitting angry, defiant, and idle is death- just ask Blockbuster. And venture investing in the freight space is just getting started.
Interested in this topic?
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We are also looking for the most innovative companies in FreightTech in our second annual FreightTech 100 awards. If you know a company that you think is doing innovation correctly, nominate them here.