Can Collaboration and Community Serve as Catalysts For Innovation in Supply Chain?

Note: A version of this article was first published on July 31, 2019 at Port Technology.

The innovations required to reinvent global supply chains will not happen without collaboration. This article describes our experience facilitating such collaborations, starting in late 2017.

In late 2016 and early 2017, I spent a lot of time studying trucking and shipping, with a view to understanding the industry dynamics at play, and to see what opportunities might exist for software startups. What I learned about the trucking industry piqued my interest in logistics overall, and ultimately led me to a decision to focus on early stage technology investing in supply chain by building REFASHIOND Ventures to invest in early stage technology startups reinventing supply chains.

Through that work it became painfully clear to me that there is a need for closer collaboration between software startups and established, mature companies. 

This article will explain why there’s a need for such collaboration. I will also discuss the approach our community, The Worldwide Supply Chain Federation, has taken to enable such collaboration. Although it is still early, we will end with a discussion of some early indicators of the results we might expect in general.

Note on prior and recent work: Disruption, supply chain management, supply chain finance, and supply chain logistics are topics I have been studying for some time – from the perspective of an early stage venture capitalist specializing in supply chain; Notes on Strategy; Where Does Disruption Come From? (2015), Industry Study: Freight Trucking (#Startups) (2016), Updates – Industry Study: Freight Trucking (#Startups) (2016), Industry Study: Ocean Freight Shipping (#Startups) (2017), Updates – Industry Study: Ocean Freight Shipping (#Startups) (2017), Where Will Technological Disruption in The Fashion Supply Chain Come From? (2018), Is disruption finally underway in the freight brokerage industry? (2019), and Why digital freight brokers might fail to disrupt the freight brokerage industry (2019).

Identifying The Chasm

A consequence that arose from my decision to publish my articles on trucking and shipping is that it prompted several executives at established companies to reach out to me to talk about my findings. The same happened with startup founders – though, they mostly wanted to meet an early-stage venture capitalist who cared about supply chain logistics.

Those conversations made it painfully clear that: On the one hand, executives at established companies know the business problems in supply chain operations for which they desperately need new innovations. However, they typically do not have sufficient time to meet their daily responsibilities at work and scour the globe seeking out such new innovations. Moreover, their companies might not be plugged into the right communities to find such innovations through tradition RFP processes. Moreover, such executives also tend not to have a very good sense of how much certain emerging technologies have matured, and if such technologies might be applicable to the problems they need to solve. I call such executives BUYERS: these are people and organizations who want to buy new technology innovations for supply chain operations. This is particularly true in a nascent area like cryptocurrencies and blockchain.

On the other hand, founders of software startups that are creating new innovations for supply chain tend to understand the technology well, but they lack a deep and nuanced understanding of the business problems that potential customers face. They lack a sufficiently mature understanding of the value proposition they must offer to the BUYERS if they are to win market adoption. I call such startup founders BUILDERS: these are people and organizations who are building new technological innovations for supply chain operations.

For this conversation to make sense, it is critical that we share a common understanding of what I mean by supply chain. 

The definition I have adopted is from the 4th edition of Martin Christopher’s Logistics & Supply Chain Management: Creating Value-Adding Networks. A supply chain is: “A network of connected and interdependent organisations mutually and cooperatively working together to control, manage and improve the flow of materials and information from suppliers to end users.”

Crossing The Chasm

In order to bridge this chasm between BUYERS & BUILDERSTM, Lisa Morales-Hellebo and I founded The New York Supply Chain Meetup in August 2017. We started with a very simple premise: Once a month, for about 9 out of the 12 months each year, we would bring these two groups of people together to:

  • Network, 
  • Talk to one another about the problems they were trying to solve and the products that they were building, and
  • Participate in curated programming that is based on relevant and topical themes related to supply chain. 

Each event would last about 3 hours. The format of a meetup appealed to us because it is inherently grass-roots driven, and emerges spontaneously based on a shared enthusiasm among a group of like-minded people for a particular topic. 

We ultimately settled on a mission for The New York Supply Chain Meetup: To nurture and grow the world’s foremost open, global, multidisciplinary community of people devoted to building the supply chain networks of the future – starting in NYC.

