Marc Kuo: “Stay intellectually honest and transparent”

The fact that most businesses are still manually planning routes is a big problem for the environment. 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 ones optimized by Routific. This isn’t just a big idea that might change the […]

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The fact that most businesses are still manually planning routes is a big problem for the environment. 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 ones optimized by Routific.

This isn’t just a big idea that might change the world. It is already changing the world. In 2019 alone, Routific helped delivery businesses around the world save 11,322 tons of greenhouse gas emissions, the equivalent of planting more than 500,000 trees.

But there’s still a lot more work to be done.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Marc Kuo the Founder and CEO of Routific. An expert on advanced route optimization algorithms, he brings more than a decade of experience in the field of logistics. Previously, Marc was a founding team member at Axiom Zen, an algorithmic trader for UBS Bank in Hong Kong, and a consultant at Cap Gemini in the Netherlands. He graduated cum laude with a master’s degree in operations research from Erasmus University, where he majored in computer science, machine learning, and artificial intelligence.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you please tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I remember sitting at my desk on the 51st floor of Hong Kong’s tallest skyscraper, eyes darting back and forth between the seven computer monitors before me. I was using algorithms to move millions of dollars on the stock exchange. I had landed a banking job fresh out of grad school, and in many ways, it seemed like a dream job — for about two whole months.

Everything seemed so glamorous at first. I wore a suit to work, the office tower was beautiful, and the money was good, — but pretty quickly, I began to feel empty and unfulfilled. I looked out the window, down at the great city below, where hundreds of cars were zooming through intersections, over bridges, and into tunnels, and thought: “What if I could use algorithms to move vehicles in a more efficient way? What if those algorithms could lead to less road congestion, less fuel wasted, and more blue skies for Hong Kong and other great cities around the world?”

I quit my job at the investment bank pretty soon after that, and took out my old graduate thesis on advanced route optimization algorithms. While I was proud of my academic work, what use was it sitting in the university library?

For the next two years, I worked on rewriting the algorithm and turning it into an easy-to-use route optimization platform for delivery businesses. I wanted to bring the algorithm to life, to see it applied to the real world, and have it make a positive impact.

Fast forward to the year 2020, and we’ve really come a long way. Our company has grown to include a team of incredibly smart and passionate people — software engineers, data scientists, designers, marketers, customer success experts, business leaders — who are committed to helping the 1,000+ delivery companies on our platform work as efficiently as possible.

Though we’ve grown and changed through the years, we are still on the same mission: to make route optimization technology accessible to every local delivery business, and to help such businesses reduce their fuel consumption and lower their carbon footprint.

Can you please share with us the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

Startup life throws you a lot of curveballs, and I could probably share some exciting investor-related stories or talk about going through Techstars in Chicago — an experience of a lifetime, for sure! But I think I’ll make this one a little personal:

I made the mistake of actually quitting my job two weeks before my wedding. It put my wife, Suzanne, under a lot of stress at the time. She was a news journalist and had recently quit her job to work on a book. So, for a period of time, both of us were without income. Not an ideal situation when you’re newlyweds trying to start a life together in an expensive city.

A few years later, Suzanne ended up joining me as co-founder, so it actually all worked out in the end. In fact, I went through several co-founders before Suzanne, and having her join me was one of the best decisions I ever made. The best partnerships are built on a foundation of trust and shared principles. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner in life and in business.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

1.) Stay intellectually honest and transparent.

If you don’t know something, admit it. Don’t let pride get in the way. Stay humble and honest with yourself and the people around you. This is key to building trust, and keeping lines of communication open to those around you. Radical transparency is one of our core values at Routific. We believe oversharing information and exposing our thinking processes empowers people to make better decisions. We strive to create a psychologically safe environment where everyone can share their thoughts and feelings, and also admit and expose their mistakes. This gives us all great opportunities to grow and learn.

2.) Be generous and ‘Give First’

Generosity has always been a pillar in my life, but it wasn’t until we went through Techstars in 2015 when the ‘Give First’ mentality became a permanent part of the way we do business and interact with one another. The Techstars program put us in touch with a network of mentors who were all willing to volunteer their time to coach us through problems and help us build and scale our business. Having that kind of genuine support fueling us through those early days really inspired us to do the same for early stage startups, businesses, and entrepreneurs who later came to us seeking advice or counsel. We want to be able to give back to the community just as those mentors did for us. One of the things we’ve been able to do during this pandemic has been to offer Routific for free to any nonprofit organization involved with delivering essential supplies to vulnerable populations. To date, we’ve helped 400+ nonprofits around the world. With all the blessings we’ve had come our way, it’s really the least we could do.

3.) What would your 70-year-old self think?

This last one isn’t so much a principle or philosophy, but a question I often ask myself when making hard decisions. It makes me revisit my principles, and I tend to think about my legacy, and how I want to be remembered. It’s a very useful thought exercise that helps give me perspective on a problem, and eventually leads me to making the right decision.

Ok thank you for that. Let’s now move to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

Imagine a delivery business that delivers to 500 locations every day with a fleet of 10 vehicles. 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. And humans are not very good at it.

