David has been writing and learning about business, finance and globalization for a quarter-century, starting with a small New York consulting firm in the 1990s.
Published on June 14, 2022 Updated on February 14, 2024
Time to build
Ever wonder what goes into getting products from factory to customer? There are a ton of moving parts and freight forwarders play a key role, which is why the global freight forwarding industry expects steady growth for at least the next five years.
Acting as intermediaries on behalf of the shipping company to provide storage, coordinate logistics, and negotiate contracts, US freight forwarding companies do nearly $160 billion in annual business. With your own freight forwarding business you could grab a share of that vast, growing market and make a great living.
But before you rent out a warehouse, you’ll need to learn what it takes to successfully launch a business. Fortunately, this step-by-step guide contains the entrepreneurial tools and resources you need to get started in freight forwarding.
Looking to register your business? A limited liability company (LLC) is the best legal structure for new businesses because it is fast and simple.
Trends within the freight forwarding industry include:
The rise of artificial intelligence is simplifying freight forwarding. AI has been streamlining everything from tracking shipments to warehouse operations.
Some freight forwarding companies are using blockchain technology to create contracts with carriers and secure payments.
Challenges within the freight forwarding industry include:
Becoming a successful freight forwarder is all about having a robust network of carriers and service providers. Prepare to spend a lot of time finding the right people to connect with and nurturing relationships.
Trade regulations are constantly changing, making it challenging for freight forwarders to keep up with the latest rules.
Average level of education –The average freight forwarder has obtained a bachelor’s degree.
Average age – The average freight forwarder in the US is 44 years old.
How much does it cost to start a freight forwarding business?
Startup costs for a freight forwarding company range from $32,100 to $76,100. Your main costs will be leasing a warehouse and the purchase of quipment like forklifts. Costs will depend largely on the type of freight you specialize in.
Depending on the type of freight you work with, you’ll be required to obtain specific licenses and insurance, including what is known as a surety bond that serves as a financial guarantee to carriers and shippers. If you’re interested in taking a course on freight forwarding, Udemy offers some for under $100 that can be completed in a few hours.
You’ll need a handful of items to successfully launch your freight forwarding business, including:
Freight forwarder’s license
Licenses and permits
Marketing and advertising
How much can you earn from a freight forwarding business?
Pricing for freight forwarding services depends on a number of different factors and largely depends on the types of companies you serve. A company might charge the equivalent of a portion of cargo value, for example $20 for every $500 handled. Aim for a profit margin of around 40%.
In your first year or two, you could forward $5 million worth of freight at $20 per every $500 worth of cargo, bringing in $200,000 in annual revenue. This would mean $80,000 in profit, assuming that 40% profit margin. As your company grows, you could handle $10 million worth of freight per year. At this stage, you’d hire additional staff, reducing your profit margin to around 30%. With annual revenue of $400,000, you’d make a tidy profit of $120,000.
What barriers to entry are there?
There are a few barriers to entry when it comes to starting a freight forwarding business. Your biggest challenges will be:
Obtaining required permits, licenses, and insurance
Building up a solid network of carriers and service providers
Related Business Ideas
If you’re still not sure whether this business idea is the right choice for you, here are some related business opportunities to help you on your path to entrepreneurial success.
Now that you know what’s involved in starting a freight forwarding business, it’s a good idea to hone your concept in preparation to enter a competitive market.
Market research will give you the upper hand, even if you’re already positive that you have a perfect product or service. Conducting market research is important, because it can help you understand your customers better, who your competitors are, and your business landscape.
Why? Identify an opportunity
Research freight forwarders in your area to examine their services, price points, and customer reviews. You’re looking for a market gap to fill. For instance, maybe the local market is missing a freight forwarding company that includes packaging or assembly services.
You might consider targeting a niche market by specializing in a certain aspect of your industry, such as air freight or ocean freight.
This could jumpstart your word-of-mouth marketing and attract clients right away.
What? Determine your products or services
As a freight forwarder, you’ll be responsible for arranging shipments and storing goods for your customers. As a supply chain expert, you may also play a part in packaging, distribution, maintaining appropriate documentation, and consulting on logistics strategies.
How much should you charge for freight forwarding services?
