By: Bill Catania
Throughout my career as a tech start-up entrepreneur I have been very fortunate to meet and interact with many amazing entrepreneurs. One of the hidden gems of these interactions is hearing firsthand what trigger or event sparked the founder’s vision to first have an idea, and then, to act upon it. While entrepreneurs like Jobs, Musk, and Gates get much of their notoriety in the mainstream for being the face of start-ups, there are millions of stories that are equally interesting, each one beginning with an idea, many changing lives, and some changing the world.
I never set out to START a start-up. Throughout my 20-year career, I’ve worked in start-ups I’ve founded OR were acquired. Each of the three start-ups I’ve founded, the first while still a college student, were born for very different reasons.
Start-Up #1 – RaceFan, Inc.
The Spark: Availability of funding, I wanted to be an entrepreneur vs. “corporate guy”
The Idea: Build a company around my passion, Auto Racing
The Pivot: Become a “bricks and clicks” marketing platform and PR Clearinghouse for racing news
While a senior at Cornell University (immediately after the .com bubble), I had an amazing job lined up to become a Territory Sales Manager. Great pay, standard issue laptop and mini-van, and my very own territory. My future boss even called to tell me I would be getting a raise 2-weeks before I began my job! Sadly, when he called, I had to inform him I was taking the road less traveled – I had secured angel funding and was starting my own company. RaceFan was “founded” when a classmate told me he knew a guy looking to fund deals. He thought I might be a good entrepreneur. Afterall, I sold drawings to my classmates in elementary school, sold baseball cards in middle school, and even set-up a NASCAR gambling book in high school (shhhh…) Why not jump into the fire? But what to do? How about something that merges tech/.com with my recent business education around my lifelong passion, Auto Racing? RaceFan was born and would become the leader in racing news in North America, powering media giants like Fox Sports, PRIMEDIA, and even NASCAR.com with racing news and, as it was fashionable in the year 2001, a “bricks and clicks” model that drove promotional dollars from Valvoline, the US ARMY, and Ford Motor Company to 650 race tracks in over 40 states.
Start-Up #2 – M-Dot Network
The Spark: I wanted to create “value added”, tech-driven, solutions for our clients, not just sell ads.
The Idea: Leverage our skills, create a private label cell phone with shopping utilities like coupons, free airtime.
The Pivot: Develop a novel platform to manage and redeem digital coupons at scale.
Upon exiting RaceFan, I took a job with a local entrepreneur, Dan Bensur, at his full-service marketing agency. BENSUR Creative Marketing Group was internationally known for private label CPG development. Dan empowered me to drive the business development of BENSUR and that’s what I did – except I somehow found myself ideating and selling technology platforms and apps that we didn’t build at BENSUR to really big companies. Leveraging Dan’s agency capabilities and knowledge of private label product development, our third partner Kevin Seeker’s mobile telecom experience, and my business development skills, we developed a private label cell phone product for the grocery channel. Originally called “M-Shop” shoppers would buy a prepaid phone from their grocery store which would reward them with free airtime, similar to fuel savings programs, while affording them various shopping utilities like mobile coupons and a digital shopping list. We had a term sheet from a tier-1 VC, and 2 weeks later the market crash of 2008 happened. We quickly found ourselves “un-fundable” as the risk profile of backing a prepaid phone company didn’t look too exciting in the midst of the market losing 40% of its value. As evaualted the fate of the company, which was far from profitable as we had just launched in Safeway the month prior, we considered three options:
- Sell the Prepaid business to iWireless, Kroger’s vendor for private label wireless.
- Sell the Prepaid business AND continue operating but do something different that had more sizzle than prepaid.
- Run like hell.
After about five minutes of discussion, we selected option #2. While Dan and Kevin shopped the prepaid business and ultimately sold it to one of our service partners in Boston, I locked myself in the basement of BENSUR for 30 days and tried to re-invent M-Dot.
During the development of our prepaid phone product I learned a few things about Point of Sale systems, the role of middleware in transaction processing, and the retail tech stack. After much thought, I landed on developing a cloud-based transaction engine that connected the Point of Sale to the Cloud to manage and redeem digital coupons.
Long story short, M-Dot went on to become a pioneer in the digital coupon space, having created a novel POS-to-cloud transaction engine to redeem digital paperless coupons. Just 18 months after nearly imploding, M-Dot won the 2010 Amazon AWS Start-up Challenge out of 1,500 companies from 23 countries. 6 months later, we were acquired by Inmar, a leader in retail transaction processing.
Start-Up #3 – OneRail
The Spark: As a consumer, frustrated with how long it takes to have things delivered
The Idea: Build an on-demand Moving & Delivery company – sort of like “Uber for delivery and moving”
The Pivot: Become a Logistics Orchestration Tech Platform enabling muti-channel fulfillment
OneRail was born when the “amazon effect” and the “uber of everything” converged to set my very high customer expectation that ALL things can be delivered “same day”. As a frustrated customer who was trying to have a big and bulky appliance delivered the same day it was purchased, I was miffed that it would take days, not hours, to get my delivery. After a quick search, I found a handful of “on demand” moving and delivery start-ups.
Brand new to the Supply Chain and Logistics industry, I began with deep study, learning all I possibly could about the space. Unlike other on-demand delivery companies in the market, I would leverage my experience working with Point of Sale systems to create a seamless, tech-enabled delivery fulfillment solution, enabling real-time delivery pricing and payment during the checkout process.
