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“Live and breathe your company culture” With Douglas Brown & Suzanne Ma

Don’t celebrate until the money is in the bank. This is something Troy Henikoff of Techstars told us. Talk is cheap. Businesses can promise to pay invoices, and investors can say they’re interested in your company. You can remain optimistic about these deals, but don’t break out the champagne until you see those dollars in your […]

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Don’t celebrate until the money is in the bank. This is something Troy Henikoff of Techstars told us. Talk is cheap. Businesses can promise to pay invoices, and investors can say they’re interested in your company. You can remain optimistic about these deals, but don’t break out the champagne until you see those dollars in your bank account.


As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Suzanne Ma.

Suzanne is co-founder of Routific. In her previous life, she was an award-winning journalist and author. Suzanne graduated with Honors from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and was awarded the Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?

My cofounder, Marc, and I are married. We have always joked that our company, Routific, is our baby. While the analogy sticks, the truth is, we have always wanted to have the chance to be parents to a human baby, too.

But getting pregnant isn’t easy. At least not for us.

I’ve since learned that we aren’t alone. A lot of couples have trouble getting pregnant, too. In fact, about ⅓ of women over the age of 35 struggle with some kind of fertility problem today in the United States.

We spent years going through fertility treatments before we had success with IVF, and in 2018, our son Avery was born.

During the five years we tried getting pregnant, we were also very busy building Routific. Fertility was one of the biggest challenges we ever faced because, while we were grateful to have access to capable doctors and treatments, ultimately whether or not we could get pregnant was out of our hands. We could do everything right, and we could still fail.

There were heartbreaking moments when a treatment would fail, and I’d get a call from the fertility clinic while at work to let me know we were unsuccessful. When you’re going through those invasive fertility treatments and injections, you have to build a lot of hope. Otherwise, there really isn’t a point. So you build yourself up, get your hopes up high, and then, when the call comes, you come crashing down. You spend an afternoon or two or three feeling down, and then you need to pick yourself back up and try again. This went on for a few years, all the while I was working full-time. The biggest let-down was probably when I was attending our first-ever company retreat in Whistler, Canada. I didn’t receive a call from the fertility clinic this time. Instead, on the day that we were supposed to go white water rafting with the team, my period came. The crimson stain on my underwear was a brutal mark of our/my failure, yet again. It was a very painful time for us, and I had to try and hold myself together while on the retreat with my team (spoiler: I did not hold myself together well at all).

There were also funny moments, like when Marc had to administer a late-night injection and we were having trouble with the needle. In a panic, we turned to Youtube for clarification and once we had enough guidance, we closed the laptop mid-video. The injection was successful and the next day, we both went into the office like any normal morning. I opened up my laptop and walked to the kitchen to get a cup of tea, and unbeknownst to me, the video guiding us through the injection continued to play.

“Now turn the vial upside down and pull on the syringe…” said the nurse with a wonderful British accent.

When I returned to my desk, a colleague who was sitting nearby was staring at me. Shyly, he asked: “Are you learning to ummm… inject…. stuff?”

We ended up having a laugh about it, and I took the opportunity to share that we were going through fertility treatments. While I was initially embarrassed, it was also a relief to share this with my teammate. I think it brought us closer, and I always look back at this memory with a chuckle.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I call this story, “Trying to catch an elephant in Singapore.”

In the early days, we chased all sorts of leads — big and small. We didn’t even have a fully developed product — just an API and a handful of paying customers. But I ended up prospecting and meeting with the VP of Operations Technology of RedMart, which at the time was the largest online supermarket in Singapore whose investors include Facebook cofounder Eduardo Saverin.

We met in a small restaurant on Arab Street behind the gleaming onion domes of a famous mosque. I remember the VP showing up more than 30 minutes late, and that he seemed hungry. He ordered a lot of food and spent more than an hour talking about RedMart’s needs and how they operate. It became clear that Routific, which was just a simple yet powerful routing engine, was not even close to what RedMart needed. They were looking for an entire grocery ecommerce system. After an hour of talking about RedMart, we talked about Routific. I remember he tried to be nice turning us down:

“From what I understand, you can probably only deliver about 20% of what I’m asking for, right?”