Pricing your freight forwarding services is an extremely detailed process. Freight forwarding companies take several things into consideration when quoting, including the type of goods, shipping containers, weight, and volume of shipments. They also consider the work it takes to negotiate rates with carriers, completion of any compliance paperwork, and warehouse labor costs. Your pricing will greatly depend on the niche you serve. After factoring in operating costs, your profit margin should be around 40%.
Once you know your costs, you can use this Step By Step profit margin calculator to determine your mark-up and final price points. Remember, the prices you use at launch should be subject to change if warranted by the market.
Who? Identify your target market
Your target market will be manufacturers looking for supply chain experts to help move their goods at the lowest rates. You’ll want to find relevant businesses and managers on professional social media platforms like LinkedIn to generate leads. Attending trade shows within your niche is also a great way to find potential customers.
Where? Choose your business premises
To run your freight forwarding business effectively, you’ll need to hire workers for various roles and rent out a warehouse. You can find commercial space to rent in your area on sites such as Craigslist, Crexi, and Instant Offices.
When choosing a commercial space, you may want to follow these rules of thumb:
Central location accessible via public transport
Ventilated and spacious, with good natural light
Flexible lease that can be extended as your business grows
Ready-to-use space with no major renovations or repairs needed
Step 3: Brainstorm a Business Name
Your business name is your business identity, so choose one that encapsulates your objectives, services, and mission in just a few words. You probably want a name that’s short and easy to remember, since much of your business, and your initial business in particular, will come from word-of-mouth referrals.
Here are some ideas for brainstorming your business name:
Short, unique, and catchy names tend to stand out
Names that are easy to say and spell tend to do better
Name should be relevant to your product or service offerings
Ask around — family, friends, colleagues, social media — for suggestions
Including keywords, such as “logistics” or “freight forwarding”, boosts SEO
Name should allow for expansion, for ex: “Global Connect Logistics” over “Air Freight Express”
Avoid location-based names that might hinder future expansion
Once you’ve got a list of potential names, visit the website of the US Patent and Trademark Office to make sure they are available for registration and check the availability of related domain names using our Domain Name Search tool. Using “.com” or “.org” sharply increases credibility, so it’s best to focus on these.
Finally, make your choice among the names that pass this screening and go ahead with domain registration and social media account creation. Your business name is one of the key differentiators that sets your business apart. Once you pick your company name, and start with the branding, it is hard to change the business name. Therefore, it’s important to carefully consider your choice before you start a business entity.
Step 4: Create a Business Plan
Every business needs a plan. This will function as a guidebook to take your startup through the launch process and maintain focus on your key goals. A business plan also enables potential partners and investors to better understand your company and its vision:
Executive Summary: A concise summary outlining the core elements of the freight forwarding business plan, including its mission, goals, and key strategies.
Business Overview: An overview of the freight forwarding business, highlighting its purpose, structure, and the specific needs it aims to address in the logistics industry.
Product and Services: Clear description of the freight forwarding services offered, such as international shipping, customs clearance, and supply chain management.
Market Analysis: An examination of the target market for the freight forwarding business, identifying key trends, customer needs, and potential growth opportunities in the logistics sector.
Competitive Analysis: Evaluation of competitors in the freight forwarding industry, highlighting strengths, weaknesses, and strategies to differentiate the business in a competitive market.
Sales and Marketing: Strategies for promoting and selling freight forwarding services, encompassing customer acquisition, advertising, and building strong industry relationships.
Management Team: Introduction to the key individuals responsible for leading and managing the freight forwarding business, emphasizing their expertise and roles in ensuring success.
Operations Plan: Detailed plans for the day-to-day operations of the freight forwarding business, covering logistics, technology, and processes to ensure efficient service delivery.
Financial Plan: A comprehensive financial overview, including projections, budgets, and key financial indicators, to demonstrate the viability and sustainability of the freight forwarding business.
Appendix: Supplementary materials, such as supporting documents, charts, and additional information that adds depth and credibility to the freight forwarding business plan.
If you’ve never created a business plan, it can be an intimidating task. You might consider hiring a business plan specialist to create a top-notch business plan for you.
Step 5: Register Your Business
Registering your business is an absolutely crucial step — it’s the prerequisite to paying taxes, raising capital, opening a bank account, and other guideposts on the road to getting a business up and running.
Plus, registration is exciting because it makes the entire process official. Once it’s complete, you’ll have your own business!
