Challenging the Status Quo in Shipping
From 0 to 2,000 registered vessels, sales compensation, AI tools for PMs, zero-knowledge proofs, jobs, events, and more
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Challenging the Status Quo in Shipping
The following is a conversation with Antonis Malaxianakis, founder & CEO of Harbor Lab, a platform that helps shipping companies efficiently manage port expenses, a $130bn industry. They have over 2,000 vessels registered and some of the largest shipping companies as customers. With Antoni, we discussed:
How he left the family business to fulfil his childhood dreams
Bringing automation and transparency into port expenses and operations
Why traditional industries with low tech penetration offer tremendous opportunities for startups
From scrappy and founder-led to building a proper sales engine
The emotional rollercoaster of a first-time founder
Let's jump right into it.
Antoni, great to chat today. You've built a platform that automates a very frustrating process for shipping and is already used by thousands of vessels. But before we get to that, I'd love to start with your story. How did you get into shipping?
AM: Thanks, Alex! I've been a fan of your newsletter well before Harbor Lab started, so it's fantastic to be here. It's pretty crazy how I got into shipping. I grew up in a family business selling luxury goods, primarily outdoor furniture, and became the CEO in 2005 when my dad passed away — I was 18 years old then. In the following years, the Greek economy saw some of its best and worst days; hence, I had tons of lessons learned. In 2013, we decided to pass the torch to my sisters, which gave me space to follow my dreams.
As a kid, I always found shipping fascinating and dreamed of becoming a shipowner. Greece has a long tradition, with 20-25% of the global fleet owned by Greek shipowners. That's remarkable for a country of 10 million. We used to read the stories of Onasis and Niarchos with my mum instead of children's classics. In 2013, I applied to hundreds of job openings in shipping unsuccessfully. I come from a statistics background with 0 expertise in shipping. As fortune had it, a few months later, a lady walked into our store to buy furniture. While filling out the purchase order, I realised she was from one of the largest shipping families in Greece, Martinos. I farewelled and handed my curriculum vitae to her!
After a long interview process, I was hired as an intern at one of the family's businesses to work on disbursements, which is the area I have focused on ever since. Disbursements are all expenses vessels make in a port. Think port dues, loading and discharging costs, tugs, provisions, crew transportation, etc. It can get extremely complex with some of them, such as docking fees. Imagine a parking garage with different pricing policies per floor, slot, and number of car passengers. Absolute madness. Even worse, policies can often be found in 200, 300-page documents written in the local language.
I still remember desks full of stacks of invoices with port expenses that I had to cross-check manually, one by one. I have probably done this for 20,000+ invoices in my career and then managed teams that did the same checks. There had to be a better way to do this. That's why I started Harbor Lab.
You started Harbor Lab to automate this arduous process so that nobody has to go through thousands of port expenses one by one again.
AM: Pretty much. We have created a platform that helps shipping companies manage their disbursements in almost every port, terminal, and berth worldwide. We gather the appropriate data and develop algorithms that perform relevant calculations automatically — and there's a lot of work behind this done by our port analysts team. The efficiency is so significant for shipping companies that they now demand port agents to submit all disbursements through Harbor Lab. We cross-check and highlight discrepancies to help vessel operators approve expenses in minutes. There used to be one vessel operator assigned to ten vessels for this task, whereas now it's one per fifty vessels. We started with disbursement automation, but our vision has been much bolder since the beginning, and we are now expanding our solution to connect buyers, agents, and vendors in the first port operations marketplace.
Why do you think this wasn't done before? I mean, it sounds like there should have been a pressing need to automate this for years, right?
AM: In my previous jobs, I had to develop basic solutions internally to automate parts of this process. The only vendors I could find were managed service companies with armies of human operators doing tasks manually, and, on top of that, we soon realised they had a 30% error rate.
Overall, shipping is a traditional industry. I still remember colleagues using typewriters a decade ago, and we often see employees in customers' offices who dictate emails to personal assistants. It all makes sense if you think many of them previously spent decades in the sea. They are very experienced in that aspect but not tech-savvy. This contrasts with new generations, who opt to automate most activities via technology. In that regard, I see tremendous opportunities for startups to enter traditional industries where technology adoption was low until recently and revolutionise how things are done.
