Digital Payments and Logistics with Shawn Vo of Denim
In logistics people commonly have two questions, where is my shipment and where is my money? In this episode, Shawn Vo Co-founder and CTO of Denim joined us to talk about advancements and innovations on the payments side of the equation.
Payments & Fintech Insights In This Episode
- Why the logistics industry has long been neglected by advancing technology.
- The power of invoice factoring when it’s done with the user experience in mind.
- How to maximize impact on underserved areas.
- How to enable smaller players to compete in a marketplace dominated by larger companies.
- And so much more!
Featured on the Show
- Connect with Shawn Vo: LinkedIn | Twitter
- Connect with Denim: LinkedIn | Twitter
- Connect with the Show: LinkedIn | Facebook | Twitter
- Subscribe to the Show: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts | Show Hub
Heather: Hi, everyone. Welcome to “PayPod.” I’m your host, Heather Bodie, and today, we are going to be talking about digital payments and logistics, specifically focused on freight brokers. We’ve got Shawn Vo with us today, co-founder and CTO of Denim, a company focused on helping freight brokers grow faster by automating their back office and providing fast and affordable working capital. Shawn, welcome to the show.
Shawn: Thank you for having me, Heather.
Heather: Absolutely. So, start us off, tell us a little bit about you. Who are we talking to today? How did you get into FinTech, and what brought you to where you are today with Denim?
Shawn: Totally. So, my background has always been in the intersection of financing technology. So, after graduating college, I went and worked for an investment bank in New York, realized that I didn’t love traditional finance, so I moved to California where I started working for an insurance technology company that was building software for farmers.
And that was really eye-opening for me. I was like, “Hey, there’s this whole industry of people that you don’t really think about building software for, much less FinTech products.” And it ended up being a really big success. The company got acquired for a billion dollars, and at that point, I had the entrepreneurial bug, I want to do it myself. And when I talked to my co-founder about it, who we’ve been best friends since high school, we decided to just quit our jobs, start a company. I wanted to leverage my background in FinTech, and we started looking at massive industries in America that we felt like were underserved, and logistics was at the very top of the list.
Heather: What would you attribute that to? Why was logistics at the very top of that list?
Shawn: So, around the time when we started the company, we saw a lot of investments coming into Uber, and Lyft, and Bird, and you see all of these passenger transportation companies getting funded, and it resonates well with consumers. You’re like, “Hey, if this experience is horrible, let’s build a company to fix it.”
But not a lot of people talked about moving freight. Everyone talked about moving people, and I think at that time, it was just easier for people to conceptualize. But as we dug into the percentage of goods that are moved by trucks, it was just huge. And we realized that it was similar to my previous experience of working in agriculture where you don’t really think about it, but it is so foundational to our economy. And there wasn’t enough people working in that area, so we decided to dive in.
Heather: I love it. We talk on this podcast all the time about the fact that payments are central to everyday, you know, where all of us are transacting in some way. And I feel like what a beautiful intersection of both payments and logistics because they really are the two things that make our every single day go around. So, it’s fascinating.
Heather: I love that. How is it being in business with your best friend?
Shawn: I wouldn’t trade it for anything else. I think there is something around starting a business that requires a high degree of trust between the people who are working together. And I mean that in trust, as in, do they have your best interests in mind, but also, do you trust them to do the things that they’ll say they’ll do, and do you trust that they are highly competent at what they do?
And I think that when you start a business with your best friend, that is basically a given. You know, it’s like you have that trust in place, and then you can just really focus on the business. And I think it makes it really fun too because starting a company can sometimes be a lonely experience. I remember when we were first getting off the ground, we would just not go to any social events. We were turning down weddings and things like that. And partly because we wanted to focus on the business, but the other part was we didn’t have any money for travel or going out. So, we just really wanted to focus. And when you do it with your best friend, it just gets way less lonelier.
Heather: I heard you say you didn’t have the money to go out or you’re skipping out on weddings, and it feels like a natural transition to the fact that the 15th of September, I read an article that Denim announced a $126 million fundraise in your series B round. Talk to me about that. How are you feeling?
Shawn: I feel great. Yeah. So, now we can go to weddings. Now I might be able to have my own wedding too. But I think it’s really exciting. We quadrupled our revenue. This year, we are doing about $250 million in total payments volume. The team has grown quite significantly. It used to be me and my co-founder for the first year, then we had about 20 people in our second year, and now this year, we have over 100 employees. So, it’s been really phenomenal.
Heather: Walk me through the experience as, let’s say I myself am a logistics company or I’m a freight company, freight broker, what does Denim do to ease my processes? Walk me through that experience.