Choose where to register your company
Your business location is important because it can affect taxes, legal requirements, and revenue. Most people will register their business in the state where they live, but if you are planning to expand, you might consider looking elsewhere, as some states could offer real advantages when it comes to freight forwarding businesses.
If you’re willing to move, you could really maximize your business! Keep in mind, it’s relatively easy to transfer your business to another state.
Choose your business structure
Business entities come in several varieties, each with its pros and cons. The legal structure you choose for your freight forwarding business will shape your taxes, personal liability, and business registration requirements, so choose wisely.
Here are the main options:
Sole Proprietorship – The most common structure for small businesses makes no legal distinction between company and owner. All income goes to the owner, who’s also liable for any debts, losses, or liabilities incurred by the business. The owner pays taxes on business income on his or her personal tax return.
General Partnership – Similar to a sole proprietorship, but for two or more people. Again, owners keep the profits and are liable for losses. The partners pay taxes on their share of business income on their personal tax returns.
Limited Liability Company (LLC)– Combines the characteristics of corporations with those of sole proprietorships or partnerships. Again, the owners are not personally liable for debts.
C Corp – Under this structure, the business is a distinct legal entity and the owner or owners are not personally liable for its debts. Owners take profits through shareholder dividends, rather than directly. The corporation pays taxes, and owners pay taxes on their dividends, which is sometimes referred to as double taxation.
S Corp – An S-Corporation refers to the tax classification of the business but is not a business entity. An S-Corp can be either a corporation or an LLC, which just need to elect to be an S-Corp for tax status. In an S-Corp, income is passed through directly to shareholders, who pay taxes on their share of business income on their personal tax returns.
We recommend that new business owners choose LLC as it offers liability protection and pass-through taxation while being simpler to form than a corporation. You can form an LLC in as little as five minutes using an online LLC formation service. They will check that your business name is available before filing, submit your articles of organization, and answer any questions you might have.
The final step before you’re able to pay taxes is getting an Employer Identification Number, or EIN. You can file for your EIN online or by mail or fax: visit the IRS website to learn more. Keep in mind, if you’ve chosen to be a sole proprietorship you can simply use your social security number as your EIN.
Once you have your EIN, you’ll need to choose your tax year. Financially speaking, your business will operate in a calendar year (January–December) or a fiscal year, a 12-month period that can start in any month. This will determine your tax cycle, while your business structure will determine which taxes you’ll pay.
It is important to consult an accountant or other professional to help you with your taxes to ensure you are completing them correctly.
Step 7: Fund your Business
Securing financing is your next step and there are plenty of ways to raise capital:
Bank loans: This is the most common method but getting approved requires a rock-solid business plan and strong credit history.
SBA-guaranteed loans: The Small Business Administration can act as guarantor, helping gain that elusive bank approval via an SBA-guaranteed loan.
Government grants: A handful of financial assistance programs help fund entrepreneurs. Visit Grants.gov to learn which might work for you.
Friends and Family: Reach out to friends and family to provide a business loan or investment in your concept. It’s a good idea to have legal advice when doing so because SEC regulations apply.
Crowdfunding: Websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo offer an increasingly popular low-risk option, in which donors fund your vision. Entrepreneurial crowdfunding sites like Fundable and WeFunder enable multiple investors to fund your business.
Personal: Self-fund your business via your savings or the sale of property or other assets.
Bank and SBA loans are probably the best option, other than friends and family, for funding a freight forwarding business.
Federal regulations, licenses, and permits associated with starting your business include doing business as (DBA), health licenses and permits from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), trademarks, copyrights, patents, and other intellectual properties, as well as industry-specific licenses and permits.
You may also need state-level and local county or city-based licenses and permits. The license requirements and how to obtain them vary, so check the websites of your state, city, and county governments or contact the appropriate person to learn more.
Keeping your business finances separate from your personal account makes it easy to file taxes and track your company’s income, so it’s worth doing even if you’re running your freight forwarding business as a sole proprietorship. Opening a business bank account is quite simple, and similar to opening a personal one. Most major banks offer accounts tailored for businesses — just inquire at your preferred bank to learn about their rates and features.
Banks vary in terms of offerings, so it’s a good idea to examine your options and select the best plan for you. Once you choose your bank, bring in your EIN (or Social Security Number if you decide on a sole proprietorship), articles of incorporation, and other legal documents and open your new account.