“We’re very risk-averse.”

“How can I justify to my colleagues that I chose Routific, other than you said something that sounded nice?”

“It’s difficult for me to go with something that is, to be honest, unproven in the market.”

He was totally right. We had hardly anything to show for ourselves. While we were grateful that this VP took the time to meet with us and tell us about RedMart, I felt stupid to have wasted everyone’s time. I was frustrated with my inability to find the right types of prospects, and for spending too much time chasing large accounts, or elephants, as they say.

I remember debriefing with my cofounder, Marc, after the meeting. Part of me wished there was some way to make us seem bigger than we were, larger than life. I wondered if zeroing in on our accomplishments and glossing over inexperience might’ve helped. Isn’t that, after all, what most startups did until they actually made it big? But Marc is a straight shooter and I wear my heart on my sleeve. It was not in our blood to exaggerate or puff out our chests, and it still isn’t.

We knew we couldn’t deliver what RedMart wanted, and even if we wanted to try, it wouldn’t be worth our time. It was not the smart way to grow our business at that early stage. When you’re hungry for business, you can make the mistake of trying to be a product for everyone. Over the years, we’ve learned the importance of targeting.

Two hours into the meal, the VP stood up and thanked us for our time. He left us to pay for his dinner, and I learned that I should stop trying to catch elephants.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

Did I ever consider giving up? Just once. In the very beginning. But I continued to push through because I knew that if we didn’t keep trying, I’d regret it and always wonder, “what if?”

I also felt that it was the right time to take risks. I was in my 20s and had been taking risks with my career for a few years already. The first big leaps for me were moving to New York for my Master’s degree at Columbia University, then working as a reporter in the city for a couple years. Later, I left the States and surrendered my precious work visa to move to China to write a book about immigration without a book contract or even an agent. After many years of hard work, I eventually landed an agent and a book deal. This adventure really helped me understand the value of taking risks and pursuing one’s dreams.

So, when the time to start Routific came along, I understood that this too was an amazing opportunity to pursue.

Routific’s inception, however, came at a very inconvenient time. My husband, Marc, quit his job two weeks before our wedding to start Routific on his own. Needless to say, it was a very stressful time for us. We had just moved to Vancouver, Canada and at the time, both of us were without a steady salary. I was working on publishing my book, and now Marc was starting up this venture with no financial backing. The financial stress was huge, as was the emotional burden of explaining to my family how we were going to live in one of the most expensive cities without real jobs. I was angry with Marc at the time, but I understood the value he was trying to bring to local businesses with his routing technology. And having just taken a big leap of faith in my book writing adventure, I knew that it was only fair to give Routific a go. Of course, today, I look back at this experience and I’m so glad we did!

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

Troy Henikoff, former managing director of Techstars Chicago.

In 2015, we beat out 800 teams to earn a spot in the yearly program. We spent four months in Chicago scaling up our business and going through a rigorous mentorship program featuring some of the top venture capitalists and entrepreneurs in the country.

Troy is the type of guy who fills the room with his charismatic energy. He’s a seasoned entrepreneur who has built multiple successful, technology-based businesses from the ground-up over a 30+ year period, so he’s smart and sharp as hell. He’s kind, warm, and friendly but he’s also candid, and takes no bullshit.

I’ve learned so much from Troy, about business and about life, and about making each and every word count. As a storyteller and an entrepreneur, this was hugely meaningful to me. Troy was always on my case, telling me to stop being so long-winded, and to stop trying to over-explain everything. Often, when I attempted to answer his questions, he’d interrupt me with a roar: “ANSWER WITH THE HEADLINE!” It was unnerving at first, but I understood why he was adamant about this. Communication has to be clear and succinct. You’ll lose a sale or an investor if you dilly dally. Today, I strive to ‘answer with the headline’ whenever I’m communicating, whether it’s writing a blog, speaking with my team, or participating in a media interview or panel discussion.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I printed out this quote and pinned it up in front of my writing desk as I was working on publishing my book: “First drafts don’t have to be perfect. They just have to be written.”