Even before we held our launch event on November 16, 2017 people in other parts of the United States, and in other countries asked us if we would be live-streaming the event. We took this as a promising sign. As we approach 24 months since we initially started working on this, our tentative first efforts have grown into an initiative to build The Worldwide Supply Chain Federation; A collaborative, and mutually supportive coalition of grassroots communities focused on technology and innovation in the global supply chain industry. The New York Supply Chain Meetup is its founding chapter. 

The initiative is entirely grass-roots driven. Our community includes:

  • Startups,
  • Mature Companies – across all industries,
  • Academics from research institutions,
  • Early-stage technology venture capitalists, and other late-stage investors, and
  • Journalists, regulators, professional services providers, and any other groups of people with interests and skills relevant to innovation in supply chain.

We have 1900+ members in The New York Supply Chain Meetup – the founding chapter, 2700+ members around the world, an active chapter in Charleston, South Carolina, and chapters in the process of being formed in several other cities around the world. 

The Worldwide Supply Chain Federation held its inaugural global summit, #SCIT2019, on June 19 and June 20 in NYC

  • We had 1000 people sign up for the event before we closed registration. 
  • During the event we had about 400 people attend on each day of the summit. Attendees came from 15 countries. 
  • We had 31 speakers: With 11 startup showcases, and a presentation by the Singapore Economic Development Board on June 20. Video of the event is available on our YouTube channel

Also:

In An Age of Platform Competition, Open Collaboration, Open Communities, and Open Ecosystems Matter A Lot

Why are companies like Amazon, Apple, AirBnB, Microsoft, Alibaba, Google, JD.com, Uber and others, posing a threat to companies in traditional industries? Why are startups that many people have never heard of beginning to attack and threaten companies in mature, established industries that one may have considered immune from such threats as recently as even just half a decade ago?

It is because the companies I have listed, and others I have not, understand the importance of business models that are built on open ecosystems rather than proprietary and linear value chains owned by a single company. 

Using the internet and other maturing software-enabled technologies as the foundation, these companies are launching demand-side and supply-side attacks on industries that have become accustomed to relatively sanguine competition among well established companies. 

That raises the question: What is an ecosystem? A business ecosystem has three main characteristics;

  • First: It is a network of networks.
  • Second: The focus of the ecosystem orchestrator must be on enabling and facilitating the creation and exchange of value, between all participants of the ecosystem.
  • Third: The creation and exchange of value must occur in a way that increases the aggregate well-being of the entire network over time.

When executed well, platforms and ecosystems give rise to powerful network effects. Network effects matter because, in the most extreme cases they can lead to winner-take-all outcomes. At best, they lead to winner-take-most situations. 

What’s are network effects? 

As I explained in my September 2014 article on the topic Revisiting What I Know About Network Effects & Startups: “A network effect occurs when the value of a good or service increases for both new and existing users as more customers use that good or service. The network effect is a virtuous cycle that allows strong companies to become even stronger. Network effects are also known as direct-benefit effects.”

The Results Are Early, But The Signs Look Promising 

As I have pointed out already, our effort is entirely grass-roots driven. We are yet to attract significant outside support to accelerate our efforts. Nevertheless we are showing promising early results in the 24 months during which we have been working on this. Here are just a few highlights.

  • A startup in our community is working with a very large shipping company that is seeking software technologies that enhance its ability to make decisions under uncertainty. Such software can be applied in various aspects of the shipping company’s global operations. The software could also be introduced to the shipping company’s customers who also need to optimize their own supply chain operations. The shipping company gains new technology, while the startup wins a channel partner to aid its go-to-market efforts.
  • A handful of startups in our community are building software to enable established freight forwarders modernize their business operations without bearing the expense of developing software from scratch. Many such efforts are led by people with significant experience in the freight forwarding business who have teamed up with technologists to build the technology. For such startups, a community like ours provides a great, low-pressure opportunity for them to connect with potential customers as well as potential investors.
  • Another startup in our community is building a derivatives exchange for the freight markets, creating a new suite of tools that shippers and carriers can use to manage risk.
  • One startup in our community is building a communication platform to enable communication around the transactions that take place between shipping companies and beneficial cargo owners, freight forwarders, and other parties involved in the shipping of cargo. Currently that communication happens over email, and relies on manual, paper-based processes. The team already has significant experience building software for the maritime shipping industry. The need for the product it is building is confirmed by the explosive rate of growth in adoption by very large shipping companies around the world. Where our community can help is with advice about the startup’s interactions with potential venture capital investors, and providing opportunities for the startup to tell its story to a wider audience. In one instance, after presenting at one of our events, a real estate broker told the startup’s founder that the same problem exists in the real estate industry. He also met an executive from a large shipping company who offered to introduce him to the shipping company’s corporate venture capital arm.   