Step 10: Get Business Insurance
Business insurance is an area that often gets overlooked yet it can be vital to your success as an entrepreneur. Insurance protects you from unexpected events that can have a devastating impact on your business.
Here are some types of insurance to consider:
General liability: The most comprehensive type of insurance, acting as a catch-all for many business elements that require coverage. If you get just one kind of insurance, this is it. It even protects against bodily injury and property damage.
Business Property: Provides coverage for your equipment and supplies.
Equipment Breakdown Insurance: Covers the cost of replacing or repairing equipment that has broken due to mechanical issues.
Worker’s compensation: Provides compensation to employees injured on the job.
Property: Covers your physical space, whether it is a cart, storefront, or office.
Commercial auto: Protection for your company-owned vehicle.
Professional liability: Protects against claims from a client who says they suffered a loss due to an error or omission in your work.
Business owner’s policy (BOP): This is an insurance plan that acts as an all-in-one insurance policy, a combination of the above insurance types.
As opening day nears, prepare for launch by reviewing and improving some key elements of your business.
Essential software and tools
Being an entrepreneur often means wearing many hats, from marketing to sales to accounting, which can be overwhelming. Fortunately, many websites and digital tools are available to help simplify many business tasks.
You may want to use industry-specific software, such as Linbis, Magaya, or Logitude to quote shipments, automate customs compliance workflows, and store documents.
If you’re unfamiliar with basic accounting, you may want to hire a professional, especially as you begin. The consequences for filing incorrect tax documents can be harsh, so accuracy is crucial.
Develop your website
Website development is crucial because your site is your online presence and needs to convince prospective clients of your expertise and professionalism.
You can create your own website using website builders. This route is very affordable, but figuring out how to build a website can be time-consuming. If you lack tech-savvy, you can hire a web designer or developer to create a custom website for your business.
They are unlikely to find your website, however, unless you follow Search Engine Optimization (SEO) practices. These are steps that help pages rank higher in the results of top search engines like Google.
For your freight forwarding business, the marketing strategy should focus on highlighting your expertise in logistics, the reliability and efficiency of your services, and your ability to handle complex shipping needs. Emphasize your global network, your knowledge of customs and regulations, and the tailored solutions you provide to ensure smooth and timely deliveries. Here are some powerful marketing strategies for your future business:
Professional Branding: Your branding should convey efficiency, global reach, and expertise in logistics. This includes your logo, website design, and marketing materials.
Direct Outreach: Network with potential clients, such as manufacturers, exporters, and importers, to introduce your services. Attending industry events, trade shows, and business expos can be highly effective for building contacts.
Digital Presence and Online Marketing
Professional Website and SEO: Develop a comprehensive website that details your services, the industries you serve, and case studies showcasing your capabilities. Optimize your site for search engines using keywords related to freight forwarding, logistics services, and international shipping.
Social Media Engagement: Utilize platforms like LinkedIn for B2B networking and Facebook to share industry news, company updates, and insights into global logistics trends.
Content Marketing and Engagement
Logistics Blog: Share informative content about industry trends, supply chain management, and best practices in freight forwarding. This positions your company as a knowledgeable leader in the field.
Email Newsletters: Keep your clients and prospects informed about changes in shipping regulations, new services, and company news.
Webinars and Online Workshops: Host educational webinars on topics like customs compliance, international trade, and logistics planning.
Experiential and In-Person Engagements
Industry Conferences and Events: Participate in relevant conferences and trade shows to network with potential clients and stay updated on industry developments.
Client Workshops: Offer workshops or training sessions for clients on topics like optimizing their supply chain or understanding international shipping processes.
Collaborations and Community
Partnerships with Complementary Businesses: Collaborate with businesses in related sectors, such as customs brokers or insurance providers, to offer comprehensive solutions to clients.
Community Involvement: Engage in community projects or sponsor local events to build brand awareness and goodwill.
Customer Relationship and Loyalty Programs
Customized Service Packages: Develop tailored service packages for regular clients, enhancing customer satisfaction and retention.
Client Feedback Initiatives: Regularly solicit and act on client feedback to improve your services and demonstrate commitment to customer satisfaction.
Promotions and Advertising
Targeted B2B Advertising: Use digital advertising on platforms frequented by your target clientele, such as industry-specific online magazines and forums.
