The next wave of supply-chain innovation will be driven by startups that help incumbents win

For years, the prevailing narrative for innovation in supply chain has focused on the disruptors: Upstarts that enter the industry with new technologies and business models to displace incumbents.

Less heralded has been the next wave these disruptors often catalyze: Digital enablers seeking to arm the incumbents against the incursions of their new digital rivals.

But in verticals ranging from freight brokerage to B2B marketplaces, these enablers have repeatedly emerged after an initial disruption. For these industries, digital enablers, rather than disruptors, constitute the next wave of supply chain innovation.

The recurring second wave of innovation

In freight brokerage, Convoy and Uber Freight digitized the traditional process of matching truckers with loads, enabling them to streamline hours of emails and phone calls with simple app-based workflows. Now, companies like Parade are equipping traditional freight brokers with many of the same tools.

Flexport and Forto made headlines in freight forwarding by promising greater transparency and control. They introduced digital business models that improved the customer experience but also hastened an onslaught of enablers — including and Shipamax — seeking to make legacy freight forwarders more digital, too.


Image Credits: Menlo Ventures

And in the traditional world of B2B commerce, which is dominated by trade shows and sales reps, Faire and Ankorstore helped fuel the rise of enablers and Enable.

Enablers take on the unglamorous role of helping incumbents stay relevant.

Again and again, we see these call-and-response patterns of disruptive innovation across supply chain categories. The story repeats as enablers follow disruptors across each category of supply chain business.

In each case, the threat of displacement has driven incumbents to increase investment in their own digital capabilities, allocating more budget for digital tools to match the capabilities of their new competition. The result? Nothing less than the next generation of innovation, this time led by enablers.

The quiet engines driving transformation

Enablers typically emerge or accelerate growth after their disruptive predecessors have introduced technology that reshapes verticals and customer expectations. They take on the unglamorous role of helping incumbents stay relevant. Perhaps because of this approach, enablers as a category have been surprisingly overlooked, especially considering their widespread proliferation across the supply chain landscape and the impressive outcomes they’ve achieved.