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Calculus For Truckers

Schneider National simulates its business problems to save money in a bumpy economy.

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BERNARD JOHNSON IS a trucker and a math problem. From his home in Columbia, S.C. the 49-year-old drives for Schneider National, one of the country’s largest freight haulers. Johnson pulls trailers filled with everything from TVs to toilet paper on as many as 25 trips a month for stretches of up to 500 miles.

The Green Bay, Wis. Company has to design the most efficient routes for Johnson and 13,000 other drivers. With diesel at $4 a gallon, this is not an equation it can afford to get wrong. “It’s like a big jigsaw puzzle,” says Ted Gifford, an operations research scientist at Schneider. At any given time the company has 10,000 trucks on the road, with another 33,000 trailers available and waiting to be picked up. Drivers are on the road between four days and three weeks at a time— alone and in pairs—and Schneider must get them back to their homes by a certain date. Drivers have to take breaks according to government regulations.

Schneider’s Ted Gifford helped design a computer model that simulates operations.

Their customers are only open during certain hours. “We want to avoid the situation where a driver may live in Alabama, and it’s time for him to go home, and he’s in Minnesota,” says Gifford. “And we don’t have any freight for him to get home, so he has to drive empty.” For most of its 76-year history Schneider, which grossed $3.1 billion last year, has relied on pilot projects to answer these key logistical questions. Whichever department was considering a policy change would carve out a group of 20 to 200 drivers, make them function as a separate business and test the results. The pilot projects cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” but results were often ambiguous. All too often a system that worked well for a sample of 20 drivers wouldn’t work when scaled up to the whole company. “You could spend more on the pilot than what you’d save making the policy change,” says John Nienow, a senior logistics engineer. To test another variable the only choice was to rerun the entire pilot and therefore double the cost.

In 2003 Schneider decided to invest in a fleet-wide “tactical planning simulator” that would use software algorithms to mimic the decision making of human dispatchers on an inhumanly large scale. Schneider looked to one of the leading practitioners of logistics simulation, Warren Powell, a professor of operations research and financial engineering at Princeton University. The algorithms that came out of Powell’s lab in the 1980s had changed the industry’s “less-than-truckload” segment (consisting of parcels and smaller freight) by mapping out a more efficient way to plan routes and using terminals that break down shipments.

One model, called SuperSPIN, had been embraced by Yellow and Ryder to survive the recessionary late 1980s. Powell’s software was also behind the launch of Roadway Package Systems, which later became FedEx Ground. What interested Schneider, a full-truckload carrier, was Powell’s work in the field of approximate dynamic programming, which is a way to make decisions in the presence of uncertainty. Schneider needed a model that could take into account the nonobvious and sometimes random variables that affect the efficiency of thousands of drivers over weeks of time and at a high level of detail. “Warren gave us a really nice hammer, and we had to take our problems and make them look like nails,” says Nienow.

A team of Schneider and Princeton engineers spent two years and “between $2 million and $5 million” developing software for the simulator, which lives on an eight-processor server in Green Bay. The simulator, which Schneider launched in mid-2005, pretends that it’s assigning freight and gathering orders based on a scenario posed to it by Schneider’s analysts. That could be something such as adding more drivers in Chicago, adding an hour in mandated break time for drivers or having a big customer change the location of its distribution center. The simulation runs forward in time for three weeks in order to approximate the value of having a truck and driver at a certain location at a certain time, and gets a first result. Then it runs backward in time to the “present”, reconciling the results with those that happened in the simulated future. Then it runs forward three weeks again and then backward, continuing to improve its estimate. It does that until it “converges” and starts to make only minor changes. For each three-week run, it makes hundreds of thousands of decisions. Gifford estimates that the simulator has helped Schnei- der save tens of millions of dollars. The simulator has, for example, allowed Schneider to justify price hikes to customers.