Trade Publications and PR: Contribute articles to trade publications and engage in public relations activities to build your brand’s reputation in the industry.
Focus on USPs
Unique selling propositions, or USPs, are the characteristics of a product or service that sets it apart from the competition. Customers today are inundated with buying options, so you’ll have a real advantage if they are able to quickly grasp how your freight forwarding business meets their needs or wishes. It’s wise to do all you can to ensure your USPs stand out on your website and in your marketing and promotional materials, stimulating buyer desire.
Global pizza chain Domino’s is renowned for its USP: “Hot pizza in 30 minutes or less, guaranteed.” Signature USPs for your freight forwarding business could be:
We make international logistics easy and effortless
Reliable cargo solutions at competitive rates
Premier freight forwarding for the nation’s top importers
You may not like to network or use personal connections for business gain. But your personal and professional networks likely offer considerable untapped business potential. Maybe that Facebook friend you met in college is now running a freight forwarding business, or a LinkedIn contact of yours is connected to dozens of potential clients. Maybe your cousin or neighbor has been working in logistics for years and can offer invaluable insight and industry connections.
The possibilities are endless, so it’s a good idea to review your personal and professional networks and reach out to those with possible links to or interest in freight forwarding. You’ll probably generate new customers or find companies with which you could establish a partnership.
Step 12: Build Your Team
If you’re starting out small from a home office, you may not need any employees. But as your business grows, you will likely need workers to fill various roles. Potential positions for a freight forwarding business include:
Freight Forwarding Agent – Receive shipments at the warehouse, prepares compliance documents
Office Manager – Send quotes to customers, manage shipment schedules
Marketing Lead – Run ad campaigns, generate leads
At some point, you may need to hire all of these positions or simply a few, depending on the size and needs of your business. You might also hire multiple workers for a single role or a single worker for multiple roles, again depending on need.
Free-of-charge methods to recruit employees include posting ads on popular platforms such as LinkedIn, Facebook, or Jobs.com. You might also consider a premium recruitment option, such as advertising on Indeed, Glassdoor, or ZipRecruiter. Further, if you have the resources, you could consider hiring a recruitment agency to help you find talent.
Owning your own freight forwarding company takes a lot of hard work and dedication, but it’s also crucial to economic growth. You could become a dedicated, reliable partner to your customers and make great money along the way.
Now that you’re familiar with what it takes to launch a business, it’s time to get out there and make some logistical magic!
Freight Forwarding Business FAQs
How do freight forwarders get clients?
Freight forwarders can get clients through various ways, such as:
Networking: Attending industry events, conferences, and exhibitions can help to connect with potential clients and build relationships.
Referrals: Satisfied clients can recommend your services to others, leading to more business.
Digital marketing: Utilizing social media, search engine optimization and email marketing can help to raise awareness of your services and attract potential clients.
Partnering with other businesses: Collaborating with other logistics and transportation companies can lead to cross-selling opportunities and new clients.
Is a freight forwarding business profitable?
Freight forwarding is an extremely profitable business venture. The key to success lies in strategic pricing, working within a lucrative niche, and having a robust network of carriers and supply chain experts.
What are some ways to differentiate your freight forwarding business from competitors?
Some ways to differentiate your freight forwarding business from competitors are offering specialized services, providing exceptional customer service, and utilizing technology.
What is the risk of freight forwarder?
The risks associated with being a freight forwarder include liability for cargo damage or loss during transportation, legal and regulatory compliance issues, and fluctuating fuel prices and currency exchange rates.
How do I become a successful freight forwarder?
To become a successful freight forwarder, some key steps to consider are:
Gain relevant education and experience in logistics, transportation, and international trade.
Establish strong relationships with carriers, customs brokers, and other logistics providers.
Focus on providing exceptional customer service and timely communication.
Invest in technology and automation to improve efficiency and provide better visibility into shipments.
Stay up-to-date with industry trends and regulatory changes to maintain compliance and stay competitive.
How to Start a Freight Forwarding Business
Decide if the Business Is Right for You
Hone Your Idea
Brainstorm a Business Name
Create a Business Plan
Register Your Business
Register for Taxes
Fund your Business
Apply for Licenses/Permits
Open a Business Bank Account
Get Business Insurance
Prepare to Launch
Build Your Team
Start Making Money!
Freight Forwarding Business FAQs
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