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February 8, 2022

Flexport owns no trains, planes or ships of its own. But as one of the fastest-growing players in a space called digital freight forwarding, Petersen’s eight-year-old company is already the world’s seventh-biggest buyer of cargo room on such trans-Pacific routes. Pretty much any Asia-bound ship will have at least a container or two filled with California almonds or auto parts put there by Flexport’s software.

Backed by some of Silicon Valley’s most prominent VCs and tech billionaires, including Peter Thiel’s Founders Fund, Yuri Milner and Masayoshi Son, Flexport was founded in 2013 to automate paper customs forms. It now does much more, helping customers like Georgia-Pacific (Brawny paper towels, Angel Soft toilet paper), plumbing fixtures maker Gerber and speaker maker Sonos handle all the headaches of shipping inventory from factory to warehouse to store. Flexport’s software analyzes and optimizes a customer’s supply chain, then automates it, often coming up with ways to shave days off delivery and save customers millions in late fees. Flexport’s centralized tracking and messaging cut out thousands of emails, saving clients an average of four work hours per week. For a price, Flexport will even offset their carbon footprint.

Shipping is a huge pond. Global spending on logistics reached $9 trillion in 2020, about 11% of the world’s gross domestic product, according to consultancy Armstrong & Associates. Third-party logistics, of which freight forwarding is a big part, amounts to nearly $1 trillion. In the U.S., it’s a $230 billion business, good for 1.1% of national GDP. Demand is at a record high—global trade volumes rose 8.3% in 2021, according to Allianz subsidiary Euler Hermes. Americans spent 20% more on goods last fall than in February 2020.

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