Nowadays, supply chain visibility is something almost all of us are familiar with, whether it’s individuals tracking their parcel deliveries or big businesses using tools to manage their supply chains. This wasn’t necessarily so obvious when the foundations were first being laid for FourKites. What was it that inspired you to start up the business, and how has FourKites progressed in relation to your original expectations?
We started the company in 2014, so it’s been over seven years now since we founded FourKites.
When you look back at the supply chain and logistics industry, the concept of visibility was not anything new, nor was it new when we started. Some sort of visibility always existed. Before FourKites, I would say the predominant technology was EDI, Electronic Data Interchange – EDI 214. The other would have been milestone based visibility that you would get from your trading partners, whether it be carriers, 3PLs or a freight forwarder. You’d get updates on major events and milestones after they are a fact.
So that’s what the industry used, and it was okay for how supply chains were working at that time – it was enough to get things going. Then, however, a lot of things changed in the supply chain industry over a short time period. A lot of change was driven by the Amazons of the world, who really altered expectations when it came to B2C deliveries. That then slowly propagated into the B2B industry. The demand for faster deliveries and tracking packages really began to happen in the 2013-2014 timeframe.
Amazon invested a lot of time and effort into building an efficient supply chain. They had control over everything and then their competitors, like the Walmarts and Tescos of this world, wanted to reduce their costs. The way to do that was to really optimise inventory. To achieve this, they started putting pressure on their suppliers – using things like fines and penalties for showing up late or even early. So that in turn put pressure on the supply chain.
Then there’s also the availability of data. You can talk about real time visibility all day long, but if the carriers, freight forwarders and 4PLs don’t have the technology to really collect the data, then things are just stuck and there’s nothing we can do about it.
In North America, that change started with the ELD (electronic logging device) mandate, which meant every truck had to have GPS. In Europe, I think even before that, there was some sort of mandate in place. So all those things came together.
We saw the opportunity to do something here. Around that time, I was working for TMS companies like i2, Blue Yonder and Oracle. I was mostly working with products on the shipper side, so I could see firsthand what the shippers were doing.
The lack of visibility was evident – they were always on the phone or sending emails in a reactive fashion.
So there was that pain point, the fact the industry was being pushed towards change, and the need for data – this was what really triggered the launch of FourKites.
As for how FourKites has progressed, when you start a company, your expectations are low. If you look at the probability of success, many of the companies that get founded never take off.
So my expectations were lower when I started the company. But when an idea comes at the right place at the right time, it takes off. If you think about all the startup theories, such as Crossing the Chasm, we started the company at the right time. All the market forces came right thereafter, whether it was COVID or the shipping disruptions.
Supply chain visibility is not a ‘nice to have’ anymore; it became a necessity and I think that helped. The demand is more than we thought and the growth is more than we expected.
Yet looking back, I’m not surprised given all the supply chain disruptions and all the events that have happened over the last 3-4 years.
FourKites was founded as a real-time supply chain visibility provider and now works with over 1,000 of the world’s best known brands. While carriers and shippers alike benefit from knowing exactly where goods are while in-transit, the data FourKites collects could also help mitigate or prevent supply chain disruptions. To what extent does FourKites leverage AI and provide supply chain intelligence? What additional value can FourKites provide beyond track-and-trace?
FourKites’ ultimate mission is to build the largest supply chain orchestration platform. To get there, we started with real-time transportation visibility and expanded to every mode, node and signal to create end-to-end supply chain visibility. Layered on top of real-time visibility data, we have created dashboards and analytics. As we expand our network of data and AI capabilities, we will be able to help our customers prevent or mitigate disruptions before they occur — that’s a big prize that we are chasing, but it cannot be done overnight.
It will require a very sequential expansion. If you expand the demand without expanding inventory, it’s not going to work because demand is useless without knowing how much inventory you have on hand. Sequential expansion is the way we look at the world when it comes to achieving supply chain intelligence.
It is more than a case of just knowing where my truck, train or ship is, or even the ETA. It is all about downstream and upstream applications using that data. For example, how can I plan my labour better based on when products are coming? If I know when they’re coming, I can have my loading or unloading crew ready rather than waiting for the order. Can I impact my warehouse operations better based on real time transportation visibility data? If I know the ETA of a truck that is coming to load, can I sequence my warehouse picking, packing and staging accordingly? Can I sequence it better?
The application of visibility data into different operations within the supply chain requires a very different way of thinking about building software. The investments that you make in the software are not just about building a network and putting a dot on a map; you have to translate that into a use case for customers. Otherwise, the visibility is useless.
Imagine a customer of a visibility provider, going from having no data to having tons of data. It’s going to be data overload, and they should know exactly what to do with it. I think that’s where very specific use cases for solving a client’s problems become important.
To sum all that up, the topic is bigger than visibility, it is about end-to-end supply chain intelligence. Transportation visibility is nonetheless still going to play a key role as a foundation. Then, vendors will have to focus on solving use cases using the visibility data and artificial intelligence. That’s where a lot of investment needs to be put in. Otherwise, it becomes another shiny tool customers have that provides no ROI.