Avishai Trabelsi, Roni Liberman and Sam Houwen set up Quicargo with one goal in mind – no more empty trucks on European roads. 4 years later, their company has ushered in a new era of cooperation in the freight industry.
Though we have many means at our disposal to transport goods around Europe, road freight is still the indisputable backbone of trade and commerce across the continent. As recently as 2017 the European Automobile Manufacturers Association (EAMA) estimated that there were as many as 6.5 million trucks on European roads, and those trucks were responsible for a whopping 71.3% of all transported cargo in Europe.
These numbers have been trending upward over the last two decades, but with that comes a cost. Of those 6.5 million trucks on the roads, about half are completely or partially empty. Whilst most other industries – agriculture, waste, power generation – have been trending towards their 2050 European emissions targets, transport has been heading in the other direction, with more trucks hitting the road and emissions rising as a result.
The problem is a systemic one. Freight is a competitive industry – companies in the past have been loath to lose business to each other, and the result is that multiple trucks from different companies carry partial loads to and from destinations. Often those trucks – booked to take cargo from one place to another – make the return trip completely empty. Quicargo’s mission is to turn around those numbers – by encouraging cooperation between competing freight carriers, the platform is able to fill previously empty trucks with cargo, making the whole European network more efficient and more profitable for all the freight companies involved.
Quicargo CEO and co-founder Avishai Trabelsi first came across these issues when he was looking after his family freight business in his native Israel. ‘It was very difficult to get a sustainable business,’ he explains. ‘Fuel costs were increasing, new environmental regulations came in, there was a lack of drivers – all these things made it very difficult to make a living in logistics. And because you’re working with clients in manufacturing and commodities, they also have very low margins. We needed to increase our rates, but our clients needed us to decrease them. It was a huge amount of effort for no return.’
The solution was obvious, to Avishai at least – companies needed to use their truck capacity more efficiently. ‘Out of the 25 trucks we had back then, 20 came back empty when they returned from a destination,’ he explains. ‘The rationale in simple terms is that, if you can fill a route back with goods it becomes very good margin because you've already paid the driver salary, the fuel costs, all the fixed costs. You don't have to understand logistics to understand the potential there!’
Avishai realised that, though his trucks were only making deliveries in one direction, the return business was there – it was just shared amongst a multitude of different freight companies. By combining the logistical powers of their fleets, they could all increase their margins and make their trips more efficient. The theory worked, but convincing other companies that cooperation could be mutually beneficial for everyone was a tough task. ‘They thought I was trying to take their customers,’ he shrugs. ‘They were all very suspicious. They know that they’re struggling, and I know that I’m struggling, but still, they preferred to die alone than to work together. I thought that was nonsense.’
It became clear that Israel was not the right place for Avishai’s big idea – the market was too small and transport companies were very traditional with little in the way of I.T. structure. ‘The gap between what we wanted to introduce and what already existed was too big,’ he says. Instead, he scoped out a more suitable market and found the Netherlands, which boasts a large, technologically advanced logistics sector as well as great accessibility to most of Europe.
Avishai moved to the Netherlands in early 2016 and set up Quicargo with the help of Startupbootcamp. The first few months were tough, he says – he was a foreigner in a new country, trying to pitch an idea to big, well-established companies, with no product and no funding. ‘I received tonnes of negative feedback before I got the first yes,’ he says. ‘Honestly, if I hadn’t moved countries and invested everything I had in the idea, I might have stopped. Lots of times during the journey I thought, maybe I’m wrong, or maybe the market isn’t ready, or maybe the market was ready but I missed my chance. It all depends on your belief – how much you believe in the solution and how much you’re willing to fight for it.’
In the end, the first yes turned out to be the hardest – once Quicargo’s first partner came on board, others felt more confident in the following suit. Quicargo underwent its first round of funding in summer of 2016 and by the end of the year, Avishai had started to build a team and a company that could fulfil his ambition. Today Quicargo has a network of 400 carriers, with a combined fleet of over 10,000 trucks that serves over 5,000 manufacturers across the Benelux and as far afield as Italy, Spain and the UK.
Avishai first heard about the Rise Program via an email from Techleap, and he immediately saw it as an opportunity to help grow his company. ‘We’ve always had amazing support from the Dutch government,’ he explains. ‘Techleap is another arm of that support that really shows that the government wants to support the ecosystem. We were keen to be a part of that and that’s why I decided to apply.’
‘It was hard to know exactly what the program would be,’ he continues, ‘but when I saw the other companies and entrepreneurs that were involved, I knew that if nothing else, it would be incredibly valuable to just be in a room with those people.
‘Getting feedback from the mentors was really valuable, but I definitely learned the most with my peers. We all come from different backgrounds but we’re all entrepreneurs with relatively successful businesses. It’s always interesting to share thoughts – regardless of the industry you’re in, we’ve probably faced 80% of the same challenges. It was nice to see how different solutions can be applicable to the same problems.’
Quicargo’s rapid growth has continued in 2020, even throughout the coronavirus pandemic which has left the world economy in tatters. As the world shuddered to a halt, Quicargo’s network was crucial in helping to move essential medical supplies around the continent to those who needed them. Avishai could have given up on Quicargo a few years ago, when the road was bumpy and things looked bleak – instead, Quicargo has become part of the solution to a desperate health crisis. ‘There’s no solution in terms of medicine yet, but if we’re part of the solution in terms of moving supplies around to reach those who need them, that’s great,’ he says.
Aside from perseverance, if there’s one other thing he’s learnt from his journey, it’s the importance of an open mind. ‘Don’t fall in love with your product,’ he warns. ‘In Israel, I was sure I knew the business and the solution, but the solution we developed didn’t fit the way the industry worked. We paid a lot for that lesson! With Quicargo, we’ve listened to focus groups and outside advice every step of the way. You have to challenge everything you think you know with your potential customers.’