Digital Freight Startups Maintain Focus on Growth, Not Deals
Two of the most prominent digital load-matching startups say they are sticking with their plans to use their technology to grow organically, even as rival Uber Freight shifts gears with a big acquisition to speed up its path to profits.
“There’s no pressure or need to do a deal,” said Dan Lewis, chief executive of Seattle-based Convoy Inc., which has amassed $668 million in venture funding since it was founded in 2015. He said the company isn’t actively scouting for merger targets or looking to sell itself, although it could be open to future strategic acquisitions.
“Any sort of major deal is extremely distracting,” Mr. Lewis said.
New York-based Transfix Inc. said it also remains focused on a business plan that has taken it through several funding rounds. The company said it had raised $128.5 million as of its last publicly disclosed round in 2018, when it had a valuation of $800 million according to research and data firm PitchBook Data Inc.
“Companies can obviously take different routes,” Transfix Chief Executive Lily Shen said. “We’re very much focused on high-growth, high-quality sustainable growth.”
The freight unit of Uber Technologies Inc. announced last month it is buying logistics service provider Transplace in a $2.25 billion deal. The acquisition comes as digital freight startups are looking to expand their market share and add services beyond transactional load-matching tools, while big transport companies are weighing acquisitions and hustling to scale up their own technology.
Digital freight startups use technology to streamline the sometimes cumbersome process of connecting truckers with shippers looking to move cargo. Such ventures drew more than $2 billion in investor backing between 2011 and 2020, according to logistics-industry research group Armstrong & Associates Inc.
Armstrong & Associates President Evan Armstrong said Convoy “is in a good place” to grow organically, for example by expanding outside of the U.S. or extending into additional markets such as less-than-truckload brokerage. Transfix hasn’t grown as fast, he said, but could try to expand through acquisitions if it could secure funding, or look for a potential buyer.
The growing field of technology-focused upstarts has pushed traditional freight brokers to invest billions in technology to automate their operations. But the digital ventures still account for a small slice of the overall domestic transportation management sector, which Armstrong & Associates estimates generated $92.1 billion in gross revenue last year.
The startups are also competing with big freight brokers like C.H. Robinson Worldwide Inc.and Echo Global Logistics Inc. that have billions of dollars in annual sales and long-term contracts with thousands of companies. Freight operator J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. has invested heavily in its digital freight marketplace and is using Google’s AI to better pair shippers with carriers. C.H. Robinson in 2019 said it would spend $1 billion to hire more data scientists, engineers and developers.
Uber Technologies has been pushing to improve profitability across its ride-sharing, delivery and freight segments, and the company said the Transplace acquisition, which is expected to close later this year or in the first half of 2022, should accelerate Uber Freight’s path to profitability.
The freight unit last week reported a 64% year-over-year increase in gross freight bookings, to $348 million for the second quarter. The segment had an adjusted loss of $41 million, a 16% improvement from last year’s second quarter but a setback from the $29 million loss in the first quarter.
Convoy and Transfix, like other privately held digital freight startups, operate outside the scrutiny of public markets. Both declined to discuss their timelines for becoming profitable.
Mr. Lewis said Convoy is investing heavily in engineering and data science to build out additional products across different markets, adding “there’s a clear path to profitability.”
Ms. Shen said Uber’s move to acquire Transplace highlights the importance of combining digital investment with industry expertise. Last month Transfix appointed Sophie Dabbs, a former executive at logistics provider Transportation Insight, as its chief commercial officer.
“You can’t build the technology in a vacuum,” Ms. Shen said. “You need the deep understanding of the industry.”
This article originally appeared on Wall Street Journal