While I’m no longer working as a journalist, this quote continues to resonate with me as I work on seemingly daunting pieces of work or projects.

In the beginning, this just meant writing without inhibitions. Instead of sitting in front of a blank screen and fretting about all the things that could go wrong or how unqualified I am to tackle this, I simply start typing. It can be a brainstorm session where I jot down some thoughts, or it can be a series of Google searches so I can read up online about what I’m going to tackle.

I’ve now incorporated this lesson into my application of the Getting Things Done framework by first defining the objective of my project. I’ll usually type the objective out so I can see it in front of me on my screen. Then I take the project apart in pieces and come up with a step-by-step action plan to reach that objective. Everything seems a lot less scary when you dissect something this way, and then chip away at it little by little.

All the while, I keep in mind that this is a work in progress, and it doesn’t have to be perfect at the first go.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

Many delivery businesses deliver to 500 locations with a fleet of 10 vehicles every single day. The puzzle of deciding which vehicle goes where and in what order, while making sure the fleet operates as efficiently as possible, is extremely hard. Not to mention, often times with that many deliveries, there are often changes mid-route, throwing a wrench in the whole plan.

Humans are not very good at solving this problem, yet businesses report spending anywhere from one to three hours every day trying to (poorly) plan delivery routes. In fact, Routific surveyed 11,246 businesses and found that 72% still plan routes manually, using tools like spreadsheets, pen and paper, and Google Maps. Businesses dependent on manual route planning struggle with the consequences of inefficient routes, hours of manual route planning time and inflated delivery costs.

This is where Routific comes in.

Route optimization is the process of finding the most efficient and cost-effective route for a set of stops across your fleet. Many people think this means finding the shortest distance or fastest time between point A and point B, but this isn’t always right.

Route optimization is used when you want to minimize drive time for multiple stops, while also accounting for a range of complexities like customer time windows, vehicle capacities, driver schedules, and more.

Aside from saving the manual route planner a lot of time, Routific can also cut mileage and drive time by up to 40% by generating more efficient routes than humans could ever manually find.

Third- party environmental consultants estimated carbon emission reductions equivalent to planting 86 trees/year for every driver that switches over from manually planned routes to one optimized by Routific. In 2019 alone, Routific helped delivery businesses around the world save 11,322 tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, the equivalent of planting more than 500,000 trees.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our connection to honeybees.

Routific engineers drew inspiration from the “Bees Algorithm” — a heuristic in computer science that mimics the food foraging behavior of honeybee swarms. A colony of honeybees must cover long distances in multiple directions to harvest nectar and pollen from multiple flower patches. Scout bees must not only evaluate the quality of the food sources but also find the quickest route from flower-to-flower.

Similar to how bees optimize their flight paths, Routific developed its proprietary solution that draws on some of the smartest and fastest-performing heuristics. As a result, optimization is quick, flexible, and performant, enabling delivery businesses to save on operating costs and reduce their carbon footprint by nearly 40%.

I really love that we’re leveraging the age-old wisdom of honeybees in order to help delivery businesses work smarter and more efficiently in a modern world. Bees are some of the hardest working creatures on the planet. They’re amazing team players, and they’re absolutely vital to our local ecosystems. Without them, we wouldn’t have food to eat and crops to grow. They have served as inspiration for our team at Routific, and for many of our customers who have come to learn about honeybees through our company.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I’m really excited about our new integration with Shopify, which has enabled us to reach more small businesses across the globe.

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the urgent need for all small businesses to bring their sales online in order to survive. E-commerce has grown exponentially, and with that comes the necessity not only to make the sale, but to deliver those goods into the hands of consumers.

