As veterans of the Silicon Valley tech scene, Jerry and Gayle Robertson have seen plenty of products and services developed for specific industries by people who knew nothing about the sectors they were supposed to be helping.
The husband and wife team wanted to avoid that mistake when developing a fleet management system for trucking firms. So, in addition to the usual steps of researching the industry and talking to shippers, fleet operators and drivers, they took on one other task that proved as effective as it was unusual and complex.
They started – and ran – a trucking company.
And it wasn’t just an exercise in passive ownership, management and observation. Their hands were on the wheel – literally. Jerry got his commercial driver’s license, and he and Gayle went on the road. To make sure they were getting a full picture of how the trucking industry operates today, they didn’t stick to one type of operation. They owned trucks and leased others. They worked with owner-operators as well as their own vehicles. They operated in multiple states, to get a sense of the complexity and variability in regulation. They handled both full-truckload and less-than-truckload freight.
The insights gained from their experience as fleet operators themselves are built into the fleet-management software they built, the BOLT System, and the Nashville-based company behind it.
BOLT – an acronym for Best OnLine Tracking – handles everything from GPS data generated from on-board computers to images of proof-of-delivery documents and photographs of damage, and helps organize information in more than 50 standardized reports the customer can choose from. The fleet manager can concentrate on managing the company, using the analytics provided in BOLT to figure out if a particular route makes or costs them money and to check metrics on driver performance. The BOLT system, meanwhile, automatically handles such chores as routine dispatching, maintenance schedules and fuel tax computations and reporting.
The system is also designed to share information up and down the supply chain with real time integration to Corporate ERP systems making it work more effectively and efficiently. Drivers can check in for load opportunities. Shippers can check in on the status and location of their cargo. Private carriers and dedicated fleets can cut the number of miles running empty, and provide more useful information to their customer service representatives.
“It’s feature rich for large companies and affordable for smaller companies,” Jerry says.
And it’s a system that customers like. It was designed especially for private fleets, blended fleets and for hire carriers.
What customers get out of it, the Robertsons believe, is increased efficiency, leading to more competitive bids with higher margins and increased revenues with for-hire fleets and reduced costs for private fleets.
The Robertsons didn’t embark on their project as complete newcomers. Jerry Robertson was a vice president at business-services software giant Oracle before starting BOLT, and before that was president and CEO of a company that produced planning software for supply-chain management. While at Oracle he had worked with Amazon as a client, thus gaining some inside perspective on how the online retailer’s distribution system worked.
That got him thinking about all the issues involved in how freight gets from one place to another, from producer to distributor to customer, and what might make that process easier for all involved.
The market need, the Robertsons believed, was that companies didn’t have an easy-to-use, affordable and comprehensive system – a figurative dashboard – for collecting information, managing and monitoring freight and drivers, assessing costs and freight charges, lining up freight, navigating state-by-state regulation, all in one place. With a tidal wave of data threatening to swamp fleet managers thanks to the interconnected Internet of Things, companies also need systems to organize and find useful information from it.
Some smaller operations still manage their business with spreadsheets. “Small and mid-size carriers have found BOLT to be a very good cash management tool,” Gayle says, because it covers the full gamut of revenues and expenses, including some elements customers might not have thought of.
Gayle’s background is in high tech executive sales, having worked as a consultant and for companies like IBM. “I told Jerry, ‘if you build it, I can sell it,’” she recalls.
To build it, though, required a big move and a lot of work. They relocated their company from California to Tennessee, for family reasons (Jerry is from the Volunteer State) and because they preferred the latter state’s business climate. They figured they didn’t need to be in the Silicon Valley venture capital vortex, since they planned to do their startup without VC money or interference.
Next up was their project in learning the trucking business from the pavement up. What they got was a real appreciation for how complicated a business it is. “It was no problem getting the freight to haul,” Jerry says, but as Gayle adds, “It looks real simple from the outside. It showed us that our software had to handle all the complexities.”
For four years they concentrated on the business and used daily experience to build the software. They relied on earnings from their trucking company, their Internet service provider business, and the nest eggs they compiled while working in Silicon Valley. “We wanted to know how this business works,” Jerry says. “It was a great education.”
With those lessons and having completed the initial development effort, they began marketing the BOLT System in 2004; the trucking company was sold in 2006.
Another attraction of BOLT is that it’s cloud-based, meaning a customer doesn’t need to buy, host and operate a rack of servers to get the same level of detailed reporting and analysis that more expensive systems offer. Owning an Internet service provider also gave them valuable experience in running the sort of data networks that make BOLT go. Since BOLT is highly scalable, it can grow as the customer does.
Even though they’re now well-established, they’re not done developing and improving BOLT. They’re working on a version that can be run on handheld mobile devices, providing any place, any time access.
They’re also working with developers of sensors and on-board information systems, which are increasingly becoming standard on trucks, so the information they generate can be seamlessly incorporated into BOLT. And they’re looking at integrating rail transportation into BOLT, so shippers can track their freight for the entire journey even if it switches transportation modes.
Whatever’s next, the Robertsons say it’ll be driven by their own experiences at-the-wheel and on-the-road, and what they’re learning from customers about how they operate and what they need and want to do their jobs better.
“With the flexible architecture of BOLT, we can quickly adapt to changing needs,” Gayle adds.
“Customers like the idea that we have firsthand experience with trucking. When they tell us about a challenge they’re facing, we can tell them we’ve been there – because we have. We can speak their language.”