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How this supply-chain unicorn parlayed global chaos into growth

March 28, 2022, 2:00 PM UTC
Courtesy of Project44

In March 2020, when the first COVID-19 stay-at-home orders were just being introduced in the United States, project44 CEO and founder Jett McCandless already had three months of food and water stored at home. 

He committed to the practice years earlier. As a seasoned supply-chain and logistics professional, he knew what the general public was about to discover: The global supply chain runs on antiquated systems and is susceptible to major disruptions if just one link is fractured. 

“I know the supply chains are much more fragile than people think, and all it takes is a Suez Canal shutdown or pandemic, and shelves empty out quickly,” McCandless says in an interview with Fortune. “And there’s not some magic warehouse where all this stuff is located.”

COVID-19 shuttered factories, closed borders, and shifted consumption habits, and that was just the first few months. Over the past two years various calamities have snarled the global movement of goods, including labor shortages, lockdowns, protests, and war. Moreover, over the past 50 years the weather-related disasters have increased fivefold, according to the World Meteorological Organization, suggesting in the future we’re more likely to see events like the 2021 drought in Taiwan that helped trigger the semiconductor shortage. All of this has put additional strain on and drawn attention to the sustainability of global supply chains.

For project44, which has emerged as a leader in real-time visibility and predictive analytics for supply chains according to research and consulting company Gartner and industry experts, it has fueled rapid growth, culminating in a $2.4 billion valuation as of the latest $240 million round of equity funding led by TPG, Thoma Bravo, and Goldman Sachs in January. It’s a jump from a $1.2 billion valuation after a $202 million round of funding completed just a year ago (May 2021) that officially tagged project44 as a unicorn. At the close of 2021, project44 hit annual recurring revenue of $100 million, after reaching $50 million ARR in May 2021. 

The Chicago-based company provides real-time updates and tracking, along with predictive information such as estimated times of arrival, on billions of shipments across more than 170 countries. It has used the recent rounds of funding to acquire companies that help it develop a more complete picture of the global movement of goods, differentiating itself with the extent of its network. And the company is also targeting its tools at sustainability, launching a tool in 2021 that allows companies to better track greenhouse gas emissions and other impacts from their supply chains.  

Rapid growth in resiliency 

The pandemic was a shock to the system, but it hasn’t been alone in roiling the supply chain. One disruption after another has prompted supply-chain managers to expedite a shift in strategy that began prior to COVID-19. 

In March 2022 factories in Shenzhen, China, closed down due to a COVID-19 outbreak; the Ever Forward, sister ship to the Ever Given that clogged the Suez Canal, ran aground in the Chesapeake Bay; and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine muddied the movement of oil, gas, wheat, and other core commodities.

The continuous supply-chain turmoil has prompted businesses to adjust. They’ve invested in new technology and adopted new systems to get information faster, be more nimble, and more closely monitor their network from end to end. Along with boosting business operations, these advancements hold promise for innovating how companies track compliance with environmental, social, and governance standards.

Additionally, the quickening pace of disruption has incentivized more businesses to collaborate, allowing supply-chain visibility platform companies like project44 to grow faster and offer more robust and comprehensive data to their clients.

Supply-chain experts liken the current moment to the advancement of financial technology following the 2008 crisis. 

Supply-chain managers realized they need to be able to make decisions and adjustments faster in order to keep their operations running, and project44 from the start of the pandemic invested in growth and expansion. As more attention came to supply chains, and venture capital poured in during 2021, the company was able to greatly expedite its expansion into new modes of transportation and portions of the supply chain. 

“We’ve seen a lot of companies become really massively successful and valuable because they helped solve the payment issues and the frustration of how you move and deal with money,” said Craig Fuller, CEO and founder of FreightWaves, a freight industry data and news operation. FreightWaves’ main product, Sonar, is a freight data and forecasting site that incorporates project44’s ocean shipment tracking and has seen “record growth” in the past two years. 

“Now we’re reorienting the economy around how products move and how we track and understand them, and that is accelerating investment. And the winners that are emerging are able to solve these issues.” 

Supply-chain tracking has largely relied on Electronic Data Interchange, a technology more than a half-century old that allows for the transfer of large swaths of information between two parties but suffers from long lag times. Additionally, there was a habit within supply-chain management of monitoring operations with direct suppliers and customers, while ignoring secondary suppliers, consumers, and beyond. 

Project44 is based on Application Program Interface, which acts as a software intermediary allowing two applications to synchronously communicate and offers easier integration with other systems. Following its launch in 2014, project44 started with a focus on trucking in North America before branching into other regions and modes of transportation. 

When the pandemic arrived, McCandless hired more staff and pursued acquisitions to expand the company’s reach. Then a series of both strategic and fortuitous moves lifted its trajectory. 

On March 4, 2021, project44 announced the acquisition of Ocean Insights, an ocean freight monitoring service. Nineteen days later the Ever Given ran aground in the Suez Canal, clogging the crucial maritime thoroughfare for more than a week. In September, it acquired Convey, a specialist in last-mile delivery tracking, an area many companies previously ignored. 