When COVID-19 hit, Routific experienced a 6X increase in SMB signups, and with this increase we needed to find ways to help streamline SMB efforts. That’s why we built an official integration with Shopify.

Routific and Shopify connect to push new orders from a Shopify store into Routific. Shopify users can then build delivery routes in Routific that are optimized with real-world factors like time windows, vehicle capacities, delivery types, driver speeds, driver shift times, driver breaks, and more.

Small businesses are the heart and soul of every local community. It’s been incredibly rewarding for the entire Routific team to be able to work with these businesses during this crisis, and help them find a lifeline by starting up an online shop and local delivery service.

Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

We should never be satisfied with the status quo.

There are many things that need to change, but there are a few high on my priority list:

  1. We need more women in leadership

Every organization needs diversity to truly thrive. I’m proud to say that we have women working in all departments, from engineering to design to marketing to leadership.

2. Workplaces need to be more inclusive

With women in leadership, workplaces can develop an inclusive culture and progressive policies that give women the opportunities to thrive and achieve maximum output. As the first Mom on our team, I was the guinea pig for our maternity and paternity leave benefits program. Now, as we welcome more babies into the Routific family, I’ve been actively refining and iterating on the program which enables both mothers and their partners to take generous paid leave and enables parents to make a flexible transition back to work when they’re ready to do so.

3. Start early in school

Recently, I asked a new Computer Science graduate what the male/female ratio was in her class that year. She told me it was 50/50. Kids are learning to code from a young age, and more and more women are taking up careers in STEM. With good role models, more women in leadership, and progressive workplaces, these girls will only be more motivated to pursue a career in tech.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

This is a really big question, with a lot of possible answers. I decided to ask my team at Routific for some insights because while my opinion is important, tapping into the hive mind is always a good thing to do.

One of our stellar senior full stack engineers, Carol, told me for years she really struggled with finding role models for female engineers to mentor her on a senior, leadership, and strategic level. Our lead designer, Youmi, also recently expressed the same sentiment in her industry.

Carol eventually had an interesting conversation with another female senior engineer at a leadership meetup. This woman told her that if we are having trouble finding role models, then we need to step up and be role models for one another, even if we don’t know what that means exactly. This conversation changed her, and Carol started to put herself out there, and start conversations with other young women in her field.

Like Carol, I’ve shied away from putting myself out there as a woman in tech and as a woman in leadership. After all these years of first working as a journalist and then building Routific from ground zero, I still feel like I’m making mistakes and learning every day. How valuable is my advice, and what I have to say? A lot more than I think, I’ve come to realize. So, I’ve started to put myself out there, too. Doing interviews like this is just one way to reach more women in tech.

So, if one of the biggest challenges facing women in tech today is a lack of role models. Then, I’d say one of the solutions that is super actionable for each and every woman in tech reading this is to step up and be there for one another. That kind of ‘give first’ attitude, which we have always followed at Routific, is a meaningful way to make a difference today.

What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?

It’s hard to give general advice especially without knowing the specifics of the business and the market they’re playing in, but we’ve always taken the best practice of constant experimentation and iteration. If something isn’t working, find out why, and brainstorm new channels of growth you can potentially tap into. At the end of every campaign or experiment, our definition of “done” at Routific includes a retrospective to look at the success (or failure) of what we’ve done and decide on next steps. Sometimes, it’s so easy to get caught up in all the work that you don’t make the time to sit back and reflect on what’s working and what isn’t.

Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?

No, I’m afraid not. That’s because we deliberately didn’t build out a sales team. We instead focused our energies on bringing sales learnings to the product, removing the friction from the user’s experience, and introducing users to value in our free trial very quickly.

In April 2020, Routific acquired just shy of 300 new paying subscribers in one month, without a single sales rep getting involved. This was part of a go-to-market strategy referred to as product-led growth, a path to both high profitability and happier users, famously employed by Slack, Dropbox, and Shopify.