My wife, Lisa and I founded On Demand Technologies, Inc (a/k/a ZAPT – On Demand Moving & Delivery) on January 3, 2018 while sitting at our kitchen table in Clermont, Florida. Part of the exercise in launching ZAPT was to learn the nuances of the industry, unit economics, delivery workflow, logistics management, whether to focus more on moving or delivery, and to decide whether to have a B2B, B2C, or combined strategy.
Prior to completing our Series Seed investment round with Las Olas Venture Capital, Chicago Ventures, and Alpine Meridian Venture Capital in February 2020, we had raised just over $2 Million in convertible notes from angel investors. As many start-ups do, we turned nickels into dimes and quarters into dollars. Each member of the team worked for equity in lieu of cash salary, there were no exceptions. We didn’t hire a CTO for 18 months as I (not an engineer) built and managed the first iteration of the platform which scaled to $1MM ARR. This allowed us to get mission critical proof points while potentially savings millions of dollars and future dilution for early investors and shareholders.
After building and launching ZAPT in 10 markets, as both a consumer and commercial-facing on-demand moving and delivery platform, we began to focus more on the commercial vertical, having conversations with large retailers and product distributors. Ultimately, these conversations exposed the many pain points that commercial shippers have that we couldn’t possibly solve as ZAPT. Many of our prospects were retailers who launched early pilots and had tested various platforms to manage their delivery fulfillment. They were keenly aware of what worked and what didn’t - they truly shaped us. We listened, but more importantly, we executed.
WHAT WE HEARD: Here’s what we heard while talking to shippers across multiple verticals:
#1 – We have to work with “many” delivery companies, we struggle to receive consistent visibility and tracking, which makes it difficult to run reports or enable a retail-centric customer experience.
#2 – My deliveries are complex, ranging in size from parcel to big and bulky, there isn’t “ONE” network that can support ALL of my needs in every market across the United States, I am forced to work with many delivery companies.
#3 – The process of creating and dispatching a delivery order is very manual, consuming valuable showroom or warehouse time. I need automation so that my employees can focus on selling and operating, not managing delivery companies.
#4 – I want to manage multi-channel fulfillment in one place with one platform. While its great to have a partner for final mile delivery, we also manage “ship from store”, need to track buy online pick-up at store (BOPIS) orders, and sometimes need to evaluate whether to deliver from store, or ship LTL from a distribution center (DC).
After over 12 months of operating as an on demand moving and delivery company, and having consumed voice of customer from a wide variety of large commercial shippers and industry leaders, the decision was made to cease being “ZAPT” and to focus 100% on evolving our technology to become the Orchestration platform known as OneRail.
Many people have asked “what is OneRail”. I was on a flight to the west coast and while writing the value proposition for OneRail for the very first time, I found that each of the four bullet points began with “ONE”. Since the founding of the company I have believed that deliveries should run like a financial transaction, with many stakeholder and partners each with varying unit economics would virtually “shake hands” in milliseconds. With that as the mission, the word “Rail” became evident, a term that is frequently used to describe payment rails.
In September of 2019, we brought our advisors, some key investors, and our team together for a 3-day meeting in Orlando, where together we shaped the OneRail brand, created our early operating tenets, and refined our product roadmap with our newly hired CTO, David Daeschler – a gifted technician and businessman.
WHAT WE DID: The development of OneRail was systematically architected to address each known pain point that exists today, with an expanded scope to accommodate BOPIS order tracking.
- Connect to the shipper’s “demand signal” (Point of Sale, eCommerce platform, OMS, ERP) so that we can automate the creation of the delivery order.
- Automate the dispatch of deliveries to one of our connected Logistics Partners (delivery companies), who will then assign the delivery to one of their drivers.
- Achieve “absolute visibility” by requiring our Logistics Partners to send real-time tracking data back to the OneRail Delivery Cloud platform. If a Logistics Partner doesn’t have a Transportation Management System (TMS) or Driver App, we’ll give them OneRail Driver for free.
- Utilize AI to prevent exceptions before they happen. Combine that with a team of Logistics Coordinators at our headquarters in Orlando Florida, to ensure a delightful customer experience through proof of delivery.
- Connect to an additional 75 parcel and LTL carriers to expand the scope from Final Mile delivery to “Multi Channel Fulfillment”, enabling a shipper to only need ONE partner to facilitate and manage all fulfillment – OneRail.
With the closing of our Series Seed we increased the size of the team from 10 to 34, mostly during the lockdown period of the COVID pandemic. We have some of the best engineers I’ve ever worked with and have recruited a well-seasoned team with deep experience in parcel logistics, supply chain management, health care, retail store operations, and retail technology.
The photo below of Jeff Bezos working from his “founding office” during the early days of Amazon, in my opinion, truly captures the entrepreneurial spirit. Imagine the pivots, the changes in scope, the false starts, mistakes, near misses, scale challenges, small failures, flops, and overwhelming successes that lie ahead. Did he know how many chapters he would write? No. He hasn’t put his pen down yet.
The twists and turns of OneRail’s first chapter have been exhilarating and challenging every step of the way. As a founder I’ve learned to invite the complexities, if what we do is easy, it’s highly unlikely that we would be rewarded for the value we create for our clients and stakeholders.