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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 September 2018

Don’t call me a disruptor: banker bidding to transform Middle East transport

Trukkin co-founder Janardan Dalmia is on a mission to transform the logistics industry

Janardan Dalmia (right) and Ahmed Ibrahim Alnafie (left) founded the online platform which provides logistics solutions in the region. Courtesy Trukkin
Janardan Dalmia (right) and Ahmed Ibrahim Alnafie (left) founded the online platform which provides logistics solutions in the region. Courtesy Trukkin

An investment banker turned technology evangelist, the co-founder and chief executive of the Dubai-based start-up Trukkin, Janardan Dalmia, who prefers to be called JD, is on a mission to transform the logistics industry.

But there is one word he really dislikes that is discussed about by firms involved in the tech revolution that is transforming business worldwide: disruption.

“Absolutely we are not a disruptor, I don’t like that word,” says JD.

“We are a facilitator, enabler, we are here to organise, to build in efficiencies, we are here to add value rather than disrupt someone’s business – we want to improve it for them.”

By “them” JD is referring to the numerous shippers, road hauliers, independent transporters and truck drivers that populate the highways and byways of this country, Saudi Arabia and the wider GCC.

Together with his partner and director of Trukkin, Ahmed Alnafie, the company launched earlier this year with the aim of bringing the best of all worlds to the region’s logistics industry.

Using its own bespoke technology, Trukkin is a cloud-based platform that links all aspects of commercial road transport, offering a major increase in efficiencies and saving the companies involved significant amounts of cash.

Trukkin provides on-demand logistics services for shippers, who can request bids through both iOS and Android apps or through a web portal. For fleet owners and drivers, the platform offers a tool and channel for business development.

Once customers have requested bids, they get to choose a preferred supplier and approve the service. Once the supplier has arrived to pick up the goods and ferried them to their destination, proof of delivery is then uploaded to the app, and the service is officially concluded.

Although the firm only launched this year, it was a lot longer in incubation, says JD.

“I used to cover Saudi when I was doing investment banking with Barclays, I used to travel there a lot, so I started to build relationships there,” he says.

“One time we were having a chat in a forum, there were captains of the industry there, and the discussion turned to how technology has been influencing us – everything from hotel bookings to taxis and beyond – these captains of industry agreed there was one area where they were really facing a lot of challenges, which was commercial transport.

“The business was still operating in a very old school, traditional manner and technology had not really come into that space.”

That provided JD and Mr Alnafie with the spur to seek a solution.

“About three and a half years ago me and Ahmed and a couple of others began brainstorming, these are people who are owners, chairmen of the companies. So we started developing ideas of how [bringing technology into the commercial transport space] can be done.”

After identifying “pain points”, as JD puts it, the next step was to research the market. In talks with many heads of companies about the problems they faced with commercial transport, he and Mr Alnafie realised the issues were pretty common.

“I started doing a lot of research on the ground myself in Saudi, in the UAE, meeting with a lot of fleet owners and a lot of independent transporters and really learned about how they do their business and equally, in parallel, meeting the companies with the goods and figuring out where the gaps were in transport, where the problems were, where the pain points have been for these companies,” says JD.

“So I got a bird’s eye view of the whole thing and then [started] diving down into each aspect.”

It was through such research that he began to realise where the problems inherent to the logistics sector were. “There is an issue with companies who depend on just a few to deal with their transporters, there’s a lot of inefficiencies built into that system, a lot of opaque pricing out there,” JD says.

“They don’t tend to get the benefit of demand and supply. Same issues are there with the fleet owners and independents, they tend to rely on just a few companies for their business.

“We realised we could not just have one solution for one stakeholder because in commercial transport you have different stakeholders: shippers; transporters; etc, so a solution has to be available for all.”

That is where Trukkin comes in.

One of the firm’s biggest advantages, JD says, is that it caters to people speaking several other languages. “This is reflected in our platform – here a lot of the drivers are from South Asia, India, Pakistan and we have some regional drivers as well – our driver app is multilingual: English, Arabic, Urdu, Punjabi and so on so it’s much easier for them to follow.”

“We take constant feedback from the companies’ perspective, fleet owners’ perspective, from independent transporters’ perspective to find out how to make the system easy to use,” says JD.

