India's BlackBuck valued at $1 billion in $67 million fundraise

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India’s trucking system has a big inefficiency problem that continues to drag the economy. BlackBuck, one of the handful of startups that is digitizing the freight and logistics across India, has just attained unicorn status after securing new funds.

Tribe Capital, IFC Emerging Asia Fund and VEF led the $67 million Series E financing round in the six-year-old startup, valuing it at $1.02 billion (up from about $850 million in 2019 Series D round), BlackBuck chief executive Rajesh Yabaji told TechCrunch in an interview earlier this week. BlackBuck is the 16th Indian startup to become a unicorn this year.

BlackBuck connects businesses with truck owners and freight operators. The startup has developed a simplified app for truck drivers in India, who are typically not very literate, to help them accept work and easily navigate to their destination using Google Maps. On the client side, businesses can fire up a similar app to place orders.

About 700,000 truckers and 1.2 million trucks in India today are connected to the platform, which sees more than 15 million transactions each month. "India's truckers did not go truly digital till 2019. Since then, the supply activity has gone up by 20 times," said Yabaji.

"When we started BlackBuck in 2015, only 40% of truck owners had smartphones and for truck drivers, that adoption was just 7%. By 2019, 100% of truck owners and 70% of truck drivers had smartphones," he said, attributing this growth to the advent of low-cost Android smartphones and access to much more affordable mobile data (thanks to Jio Platforms).

"On top of this, the government started pushing the digital adoption. There's a digital toll system now, and many state governments have made GPS mandatory," he said.

During this period, BlackBuck, too, has transformed considerably. The platform has moved away from relying on call centres for booking orders to an app-based system. Today, Yabaji said the startup has reduced its reliance on brokers, who help connect them to truckers in smaller regions as more truckers and fleet owners now have smartphones and book directly.

"On the supply side, the platform was built in a way that it was agnostic to who was ordering. Anyone who has access to capacity in a particular location and at a particular time, has access to the load. On principal, we were okay with it from day one," he explained. "As we speak today, 95% of the load acceptance happens by small fleet owners who own two to three trucks."

For BlackBuck, another challenge has been making inroads with small and medium-sized businesses. The platform's biggest customer base has traditionally been comprised of large enterprises. Yabaji said things have changed dramatically, as the biggest growth that BlackBuck has seen in recent years has come from SMEs. In total, the startup has over 10,000 customers SME and enterprise customers now, including giants such as Hindustan Unilever, Reliance, Coca-Cola, Asian Paints, Tata, Vedanta, L&T and Jindal.

One of the biggest successes of BlackBuck in recent years has been the growth of its FASTag offering. (FASTag is an electronic toll collection system in India to make toll payments directly from the prepaid or savings account linked to it or directly to the toll owner.) Yabaji said 35% of India's trucking toll spend today happens through BlackBuck.

"We are the leaders in this category and have built several unique solutions for Indian truckers," he said.

"India's supply chain and logistics industry is moving from paper and pencil to digital," said Arjun Sethi, co-founder and partner at Tribe Capital, in a statement. "BlackBuck’s ability to measure output and productivity growth has streamlined logistical challenges for the industry over a short time frame. Its continued high velocity growth promises to bring even greater transformation to the Indian trucking ecosystem.” (On a side note, Tribe Capital is in talks to back at least two more Indian startups, according to people with knowledge of the matter.)

BlackBuck will deploy the fresh funds to deepen its presence across India and launch several new features on its marketplace, said Yabaji. BlackBuck also has presence in Europe. Yabaji said the startup's international play is still in its pilot stage and the large focus currently remains on India.

"In the midst of the Covid pandemic Blackbuck has scaled its online freight marketplace and fleet management services rapidly. Blackbuck’s contribution to increased transparency and efficiency in the large, fragmented and predominantly unorganized long-haul freight market in India offers the potential for significant developmental impact," said Saadia Khairi, fund head at IFC Emerging Asia Fund, in a statement.

The new investment comes at a time when Indian startups are raising record capital and a handful of mature firms are beginning to explore the public markets. BlackBuck is the 16th Indian startup to become a unicorn this year, compared to 11 last year and six in 2019.