Transforming the World of Ocean Freight Shipping Using Simplicity from Innovation - Startup Stories with Petere Pamela Miner
Petere Pamela Miner (Co-founder and President at CoLoadX Corporation): I'm a geek, and, to me, it's a real compliment because I love technology. I'm an engineer, and for my whole career, I've been applying engineering and technology to the supply chain. In my view, technology and digitalization are making the world a better place. And I've been committed for my whole career in many different ways to the application of technology in the supply chain, particularly the technology of getting stuff moving.
Anton: What do you think about the influence of COVID-19 on the logistics industry? Do you see a growing demand for digitalization now due to the pandemic breakdown?
Petere: COVID-19 really did a couple of things for us. So, one, by definition, freight logistics is international. No matter what you do, you're moving something from here to there, from one country to another. COVID helped us all remember that we could be connected digitally, we can still get business done. That's why logistics was considered an essential service. It's necessary because we have to keep the world moving, getting our food, transporting products and medical supplies.
And now we've got enough digital tools, like digital freight fulfillment platforms, to be able to do that just as good, if not better than before. And it's been a catalyst in a way too, which is my current endeavor around being connected digitally and using the data we're getting to make things better using machine learning and AI. I think now, thanks to COVID-19, the technology is in place. The infrastructure, the cloud, the web app, the API are all in place now.
The other thing that is happening coming out of the pandemic is the global economy started to grow, both importing and exporting is growing like crazy around the world. And it's saturated the capacity of all the carriers on the ports. It's such an exciting time to be in logistics because you can't help but be busy and be exposed to all the changes happening. It's like water flowing in a stream. When the water level goes down, the rocks start to become exposed, and then you can begin to figure out how to make it better. This time with the data.
Anton: What are the main challenges logistics and supply chain management companies face when it comes to implementing emerging technologies?
Petere: I have a good friend at Google who gave me some sound advice - if you want to change something in logistics, you've got multiple parties involved. So when you want to create some kind of change, you have to figure out who feels the pain because whoever feels the pain is going to be willing to pay.
And I think that's the challenge when we talk about innovating in our industry. Who feels the pain enough to be able to pay for a solution? It's not an easy answer because it is not always clear who feels the pain. And the other part of it that requires some real system thinking is connectivity. Even if somebody is willing to pay for the problem resolution, they will have to invest in connecting all these points together so that data can be transferred from one to the other.
Anton: But do you think it is possible to reach a global understanding and agreement between different parties concerning, for instance, one data format in order to make the industry more efficient?
Petere: Absolutely. I have a strong opinion about this idea of data standards. However, it may take a lot of effort that doesn't provide a solution. When I started in engineering the only way we could build products was if we created a common language for sharing data back and forth between devices. I think that's probably going to happen in our industry, and I think this is where technology will come into play in that we share a common set of values and operating principles.
What I mean is there is going to be a signal that there's a problem with the shipment. And I think that's where we will need to be able to get the data in any way we can and then put it into a format that can be used pretty easily. I worry when we try and spend a lot of time getting companies together to agree on a standard of data because I think it's more about taking whatever data you can get, scrape it out, and put it to use.
Anton: What do you think about the future of logistics automation? Is it possible to fully automate the end-to-end management of a shipment without any human intervention?
Petere: Well, logistics is interesting. I always say that each shipment is like a fingerprint, each shipment is unique. And that's the fun part, but at the same time, it's also the challenge of logistics. So, we can automate a lot of it. We can automate the data communication, automate the physical to a certain extent with these vehicles, we can have autonomous containers that can drive itself onto a ship. I mean, there are all sorts of ways you can go with this.
But the thing that will always be needed in logistics is to have somebody making sure that when the trucker is stuck at the port, you can find a way to intervene. No automation will eliminate that, at least not in the near future. There will always be something else because you can't automate the weather, the temperature of the oceans, wars, or economic imbalance.
There's going to be automation of the stuff that really doesn't add a lot of value and still makes room for the human side of it to make decisions that are situation-based. People can make a more informed decision because of all the data and all the technology.
Anton: Let's talk a bit about CoLoadX. How are you approaching technology? What value do innovations provide to the industry, in general, and your clients, in particular?
Petere: CoLoadX is an online marketplace for ocean freight. We started with ocean because 90% of the world's goods are shipped by ocean, so it's an excellent place to start, but we will be expanding into other modes. Our customers all buy or book tickets online in their personal lives, but until now didn't have something this simple when it comes to buying and selling freight. We create this simplicity. A logistics company is looking to book an ocean shipment with an entity that's got the ocean capacity, and we at CoLoadX just create a marketplace for them to come together and do business.
We're a lot like Amazon in our view on simplicity. This is an essential enabler in logistics, in general, and shipping, in particular, to have an easy way to secure capacity and get something done. We also believe that it's really about the data. All our customers want to have visibility of their shipments and get access to the data. So we're going to create this fantastic user experience of a marketplace for both buyers and sellers, just a superior user experience, a simple way to acquire capacity, and sell capacity. And then, providing access to the data around the shipments and historical data will be the kicker.
Anton: So, in your vision, the lack of secure capacity is the most painful thing for customers right now, isn't it?
Petere: Yeah, I'm oversimplifying, but when you talk about these ten steps required to make an ocean shipment, it boils down to four basic pieces of functionality. One is price discovery. That's where we focus, making it easier to find what's there and just book it. The second piece is booking. The third piece is documentation, which is the bane of our industry because we still deal with ancient forms of documentation. The fourth is payment, so between price discovery, booking, documentation, and payment, this is where there are lots of startups tackling all four of those pieces, and you just have to figure out where you're going to focus. We just decided that price discovery was in our DNA, and that's what we're focused on.
