Entrepreneurial life is a journey where you are expected to be as malleable as gold or as resilient as a tardigrade.
Amazon and its eccentric founder Jeff Bezos are the best example. Whether it’s the resilience of Amazon or the malleability seen in the behaviour of Bezos and his colleagues, these traits form the backbone of Amazon’s rise from a startup to tech behemoth.
Closer to home, Rob van den Heuvel, Bas Smeulders, and Sabi Tolou, the co-founders of Sendcloud, exhibit the same resilience and malleability that made Amazon great in the first place.
Today, when we order something online and get it delivered the same day or the next day, the gravity of the challenge associated with shipping doesn’t necessarily dawn on us.
But Van den Heuvel, Smeulders, and Tolou saw this challenge decades ago and their quest to fix the struggle with shipping became Sendcloud.
The origin of Sendcloud is as unique as it can get in the world of startups. In 2012, the three co-founders ran an online store that sold phone accessories.
This was the peak of the smartphone era where new devices were hitting the shelves with incredible gains in terms of performance and imaging prowess, and for Van den Heuvel, Smeulders, and Tolou, the business was growing and things were great.
However, they also struggled with shipping, which as Van den Heuvel calls it, was both “time-consuming and expensive.”
Instead of looking for a solution elsewhere, the co-founders came up with the solution themselves and it took shape as Sendcloud.
Today, the startup serves over 25,000 online stores worldwide with the singular focus on solving shipping globally but its roots are set in that online store that struggled with shipping initially.
“When we started Sendcloud 10 years ago, we were in our early twenties and only just finished school,” says Van den Heuvel, CEO and co-founder of Sendcloud.
He adds, “While we had our own online store and knew what online retailers were up against in terms of shipping, we had no other technical background or experience building a business.”
This meant that the co-founders of Sendcloud had to invent everything themselves, from cold-calling to negotiating contracts.
Van den Heuvel says their biggest learning along the way was that their can-do mindset can be part of their success. They became fearless and dared to make decisions.
“You will learn more about your strategy and business while doing it rather than planning it,” he explains.
Shipping is complex
Shipping is complex. For a layman, it is easier to understand how complex the task of shipping something is by simply sending over something across borders or towns.
When it comes to e-commerce platforms, the task of shipping becomes even more complex due to the gargantuan nature of the network involved.
Van den Heuvel tells me that shipping costs are the biggest expense for e-commerce businesses after costs of goods and staff.
Not helping matters is the fact that consumers are becoming increasingly demanding and expect to be in a position to decide when, where, and how they want to receive their order.
“Not only do merchants experience shipping as highly complex and time-consuming, but as a result they also find themselves in an environment that is highly competitive,” Van den Heuvel explains.
As a result, consumers don’t reorder if they experience any shipping complaints along the way. In other words, shipping is the binding factor on which the return of customers to the e-commerce platform depends.
Sendcloud and its three co-founders saw this as an opportunity to fill the gap and also provide merchants with a shipping experience “that is typically only reserved for the top 10 retailers in the market.”
It wouldn’t be far-fetched to say that Sendcloud is trying to democratise the idea of flexible and simplified shipping for merchants around the globe.
It does this by optimising the full shipping journey, right from checkout to returns.
Van den Heuvel is quick to point out that the platform is designed to “enable retailers, marketplaces, and fulfilment companies to scale their shipping operations and deliver exceptional shipping experiences.”
He says the mission of Sendcloud is to solve shipping globally and enable merchants to thrive in the rapidly evolving e-commerce landscape.
While the platform is designed with merchants in mind, it supports both merchants and carriers to close the gap between the desires of end consumers when it comes to shipping.
As a unified platform connecting both merchants and carriers, Sendcloud allows carriers to spend less time negotiating with smaller merchants while also offering a centralised point of contact for customer support that reduces financial risk.
At the time of writing, Sendcloud has connected over 50 integrations and over 100 carriers that allows merchants to easily offer the desired delivery methods in their online stores.
“Sendcloud offers merchants access to over 5,000 shipping options, ranging from domestic to international shipping as well as everything from parcel locker to express delivery,” adds Van den Heuvel explaining the technical complexity.
Digitisation and webshops
Even though the pandemic is in the rear view mirror now, Van den Heuvel witnessed the changes first hand when consumers were forced to shop online.
He acknowledges that the pain points in shipping became evident during the pandemic, where merchants witnessed a tremendous growth in parcel volumes, increased delivery demands, and merchants witnessing their dependence on carriers firsthand.