Shawn: Yeah. So, the only thing you need to know about the logistics space is that there’s always two questions people ask, where’s my shipment, and where’s my money? So, we are really focused on that second piece, of where’s my money? And when you look at this space, it’s crazy that these shipping companies and freight brokerages can move goods so quickly where it’s like if you order something from Amazon, it gets to your house in 24 hours or 48 hours, but the payment side of the house is very outdated. It takes people about 30 to 45 days to send money.
There’s a lot of reasons for that. You know, the data flow is bad. They’re still sending money via checks that takes two weeks in the mail. It’s really hard to reconcile everything. So, what we’re really trying to focus on is how do we move the flow of data and money to facilitate a much more efficient supply chain.
So, as a broker, what they do is they’re responsible for connecting shipping companies to trucking companies. They’re kind of the middleman there. So, their payment processes include two fronts. One is that they need to collect money from the shipper. The second front is they need to pay the carrier. And today, carriers need to get paid quickly.
So, if you think about a truck, you have a lot of expenses you need to pay for. You need to pay for fuel, you need to pay for insurance, the cost of being on the road and delivering this load. So, if you’re not getting your funds quickly, you’re unable to move more shipments. So, as a broker, they use Denim to help collect money from their shippers and pay their carriers. And because we’re managing this whole process, we can also fund these shipments. So, we provide financing services to make sure that these carriers will get paid even before the shipper pays the broker.
Heather: Wow. That, to me, feels like the diamond in all of it, right? That’s incredibly unique, to be able to finance and to provide them with that working capital. What is that from a regulatory standpoint and what does that look like for the company? Sort of, in that way, it feels like you’re both a tech company, and, in some ways, in banking, right?
Shawn: Yeah, a little bit. So, the specific transaction is called invoice factoring. And this isn’t new, you know, we didn’t invent this. There’s a lot of invoice factoring companies out there, especially in the logistics space. The regulation on invoice factoring is a little bit lighter than traditional consumer lending or anything like that because, one, it’s B2B, so it’s more…we only focus on companies, not individuals.
And the other piece is that it’s technically a sale of an asset. So, they’re selling us their accounts receivable rather than us lending them money. So, there’s a lot less regulation because of that. But what is interesting about invoice factoring is that if you look it up, you’ll notice that the incumbent players have really bad reviews online. It gets compared to, hey, like is this, they take very high fees, they pay out really slowly, the user experience is really bad?
And when we started thinking about what kind of services we should be providing to this market, we looked at a couple of different factors, and one of which is where do we feel like people are underserved. And because these reviews were so bad, because we felt like they weren’t leveraging any technology to make it more efficient, we felt like that was a good place for Denim to innovate. And that’s essentially what we did.
Heather: In the process of disrupting any sort of space, but I think specifically in one, like you said, you picked, like, the number one underserved functioning on extreme legacy systems. Have you received any pushback? What has the response been from freight brokers?
Shawn: So, that is actually something that I’m super proud of. When people think about, like, you’ve built really cool technology, or you’ve, like, hired a really big team, one of the things that I’m really proud of is that if you look at our reviews online, or if you look at any of our net promoter score surveys, we rank very, very high.
You know, we have about a 70 NPS, which rivals the ranks of, like, Costco, and Starbucks, and Apple compared to 44 or something that is more traditional in financial services. And then if you look at our reviews online, it’s basically all five-star reviews. So, I’m really happy that we built a really great product. I’m really happy that we deliver really good service, and that’s kind of the area that we’re going to continue to innovate on.
Heather: Speaking of innovation and the role that tech plays in sort of easing and creating more efficiency in our lives, I’ve always wondered, and you mentioned early on in our conversation the presence of Uber, and Lyft, and Bird, and things like that, have you been a part of any conversations in the tech space about creating or innovating a tool like that for the logistics industry to connect the people who are moving the stuff directly to the people who are driving the trucks? Or does it feel essential that the industry hold on to that middleman, that is the client that Denim works with?
Shawn: Yeah. So, there are tools out there. In particular, you mentioned Uber. Uber Freight is a real business, you know, where they are connecting shippers directly to carrier companies, and they offer some similar tools that we offer for paying out carriers. So, in the industry, it’s called Quickpay, which is the ability for the carrier to get paid quickly.
Where we see our offering, if you compare Uber to an Amazon where they are vertically integrating that whole stack, we feel like we are building more of a Shopify type of platform where we enable all of the other sellers, all of the other people who don’t have the engineering resources as Uber Freight or, like, you know, like the big venture capital funding to be able to compete in a more digital marketplace. So, that’s kind of where we see the vision.
I think that the market is just tremendous. It’s huge. So, there’s definitely room for big tech companies, smaller businesses, medium-sized businesses, large businesses. And because freights is actually very, I would say, fragmented, there’s a lot of different types. It’s interesting because moving people, it’s kind of simple. It’s like a person, they need to go from here to here. But with freight, there are things like, what kind of truck do I need? Does it need refrigeration with…?
