When we talk about e-commerce logistics, we think of an industry controlled by established players like Amazon, FedEx, and national postal systems. At the onset of the pandemic in 2019, a bold Vancouver, British Columbia-based startup decided to challenge the incumbents with a new model – last-mile delivery via an Uber-like network.
During the pandemic, UniUni managed to grow its business into the largest last-mile supplier to fast-fashion juggernaut Shein in all of North America. Rapid growth caught the attention of investors, and today UniUni announced the closing of the first tranche of its $20 million ($15 million) Series B financing.
UniUni expects to raise three more tranches for its Series B round by the end of 2023, company founder and CEO Peter Lu told TechCrunch in an interview. Lu declines to disclose the target amount for the full round but says it will be a “significant” amount. While the founder doesn’t take the company’s valuation seriously, he says the goal is to reach $1 billion unicorn status by 2025.
The initial momentum of UniUni was the result of luck and determination. As COVID-19 hit hundreds of millions of people and kept them at home, e-commerce sales skyrocketed, straining delivery networks around the world. At the time, UniUni was an outsider in the restaurant supply competition. A logistics company shipping e-commerce products from China to Canada happened upon one of its contract vehicles in Vancouver and asked if the company would like to help drop off some packages in the neighborhood. The UniUni said yes and the one-time project quickly turned into a long-term partnership.
From there, UniUni stumbled upon a new way to push last-mile delivery. Traditionally, online retailers have relied on express courier services and postal networks to move goods from warehouses to customers’ doorsteps. The problem with the model, Lu argues, is that neither system is designed for the speed or volume of e-commerce. Consumers will either have to wait two weeks or pay a hefty price for faster delivery.
UniUni reportedly offers faster and cheaper last-mile solutions through their pool of gig drivers, or in Lu’s words, “crowd-sourced drivers.” When the first customer reached out across the street from Vancouver, UniUni already had an established network of contracted drivers, so it wasn’t long before they found the model had a sustainable unit economy. Naturally, the startup switched from meal delivery to e-commerce purchases.
“There is imperfect competition in the last-mile delivery market, which means there are barriers to entry,” says Lu, who studied computer science at Shanghai Jiaotong University and moved to Canada two decades ago. “We thought there were still opportunities in this area.”
Today, UniUni has over 6,000 drivers across Canada and a few hundred in the US, where it recently started operations. It has set an ambitious goal of exceeding 200,000 packages per day and generating $100 million in revenue by 2023. The company aims to be profitable in Canada by the end of this year.
The founder is confident because he sees clear advantages in the UniUni. For one thing, using flexible workers instead of full-time workers reduces labor costs significantly. Compared to traditional courier services, the startup has a much denser network of distribution facilities, which helps reduce delivery times. And because it’s platform-agnostic, UniUni can group orders from different customers — be it Amazon, Shein, or the up-and-coming app Temu — to determine the most efficient delivery route and schedule for drivers.
The setup, Lu says, means UniUni can deliver as quickly as DHL, but for less than half the price. The company helped Shein cut its delivery time from 10 to 14 days to just four to five days, according to the founder.
Finally, the startup’s network in China is indispensable for its early development. In the e-commerce era, Chinese-made goods continue to fill Western homes, thanks to the rise of Chinese e-commerce sites catering to foreign users and a streamlined cross-border logistics network built by Chinese companies over the past decade. UniUni works closely with some of the largest providers of cross-border logistics solutions, including Yanwen Express and Zongteng Group, both of which participated in the startup’s CAD 10 million ($7 million) Series A funding round.
For Series B, UniUni focused on finding financial investors rather than strategic investors. The lineup included GrubMarket investor Celtic House Venture Partners, BRV Aster, Freshwave Capital, Hat Trick Ventures and Vision Plus Capital. Proceeds from this new round will go towards expanding into major US cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Dallas and Miami. The company has a team of 250 employees, including a dozen in the United States
One has to wonder how UniUni keeps its costs low in a state like California where gig worker rights are constantly being debated in legislation. Lu stresses that the company is fully compliant in the areas in which it operates, and while he admits that the company’s costs will indeed increase as drivers gain full-time employment status, he’s not overly concerned about it the impact of the possible regulations.
“We know exactly how many packages we’re delivering per city,” he says. “It’s just a question of when we break even. It could be three months before; now it only has to be four months.”
Article updated March 6, 2023 to correct funding and valuation numbers.