Collaboration Is Especially Critical in Blockchain + Supply Chain

Like everyone who is enthusiastic about supply chain and technology, we are exploring how blockchain and other distributed ledger technologies will affect the supply chain. Here are some of the things I have learned;

In relation to blockchain, one of the lessons I learned while studying the shipping industry in early 2017 was this: 

“One product that it appears the industry would gravitate towards is a system of record that connects all participants in the supply chain, from end-to-end. This would be a platform into which various shipping industry data could be input, and other data can be obtained as outputs. Probably most input data would come from other platforms and data repositories, while output data would be fed to different counterparties based on their access rights and information requirements.” 

In that blog post, which I published in June 2017, I went on to say that this product seemed to be one ideally suited to be built on a blockchain. The platform would need to allow several independent parties to collaborate with one another while providing each of them with anonymity for certain aspects of their interactions. 

For example: Customs agencies around the world might demand special access rights to enable them monitor international trade transactions happening under various national regulatory jurisdictions. Such agencies could desire anonymity under certain scenarios.

About a week after I published the blog, I discovered that IBM and Maersk were beginning to release more details about their plans for TradeLens to the public.

During our meetup in January 2018, we hosted a discussion featuring speakers from UPS, SAP, Sweetbridge, Blockcience, and MState. The keynote speaker at that event was Dr. Michael Zargham, CEO and Founder of Blockscience, and at the time, also a technical advisor to Sweetbridge. The overarching conclusion I reached by the end of the event was this:

 “Successful implementations of cryptocurrencies and blockchains in supply chain will require more collaboration than the traditional industry is accustomed to.” — Why? The technology combines: digital systems; physical systems; social and political organization; economic structures and incentives; finance; and capital markets. No single organization is expert enough in all those fields to go it alone.

At our meetup in April 2018, we had speakers from: Algorand, Maersk, IBM, TigerTrade, EY, MState, Celsius Networks, and Sweetbridge. Professor Silvio Micali of MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory was the keynote speaker at that event. He described the key ideas behind Algorand, a blockchain he invented expressly to satisfy the demands of businesses. The other speakers discussed what it would take to bring blockchains out of the lab and into the real world of supply chain. Based on the discussions that day, I reached the conclusion that: 

Blockchain applications for supply chain must be interoperable with other blockchain platforms, and they also must be interoperable with the older technologies that businesses have relied on up till now.

TigerTrade started a conversation with IBM as a result of initial informal interactions at our in April 2018. Ultimately, this led them to partner and collaborate on the creation of TRADEFLO, a blockchain-powered platform for global trade facilitation and financing. Tanjila Islam, CEO and founder of both TigerTrade and TRADEFLO presented TRADEFLO at The Worldwide Supply Chain Federation’s inaugural global summit in New York City on June 20, 2019. Tanjila’s experience building TigerTrade directly informed her understanding of the need for a platform with TRADEFLO’s attributes. 

Conclusion

Platforms and ecosystems work well because they allow each participant of the platform to play to its unique strengths, while relying on its ecosystem partners for capabilities that it does not have in-house. This is not an issue that has mattered for shipping companies in the past. But, it is becoming more of an issue now, and it will continue to become a more acute problem in the future as beneficial cargo owners demand more sophisticated services from their supply chain partners. 

Collaboration is difficult because it requires a change in culture. It requires an openness that is not customary in many organizations. Collaboration for the purpose of discovering and nurturing innovative new ideas, products, services, and business models is even more difficult because it requires a commitment from senior leadership. Given how often individuals are shuffled around in organizations, it can be difficult to get anyone to focus appropriately on the long and difficult work that is required to build collaborative partnerships.

However, those companies that do not partner with others to meet their customers’ demands stand the risk of losing those customers to companies that come to grips with platform-and-ecosystem-driven competition more quickly. 

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