In this article, our Director of Go-to-Market, Dale Williams, walks through how we executed on this strategy: https://productled.com/improve-your-activation-rate/

In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?

From day one, we’ve always been working hard at making Routific.com optimized for organic search. I live and breathe SEO. Today, our best leads continue to come to us via organic search.

Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

Routific differentiates itself from its competitors by being the easiest to use delivery management platform on the market. We’ve invested a lot of time and energy into making it frictionless for our users to onboard themselves. Many of our customers often tell us how beautiful the software is. One likened Routific to playing a fun video game, while another described it this way: “Routific is the Mac in a PC world of routing.”

Another thing that we did at Routific was focusing our energies on bringing sales learnings to the product, removing the friction from the user’s experience, and introducing users to value in our free trial very quickly. That’s how we were able to acquire 300 new paying subscribers in one month, without a single sales rep getting involved.

Lastly, I’d like to say a quick something about customer service. In the early days, I spent pretty much all my time speaking to customers and helping users with the software. From the beginning we’ve always made every effort to speak human. This might sound strange at first. What do you mean ‘speak human’? Well, if you’ve called into customer service lines or chatted with reps of large corporations, you might know what I’m talking about. So often customer service people aren’t actually listening to what you’re saying. They are reading from scripts, making a ton of assumptions, and employing meaningless parlance like “sorry for the inconvenience” — a huge pet peeve of mine. I’ve always encouraged everyone on the customer-facing team to speak to the customer as you want to be spoken to. Empathize with them. Let them know you’re listening, that you hear them, and that you understand how they feel. Then, do your best to help them.

As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?

In addition to providing stellar customer service, product development has to be continuous, rapid, and always seeking customer input. In my opinion, that’s the best way to mitigate churn. You need to keep providing value to your customers. New pain points may arise, and you need to know them as soon as possible if your product and your company wants to stay relevant in this fast-changing world.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.

I have 3 things I can share.

  1. Live and breathe your company culture

In the early days, we took the time to define a set of core values. Then, we used these core values — transparency, teamwork, and professional growth — to help guide us as we built the company up. We’ve always believed that skills can be developed, and people can be trained, but core values are non-negotiable. I’m really glad we took the time to build that culture and to live by these core values as an example to all Routific team members, because the results are evident: we come together every day as a tight-knit group of warm, quirky, hard-working, and passionate individuals determined to make a positive impact on the world.

2. Don’t celebrate until the money is in the bank.

This is something Troy Henikoff of Techstars told us. Talk is cheap. Businesses can promise to pay invoices, and investors can say they’re interested in your company. You can remain optimistic about these deals, but don’t break out the champagne until you see those dollars in your bank account.

3. Find good cofounders

Co-founder breakups are the number one reason why companies fail, especially at the early stages. But you can’t run this ship on your own. Find a good partner or partners, build a strong foundation of trust and impenetrable lines of communication, and together you can conquer anything.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would like to encourage everyone to remember what it’s like to be a newcomer. This is a lesson I conveyed in a TedX talk I gave in 2015.

In the talk, I argue that seeing the world through the lens of a newcomer enables you to notice things you might not have seen before. It not only ignites a sense of awe and wonder, but it also helps you develop a strong sense of empathy.

And we really need more empathy in this world.

This lesson stems from my work as a journalist reporting on immigrant communities. Immigrants are often stereotyped or blamed for economic, social, and political woes. Often, things get lost in translation. I’d like to encourage people to strike up conversations with immigrants in an effort to get to know them better.

While everyone might not know what it’s like to be an immigrant, you can certainly know what it’s like to be a newcomer — the new kid at school, the new employee at work, joining a social club for the first time, or moving into a new community.

If all of us take the opportunity to see the world through the lens of a newcomer, your worldview can drastically change for the better.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

Michelle Obama. I read her memoir and was so inspired by her story. She’s a good-hearted human being, and she’s intelligent, ambitious, hard-working, and kind. I’d be so honored to have a chance to share a meal with her.

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