IVCA Profile: Techstars and Demo Day Participants Routific, on Their Chicago Experience in 2015

IVCA Profile: Techstars and Demo Day Participants Routific, on Their Chicago Experience in 2015

December 9, 2015

During the summer and fall of 2015, the business accelerator group Techstars Chicago mentored another ten companies, and allowed them to present their enterprises to investors on Demo Day in October. One of those companies, Routific, is a Canadian based transportation solution, that offers route optimization for fleet systems. Besides their participation in Techstars, the team from Routific got an opportunity to experience the Midwest business and investor environs of Chicago..

Routific has four co-founders – CEO Marc Kuo, CMO Suzanne Ma, CTO Andre Soesilo and COO Andrew Kwok – who came to Chicago through Techstars with high expectations to be part of the city ecosystem. The IVCA interviewed Marc Kuo and Suzanne Ma about their experiences, and found an entrepreneurial spirit with a deep appreciation for their time in Chicago.

IVCA: What is the origin of Routific? And once you had the idea, which part of the process was most difficult from conception to launch of the real business?

Marc Kuo: I wrote my thesis on complex vehicle routing and scheduling problems. After graduation, I worked as a logistics consultant in the Netherlands, and then as an algorithmic trader in Hong Kong. I started Routific because I saw so much waste in the supply chain, and I recognized that I could do something to help reduce inefficiencies on a grand scale. I determined the need for a modern cloud-based routing solution that's functional, easy-to-use and affordable.

So many businesses around the world are still manually planning their routes – wasting precious time, money and fuel. Logistics consultants sell legacy software for hundreds of thousands of dollars a pop and, FedEX and UPS have their own proprietary solutions – solutions the rest of the market doesn't have access to. I am determined to change all that with Routific. I want to make smart vehicle routing available to the masses.

Suzanne Ma: We are very strong on product and design, so I’d say sales to local businesses is the most challenging part of our business. The market is very fragmented, and reaching our audience effectively at scale has been the biggest challenge. Techstars really helped us in that area.

One of the most rewarding things about working on Routific is knowing that we are making real-world impact on a large scale. We’re reducing carbon emissions plus helping small and mid-sized businesses run smart, efficient delivery operations across the United States and around the world.

IVCA: What need in the transportation community did you seek to fill in Routific, and based on your feedback so far how has it succeeded in filling that niche?

Ma: One of the biggest operational challenges for any delivery business is planning the routes to ensure goods are transported efficiently, and on time to their customers. Traditionally, route planning is done on pen and paper – mixed with intuition, gut instinct and experience – but you can imagine how incredibly inefficient and inconsistent this all can be. Many of our customers tell us that they used to spend up to two hours manually planning their routes. With Routific, the process is streamlined and it quite literally takes just a few clicks.

But that’s only one of the many benefits we provide delivery businesses. Route optimization algorithms can find far more efficient routes compared to any human dispatcher. We have done a number of case studies, where some of our customers cut an hour of driving time for every vehicle in their fleet, while others saved 37% on fuel costs and were able to take up to eight vehicles off the road.

IVCA: How did you get involved in Techstars, and why did you travel to Chicago to participate in it?

Ma: We knew that Chicago had a strong ecosystem of B2B businesses, that found success because of a strong foundation in sales and marketing. We were excited for the opportunity to tap into that foundation and learn a thing or two. On top of that, Chicago is a major logistics hub so it was, in many ways, the perfect place for us to be.

It was a dream-come-true for us when we were accepted into Techstars. We had known about the program for years, and we hoped to be one of the lucky ones selected for Chicago. To be honest – while we had extremely high expectations – we had no idea just how valuable the entire experience would be until we arrived in Chicago in July, and met the other teams. There were so many magnetic personalities and the dynamism of the group was electrifying, in addition to the interaction with Troy Henikoff and Brian Luerssen [Techstars Chicago managing directors].

IVCA: In going through the Techstars program, what felt most like ‘Chicago’ or had a ‘Midwestern’ sensibility about it, and how were you able to apply that to your process during the Techstars program?

Ma: Living and working in Chicago, and interacting with the community, gave us a real sense of what it means to be from the Midwest – it was so refreshing, and everyone we met was so down to earth and so grounded. We loved how people around us were hard-working and committed to making their businesses soar, but were also exploring sensible and sustainable ways of doing it.

We learned to roll up our sleeves, pick up the phone, and dial for dollars. We learned to have as many probing conversations as possible, to gather as much valuable information from leads as possible. We learned how to connect with our potential customers in a strategic and honest way.

IVCA: You were involved with several Chicago mentors during your Techstars experience. What common thread did you find in their advice and offerings, or what struck you about the Chicago business community and their willingness to be mentors?

Kuo: ‘Give first’ is the Techstars motto that every mentor we met really took to heart. It was an attitude in helping one another, without expecting anything in return. Time and attention are two of the most valuable things a mentor can offer, and we were very surprised by their generous spirit in offering both. This could be due to the Chicago business community, or the Techstars network, or both – but we hadn’t seen this anywhere else before.

IVCA: Obviously, your time in Chicago was consumed by the Techstars program, but what impressions were you able to get from Techstars, and your own observations, about the investor community in the city?

Kuo: Up until our time in Chicago, I mostly spent time talking to investors on the East and West coasts. I found the Chicago investor community to be a very ‘sensible’ group. They ask the right questions, are experienced B2B investors, and really value building sustainable metrics-driven businesses. They are not unicorn hunters like the herd on the West Coast.

IVCA: What was your experience on Demo Day? What was your feeling regarding the presentation you made, and the feedback you received regarding it?

Kuo: Demo Day itself was an awesome party, but the true value of the day came from all the work we did in the preparation for it. It is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity with an arbitrary deadline, which made us really prioritize all the things we needed to do to make sure we made the best of it.

I also learned a ton about storytelling and presenting – it was a grueling one month of pitch prep. We practiced every single day and I even lost my voice in the process...but it was worth it. The feedback we received on our pitch was overwhelmingly positive, and for this we are extremely grateful for all the time and advice of our mentors.

IVCA: In your experience in soliciting and working with investors, what advice would you give them as an entrepreneur who is looking to establish a relationship that is advantageous for both sides?

Kuo: I’d ask all investors to put themselves in the entrepreneur’s shoes – and of course investors who have started businesses themselves, and have gone those difficult rounds of fundraising already understand this. As entrepreneurs, we like to get things done quickly. Long, drawn-out diligence processes can be detrimental and a distraction for the very businesses an investor is considering. I really appreciate the investor who makes up their mind quickly, executes quickly, and wires quickly.

Secondly, eliminate the lemming mentality. As an investor, if you think something is a good opportunity, jump on it because YOU appreciate and desire the opportunity. Steer clear of saying you’d like to wait for someone else to make that first step, because if the entire investment community was like that, nothing would get done.

IVCA: What word would you use to define the overall experience – with Techstars, the investor community and the city – that you had in Chicago, and why would that word be appropriate to the experience?

Ma: There isn’t one word to sum it all up. It was the experience of a lifetime, and our time in Chicago will continue to influence the way we do business, and with whom we do business. What we expressed in this interview provides a good idea about how we feel about  the city, Techstars, and the investor community – it was a great adventure.

For more information about Routific, click www.routific.com