Interviewer: Vadim Lidich, Co-Founder & CTO at Paperstack
Interviewee: Charu Thomas, Founder & CEO at Ox
So, How do you get on Forbes? Super simple: Work hard and solve a big problem. So, you are probably wondering: That’s it? Well, not really, and that is why we brought someone to the Paperstack show who has already done it. Charu Thomas, Founder and CEO at Ox that focuses on supply chain automation for retail and e-commerce brands. Recognized by publications like Forbes, TBP, Unite.AI, Techcrunch, Business Insider, and more. She was selected for the Forbes 30 under 30 list. Ox customers include industry leaders like Walmart, Google, and Newell Brands. For one customer, their technology showed a 2600% ROI over 2 years.
We got to sit down and interview Charu for 30 minutes. We asked her about How she started in Tech; How to run a company as a woman founder; And she shared stories of their business journey. Read more below
Question: How did you get into the Tech and supply chain industry?
Answer: Originally I got into the supply chain space in the technology space while studying to be an industrial engineer from Georgia Institute of Technology. I got my first job in a warehouse. It was a supply chain for McDonald's North America where I was building these simulations for large-scale automated storage and retrieval systems. I quickly realized that automation is really efficient but it's also very capital intensive. In a lot of cases when we were deploying these automated storage and retrieval systems that ROI on the systems just didn't exist because the juice wasn't worth the squeeze. I thought that there was a really big opportunity for us to create this new form of automation that could help the people in the process and truly be human centric and that's what I think the gap in the market was and we started building Ox.
Question: Have you evolved your vision about Ox since launching it originally? How did you go about pivoting your business?
Answer: I would say that pivot is kind of a strong word and it was more just a natural evolution that happens as you build a company. You realize there's a lot more challenges and issues surrounding the original problem that you set out to solve and so for me the goal was focused on the operator experience. Making sure the operator experience was as impeccable as possible and the way we did that was through hands-free technologies. We kind of started iterating and trying to sell this technology to the largest retailers. One of the biggest outcomes that we realized was it's really hard to integrate this technology. There's a lot of legacy infrastructure that's been built that we have to build on top of. It's literally like an onion. There's more and more layers the deeper you go and I think a similar thing happened to us where we started with the operator experience and we evolved to build more software infrastructure along with just pure automation technology that could work a little bit more separately from that. I think we're still on that journey. We will always be on that journey of continuing to uncover more and more challenges and opportunities that we're able to solve with our customers.
Question: How has it been being a women CEO in a male dominated space like Supply Chain and Tech?
Answer: Even growing up and going to industrial engineering school it wasn't too shocking to be one of the only women in the room. Even in venture backed startups there is kind of a dynamic where 14% of venture funded companies are founded by women. I definitely think it's been kind of a consistent theme for me and my career personally. I don't think anyone's like out there outright just trying to be biased in any way. For me personally, a couple things that have been really helpful is building an incredible team of people around me who do respect me and care about what I have to say. In a lot of cases they are men who are respected in the industry. Some of our executives come from very storied backgrounds. They are well known, well thought of, and well respected in the industry. So the fact that they came to work at Ox and are willing to kind of bolster what we're doing, that means the absolute world to me. There's not a day that goes by that I don't realize and think about how important the team is to me and to everything that we're building. They are genuinely the most phenomenal people I've met so I think that that's one element of it. Another thing that's been helpful for me is understanding that there are these behavioral patterns that people use and if you can decompress and see where those behavioral patterns come from and even mimic some of those behavioral patterns, that can help. I know that might be unclear. There's a Harvard business review article that'll make this very clear. It's about powerful versus attractive behaviors or markers as they're called and it's really enlightening. I do encourage you guys to go read it. There's literally a kind of an excel spreadsheet in there of the attractive and the powerful behavior. Attractive behaviors are things like laughing along, nodding, ‘we’ language. Versus powerful behaviors are ‘I’, ‘me’, my exclusive language, sarcasm, etc. One of the things I noticed is women are typically socialized to have more attractive behaviors. There is like an element of being able to step out of that a little bit and force yourself to follow some of these powerful behaviors that can sort of command respect if you need it. This is a little bit of a hack but it's unfortunate that we have to do that.
Question: Tell us about your experience in raising over $3M for Ox
Answer: Once we found our lead, we did have quite a few people in the soft circled committed bucket and we essentially took the deal to all of them and were able to close around pretty quickly. However, to get to that lead, we talked to 200 people and we did have to run a pretty strict process. But let me tell you 2 stories. One has a bad outcome, another has a good one. I will start with the bad one first. Early on, we had someone who was soft-committed. They came into the round pretty much immediately, promised to put in x dollars, etc. It was one of the best calls we had. Little bit of time passes, this guy emails me and he basically says we're out. I frantically apologize to him i give him a call. On the call, he basically says “the reason we're not investing is because you guys don't have a good pedigree” or something ridiculous like that. it was an excuse. Point is he went back on his word and we didn’t get the funding from them. Now the good story: we had another call with “X” fund that was bad. These people were not engaged at all they were kind of smacking gum, did not care about what we were saying. Probably didn't believe what we were saying and just seemed uninterested. Later when we found our lead investor we were brainstorming people and our lead pointed out that a great fund for us would be “X” Fund. we were like in my head i was like “oh yeah “X” Fund is not interested, we spoke with them”. I didn’t say anything and just sent the deal to “X” fund. Week later we were on a call with the managing partner. Another week after, they were committed to the round. This shows you that the first impression clearly doesn't necessarily mean they're in or out because we saw both of those things and it all came down to having a strong lead who was able to close the deal.
Question: What are some things you wish you knew before starting your start-up and what would you like to share with new founders that are starting their businesses right now
Answer: One of the biggest pieces of advice actually came from one of our advisors. He's an incredibly prolific entrepreneur. His name is Marc Lore. He's an incredible e-commerce entrepreneur who sold his first company to amazon for half a billion dollars and his second company jet.com to Walmart for million dollars. Most recently, he raised a series B for his newest company. Just an incredible entrepreneur. I'm just so blessed to have him in our lives as an advisor and someone to bounce ideas off. He told me a couple years ago there's three things that you should focus on as a CEO. Those are VCP: Vision, Capital, People. That was probably one of the best pieces of advice because there's just so many things that end up being on your plate as a founder or a CEO. It's hard to really figure out what actually matters. So, vision, that's where you want to go. You have that clear picture. That clear image of what it is that you're doing. Then it's about finding the right resources: the capital and the people to go make that happen. As a founder, it's not your job to necessarily do every single thing. Obviously you're gonna have a big role to play but, Tanner and I, we always say “we're gonna build 5% of this company”. It really becomes about surrounding ourselves with the best people possible to make sure that that vision can see the light of day.
It’s hard to summarize everything we learnt from the 30 mins we got to spend with Charu. And it’s clear that we will revisit this episode with notepads and pens a few times. Building a new company is never easy. Building a new company as a young woman is even harder. It’s inspiring and very humbling to see how far Charu has grown personally and with her business. And what is even more amazing, is that sky's the limit, and we can only imagine where Charu and Ox will be in the next few years. Here are the main takeaways we would like to leave you with:
- Have a clear and solid vision of your idea or business
- first impression clearly doesn't necessarily mean someone is in or out
- Focus. And we mean Focus on building the most badass team