In 2008 a customer wanted to restrict the number of hours that Schneider could drop off goods. Schneider ran the simulator. “We showed that we could limit the hours but that doing so would cost us $600,000 more,” says Gifford. “We went back to them and said, ‘This is the impact of restricting your hours.’” The customer ultimately decided not to limit its hours. One of Schneider’s biggest challenges is maintaining its fleet size, since drivers often burn out and leave the company. Schneider regularly uses the simulator to determine how many jobs to offer and where it’s best to hire drivers. The model can determine the marginal value of hiring ten new drivers who live in central Illinois, say, based on the number of times that freight departs from the Midwest. In the future Schneider wants to use the simulator to decide which new business to pursue. The company currently employs three different fleets of drivers: long-haul truckers who live in one city but can travel all over the country, regional drivers who drive within a 500-mile radius of their homes, and dedicated fleets for specific customers.

A decisionto increase one of those fleets can affect the others: When Schneider creates a regional business, for example, it cannibalizes some work that the long-haul fleet is doing. “The thing that’s so powerful is that when someone presses us on the impact of different policy changes, we have the facts, we have the data. We can produce reports and analysis so that if someone else brought in their scientists, they would have to agree,” says Gifford. “The value is to be able to take these complex business opportunities and give them a good, solid analysis.”

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31% Of Small Businesses Have Stopped Operating Amid Coronavirus: Sheryl Sandberg Shares How Facebook’s Latest Product Aims To Help

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The coronavirus pandemic has continued to take a catastrophic toll on America’s small businesses. According to Facebook’s State of Small Business report, 31% of small businesses and 52% of personal businesses have stopped operating as a result of the crisis. 

“What we know today is pretty sobering,” says Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. “We’re in a really hard economic situation that is hitting all businesses, but particularly, small businesses really hard. We also know how critical small businesses are for jobs—long before coronavirus,” she says. “Two thirds of new jobs in this country happen because of small businesses and so that means what’s happening with small businesses has always been important, but it’s more important than ever.”

Especially concerning is that only 45% of business owners and managers plan to rehire the same number of workers when their businesses reopen. That number is just 32% for personal businesses. 

“If these businesses are letting people go, it’s not that they don’t want to rehire them,” Sandberg says. “It’s because they don’t think they’re going to be able to. That’s a pretty serious thing for us to be facing.”

Businesses that have been able to maintain operations still face significant hurdles, namely access to capital and customers. Some 28% of businesses surveyed say their biggest challenge over the next few months will be cash flow, while 20% say it will be lack of demand. 

The report, conducted in partnership with the Small Business Roundtable, was based on a survey of 86,000 owners, managers and workers at U.S. companies with fewer than 500 employees. It is also a part of the company’s broader data collection initiative with the World Bank and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on the Future of Business.

“We were already in the process of developing this report before the coronavirus pandemic hit,” Sandberg says. “We expected it to be a pretty rosy tale back then of low unemployment, flourishing entrepreneurship, and jobs growing all over the world. Fast forward to today and we’re in a very different position.”

An example of Facebook’s new Shops feature, which creates digital “storefronts” for businesses.
 
FACEBOOK

Now, the company is launching Facebook Shops, an ecommerce product that allows businesses to set up online “storefronts” on Facebook and Instagram. Businesses can customize their digital shops, using cover images to showcase their brands and catalogs to highlight their products. And just as customers can ask for help when shopping in physical stores, they can message business owners directly via WhatsApp, Messenger or Instagram Direct to ask questions, track deliveries and more. “Our goal is to make shopping seamless and empower anyone from a small business owner to a global brand to use our apps to connect with customers,” wrote Facebook cofounder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg in a post announcing the new product. As was the case with the survey, the rollout was planned prior to the pandemic, but was accelerated as businesses have turned to online tools to adapt in the face of the ongoing crisis. According to the survey, 51% of small business owners have  increased their online interactions with customers, and 36% of operational businesses are now conducting all sales online. 

“One of the things I find so amazing is how much of the activity has migrated online and that we’re doing things we never thought were possible,” says Sandberg. “If I had asked you or you had asked me, could I work entirely from home? Can my whole company go home? I would have said ‘No way.’ But we did it. Small businesses have even more entrepreneurial spirit.”

There are more than 30 million small businesses in the U.S., many of which are struggling to stay afloat amid forced closures and are still hoping to receive financial relief from the government. According to a recent survey by Goldman Sachs, 71% of Paycheck Protection Program applicants are still waiting for loans and 64% don’t have enough cash to survive the next three months. As of April 19, more than 175,000 businesses have shut down—temporarily or permanently—with closure rates rising 200% or more in hard-hit metropolitan cities like Los Angeles, New York, and Chicago, according to Yelp’s Q1 Economic Average report.

