Artificial Intelligence and self-learning systems are finding an entry in every industry. Oddly enough, companies that make daily deliveries and where efficiency is critical appear to be lagging behind. Time for a change.
That’s what Anthony Viaene (pictured right) and Jonathan Carette (pictured left), founders of Dropon, a new software platform for the transportation industry, thought. Dropon helps companies that have to make daily or very frequent deliveries by making them a lot more efficient. With Dropon, companies plan their delivery rounds, drivers are guided along the ideal route in real-time, and recipients are able to track their package up to the minute and up to their front door.
‘The number of deliveries will continue to boom in the coming years. To reduce the pressure on mobility and the environment, we need to save time and reduce the number of miles driven,” says Viaene. The transport software market is still in the hands of the same, large, cumbersome players. Their software is not cloud-based enough and there is rarely any integration with traffic information… Weirdly enough, in the transport sector, there are still many companies that work with Excel and Google Maps to make their planning.”
Dropon is supposed to be more efficient than what’s available on the market, but the idea doesn’t sound new. Which makes sense, because Dropon evolved from the courier company Bubble Post, of which Viaene was one of the co-founders. Bubble Post was a nice success story of three friends starting a business together that turned out to be a hit.
What started as a bike taxi in Ghent, became a parcel service by bike at the request of the local merchants in the city centre. And later also in other Flemish cities, margins are small, so volume is important. The growing volume of parcels to be delivered is accommodated on the outskirts of the city and an in-house IT platform, Dropon’s predecessor, ensures the most efficient routes are mapped out for the cyclists. ‘For our volumes, we needed a large IT platform. What was available on the market was either not sufficiently flexible or unaffordable, so we started developing our own platform. And that was a great success because even today you still don’t see many tools that have the capabilities we offered five years ago.’
Focus on growth
Bubble Post quickly got on bpost’s radar, but the three founders were not keen on a takeover, especially since Bubble Post would completely merge into the bpost ‘brand’. Nevertheless, we always had good contact with bpost,’ says Viaene. In those first years, Bubble Post focused – rightly and successfully – on growth and brand awareness. But also financially the picture has to be right, that’s why CEO and co-founder Benjamin Rieder was replaced by Marc Moriau. ‘Now there was a financial guy who was going to lead the company from a completely different mindset. A good move for the profitability of the company, but not fully in line with the vision and the company culture as the three founders saw it,’ Viaene looks back.
When, five years after its creation and several capital injections later, Bubble Post had grown into a huge company with more than 100 employees and the same amount of vehicles, bpost bought it up in August 2017. In the meantime, Bpost itself had been experimenting with a parcel delivery service in cities, City Logistics, which despite the large investments only led to the acquisition of City Depot. The realization dawned that they did not have the flexibility of a small start-up, and so they could not achieve it on their own.
Anthony stayed on board with his brainchild for about 6 months after the acquisition, but then called it a day. ‘I always had the idea of marketing the software I had developed for Bubble Post. And even though that wasn’t a priority for the shareholders, it was an option in the sales contract we entered into with bpost. After months of negotiations, I founded Dropon with the acquired IP/software in September 2018.’
A new adventure
Viaene wants to repeat the success of Bubble Post with Dropon. ‘I want to grow it possibly by partnering with large providers, but not with the intention of selling it quickly afterwards. I would like to stay with Dropon for many more years and I want to innovate above all.’
Viaene is looking at artificial intelligence and machine learning to optimize predictions. ‘Suppose I repeatedly need to make a delivery to a hospital, not to the main entrance, but to another building on a particular floor, the software can account for that over time. If the software finds four times in a row that I take 3 minutes longer than planned to make a delivery, a self-learning system can take that into account in the future.
‘I have learned a lot from the past six years. It has been a rollercoaster of ups and downs, but most of all I have learned to coach people, to deal with clients. And perhaps most of all I learned to let go. In a fast growing company you have to learn to delegate and trust people, without handing over everything. Trust is important, but so is keeping control.’