“The need for a shipping solution therefore became predominant thought,” he adds.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that Sendcloud saw an increase in its customer base during the pandemic and its customer base is still growing.
He says the e-commerce growth has now returned to its normal trendline since physical shops have opened but the digitisation of online shopping has taken a leap forward.
In Italy, which was not known for e-commerce adoption, online commerce established a strong foothold during the pandemic.
What’s happening right now? Van den Heuvel says after scaling online commerce, merchants are now looking at long-term solutions to optimise their process including shipping.
AWS, AI and Automation
As an end-to-end shipping solution for e-commerce businesses of all sizes, technical infrastructure was an important prerequisite for growth as a SaaS company.
Initially, Van den Heuvel confirmed they operated with only one machine at a hosting company. But throughout 2016, they switched to the cloud environment from Amazon Web Services (AWS).
“The main reason back then was that AWS was the most mature cloud player at the time with the largest feature set and 100,000 free cloud services,” he says.
Another reason Sendcloud chose AWS was the unlimited potential to scale the platform alongside the cloud platform.
Since switching to AWS, Sendcloud has grown to over 25,000 customers and Van den Heuvel says the cloud solution has kept pace with that growth.
“Scalability and stability of the solution have proven to be critical in this regard,” he says, speaking about the reliability of AWS.
Another area where AWS could help Sendcloud is with their ambition to infuse generative AI in their application.
“Sendcloud is all about automation,” says its co-founder and is applying GenAI in the generation of customs documentation.
“We want to make the merchant’s life as easy as possible by simplifying shipping,” says Van den Heuvel.
With AI recommendations powered by AWS, he believes Sendcloud will be able to help merchants choose the right delivery method depending on factors such as “region, parcel size, shipping lead time, or even historical carrier performance.”
However, they envision AI being able to proactively help solve parcel issues. With the acquisition of Tracey, Sendcloud will be able to “proactively manage customer expectations fit perfectly in this vision and are therefore a good addition to our existing platform.”
In addition to automating shipping for its merchants, Sendcloud is also using an AI-driven chatbot to respond more promptly while encouraging use of tools similar to AWS solutions in other applications.
One billion parcels
Apart from its unique start, Sendcloud also stands out as one of only three startups in the Netherlands to have received funding from SoftBank.
Van den Heuvel says being funded by SoftBank has helped them but says personal connection with the investor was a prerequisite.
He explains, “In addition to the growth capital itself, we have always looked at what knowledge and added value investors could add to accelerate our growth.”
In SoftBank, Sendcloud has found not only an experienced investor but also a partner believing in their long-term vision, which the co-founders believe has proven valuable in recent months.
As a fast growing scaleup, it baffles me that Sendcloud’s last funding round, a Series C round with participation from SoftBank Vision Fund, was more than two years ago.
When asked about it, Van den Heuvel candidly admits the shift from fast growth to sustainable growth.
He says they raised enough capital to overcome setbacks and have become more efficient based on the changing market conditions.
This honesty and sincerity is uncommon and comes from a deep understanding of the current tech investment landscape, where investors are prioritising profitability over growth.
“By aiming for cost efficiency, we are on the path to profitability by the end of the year,” says Van den Heuvel.
Amidst this focus on profitability, Sendcloud is not moving away from its goal of solving shipping globally and doing so in a sustainable manner.
The startup’s primary focus currently is Europe, given its highly fragmented shipping landscape, but this allows them to learn, adapt and scale the product for the world.
Van den Heuvel says sustainable shipping goes beyond delivery by bicycle courier and sees a clear opportunity to make it possible by leveraging shipping data on the highest level.
“As a shipping platform, we have the data in hand to help merchants make not only
cost-effective but also sustainable choices,” he explains.
The Eindhoven-based startup is currently hiring for roles across engineering, product, marketing, sales, and customer support across various markets, to make this sustainable shipping possible.
From its humble start as a shop for phone accessories to transformation as a solver of shipping challenges for merchants, Sendcloud is all about adaptability.
With a goal of processing one billion parcels annually on its platform by 2025, the startup is once again adapting itself to an evolving e-commerce and quick commerce market.
However, that audacious goal comes with the realisation that such large shipping volumes, which Van den Heuvel refers to as flywheel, will lead to a larger pool of data.
Sendcloud aims to use AI and algorithms to learn from that data, enhance the efficiency and experience of shipping for its customers.
While Sendcloud gets down to work on making sustainable shipping possible, it is imperative that we as shoppers make logical choices about shipping.