Employees of these businesses are disproportionately affected, with 74% and 70% reporting not having access to paid sick leave and paid time off, according to Facebook’s survey. For hotel, cafe and restaurant employees, those figures are over 90%.

Facebook, which relies heavily on small businesses for advertising revenue, was among the first major tech companies to provide much-needed aid. On March 17, the company announced $100 million in grants for small businesses, the majority of which will be distributed in cash, with some ad credits for business services. Of those funds, $40 million will be distributed across 34 American cities, with 50% being reserved for women, minority and veteran-owned businesses. The other $60 million will be distributed to small business owners throughout the world. In addition to financial assistance, the company also rolled out various product offerings including digital gift cardsfundraisers and easier ways for businesses to communicate service changes to their customers. 

Small businesses are resilient, even during times of crisis. According to the report, 57% of businesses are optimistic or extremely optimistic about the future, with only 11% of operating businesses expecting to fail in the next three months, should current conditions persist. 

“The report raises awareness about the struggles small businesses face from the Covid-19 pandemic,” says Rhett Buttle, founder of Public Private Strategies and co-executive director of the Small Business Roundtable. “But small businesses have brought us out of previous economic downturns and they will do so again.”

Maneet Ahuja, Forbes Staff, Entrepreneurs

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Birds Of A Feather: The Stepchickens Cult On TikTok Is The Next Evolution Of The Influencer Business

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Like any self-respecting cult, the Stepchickens follow a strict code of conduct as dictated by their absolute leader, Mother Hen, a comedian named Melissa who posts on TikTok as @chunkysdead. Mother Hen has widely preached a message of peace, telling her 1.7 million TikTok followers: “We do not rule by being cruel, we shine by being kind.” Further, she has asked all Stepchickens to make themselves easily identifiable and make her photo their TikTok profile picture.

Mother Hen has created TikTok’s first “cult.” (Her word.) Boiled down, she is a social media influencer, and the Stepchickens are her fans, just as more famous TikTok influencers—Charli D’Amelio, Addison Rae and the like—all have their fanbases. But Mother Hen’s presence and style is quite singular, particularly in the way she communicates with her followers, what she asks them to do and how the Stepchickens respond to her. After all, not every member of the Charli hive use her image as their profile pictures.

“These influencers are looking for a way to build community and figure out how to monetize their community. That’s the No. 1 most important thing for a creator or an influencer,” says Tiffany Zhong, cofounder of ZebraIQ, a community and trends platform. “It’s become a positive for Gen Z, where you’re proud to be part of this cult—part of this community. They are dying to be part of a community. So it’s easy to get sucked in.”

Mother Hen, who didn’t return a request to comment for this story, already had a popular comedy vlog-style TikTok account on May 6 when she asked her followers to send suggestions for what they could name their cult. From the ideas offered up, she chose Stepchickens, and in the 19 days since, her following has more than doubled. (It was around 700,000 back at the beginning of this month.) She has posted videos about taking ediblesher celebrity lookalikes and her relationship status (“all this cult power, still no boyfriend”). And perhaps in violation of her first-do-no-harm credo, Mother Hen has implored her followers to embark on “battles” and “raids,” where Stepchickens comment bomb other influencers’ videos, posting messages en masse. She has become the mother of millions: TikTok videos with #stepchickens have generated 102 million views on the app, and her own videos have received 54.6 million likes.

Mother Hen is now concentrating on feathering her nest. She has launched a large range of merch: smartphone cases ($24), hoodies ($44), t-shirts ($28) and beanies ($28). Corporate sponsorships seem within reach, too. TikTok accounts for the Houston Rockets, Tampa Bay Rays and one for the Chicago Bulls mascot, Benny, all changed their profile picture to the image distributed by Mother Hen. The Rays sent her a box of swag, addressing the package to “Mother Hen,” of course. She dressed up in the gear (two hats, a fanny pack, a tank top) and recorded herself wearing it in a TikTok, a common move by influencers to express gratitude and signal that they’re open to business sponsorship opportunities. Mother Hen has launched a YouTube channel, too, where she’ll earn ad revenue based on the views that her 43,000 subscribers generate by watching her content.

