Uber and Lyft, the California startups that made app-enabled transportation a global industry, are racing each other to an initial public offering.
But in the decade since Uber was founded, we’ve also seen a demolition derby of other startups that tried to compete, or build variations, like “Uber for valet parking” or “Uber for kids.”
Remember Luxe, which let you use your smartphone to summon a valet parker who would whisk your car to a garage? Fasten launched an Uber-like service in Boston that promised to better compensate drivers — while offering discounts to lure riders. Sheprd, which focused on providing safe rides for kids, abruptly went out of business in October. Another kid-focused service, Zemcar, stopped facilitating rides in January, but has a new plan to sell some of the in-car monitoring tech it developed to other companies, CEO Juliette Kayyem says.
“Call it a pivot,” she says. The company raised about $2 million from investors, but “it’s hard to get to scale without $20 million.”
But while Zemcar and Sheprd couldn’t figure out how to get enough parents to entrust them with their offspring, two Boston-area companies that are raising money and gaining momentum are taking a totally different tack: hoping that builders will rely on them to get a truck full of construction materials to the job site.
Yes, Uber for dump trucks.
Trux, of Waltham, and HaulHub, of Boston, both got started in 2015. Trux has so far raised about $20 million from investors, while HaulHub raised a funding round in the single-digit millions in October, CEO Joe Spinelli says. Trux is more than twice as large as HaulHub in terms of employees, with about 60.
Trux was founded in early 2015 by Richard Saccone. He was joined later in the year by his cousin, Michael Saccone. Both men are in their twenties.
“They both grew up in the construction industry in Boston, and Rich was involved with insuring dump trucks after college,” says Trux CEO Jeff Gower. The pair had noticed how “analog and archaic” it was for a builder to get a dump truck full of material to a project, Gower says. He’d worked early in his career as a project engineer for Turner Construction.
Gower explains the business this way: Drivers or haulers are looking for more jobs, to take advantage of both their time and the equipment they own. Material producers, who supply materials such as sand and asphalt, need haulers to get their product to the customers. And customers want to perfectly time the arrival of the material — rather than stopping work to wait for it to arrive.
And unlike your $9 Lyft trip from the South End to the Seaport, there’s about $120 in gross revenue involved in each dump truck trip, explains Ben Schlesinger, Trux’s head of strategy and business development. Trux takes a percentage of that amount, but it also charges a monthly licensing fee to the contractors and material producers that want to use its software to help manage their own fleets of trucks as well as have access to independent haulers when they need them.
Schlesinger says “there are obvious parallels” between what Trux is doing and what Uber and Lyft do, “but they stop pretty quickly when you’re talking about selling to businesses versus selling to consumers. I think that Uber and Lyft have been getting the lobsters in the pot and getting ready to boil them. They’ve been at war with each other, massively investing in customer acquisition and driver acquisition.” Both of those things require a massive marketing budget.
For Trux, he says, attracting drivers and customers “doesn’t have quite the same kind of expense. You’re able to more narrowly target. That said, there’s a much smaller addressable market.”
Today, the company is active in 11 states, and Gower says the plan is to be in 21 by the end of the year.
HaulHub, by contrast, works mainly in Eastern Massachusetts, the northern part of Rhode Island, and Southern New Hampshire. Like Trux’s, its business model doesn’t rely solely on taking a cut from each trip — it also licenses software to help streamline interactions between material producers, haulers, and builders.
“The majority of our business,” Spinelli says, “is facilitating relationships that already exist” between those parties — making them more digital and making the trucks themselves trackable, just as Uber does with cars.
Spinellli says he didn’t start HaulHub for “the glitz and fame of starting a tech company.” But as one of the executives at R. Bates & Sons Construction in Sterling, “I needed it for my company.”
He initially created a simple database of all the haulers the company worked with, along with their mobile phone numbers. “We’d send out a text that said, ‘Respond with yes if you want the work,’” he says. “I knew we had something when guys would respond yes inside of a minute. It was crazy.”
Uber and Lyft have grown so quickly — and raised so much money — that entrepreneurs often refer to them as poster children for building a big marketplace business that fluidly connects buyers with sellers. (In the case of Uber and Lyft, riders and drivers.)
“It’s a cliché, to some degree,” says Eric Paley, a partner at the Cambridge venture capital firm Founder Collective. But every company encounters its own challenges and will succeed or fail “based on the structural economics of the space, and good or bad execution.”
While Uber and Lyft may engineer successful public offerings, it’s important to note that both are still losing money. (Based on the revenue data in Lyft’s IPO paperwork, the company lost, on average, about $1.50 on every trip last year.) How does that equation change? Maybe these businesses work only when they push humans out of the picture, and operate autonomous vehicles.
So while it’s hard to survive and grow in the transportation-on-demand sector, it has proven even harder to turn a profit.Scott Kirsner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.