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As with many start-ups, Trukkin was launched with investment provided by the co-founders themselves and, while the firm is currently considering going to third-parties for further cash, JD says it is a sign of the partners’ belief in the project that so far they have not done so.

“All of the start-up investment was done by us, me and Ahmed, it was our own money and it’s still our own money that we are using,” he says.

“That shows how much faith we had in the idea and still have. We wanted to make sure we put our money where our mouth is, real skin in the game – I can’t say how much as its private information but now we feel we are at the stage where we can have investments from third parties.”

He says a significant proportion of their initial investment went into the development of the technology platform. “We did not want to compromise on that and we invested as much as possible – and all the necessary infrastructure, offices, equipment and the right team – a lean team but the right team,” JD says.

“We now have a team in Dubai, a team in Riyadh. We have about 20 staff in our tech office, about 10 in Dubai and our Riyadh office we are building up, we have a few now and we’re scaling it.”

The technology, he points out, is all proprietary, in-house developed. “I hired a tech team, I personally brainstormed with them – it was thousands of man hours because initially it’s the concept development – explaining that these are the pain points that we have identified.”

Problems included the fact that for transporters and fleet owners there are a lot of empty backloads.

“For an independent transporter relying on few companies, they have limited accessibility and cannot circumvent the middle layer – and with every passing hand their margin keeps on dropping,” says JD. “So the guy who is actually working hard tends to be short-changed at the end.

“I thought ‘how do we improve their life, how do we improve things for the fleet owners, in terms of bringing inefficiencies down for back haulers?’ Data analytics helped and it’s something we do a lot of and will in the future. We looked at the customer side and thought ‘how do we make the market much more competitive for them, in terms of transparency?’ So that’s how we started building the product, which took a while.”

In terms of knowing their customers, both JD and Mr Alnafie take a hands-on approach.

“We spend a lot of time on the ground with truck drivers and that’s another edge for us, when you talk about USP. “When you meet a driver who’s from India, or Pakistan or (the) subcontinent, they tend to speak their local language and I can sit down with them, and make them feel comfortable, sit by the truck and have a cup of tea with them and really understand what they are facing. “Ahmed speaks Arabic so he can get people from the region to feel comfortable in terms of finding out what the problems are. The transporters want to know, ‘what if I’m going to Saudi?’ for instance, how can you help them?

“We are truly trying to build something pan-GCC and it gives them a lot of comfort – you know, it’s not just run from the office here, we have an office there – we are with them on the ground. All our customers across the range – drivers, fleet owners, shippers – feel comfortable because they know that we know how the old traditional business works.”

From Trukkin’s perspective, JD says the firm also has an advantage over big players such as Kuwait-based Agility and Abu Dhabi-based GAC because it’s a very asset-light model.

“We are not restricted by the fact that we own 200 vehicles [for example] and we can only use them in that one geography,” he says.

“This is the beauty of technology – it cuts through the boundaries, it increases your presence anywhere you want. We could potentially have thousands of vehicles moving through our platform.

“What we compete on is providing an awesome service, awesome technology platform, an awesome experience overall – and massive efficiencies for customers, truckers, transporters, everyone. That’s a huge upside for us – bringing professionalism into this business, which has not been there,” explains JD. As for the future, Trukkin will in the shorter term focus on cementing its position in this country, Saudi Arabia and the GCC.

“Obviously we want to strengthen our team in terms of technology in UAE and in Saudi because those are the real focus areas for us right now – we want to make sure we can walk properly before we can run,” says JD.

“All the signs have been very encouraging. We might raise capital to do that – and raising capital is probably not going to be that difficult for us given the network that we have, between me and my partner. We can say to a potential investor: ‘Look, we are here, in Riyadh, in Dubai and our teams are all transport experienced. We’ve not just got our MBA and sitting in an office playing with technology.”

And so back to disruption, anathema to JD and the Trukkin ethos. There is a simple reason he says he feels that approach is neither needed nor desired in the region’s logistics industry.

“The market is extremely large, I mean we’re talking about US$9 billion in the GCC land transport market and there are a significant number of problems in this business which can be solved step by step with the help of technology,” he says.

If it gets very competitive in the market then it’s all good for the industry. People tend to move out of the comfort zone when they are facing challenges and we have a very strong value proposition for all in the industry. That’s why it took us a while to get from idea to launch because we really wanted to create something which is a value-add for all, not short-changing one party for the other.

“So it’s win-win.”

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