I want to return to the bolder vision you mentioned and building the first marketplace for port operations.
AM: I alluded to that earlier, but here's how we see the future. We want to make it easy and fast for shipping companies to connect with all suppliers directly in every port of the world. There is an old saying in shipping, "Commission is our mission". There are often numerous intermediaries for each transaction — agents who employ other agents who employ sub-agents that eventually pass the request to the local port supplier. There are commissions in every step. With Harbor Lab, we are building a marketplace that brings directly in touch customers with suppliers, from crew transportation and food supplies to fuel, vessel cleaning service, and much more, removing all those intermediaries (who were mainly just routing requests) and cutting unnecessary costs that incur to the shipping companies eventually.
How did you kickstart things and address the "chicken and egg" problem that marketplaces typically face?
AM: We started with shipping companies as we already had served them as clients for the automated disbursement solution. While shipping companies were requesting port agents to register with Harbor Lab to submit disbursements, many did KYC with us and became our users. Demand drove supply, and we reached over 4,000 registered agents last year. Covering earlier parts of the value chain, where there's also more value to be captured, happened naturally since customers also requested us to surface all possible options and price points for every supply category. The demand was so strong that 20% of our revenue came from the marketplace vs. disbursements automation in the first month after launch.
It would be interesting to share how you got your first customers and then scaled to 2,000 vessels.
AM: We registered 200 vessels from 7 shipping companies in year 1 (2020). That's when I quit my previous job and decided to go full speed, raising an angel round from my two previous employers. Business development was pretty much me cold-calling CEOs of shipping companies. Many were intrigued, and I had enough yeses and interest to believe this could work. At such an early stage, founders must communicate their vision and instil this in the minds of potential customers. Every startup needs time to get to where they envision, and most customers eventually bought our dream as we only had a basic proof of concept back then. Our key message has been that for every $1 a shipping company spends at Harbor Lab, we save them $15, which strikes a chord with every company that aims to operate efficiently.
Being a salesman at heart (running a family business makes you stronger at sales), I led sales from day one to almost a few months ago, reaching 2,000 vessels. Delegating this has been a personal challenge over the years, but you soon realise solo founders running sales is unscalable in the long term. There are many lessons learned here about disengaging and letting go, which I bet many founders battle with. Last year, I was away from home for 220 days even though my wife was pregnant.
We recently built a team led by our CRO, who joined us from Shell, and business developers worldwide, and Harbor Lab now has a stronger pipeline of customers than ever. We have sales and marketing in Greece, Denmark, Germany, and Singapore, with people split across pre-sales, sales, onboarding, and customer success activities — what people call a sales bow-tie model. Raising a €6.1m Seed round from some very prominent European investors also helped fuel this.
What are the next steps for Harbor Lab?
AM: We recently acquired a company in the UK with vast amounts of vessel logs from port operations. That will enable us to further increase automation in the disbursement process, and we believe in the following months, we could have a solution where 0 human approval is needed. We have a very ambitious roadmap ahead of us — ramping up for a Series A this year — and we plan to scale our team, so check out here for job openings.
The market of port expenses is $130bn annually, and we aim to capture as much of it as possible, but the road ahead is long and bumpy. There is this meme that in startups, one day, you think you're going out of business, and the next day, you're pretty sure you will IPO next year. Especially for me, as a solo and first-time founder, the whole journey has been an emotional rollercoaster. It requires self-confidence, patience, strong guts, and a "refuse to lose" mentality, which we try to cultivate within our team. Ultimately, it's the founder's responsibility to build a team that shares these traits as guiding principles.
Thank you, Antoni.
AM: It was a pleasure.
Check out 517 job opportunities here from startups hiring in Greece.
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If you’re in Athens, join us at “Open Coffee Athens #116” on Feb 9
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“API Athens #B1” by API Athens on Feb 8
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“GenAI Summit 2024” on Feb 29 - Mar 2
That’s all for this week. Tap the heart ❤️ below if you liked this piece — it helps me understand which themes you like best and what I should do more.
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