Many businesses report spending upwards of three hours trying to manually figure out their delivery routes. In fact, Routific surveyed 11,246 businesses and found that 72% still plan routes manually. That means they plan routes 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 route optimization software can help. Aside from saving the manual route planner a lot of time, we also cut mileage and drive time by 20%-40% by generating more efficient routes than humans can ever find.

How do you think this will change the world?

The fact that most businesses are still manually planning routes is a big problem for the environment. 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 ones optimized by Routific.

This isn’t just a big idea that might change the world. It is already changing the world. In 2019 alone, Routific helped delivery businesses around the world save 11,322 tons of greenhouse gas emissions, the equivalent of planting more than 500,000 trees.

But there’s still a lot more work to be done.

The biggest challenge is changing bad habits. People are stuck in their old ways and it’s our job not only to build this technology and make it available to them, but to educate businesses that such technology exists in the first place.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

People always fear that technology and automation can eliminate jobs. In our case, route optimization technology actually enables a logistics manager or a route planner to do his or her job better. What our technology eliminates is the inefficient, manual processes of route planning.

True story: My co-founder, Suzanne, once told a route planner: “You are Tony Stark, and Routific is your Iron Man suit.”

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

Sure, I’d be happy to dive deeper into what was so soul-sucking about my time at the investment bank and why I believe that life is too short to be stuck doing something you’re not absolutely in love with.

Being an equity trader at an investment bank may look and sound prestigious and glamorous, but sometimes appearances are very different from reality. In my experience, banks can have a very stifling culture where creativity and new ideas to improve existing processes are blocked by layers of bureaucracy and internal politics. If you’re skipping your lunch break or staying in the office until late in the evening just to impress your superiors, something is seriously wrong with your idea of workplace productivity and culture.

When I started Routific, I vowed to do everything within my power to avoid having that kind of culture. We’re building a company where people are constantly encouraged to be creative and to come up with new ideas; a place where they can always be honest, happy, and productive. A place where people grow into the best versions of themselves.

These kinds of workplaces exist and I challenge you to go out there and find them. Better yet — you can create such a workplace yourself as an entrepreneur.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

A pandemic. When COVID-19 hit, we saw an unprecedented surge in demand for home delivery services. Adoption of eCommerce and home delivery was already on the rise; the pandemic simply accelerated it by a number of years. COVID-19 forced many businesses to pivot quickly to offer home delivery or risk going out of business.

Since March 2020, our team has been working with hundreds of small businesses worldwide, helping them start up and scale up their home delivery operations. It’s been incredibly rewarding to see these entrepreneurs succeed during the toughest of times by being creative, flexible, and fast on their feet.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

This is not so much of ‘5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started’ but more like ‘5 Things I Learned Early On In My Career’:

1.) Sleep well.

Once in a while, you might need to pull a late-nighter. But if you do it too often, it will lead to an unhealthy and unsustainable lifestyle. If you are well rested, you can think more clearly and be more productive. Focus on long-term productivity.

2.) Listen to your customers.

It’s easy to get lost in the code and in your copy when you’re building your business. Make sure you’re having as many conversations as you can with your users and potential customers. That’s the only way your product is going to get better, and the only way your business is going to grow.

3.) Ship quickly and often.

Don’t get complacent. Ever. You need to keep iterating and improving your product. If you don’t do it, someone else will. Competition is fierce, and you have to do everything to maintain your lead. Speed is your friend, and time is your enemy.

4.) Don’t celebrate until the money is in the bank.

In the early days, I was a little gullible. Companies approached us with partnership and reseller opportunities, and I believed they would honor the agreement — until the unpaid invoices started piling up. You always want to give people the benefit of the doubt, but I’ve learned not to celebrate a deal until I see the money in the bank. Same when you’re fundraising.

5.) Invest in culture

Even before a skills test or any other kind of assessment, we always meet a candidate for a casual coffee to align on core values. We call it a sort of informal ‘culture screen.’ Skills can be developed, and people can be trained. But core values are non-negotiable. From the early days, we’ve always prioritized building a strong team culture based on the core values of transparency, team work, and professional growth. I’m really glad we took the time to build that culture from the ground up with the earliest Routific team members.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

Stay positive. Founders are naturally optimistic people, and it’s important to stay this way because otherwise you’ll give up before you’ve even begun. Starting a business is full of new and exciting challenges. Some of them will hit you square in the jaw, knife you in the back, or slap you clear across your face. And every day, you’ll have to dust yourself off and get back in the saddle. Understandably, we’re all human beings with real emotions, and we’re not impervious to setbacks and rainy days. But the one thing that has kept me going is to take everything as a learning experience, as a way for me to “level up” both professionally and personally.

I would also highly recommend this book — The Art of Worldy Wisdom — which has really guided me through life’s ups and downs.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂

I’ve made it my personal purpose to use technology to make a positive impact on the environment. Routific’s mission is to make route optimization accessible to every last-mile fleet. Our algorithms reduce fuel consumption by 40% compared to manual route planners. We know that 72% of SMB delivery companies still plan routes manually, which demonstrates how vast this market truly is. I envision a future where all fleets are using route optimization software. This is a greener, more sustainable future for us all.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Marc Kuo is a routing expert with nearly a decade of experience in last-mile logistics. He wrote his thesis on advanced vehicle routing algorithms and he is the Founder & CEO of Routific.

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