Heather: Refrigeration. Yes, that’s exactly [crosstalk 00:12:20].
Shawn: …all of these other things. And when you work with shippers and carriers, you need to be able to provide a very customized level of service. So, I think there’ll always be the people there to help facilitate the supply chain.
Heather: Talk to me about Denim’s philosophy on that quality of service. It sounds like it occasionally does need to be bespoke, depending on the logistics or freight broker that you’re working with. How does Denim approach that?
Shawn: So, when we think about what makes our product different from the market, we focus on three value propositions. We want to make Denim the most easy-to-use platform, we wanna make Denim the most flexible, and we want this to be the platform that saves you the most time. In logistics, everyone appreciates time savings. The world is moving really quickly, we have to get things moving really quickly. So, those are the three things that we really focus on.
So, when it comes to ease of use, payments and financing can be pretty tricky, you know, like as you mentioned, there might be regulation, there might be different types of payment methods. You want to take different types of financing, and we wanna make it as easy to use as possible. We don’t have any big contracts, we don’t really do any sort of termination fees. We wanna make things as easy as possible for the user to be able to facilitate payments.
And like we talked about, the freight industry is also fragmented. We need a flexible solution to be able to handle all types of use cases. So, our platform reflects that in the sense that you can submit these loads if you wanna factor them, if you don’t wanna factor them, if you wanna use our money, if you wanna use your own money, we have all of these different ways for you to get the payment out there in addition to integrating with all of your different systems. So, people will use basically different transportation management software to move their loads or to track their loads. And we have integrations with a lot of them out there to make it so that regardless of your customer, regardless of the tools you’re using, you can plug in to this platform.
And the last piece is really time savings. We focus more on time savings than cost savings. We don’t want to be necessarily the lowest cost solution, but we want to be the most valuable solution for you. So, we are able to do that by just automating all of your daily tasks. So, whether that is collections, invoicing, payments, reconciliation, we automate all of that for you. And for some of our clients, we can cut down their back office automation or back office work by like 75%. So, when they adopt us, they can just continue to scale without worrying about hiring a bunch of people to manage their paperwork.
Heather: Incredible. So, what is next on the docket for Denim having secured this really successful round of funding? What’s in the works? What are in the plans that you can let us in on?
Shawn: So, we feel that factoring for freight brokerage, this is basically our starting point. This is like $180 billion market, but at the end of the day, we have these very broad ambitions to become this common thread for the movement of all goods. So, what that means is that we want to get shippers on the platform, we wanna get carriers on the platform, and we want to make it so that the money and the data between all of these parties flow seamlessly.
So, over the next 12 months, we are investing heavily in product, in engineering, and data. We’re building out a bigger partnership network so that we can continue to scale our sales team, and we wanna just keep an eye focused on maintaining our historical growth rates. I think that when you’re a small company, it’s relatively easier to grow faster just because the numbers are smaller. But as we become bigger and bigger, we wanna make sure that we’re continuing to grow at that same rate as we have in the past.
Heather: Someone said to me recently that the most unique part about founders, specifically in the tech space, is that as the company grows, their role quite literally changes, right? In the beginning, you are everything and everyone, and over time, as your company grows and expands and you bring more people onto the team, that definition of what your day-to-day looks like just really, really drastically changes. How has that trajectory been for you, and how do you feel about where your role sits today?
Shawn: Yeah, it’s been quite a shift. I remember when it was just the two of us, I would basically be doing all of the customer service and all of the operations by day, then I would just build the platform code away at night and then in the morning, wake up and do it all over again. And we had this very quick feedback loop of talking to customers, figuring out what they need, building the thing, and continuing to iterate on that.
And then as the team grows, what we found was that we could hire people who can do service and operations much better than I can. In addition, it’s bad for me to be spending so much time just super in the weeds of the code. So, more recently, I’ve been working more on our broader product strategy, figuring out how to make sure that we have the right people in place, building out the leadership team. And that has been a very different type of problem.
The problems I used to solve in the past were more tractable, which means that, like, there seemed to be a good solution. You know, there seemed to be like, “Hey, if I write this piece of code and it works, then I solve this problem.” But the problems that I feel like I’m solving today are more intractable where is this strategy actually the right strategy, or if we hired this person, is that the best hire that we can get? So, it’s about making decisions with more uncertainty, making higher leverage bets. And I think it’s really important to just have a lot of mental clarity when it comes to solving these types of problems.
Heather: Did you ever anticipate that you would miss the days when you were in the weeds with all the coding?
Shawn: I still miss it. I think that that’s…
Heather: I’m sure.
Shawn: That’s one of my biggest weakness, which is sometimes I see some of these…
Heather: You’re like, “Please.”
Shawn: Yeah, just let me build something too.
Heather: Absolutely. Gosh, that really strikes me because I feel like that’s one of the double-edged swords of entrepreneurship, is you get into it because you’re passionate about and good at making the thing. And then if you do it right and you do it well, you end up hiring other people to make the thing. It’s fascinating.
