Flexport moves tens of billions of dollars in goods across the globe, and leads innovation in the supply chain. This monumental task depends on razor-sharp execution.
A freight forwarder is a kind of shipping coordinator. When a container moves from point A to B, complicated handoffs need to happen at each step – like telling the sender and receiver where the container is, coordinating the trucks and ships and trains, and handling all the documents that need to be filed with the government.
Flexport believes that automation is key to powering the global supply chain. They’ve put billions of dollars to work proving this thesis. They hired an army of great engineers to build software that brings the entire shipping process online – so for the first time, buyers and sellers can get real-time shipment updates.
Parabola is deeply philosophically aligned with this thesis. Automating manual workflows and promoting process transparency and standardization is core to what we do! So when it became clear that we could help Flexport automate something they couldn’t solve on their own, we were excited to roll up our sleeves.
Parabola now supports countless teams and use cases across Flexport. We’ll illustrate its application by focusing on an initial challenge they looked to us for help with.
If you’re trying to bring a container into the United States, your freight forwarder must file an “ISF” form with Customs 48 hours before it gets on the water. Customs demands to know what’s in the container, where it’s going, who’s shipping it, and so on. Flexport dutifully files that form for thousands of containers every day.
But every shipping carrier around the world gives Flexport that information in a different format. The carrier works with scores of freight forwarders and ships to a hundreds of countries, so they aren’t able to get the information into a format that US Customs will accept. That means Flexport has to take on that burden.
This was a perfect test of Flexport’s thesis that everything involved in supply chain should be automated – the challenge is making it happen.
The input formats were complicated, and each carrier submitted things in a different way. With data formats and processes often changing, any code would need constant maintenance, and the solution would never catch up to the problem.
Without numerous engineers dedicated to them, Flexport’s Operations Team was forced to handle the process manually. So contrary to the company’s DNA, their operators were spending nearly half of their time searching for, keying in, and reconciling data across emails, spreadsheets, and other systems.
Moreover, leadership understood that the number of redundant, time consuming, error-prone, and morale-draining processes would only grow as the company took on more customers and launched more services.
One of Flexport’s competitive differentiators is their ability to allow customers to work with them on their own terms. As such, the first thing we needed to prove was that Parabola could support the hundreds of ways that data would be sent to them from their customers and partners.
Specifically, they needed us to automatically grab data from emailed CSVs, APIs, and online form submissions. From there, we needed to demonstrate our ability to clean up and normalize the disparate data – something that was previously done manually in spreadsheets.
Since Parabola can handle any work that someone would be doing in a spreadsheet (e.g. reformatting, vlookups, pivots), we were well positioned to automate the entire intake, transformation, and entry of this data into their proprietary platform.
As a result: in less time than it previously took an operator to manually process a single ISF form (roughly one hour), someone equipped with nothing more than an understanding of the problem (and certainly without any coding experience) was able to build out a Parabola Flow that automated the processing of hundreds of forms per day, without any manual intervention.
Since automating their ISF workflow, Flexport’s Operations Team has looked for opportunities to drive further efficiencies. When they encounter specific transformations or pieces of logic that are broadly applicable, the team codifies them in Card Templates. Templates allow the team to seamlessly share Flow building blocks with their teammates, shortening feedback cycles and spreading best practices.
In a matter of weeks, teams using Parabola at Flexport have reduced their cost to serve their customers by as much as 50%, increased each employee’s capacity by ~40%, and eliminated the need for additional headcount and engineering support.
By eliminating their manual, redundant, and error-prone tasks, Flexport’s teams are freed to focus on the work that requires subject matter expertise and human intervention. They can invest in process improvements and forward-looking innovation.
The success of Flexport’s Operations Team’s success has inspired other departments to follow suit. Complex workflows across customs, demurrage, drayage, pricing, and invoicing have all moved away from spreadsheets and onto Parabola. To date, the total value of their cost savings and revenue acceleration is approaching 8 figures (yes, that means north of 10M), and we’re only getting started.