Interview with Antonis Malaxianakis, CEO and founder Harbor Lab
Harbor Lab is a Greek startup based in Athens that uses a SaaS (Software-as-a-Service) solution for port cost analysis that automatically calculates berthing costs based on updated price collection. It resolves the expensive ($120 billion per year) and complex problem of disbursements for ships and shipowners. We talk with Antonis Malaxianakis, CEO and Founder of Harbor Lab, about the company, his journey, and lessons learned. Here’s what he told us.
Tell us a few things about Harbor Lab. How did it all start? How did you discover the market opportunity for your technology, and where are you today?
Since I was young, I dreamed of working in the shipping industry. While the rest of the kids wanted to be athletes, I aspired to become a shipowner. However, I could not focus on the industry from the start as I had to be involved in the family outdoor furniture business, which I started working at in 2005. During that time, I also got my first degree in statistics from the University of Piraeus.
In 2013, after five interviews and three tests, I accepted an offer for an internship from Thenamaris of the Martinos family. Giannis Martinos was CEO then and is now CEO of Signal Group. At first, I was active in the bunkering department, producing performance indicators. Very soon, I dealt with port expenses (disbursements), the second largest expense within the company, since most of the tankers it owned at the time were active in the spot market. When we refer to disbursements, we mean piles of invoices on desks sorted through manual processes, in which you get lost. Therefore, we gradually created a software system to manage this administration better.
In 2018, after five years at Thenamaris, I moved to the Star Bulk group, taking on the role of disbursement supervisor of Product Shipping & Trading. I oversaw the company’s product tankers operating on the spot market. The amount of paperwork and lack of technologically advanced solutions in the industry inspired me to create a 'smart' port cost management system. I began by getting industry expert feedback to see if other companies faced similar issues.
In 2019 I hired a software designer, and we took the project forward together. Once the software was completed, in late 2019, early 2020, I started introducing it to the industry. The feedback I received was incredibly positive and gave me the strength to resign from Product Shipping & Trading.
On March 10, 2020, the software ‘went live’, and Harbor Lab was born. On the same day, Product Shipping became our first customer and started utilizing it, which showed me the great trust that Mr. Pappas had in my vision.
The result is that several Greek shipping companies quickly saw the advantages of the software and adopted it into their workflows. Since then, the company has gone from strength to strength, and our software is being used to manage the port call disbursements of more than 1000 vessels registered on our platform, which companies across the globe manage.
In December, we secured €6.1 million in seed funding to invest in people and further develop our products. There is no greater testament to our software's value to shipping than for third parties to put their trust, and their money, into our business.
On your website, we read that you provide solutions that are transforming the shipping industry. How do you accomplish that? What value does Harbor Lab bring to the clients and partners?
Disbursement accounts are used in shipping to record and manage expenses related to a particular voyage. These expenses may include port dues, towing costs, pilotage fees, bunker fuel costs, provisions, crew changes, and other expenses incurred during the voyage. These are often the second biggest cost of a ship’s voyage, second only to fuel, and it is these costs in particular that we focus on.
Harbor Lab offers the first e-disbursements account analysis software that automatically calculates and evaluates port expenses against real-time port tariffs, optimizing the port cost management process and creating significant efficiencies and cost savings for Ship Owners, Ship Managers & Charterers. Our service provides a solid solution for managing port expenses with quick and accurate estimates, reliable validation of actuals, efficient payments, and expedited claims processes.
The customer will share with us some data, such as the vessel’s name and IMO (International Maritime Organization) ID number, enabling us to build their account in the software. Every time a commercial vessel travels to a port, a shipping agent can be appointed through the software – a feature that can now also be done via mobile phone. The Agent is notified by email and enters the costs, including his details, within the platform creating the pre-invoice.
The uniqueness of the platform includes the following functionality:
1) The system analyses exactly what the shipping principal will be charged for each port, terminal, and berth the vessel will call. This is an extremely complicated task in each case, as each has a different pricing policy. We have a team of people with a mathematical background who talk directly to port authorities worldwide to obtain official tariffs and understand how each expense is calculated. They also gather relevant documentation from the shipping agent and insert an algorithm in the platform for calculating each output. So, when the agent enters the platform and inserts their bill, an algorithm runs behind the scenes, which informs the shipowner what costs he must pay if an agent has overcharged him for no reason and all the necessary cost details.
2) The request functionality offered through the software is a process where the user can request multiple quotes from port agents for various services at the port. Once the Agent submits costs, the user presses a button, and a comparison table is instantly created, showing which agent is more competitive in price. The user can negotiate the prices through the platform and send an appointment to the agent.
3) The platform is configured to meet customer policies and needs according to their preferences. The shipping company can either utilize the software in-house within their back-office disbursement teams, or we can handle negotiations and disbursement matters on their behalf. The first option mostly concerns the commercial management of a ship in the spot market, while the second concerns the ship owners or the technical managers that appoint agents for husbandry and owner matters.
Our vision is to build trust in the maritime ecosystem. The transparency and visibility we offer to all parties involved in a port call within an organized and streamlined process achieved via the platform is the biggest value we offer, along with reduced back-office administration, reduced DA (Disbursement Accounts) processing times, increased savings, and doubled DAs handling capacity.
We are an Athens-based company located in one of the most important shipping centers in the world, and together our employees have 100 cumulative years in shipping and software development. We offer scalable solutions that can be used as a standalone platform or integrated with companies’ individual software. We are always exploring new technologies and are currently reviewing how automation can be incorporated into our software to bring more benefits to our customers.
At the end of 2022, you raised a significant amount of capital. Tell us about the experience. If you had one recommendation to offer to other capital-raising founders, what would this be?
Raising capital was a challenging experience. However, nothing significant is ever easy to achieve. The greater the difficulty, the more glory there is in surmounting it. Overall, I would advise others seeking to raise capital to:
- Maintain faith in your product or idea.
- Pursue all opportunities.
- Do not lose sight of your end game or the bigger picture.
- Do not compromise the company’s core values.
- Hire and retain the right people.
What would you consider to have been (or are) your biggest challenge so far?
Scaling up the company so quickly, I would have to say, has been the biggest challenge so far. Only three and a half years ago, it was just a software developer and me. Fast forward to the present day, and we are now a company of 60 employees; we have 25 clients and more currently trialing our software, 4000 Agents & Vendors registered on the platform, and a roadmap full of ideas.
With so many people joining in a short period of time, we had to quickly implement the necessary infrastructure – offices, policies, hardware, software, payroll, and so on, not to mention the onboarding processes to ensure that all our employees had the necessary training and environment to perform their roles effectively.
If scaling a business is a hard task, scaling a startup is a Herculean task!
What are the biggest learnings from your journey so far?
For me, the most important part of Harbor Lab is its people. Over the past three years, I have learned how important it is to hire top talent and find the right people in terms of skills and personality. An accomplished settled team is vital for the success of a small business. Attracting and retaining top talent is always a challenge. You need to have a competent and resilient team in place before undertaking any expansion plans. As a leader, it is my responsibility to ensure the teams have adequate resources. Whether it is new hires, increased server capacity, new equipment, or making sure the team is fully equipped to face the challenges that scaling a startup is sure to bring. They are the spirit of the company, and therefore I am trying to maintain a good culture and be a Great Place to Work for everyone in it.