Shawn: I think when we think about our core values, two of the big ones are just curiosity and tenacity. So, for me, I do love coding, I do love building, but I also love learning new things and trying new things. And I feel like this experience has really been that. Before, it was really important for me to understand data structure, and systems design, but now it’s really important for me to think about organizational design and, like, strategy more in terms of the business economics. And it’s always just a constant learning experience. But I think that’s what makes it really fun. That’s why I would never try to find a new job because I feel like my job is just changing every day.
Heather: If we were to look down, like, 10 years down the road, what do you see as far as the evolution around the integration of financial services technology and freight brokerage?
Shawn: When you think about the logistics or transportation space, there’s so much innovation happening. There’s the electrification and self-driving cars, and all of that stuff sounds really cool. I think I would be very proud if, in the next 10 years, we don’t send paper checks anymore. I think that that is still… It’s still crazy that 65% of all payments here are done through checks in the mail.
So, for me, it’s really like how do we catch up our financial services? How do we make sure that we’re leveraging all of these new forms of payment? Today, we think about, oh, you can pay things by credit card, you can pay things by check, you can pay things by ACH transfers. But there’s so many rapidly developing payments technology like push-to-card, or like RTP payments, new things that are more cost-effective, faster, and potentially have more data around it. So, we’re really excited to see that happen. I think that if we can get rid of paper checks and get people paid faster than it takes to deliver the shipment, then we’ve done our jobs.
Heather: Yes. I run a nonprofit organization, and I don’t have business checks anymore. And I write one check a month to our landlord. It always makes me laugh. I go into the bank branch entirely to have one sheet of checks printed a quarter. You know, it’s like, what are we doing? We’re so close.
Shawn: Yeah, we’re so close. And I think there’s some element to it where when you think about that, that is like a problem. But in addition to paper checks, there’s also the idea of paper invoices or paper bills that people have historically… Well, it went from mailing, to faxing, to now we’re emailing, but they aren’t digitally native. You know, it’s like it’s still a piece of paper that you are putting into this email as a PDF and someone on the other end is taking that PDF and typing that into numbers into their system. So, I think when we think about the whole payment flow, if we could be digitally native the whole way through, that will just drive so much more efficiency.
Heather: I like to close out our conversations, I try to anyway, the same on every episode. And I’d like to pose this question to you. What’s the best piece of business advice you’ve ever received, and from whom?
Shawn: Oh, man.
Heather: I know. I know.
Shawn: This is tough. This is tough. Okay. So, my mom and my grandparents came over from America, they were from Vietnam, and they were both very entrepreneurial, but in different ways. You know, my grandpa had a Asian grocery store, my mom opened a nail salon. And I think one of the biggest pieces of advice from my mom is that things are just going to happen.
Everything is always on fire, and you just need to focus on the biggest flames. Everything is always smoldering, just make sure that you focus on the biggest flames. And I think that’s, like, a testament to just, like, make sure that you’re always focusing your time on the most important problems because it’s so easy to get distracted by smolders or embers here and there.
Heather: That’s wonderful. I also feel like sometimes those smolders and those embers are just knowing that everything is on fire. Like, setting your expectation to that being the situation helps you weather the storm.
Heather: If you haven’t set that expectation, then you have the potential trap of questioning all the time, “Am I in the right space? Am I doing the right thing? Is this going well, and as I’d hoped and dreamed that it would be?” And so I really… I appreciate that. I haven’t heard anybody say it quite like that, and I love it.
Heather: Shawn, that does it. Thank you so much for joining us today. If folks wanna get in touch with you or they wanna learn more about Denim, where should they go?
Shawn: Yeah. I’m most active on LinkedIn. So, it’s just linkedin.com, and search for Shawn Vo. I think there’s only one of them. So, you could find me on there. And then we could also go to www.denim.com. So, as you mentioned, we launched our series B recently. We went through a rebrand, and we were fortunate enough to own denim.com now. So hopefully, that’s easy to find.
Heather: Great. Thanks so much for joining us today.
Shawn: Thank you very much.
Heather: If you enjoyed this episode and wanna hear more, head on over to soarpay.com/podcast to subscribe on your podcast-listening platform of choice. That’s S-O-A-R-P-A-Y.com/podcast.
Denim is a financial enablement platform for the logistics industry that offers an ecosystem of intelligent financial products, operations tools, and time-saving automation. Its proprietary technology enables freight brokers to simplify their financing operations and easily access the working capital they need to grow in the competitive, $2 trillion logistics market. Denim automates invoicing, collections, and payments — ultimately reducing daily payments and collections tasks by 75%. A remote-first company, Denim has been named a Best Place To Work by Built In and Best Workplace for Innovators by Fast Company