We founded Forto in 2016 with the vision to take logistics into the digital age and to build a fully-integrated tech-service for global shippers to truly own their supply chain. Today, Forto reached unicorn status with its $ 240m Series C led by Softbank’s Vision. In this post, I share my personal insights on the three aspects that I consider most crucial to the success story of Forto to date.
1. Unique Industry Access
Ferry, Erik, Michael and I shared enthusiasm for the logistics and transport industry since 2015, when we started our ideation process that ultimately led us to found Forto. While we also developed concepts for B2B marketplaces and enterprise SaaS that were targeting other industries like e.g. real estate/construction, we soon realised our unique position regarding logistics: While there were a few other teams at the time in the European market trying to tackle logistics-tech, none of them had the same unique combination of:
1) a proven track record as serial entrepreneurs in the tech industry –> facilitating our access to talent and venture capital
2) a coincidental relationship to CEOs & owners of big players in the logistics industry –> facilitating our access to freight rates, volumes, data-integrations etc. in a very closed “old school” industry
Still, it was a long way to establish Forto and gain industry respect from both shippers and carriers. We are grateful for the early support of Forto, especially by Bertram R.C. Rickmers (ASSC), Dr. Ottmar Gast (Hamburg Sued) and Prof. Dr. Burkhard Schwenker (Roland Berger). The world’s leading ocean carrier MAERSK later also joined the ranks of Forto’s shareholders.
In essence, we realised early that we had a unique edge and fought an uphill battle for years to turn it into a defensible competitive advantage for the company.
2. Agile Go-to-Market
The global logistics and freight forwarding market is extremely complex. Let’s think of it as an x-dimensional cube along the major lines of geographic trade-lanes (e.g. North America to Europe), trade-modes (e.g. sea-, air-, rail-, truck-, barge-freight), customer industries (e.g. fashion, automotive, perishable food) and customer segments (e.g. SMEs vs Enterprise). Additional variables include FCL (full-container-load) vs LCL (less-than container-load), spot shipments vs contracted volumes and the depths of integration of the service offering, e.g. to include warehousing, customs, insurance, trade-financing and more.
We started out with a focus on Asia to Europe, sea-freight, non-complex industries (fashion, home-interiors) providing FCL spot shipments for SME shippers. Soon, we came to realise that we constantly needed to dynamically expand our service offerings and target customer segments. Otherwise we would not be able to keep up with the 200+ % growth trajectory that is required to keep raising adequate amounts of venture capital. This in turn was a prerequisite for our ability to deliver on our vision of a fully-digital, one-stop-shop logistics tech offering for global shippers – enabling them to really own their supply chain end-to-end and 24/7.
There were quite some hiccups over the years and we truly learned the hard way. A a founder-team of industry-outsiders, it was wise in hindsight that we brought in experienced logistics talent across all management and operations levels in the company but also on the board. I remember many challenging management-off-sites in the countryside of Brandenburg, where we kept pounding our heads about the best short-, mid- and long term go-to-market and product strategy for Forto. A combination of listening to our customers / expert advisors plus retaining a clean-slate-engineering mindset as to what we believe is the ideal logistics-tech offering that we want to keep pioneering is what got us to where we are today.
3. Culture First
Ferry and I had already started a handful of businesses already prior to founding Forto. Some were successful, some failed. We mostly had a strong focus on efficient and effective execution, some focus on strategy, yet little focus on culture. We still mostly had a good team spirit, but the cultural alignment as a foundation was missing. We had some people join for the idea while others just looked for fast money or a different job.
This set of priorities came back to us time-and-again. And it was of course our own fault as founders to let this happen. So in 2015 we realised: This time, we wanted to get it right from Day 1. Consequently, our founder team engraved a strong focus on company culture into the DNA of Forto. This meant for us to make culture explicit and tangible, e.g. by involving the whole team into the design of values and principles. We would hold each other accountable to it. It also meant to constantly back our own observations with a lot of data, e.g. about eNPS, retention ratesm, etc.
But first and foremost, putting culture first is about ensuring cultural alignment. It is about making sure that everybody who joined the company was truly buying into the product-vision behind Forto and motivated by the idea of making a personal contribution towards bringing this vision to life.
A moment of gratitude
Finally, I’d like to take today’s milestone as an opportunity to say “Thank you” to my co-founders Ferry, Erik and Michael as well as Michael Ardelt, Fabian Struck, Adrian Detlefs and Philipp Roehmer for their relentless effort in the extended C-suite of Forto over the past years. I wish the best of luck especially to Michael (“Mike”) who recently took over the helm from Ferry as Forto’s new CEO and did an amazing job raising the Series C. I can say from my point of view as a General Partner at Earlybird, seeing hundreds of companies each year: Forto has compiled one of the very best teams in the European B2B tech-industry. Keep going – you rock!
Looking into the future, let’s double down even harder on our efforts for making global logistics more climate friendly. #ForTomorrow and our program for the calculation and offsetting of CO2 footprints of every shipment are good first steps.