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How Estonian transportation monitoring startup Sixfold helped to manage European trade flows during the crisis

Sixfold, the Estonian AI-based transportation monitoring startup, turned the endless game of catching up the competitors to conquering the world. Just with one-weekend-hackathon at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis.

Sixfold, founded by the authors of this article, is about providing real-time visibility for commercial transportation. Sixfold helps large enterprises understand what is happening in their supply chains — predictively. The company provides 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.

Sixfold wasn’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, Sixfold has changed the rules of the game by being the first to do this truly AI-driven. This has enabled Sixfold 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 Sixfold managed to leverage the technological groundwork it has built over the years to “hack the crisis”, help the public, and conquer the narrative.

Turning the crisis into profit

Just before the Europe-wide COVID-19 related lockdowns started in mid-March, the customers of Sixfold started to reach out to the company 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 company’s 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,“ Wolfgang Wörner recalls.

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,” Wörner adds.

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 Sixfold could quickly add to its 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 Sixfold 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 Sixfold could send them data about Italian borders so the Sixfold’s team  knew it would be useful for a variety of logistics and supply chain professionals at least — and probably the company would make some new friends along the way.

 

Betting on the black swan

Sixfold was 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, Sixfold rushed to get ready in order to help the public in case it really happened. The result? Sixfold’s now-famous map of border delays based on tracking of the shipments crossing them. The borders indeed emerged just hours after Sixfold had published its map on March 16. What the startup 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, Sixfold didn’t know in advance that it was going to be the only one with real-time visibility over the waiting times at those borders.

From that moment on the whole “weekend hackathon” affair went viral, bringing the company the attention of hundreds of thousands of people in the following weeks.

Logistics professionals shared Sixfold’s map among each other like wildfire. Media, including Financial Times, NY Times, WSJ, and Reuters started fueling it too, making company’s name appear beside all the talk about sudden border-problems across the EU. Screens showing this 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 Sixfold’s 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 — Sixfold’s 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,” says Tõnu Runnel, pointing out that 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 Sixfold 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, Sixfold has won three of its 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 company has lately received really did help to wrap things up.

The learnings

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:

  1. Keep your eyes and ears open.Establishing your company at the top of your market niche, getting 10 years worth of marketing attention, adding new revenue streams and product lines is not about luck. You need to understand and follow the surrounding market trends and developments — and constantly assess the value of what you’ve already built over years against different hypotheses. Hint: *talk* to your customers. No, really, do it! This is not about asking them for feedback on a new feature or measuring some NPS-score, but about reaching out to understand what’s keeping them up at night. It’s scary because it also means you’ll hear lots of problems that you can’t help them with although you are creating the expectation that you will.
  2. Move fast.You need to jump on those trends *super* early. This means that you might need to deprioritize other work and release something that’s far from perfect. Your CTO will have sweat pouring off their forehead and your team might sometimes need to work late nights and weekends. In this case, Sixfold’s team pretty much kept the service alive with duct tape and wooden sticks the first few days and nights, fixing bugs, improving algorithms to detect initially undetected queues, looking at actual patterns on its internal map to find out the difference between trucks stuck behind a road block and those just sleeping at a parking lot beside the border. “We were underslept, over-caffeinated, at times ashamed of the mistakes we feverishly fixed, but mostly just excited and not believing that such a rush is even possible. But that’s exactly the emotional rollercoaster that people working in a startup sign up for. That’s the thrill and makes for great memories and even greater parties once you are through,” Runnel says.
  3. Experiment. 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” it refers to the incredible coverage and reception company has received from this. There are plenty of other experiments that didn’t “work out” the way it was intended to — that’s why you’ve never heard of them.

Wrap-up

“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,” Wörner shares some feedback.

There’s one pretty dark lining to the whole story, though. The whole reason why Sixfold’s 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, the intentions of Sixfold 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,” Runnel notes. “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.”

Interested in investing in Estonia? Read more about the opportunities Estonia has to offer in digital logistics and use our free e-consulting service to get started with your business in Estonia.

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