Anton: You mentioned that you're planning to expand. What was the starting point for this decision? Don’t you think that it can affect the simplicity of the price finding and booking your shipments?
Petere: Well, when there's an entity trying to ship something, they need a complete end-to-end solution. Companies need insurance, they need to get the brokerage included, the data, the visibility, and tracking at both ends. It will take a while to get that wholly enabled and do it in a way where it's not biased towards one party or another. But when I'm buying some freight, I want a complete experience. And it needs to be super simple and easy.
Another thing about the way we're approaching customers is we don't just want to make it easy for the buyers. We want to make it even easier for the sellers. It's one of the constant questions of a marketplace, the two-sided marketplaces, which one matters more, the chicken or the egg, the buyers or the sellers. From a freight standpoint, much emphasis has been placed on the buyer's experience with freight. But we think that the real opportunity is to make it a better selling variance for the freight. And that's how you can create change.
Anton: How do you think online retailers like Amazon, Walmart, Best Buy, and others will change the way third-party logistics providers conduct their business and how may it affect the industry?
Petere: I'm a firm believer that competition is healthy. I mean, it's necessary. It's hard to predict what else Amazon will do. They have a tremendously successful marketplace. And with that marketplace came a lot of data. Then with the data they did a really great job of building up Amazon Web Services, which is an integral part of their success as a company. It's data that's really powerful and can transform an industry.
I think the days of these monolithic, omnipotent entities in our industry are over, and I am sure there will be more of these virtual networks that are going to be put together. So rather than being an all-powerful, giant, multi-billion-dollar company, it's probably going to be some kind of cooperation across four or five or six different companies that do different functionalities. Companies that come together under a virtual network to make the whole system work.
Anton: But this is a common situation when a good startup or a company with some great ideas is rising up. They are starting to gain momentum in the market, and they end up being bought by one of the top five companies from this sphere. And it can be good if they continue doing their business with some investments from the side, but in some cases, it is done just not to interfere with their own plans. What do you think about this?
Petere: I think I run a bit upstream about this because I keep thinking that there's a significant change that's happened in the world. And again, it used to be less singularly driven by one or two entities that were somebody who had the big vision of the future. Now change is based on people in organizations coming together under a shared sense of values and operating principles to make stuff happen. It's very interesting to me, that with all the access to the internet and connectivity, you can't hide anything anymore.
I'm not trying to be critical of a specific company. There was a saying that you would never make a mistake when you buy IBM because IBM set itself up to be this super knowledgeable company that understood where technology was going with computing technology. And they made sure that they provided a product with high integrity, and you wouldn't go wrong if you bought an IBM computer. And then things started to change because it wasn't so much about having one solution.
SAP is another example; one solution doesn't fit all needs. Even IBM has different solutions now and is really working with other companies that provide the data infrastructure around the hardware. So, in our industry, I think there will be a few of us who will be thinking a little bit differently.
In the 22nd century that we're heading into, if we can collaborate on the stuff that we share, like a marketplace, then we can compete on what we're really good at. And in our case, what we're good at, in logistics, is getting that thing from here to there, no matter what the weather is, no matter what's happening economically around the two different countries, we make stuff happen. Of course, there are going to be some large companies that will survive and thrive and buy startups to more easily compete. On the other hand, it'll be a group of us that are all figuring out a way to create this virtuous virtual network to make incredible things happen.
Anton: How do you assess the current state and future of logistics?
Petere: There was a point a few years ago when I worked on a hackathon in New York, and we brought in a bunch of software developers who didn't know anything about the industry. So we set up a typical hackathon where the coders came in on a Friday night. We fed them pizza and salad and spent Friday night with them, sharing a bunch of information we had. We had amassed a whole bunch of data collected from different companies operating in maritime. We shared the data, explained how it works. It was this entire eye-opening exercise for the software developers when they were marveling at, "Wow, you guys have so much data". It was like fuel for them because the data wasn't being put to work so that from a hacker's standpoint, if you could get access to data, they can figure out all sorts of ways to come up with solutions.
There were 12 teams who presented at the hackathon, and they each picked different ideas to focus on. One was focusing on an integrated dashboard on the deck of a ship for the pilot to see, integrating weather plus condition of the containers on the vessel plus, plus the traffic in that sea lane. And another one provided a way to scan a barcode on the outside of the container for it to track the visibility across the shipment. Other ones came up with API libraries for maritime data. On Sunday, they did their pitches, and I remember sitting in the back of the room thinking, "Oh my, we are at the tipping point in the industry."
And if anybody's read The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell, it's about how an industry reaches a point where there's some rumbling of change and it hits a point where the change starts to happen in a viral way with a life of its own. It is so incredible to be part of an evolution in the industry. I've spent my whole career coming to this point where I'm just doing what I absolutely love to do using technology. And, for me, it's a vital industry, and also really unique, everything's special about it.
And it's also got all sorts of challenges with it. The idea that we could make it better together is exhilarating. I talk a lot about this in my podcast Ship Happens. Everybody is involved in shipping somehow. Either you're receiving something, or you're getting something shipped. And we are really at this tipping point, this incredible time in our industry where we just enjoy the ride because it's going to be amazing.
Anton: It was a very interesting conversation. Thanks for your time and best of luck and success in all your future business endeavors!