Episode 005

Co-founding a route optimization company as a married couple

🎙 Suzanne Ma from Routific

February 28, 2019

Suzanne Ma is the co-founder and chief marketing officer of Routific.

Have you ever used Google Maps to optimize your route when you are trying to drive from location A to location B? Now, imagine if run a business, and you have a fleet of cars that need to stop by multiple destinations. See how planning the routes can get quite complicated?

This is where Routific comes in and save the day. Routific is a startup based in Vancouver. They focus on helping businesses around the world save time and fuel with routing optimization algorithm. Since Routific was born, they've already optimized routes in more than 908 cities around the globe. Talking about making a positive impact in this world!

In this chat, Suzanne shares the story of how she's transitioned from being a journalist and a published author, to a startup co-founder. She talks about how Routific helps delivery companies switch from optimizing routes with pencil and paper to adopting software. We also discussed about why the notion that married couples are unlikely to start a successful business is a misconception.

The following lightly edited excerpts are some highlights from our conversation:

Kat: You were a journalist before starting Routific. What was your story in the pre-Routific era?

Suzanne: I worked as a journalist for about 9 years. I did all sorts of things like breaking news, international reporting and etc. When I was traveling in China and eventually near the end of my journalism career, I decided to write a book called Meet Me in Venice. It's a narrative non-fiction about Chinese immigrants on their journeys recorded in a real-time, almost documentary style as they left their homes in China and moved abroad. After the book came out, things at Routific started to pick up and that's when I turned my attention fully on the company and jumped into the startup world.

Kat: Your partner Marc is the brain behind Routific. Why did he choose to start Routific?

Suzanne: Marc had the idea quite awhile ago when he was still a student. He wrote his thesis on advanced throughout optimization algorithms. He approached it from a very academic, mathematical kind of standpoint. After school, he went to work as a logistics consultant and ended up finding a job in Hong Kong at an investment bank doing algorithmic trading. But he only lasted about a year there because while it was a prestigious job it wasn't inspiring at all.

So he returned back to his roots, to his calling in logistics and how logistics could improve the efficiency of last mile logistics in particular. He ended up quitting his job at the bank much to the shock of his family and started working on his thesis and making it into a live algorithm that could be applied to the real world.

Kat: What makes Routific's routing optimization algorithm so special and helpful for delivery businesses?

Suzanne: Routing algorithms are are well-known and well explored in academia. Algorithms in academia can run for years in supercomputers in order to find an optimal solution. What makes Routific's routing algorithm different from that is that it finds an optimal solution in very little time and therefore can be applied by real life delivery businesses. Can you imagine if you're trying to get your delivery drivers out the door and you need to wait a couple of years for your optimal solution? It'sjust not feasible.

Routific's algorithm was built in house first by Marc and now developed by our algorithms team. A delivery business that needs to get something out the door today can actually just wait a few seconds and receive a solution that that is perhaps not the most optimal, but optimal enough that they can save up to 40 percent on driving time and fuel.

We did a survey when people signed up for Routific and asked them what traditional routing methods have they been using prior to coming to us. The majority of them actually came to us with pen and paper. Some of them used Excel spreadsheets but it was still a very manual process. So it's amazing to be able to empower small to medium sized businesses to move from pen and paper to software. But it's also a huge challenge because you're asking essentially asking someone to change an old bad habit.

Routific's amazing office overlooks the Vancouver's North Shore.

Kat: What marketing strategies have Routific used to be found by businesses?

Suzanne: I work on marketing. That's where I spend a lot of my time. And it's perfect for me because coming from a journalism background, I'm a writer. I'm a content creator as they call it. In order for us to be found by people we need to have a landing page, content, stories and case studies. We need to educate people and convince them to change their bad habits and adopt software like Routific. So we've been really lucky that thus far most of our growth can be attributed to organic traffic.

Kat: With a team of sixteen, how do you define Routific's company culture?

Suzanne: That's a really big question. We have some key pillars in our organization that we try to stick to. The first one would be transparency. We want to achieve transparency with open communication. You want information to be available to all your team members. To give you a very concrete example, every month our founder and CEO Marc will do a presentation to the company to show  our financials. So everyone in our company can see how much money is in the bank and where that money is being spent. As a small company I think it's really important for people just to know where the money's coming from how much we're making. Everyone needs to be invested in the monthly recurring revenue. It's not just sales departments or the marketing departments' job. Engineers are building the products that contribute to that revenue. So it's it's really valuable for every team member to know the results of their work.

