Welcome to Becoming the Boss, our series celebrating the transition from solo-entrepreneur to employer through the voices of first-time job creators.
As an everyday onlooker, when you see a tractor trailer coasting down the highway or a cargo ship pulling into port, you might not see cutting-edge innovation or a freight industry on the brink of a technological renaissance. But that’s exactly what Craig Fuller sees.
Since he was very young, Fuller has been immersed in the freight industry. His father started one of the largest trucking companies in the United States, US Express, and his grandfather had been in the business before him. During Craig’s tenure at US Express, he built an on-demand division for the company called Xpress Direct, which quickly became the country’s largest provider of on-demand trucking services.
But after years of working for his father and pursuing a few other entrepreneurial ventures, Fuller wanted to try running his own freight business. In July 2016, he launched FreightWaves, which helps shipping companies better leverage big data to inform their business decisions.
“I realized the industry needed better data and analytics,” said Fuller, who would later move the company from its origins in Texas to his hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn. “Historically, companies use their own data and, what I call, tribal knowledge to understand what’s happening in the market. But they’re not using market level data.”
“We think the freight industry needs a better macro view, so they can understand what the broader market looks like,” he continued. “All of the data is out there, but it’s in silos. For us, it’s about going out, getting it, and helping companies understand it.”
We sat down with Fuller to discuss his entrepreneurial journey, his transition to becoming the boss and hiring his first employees, and how he learned to handle—but not obsess about—the bumps in the road. What follows has been edited for length and clarity.
Was it challenging to get FreightWaves off the ground?
Well, this is the fourth business that I’ve started. It’s not my first rodeo. I’ve raised venture capital in the past. I’ve gone through the challenges that come with building a business from scratch. In my last business, I had no connections and realized how difficult it truly is to go into a business that you’re an outsider in. With FreightWaves, it was easier because I knew how to recruit and bring in the right folks.
What was the first position you hired for? What was the process like?
It was a marketing position. I kept thinking that if I had a really good platform and really good technology, that people would come. What I realized is that there were companies around me that had less sophistication and technology but they had two things that defined them really well: a really strong distribution outlet and some secured partnerships. We had spent so much time and energy on the product, we didn’t think about marketing. The business really struggled to take off. We got laughed at, at first, by a lot of our competitors because they had spent time on the marketing side, the customer safety side, the engagement side.
When I started this business, I wanted to make sure the first thing I focused on was true marketing distribution and secure engagement, then you can always talk product through that. If you don’t have an audience that wants to do business with you or believe you have something to offer them, it doesn’t matter how good your product is.
How many full-time staff employees do you have?
About 25 people. We just opened an international office, so we’re expanding outside of the United States. We have two people there now and just hired a third person. My goal is to make that a 20-30 person office in the next year.
What’s the best part of being a manager?
I like playing with big data sets and figuring out how the data is impacting the market. It’s cool to be able to have a voice in the market and be able to take in data and interpret things that are happening. We see the economic impact of things six months before everybody else does. If people aren’t buying things or stocking shelves, then they’re not moving it on trucks. We get to prospect on that. The most exciting thing is seeing the economy in real-time.
I never imagined being a reporter or journalist, but that’s effectively what we are.
What are some lessons learned from starting your own business?
I think, for an entrepreneur, it’s ensuring that you have a strategy figured out. The great thing about the internet and social media is that you can reach a very big audience really, really quick. You’ve got to build any type digital engagement strategy around how people actually do their business.
A quote from Drake on your website reads: “Sometimes it’s the journey that teaches you a lot about the destination.” Why did you pick that quote?
I think a lot of this is about how you set up to do one thing and end up in a completely different place than you expected. We didn’t set out to build a news site or a community. We set out to create products that could help companies. The journey that we went along to get to where we’re headed has changed the trajectory of what we’re actually focused on. You have to go in with a very open mind and be willing to double down on things that work.
If you had the chance to start over, is there anything you would do differently?
There’s a lot of stuff, but I don’t spend a lot of time obsessing over it. If you’re going to make decisions, you’re going to make mistakes. You have to double down on what works and pivot off of what doesn’t. I don’t obsess over mistakes. I just don’t think it’s productive. I think you learn from them and move on quickly. And, if anything, you want to make mistakes. You want to make a lot of them, otherwise, you’re not really innovating.