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October 21, 2020 | Tom Ballard

Craig Fuller shares lessons learned as an entrepreneur during fireside conversation

One of Chattanooga’s newest start-up success stories is FreightWaves, the rapidly growing company that was designated as a “soonicorn” earlier this year. The term means “Soon to be a Unicorn,” a play on the “unicorn” description for a privately-held start-up company valued at a billion dollars or more.

During a noontime discussion yesterday that was part of “Startup Week Chattanooga,” FreightWaves Founder and Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Craig Fuller had a fireside conversation with Aaron Welch, another Chattanooga serial entrepreneur. Both shared their successes as well as some of the lessons learned from their failures in a very candid manner.

“My dad fired me from TransCard,” Fuller (pictured left in this photo) said of the fleet payment processor he led that was sold later to US Bank. Later in the conversation, he admitted that it was also a key factor in his subsequent success. “I had to figure it out,” Fuller said about what he could have done better. “I kept mourning every decision I ever made.”

He moved to Fort Worth with the intent of working for someone else. That was not the right option, so Fuller says he founded FreightWaves without any intention to return to the city where he grew-up. So, why did he relocate the start-up that captured the $100,000 top prize when Steve Case hosted the “Rise of the Rest Road Tour” in the city in May 2018? It was for personal reasons plus one that is a key to the viability of any enterprise.

“A lot of the reason we have been successful is because we are in Chattanooga,” Fuller said, citing the robust expertise and knowledge in freight logistics that exists in the community. “It’s access to (that) talent.”

There’s another important access item – investment capital – that the two discussed.

Fuller noted that the initial funding he raised came from outside investor – the first $2 million from a Dallas-based angel and the first institutional round of $3.4 million from a fund in Detroit. As both Fuller and Welch described the challenges of raising capital locally, the former noted the nature of those in Chattanooga who could invest.

“A lot of the capital here is controlled by family offices and foundations,” he explained. “It’s held by people who understand cashflow businesses, not venture-backed ones.”

Fuller also cited the fact that it has been five years since a big exit occurred in the community that unleashed significant capital and key executives ready for their next gig. The reference was to Access America Transport that was merged with Coyote Logistics and later sold to UPS.

As CEO of the largest venture-backed firm in Chattanooga, Fuller was asked what the future looks like for FreightWaves. He said somewhat humorously that the company could flameout but one of two paths was most logical – being acquired or having an initial public offering (IPO).

Earlier, Fuller and Welch talked about the difference between Texas communities – Fort Worth and Austin respectively – where both have been active in the past and Chattanooga. FreightWaves Founder captured it in this very telling comment: “Our sense of community gives us as a city the ability to punch above our weight.”

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