By Wolfgang Wörner & Tõnu Runnel, co-founders of Sixfold
Here’s a short story for startup founders, growth hackers and marketers. A story about turning a company from playing catch-up with entrenched competitors to conquering the narrative. A classic example of coupling years of diligent work on one’s product with keeping eyes open and experimenting with new ideas. A reaffirmation that it really works and three learnings to take away from it.
Sixfold, the company we are co-founders of, is about providing real-time visibility for commercial transportation. We help large enterprises understand what is happening in their supply chains — predictively. We provide them with insights to better act and plan, both tactically and strategically. It’s a digital B2B service for a traditional industry. From a marketer’s perspective, it’s a difficult, and at times even boring space. Only recently has the supply-chain industry seen increased digitization and new well known entrants from various angles like Uber Freight.
We weren’t first to market with real-time visibility services. Various players in the US have provided similar services for 7+ years and raised over $100m in funding. However, despite originally being the underdog in this game, in just two years, we have changed the rules of the game by being the first to do this truly AI-driven. This has enabled us to build the leading visibility network in Europe and work with global leaders such as Coca-Cola, Nestle, or Saint-Gobain. Still, even with such progress, getting the word out and receiving significant attention is notoriously difficult in a B2B environment.
But with just the right balance of relentless experimentation and good timing we managed to leverage the technological groundwork we’ve built over the years to “hack the crisis”, help the public, and conquer the narrative.
Just before the Europe-wide COVID-19 related lockdowns started in mid-March, our customers started to reach out to us with urgent, special requests to understand what was actually going on with commercial transportation, considering the growing uncertainty and noise. Where are road closures and queues popping up? Are raw materials going to arrive as expected? Which carriers might have free capacity around a factory? Some questions were even further away from our core competence — what is going to happen, policy wise, in Finland? Which factories are still working in Lombardy?
Italy was already under lockdown and the workdays of logistics professionals dealing with affected regions suddenly became managing a cascading list of exceptions. Delays, cancellations, and re-routings. Spiking demand for food, toilet paper, and other essentials on one hand, factory closures and tanking demand for a variety of other products on the other. The situation was increasingly volatile, with limited visibility, increasing amount of hearsay, and false information not making it easier to plan ahead.
We, just like all other tech companies around us, announced self-quarantine and shifted to remote work across all our offices. But we didn’t only change *where* we were working, we also took a step back and reassessed *what* we were working on. Customer requests were pointing us into 17 suddenly urgent but different directions, of which some were not in sync with the direction of our product roadmap. Most importantly though, we realized that the network we have built has significant potential to not only help our customers to better handle this black swan event, but also all supply chain professionals in Europe and the general public. Hence, we gathered virtually on the Friday when lockdowns started and asked if anyone else from the team would want to spend their socially distanced weekend figuring out how to best help our customers and everyone else in transport logistics.
By the end of the meeting two teams (and corresponding Slack channels #help-customers-in-crisis and #help-world-in-crisis) had formed. One with a tangible list of useful corona-related updates which we could quickly add to our product for existing customers. The other with a list of ideas to help the general public, based on the leading network of connected trucks across Europe that we had built over the last two years.
After experimenting with a variety of ideas, team #help-world-in-crisis settled on detecting border delays — on a continent that abolished borders decades ago. Austria had established border controls with Italy and there could be more to come. Some customers had specifically asked if we could send them data about Italian borders so we knew it would be useful for a variety of logistics and supply chain professionals at least — and probably we would make some new friends along the way.
We were fearing a black swan event — that borders would re-emerge overnight in Europe after decades of Schengen and free flow of goods. Knowing that supply chains weren’t prepared for that, we rushed to get ready in order to help the public in case it really happened. The result? Ournow-famous map of border delays based on tracking of the shipments crossing them. The borders indeed emerged just hours after we’ve published our map on March 16. What we didn’t expect though was the extent and its consequences — queues of trucks spanning dozens of kilometers around the border crossings all across Central-Europe. And more importantly, we didn’t know in advance that we were going to be the only ones with real-time visibility over the waiting times at those borders.
From that moment on the whole “weekend hackathon” affair went, hm, viral (sorry), bringing us the attention of hundreds of thousands of people in the following weeks.
Logistics professionals shared our map among each other like wildfire. Media, including Financial Times, NY Times, WSJ, and Reuters started fueling it too, making our name appear beside all the talk about sudden border-problems across the EU. Screens showing our map ended up on the walls of the war rooms at various logistics companies. Hundreds of shippers, including Amazon, Tesco and Nestle started using it. Leading mapping and routing companies PTV and Trimble, as well as various other logistics platforms now include our data in their services.
Then “the government” called. It turned out that — in order to act upon President von der Leyen’s priority to keep goods flowing across Europe — our data was just what the European Commission needed for policy enforcement and coordinating policy adjustments. Departments of Trade and Foreign Affairs from different countries reached out too. Just a week earlier we wouldn’t have believed that the public sector is about to become a new customer segment for us. Transport visibility is a strictly private affair, working for the public sector requires specific skills and with no prior experience, just the thought of managing its bureaucracy seems scary.
But we said yes. After a super quick (no bureaucracy!) stint of work with a small list of partners including us, European Commission recently announced the launching of the Green Lane initiative to keep the main transport arteries of Europe open. The effort is led by the
GSA (the European Global Navigation Satellite System Agency responsible for Galileo — essentially the European version of ”GPS”), whereas Sixfold provides the underlying statistical visibility and other partners bring in interested stakeholders like border patrols and truck drivers to report their observations on top of it.
In addition to the Green Lane project, we’ve won three of our five biggest deals in the last couple of weeks — to be soon announced. Sure, they had been in the works for a longer time, but the recognition we’ve lately received really did help to wrap things up.
Sudden widespread user attention, media coverage, and government interest is of course just an illustration of the underlying rapid changes, not the main substance of the story. The main substance is that even in the “boring” B2B world it’s possible to get “consumer-grade marketing attention”, if you are doing it right. Here are the main takeaways:
Keep your eyes and ears open.
Even if you read the trend right and even if you are acting early enough, it might just be “yet another thing” — and not The Thing. Keep trying. Willingness to experiment requires diligence when defining the hypotheses, setting up and going through the experiments. But even with diligence you also need significant tolerance for failure. This story is just an example of an experiment that worked. And by “worked” we refer to the incredible coverage and reception we’ve received from this. There are plenty of other experiments that didn’t “work out” the way we intended them to — that’s why you’ve never heard of them.
We got thousands of emails thanking us — including from Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission — and requests for more in-depth data, offerings of partnerships, feature requests, and much more. We also got a few emails that weren’t as happy — e.g. an angry email in Romanian from a truck driver who rightfully noted that the congestion on one border wasn’t 15 but 50 km. But these are the things you need to stomach.
There’s one pretty dark lining to the whole story, though. The whole reason why our map came to be in the first place is far from rosy — the massive human tragedy of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic depression of the time that follows. It, therefore, feels unethical to have not just endured but in some sense gained during these desperate times. Then again, our intentions were good and the outcome — free to access by anyone — helped logistics professionals, journalists and government officials. In the end essential goods reached their destination with less delays and headaches.
We don’t yet know where this journey takes us next. But we do have many follow-up projects in the works. After all, as mentioned before, we are keeping an eye on the latest developments, react early to bring solutions to the market fast, and repeat that again and again and again.