“Thanks in part to companies like Amazon, consumers have been conditioned to expect delivery dates will be identified in advance and will be accurate,” says Steven Melnyk, a Michigan State University professor of supply-chain management and operations. “Consumers don’t care that you have a supply-chain problem, they have an expectation that what they order will arrive on time. Last-mile delivery has now become strategic and affects how the company competes.”

McCandless says project44 is continuing to expand into regions where the company has less coverage, including Asia, and finding other ways to offer clients a more expansive and detailed look at how goods are moving around the world from ports to distribution centers to shops and homes.  

“Now we’re able to connect that entire story and see upstream how something will be impacted all the way to the consumer’s doorstep, and this has never been possible before,” McCandless says, referring to the addition of the last-mile tracking to project44’s existing network of freight carriers. “We’re able to see how the whole world of goods is flowing.”  

In May 2021 project44 also acquired ClearMetal, a company that specialized in using artificial intelligence to improve inventory and shipment management. 

Project44’s network growth has pushed it to the forefront of supply-chain real-time visibility platforms, and led to several new collaborations in 2021. The company includes more than 680 global shippers and logistics service providers around the world as of September 2021, making it the largest carrier network available in a single platform.

In addition to its partnership with FreightWaves’ Sonar product, project44 is a partner with Google Cloud’s Supply Chain Twin, a digital representation of a business’s supply chain that incorporates proprietary data from the client along with data from private and public sources. Project44 will provide its real-time supply-chain tracking tools as part of the Supply Chain Twin’s collection of data provided by private companies. 

The increased collaboration among companies to share supply-chain information has helped expand visibility and resiliency.

“Companies are working closer together, and companies are more willing to share information,” says Hans Thalbauer, Google Cloud managing director for supply-chain and logistics solutions. “This is because of all these disruptions, and everyone understands if I share information, then all of us are better off.”

Promise to improve sustainability 

The new wave in supply-chain management provides new tools for companies to address and monitor environmental, social, and governance priorities, just as government regulations are placing more of the onus on businesses to ensure their supply chain is both sustainable and ethical. And the managers are also taking a more holistic approach to examining their supply-chain health—incorporating resiliency and sustainability along with price considerations. 

“It’s an integrated bottom line approach that goes well beyond cost,” says Robert Sroufe, Duquesne University professor of business management. “I’ve been working with supply-chain providers, service providers, and they have different companies that come to them and say, ‘If you get us your CO2 data, we’ll provide you more business.’”

The U.K. government passed a law in 2021 that levies fines on companies whose supply chains include products that come from illegally deforested land. The European Union is working on rules that would hold companies responsible for reducing greenhouse gas emissions from their supply chains and monitoring for forced labor. 

Recognizing rising demand, project44, like other companies in the field, launched a service for tracking environmental impact in supply chains.  

“At meetings last summer in Europe, about eight out of every 10 customers raised sustainability as a talking point,” McCandless says. “They knew the supply chain was a big contributor to their carbon footprints, but they didn’t have ways to measure it.” 

The United States is also moving to increase monitoring, with the SEC proposing new rules on March 21 that would require all public companies in the country to disclose data about their exposure to climate change risks. 

“So the risk that companies are now facing is if they don’t know what’s going on in their supply chain they could lose money,” said Joseph Sarkis, professor of management at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute Business School. 

Supply-chain researchers like Sarkis agree there is still a long way to go before good, reliable data is available on the carbon footprint and other impacts of a particular package or product. 

Still, by forecasting increased demand at the onset of the pandemic and doubling down on its vision for end-to-end real-time supply-chain visibility, project44 has emerged as one of the clear frontrunners in a previously overlooked sector that in the first three quarters of 2021 saw supply-chain technology startups raise more than $24 billion in funding, 58% more than in all of 2020, according to PitchBook.  

To date project44 has raised $817.5 million, while FourKites, the only other company labeled a leader in the field of “real-time transportation visibility platforms” in Gartner’s October 2021 report, has raised a total of $200.5 million as of its last round of funding in May 2021. 

FourKites did not disclose a new valuation after that round of funding. Both companies claim to have client rosters in excess of 1,000, with project44’s customer base made up of retailers, manufacturers, distributors, and logistics service providers. Meanwhile, FourKites, also based in Chicago and launched in 2014, serves large enterprises in the food and beverage, CPG, chemicals, manufacturing, paper and packaging, pharmaceuticals, and retail industries. While both companies have expanded their reach during the pandemic, project44 has set the pace with 1,200 employees in 17 offices around the world to FourKites’ roughly 600 employees in six global offices, with two more on the way.

Project44—named after Highway 44, the first major bypass to Route 66—continues to make inroads into new markets, announcing an expansion with a new office in Japan in February, and after the latest round of funding the company plans to roughly double its investment in product and engineering in 2022.

McCandless envisions a day when both businesses and consumers will be able to make informed decisions based on sustainability, with scores for individual products based on their comprehensive environmental impact.

“So let’s say that we’re going to buy a biscuit, and there’s one for $5 and there’s one for $5.50,” he says. “But we see the carbon footprint on the one that’s $5.50 is significantly less because it actually has a carbon score…And I’m hoping that we as consumers will say, ‘I’ll pay the extra 50 cents, because I like this planet Earth.’” 

This story is part of The Path to Zero, a special series exploring how business can lead the fight against climate change.