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Then there is the Stepchickens app available on Apple devices. This digital roost is a thriving message feed—it resembles a Slack channel or a Discord server—where Stepchickens congregate, chat and coordinate their raids. They can also use it to create videos, ones “to glorify mother hen,” the app’s instructions read.

The app launched last Monday and has already attracted more than 100,000 users, a benchmark that most apps do not ever see and the best reach within months of starting. Since its debut, it has ranked as high as the ninth most popular social media app in the world on the download charts and in the Top 75 most downloaded across all types of apps. The Stepchickens have traded 135,000 messages, and the app’s most devoted users are spending as long as 10 hours a day on it, says Sam Mueller, the cofounder and CEO of Blink Labs who built the Stepchickens app.

“There’s this emergence of a more active—a more dedicated—fan base and following. A lot of the influencers on TikTok are kind of dancing around, doing some very broadcast-y type content. Their followers might not mobilize nearly as much as” the Stepchickens, says Mueller. Mother Hen’s flock, by contrast, “feel like they’re part of something, feel like they’re connected. They can have fun and be together for something bigger than what they’re doing right now, which is kind of being at home bored and lonely. There’s untapped value here.”

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Op-Ed: How Nigerians Can Unlock Their Potential In The Digital Age

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By Uzoma Dozie, Chief Sparkler

Nigerians are some of the world’s most creative, energetic, and entrepreneurial people. We are rich with talent, enthusiasm, and passion.

Nigerians are a global force bursting with potential and an enviable track-record of success. But in a more complex and fast-paced world than ever before, many of us struggle to find the time or have the ability to fulfil their potential.

Ultimately, this comes down to the lack of effective solutions in the market to support the lifestyle and finances of Nigerians and our businesses. For too long, we have been underserved by the traditional physical retail environment, which is limited by bricks and mortar infrastructure and legacy technology – the weaknesses of which have been laid bare by the Covid-19 global pandemic.

Unlocking Nigeria’s digital economy

While Nigerians are being underserved by current circumstances, there is also an exciting opportunity to start filling a gap in the market.

Nigeria’s digital economy is thriving, but it remains informal. Nigeria has a population of 198 million people – 172 million have a mobile phone and 112 million have internet access.

Many of us access social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram through our phones and use them as valuable sales tools, especially female entrepreneurs. Data and digital applications have the potential to revolutionize the daily lives of millions of Nigerians.

Therefore, new digital-only solutions are required. These should not just focus on finances though – they have to be intrinsically linked with everyday lifestyles, rather than thinking about linear processes and transactional outcomes.

Let us take one example. Chatbots powered by artificial intelligence have long been used to provide financial advice. But these chatbots could do so much more and evolve to provide support for more sophisticated usage, such as a personal adviser or lifestyle concierge.

Furthermore, these solutions should not just support Nigerians at home, but the ever-growing diaspora across the world.

Introducing Sparkle

The opportunity to play an integral role in transforming Nigeria’s digital economy and lead the charge in growing the digital economy across Africa inspired the creation of Sparkle.

Sparkle was founded with five core values – freedom, trust, simplicity, inclusivity, and personalization. We are adopting these values and embedding them in everything we do.

We will be leveraging technology and data to create and apply new digital-only solutions which bring more Nigerians into the formal economy thereby benefitting Government, businesses, and individuals.

Starting with the launch of a current account, we will co-create with our customers and collaborate with our partners to improve our services and increase our user base. We embrace collaboration and we are

working with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Google, Microsoft, Visa, and PwC Nigeria, to achieve our vision.

In addition, we want to create a more inclusive economy and break down barriers by accelerating the role and influence of female entrepreneurs, many of whom already operate in the informal economy with the help of Instagram and other social media apps.

At present, we are facing a global crisis in the shape of the COVID-19 pandemic. COVID-19 has shown us that we need a strong digital infrastructure to ensure the economy continues to function. It will likely completely change the way we operate and conduct business in the future.

COVID-19 has only reinforced our belief that new digital solutions like Sparkle are required now more than ever before to serve Nigerians, boost the formal economy, and unlock potential in the digital age.

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