The other thing is at the very beginning of the hiring process, not only do we assess one's skills, we assess if the candidate fits with the company's culture. We have this phrase that says "Does this person pass the Sunday test?" , meaning would you come in during the weekend and work with this person. If the answer is yes then this person passes that culture test. So culture is super important for us.

The last thing I would highlight is that everyone's very much a team player. Everyone's super humble and we like to celebrate team successes. It's really the combination of everyone working together towards a goal and we celebrate that together.

The Routific team loves bonding over some intense board games sessions.

Kat: You and Marc co-founded Routific as a couple. Some people think starting a company as a couple is not ideal. So was starting Routific a smooth transition for you or did you have to adjust it over time?

Suzanne: There are people who have strong opinions that maybe couple co-founders don't work. And I strongly disagree with that. A strong personal relationship and foundation is important for any co-founder arrangements. And the fact that you're married makes you even more invested. When stuff happens in the business or there is a miscommunication, it's very easy to forget to assume positive intent. You can get angry with your co-founder or have some kind of complicated misunderstanding. But when you're married, you have to assume positive intent. You've overcome other challenges in regards to your relationship and marriage. And so you can transfer all the results of those challenges into your life as a co-founder and that will only strengthen your relationship. Any co-founder relationship requires trust. And if you're married, it's a bedrock.

In terms of Marc and I, I think the reason why it works so well is that there is a clear separation of duties and tasks. Obviously there's going to be some overlap but you make sure that the accountabilities are very clear between the two of you and therefore you don't get into each other's hair and you're not micromanaging each other. It also helps if you have complementary skills which we do. So I feel confident to take on a certain part of the business and he feels confident that I can do my job. The last thing is that Marc is super easy-going which makes it really easy to work with. You need someone to be like that and to let go of the little things.

Kat: Among the four co-founders at Routific, you are the only female co-founder. As a female tech entrepreneur working in this fairly male-dominated space, what has your experience been like?

Suzanne: I've been hearing and reading all the news, stories and books from female entrepreneurs or female startup employees down in the Silicon Valley or New York experiencing all sorts of problems. And I know that it's a systemic problem for sure. I've been very blessed that we don't have any of those problems here at all. In fact I can confidently say that we have three female engineers on our team which is like 40 percent of the team. We also have a female senior designer and a female co-founder.

It's been a bless that that people here on the team don't treat women any differently. I feel very comfortable coming to work, and being in a leadership position. But I do recognize that there are women who are struggling. I'd love to get more involved with the female co-founder community here in Vancouver. I think we can all probably share stories and learn from each other. But I've been really lucky.

Suzanne and Marc co-founded Routific as a married couple, and they love the journey of starting a company.

Quick Tips:

🥁What do you think is the most important skill in building a business?

Optimism. That's definitely something that we all have to have. You need a dose of skepticism. But in order to make it through this journey and to make it through every day, you have to look at everything with a very healthy dose of optimism. It sounds like a fluff answer but you'd be surprised how far it gets you because there are so many things that you could feel overwhelmed with or get you down. And if you don't have that optimism that you know that you're going to make it work no matter what, you're probably not going to get very far.

🔭 What's your advice for someone who wants to start their own business?

I would encourage people to not be risk averse. I think most people tend to be a little more conservative and sort of stick to the safe option. Obviously you need to take your risks by knowing all the factors involved like if you have children or a family to support. But I would say that people tend to err on the side of caution.

We have had the experience of taking these leaps of faith and I think that's very important especially when you're young. You don't know what your lives are going to be like in a year from now. You might have a job; you might be comfortable with your salary; you might have a child; you might take a mortgage. Something's going to come up and there's always a reason not to do it. And you don't want to have regrets. Regrets are the worst. You don't want to look back and say I probably could have tried it.

Thinking back it was incredibly stressful to take these leaps of faith and not be paid for years. I'm really glad we did it. Because now we're here and the experience has been amazing. People ask if I miss journalism and I thought I would miss it more. But the startup world has been so engrossing and exciting and so full of new challenges that there's so much room for professional personal growth. I would actually be so bold as to say that I would never go back to a journalism job.

📚Could you share with us where you draw your inspirations from?

I really like listening to the podcast How I built this. It's super inspiring hearing from founders how they started their companies.

There's also a book that's been circulating around the office and I'm about to start, it's called Inspired.

You can find more about Routific on their website or follow them on Twitter and Instagram. You can also follow Suzanne on her personal website.