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Episode 181: Building the World’s First Human Centered Automation Technology With Charu Thomas

June 29, 2022  |  By Matt Waller

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This week Matt sat down with Charu Thomas, CEO of Ox and member of Forbes 30 Under 30. They discuss Charu’s journey as a young entrepreneur and why she chose to start her company in Northwest Arkansas. Her company, Ox, manages the world’s first human centered automation technology and is quickly growing in the supply chain and retail industries. Charu also touches on lessons she has learned from company advisors like Marc Lore, including what to focus on as a CEO.

Learn more about Ox on their website.

Episode Transcript

Charu Thomas  0:01  
So I think that that was something that was really intriguing about entrepreneurship to me was the ability to make an almost immediate impact.

Matt Waller  0:11  
Excellent professionalism, innovation and collegiality. These are the values the Sam M. Walton College of Business explores in education, business, and the lives of people we meet every day. I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Walton College, and welcome to the be epic podcast. I have with me today, Charu Thomas, who's the CEO at Ox. She's a member of Forbes 30 under 30. And she lives in Bentonville, Arkansas, thank you so much for joining us.

Charu Thomas  0:44  
Thank you so much for having me Dean Waller. I'm so thrilled to be here.

Matt Waller  0:48  
There's a lot of stories. I'd like to hear from you. But one is you moved here from Georgia, you'd never been to Bentonville and you moved here. And now you live here. And you graduated just a few years ago. You graduated in December of 2018. So what is it that, you know, got you interested in moving here?

Charu Thomas  1:10  
Yeah, Dean Waller it's such a great question and story. So my journey started in entrepreneurship probably five years ago, that's when I was in college at Georgia Tech's number one industrial engineering program. And I initially started thinking about entrepreneurship as a career path for me. When I was graduating college, there were two primary opportunities that I was kind of thinking about, one was continuing in academia and getting a PhD in computer science. And the other was taking this leap and becoming a full time entrepreneur, the thing that really scared me about being an entrepreneur was the fact that I just didn't really know how to do that, that were, candidly I just didn't really know who to follow, I didn't have any mentors or people that I could really look up to. So I had this opportunity, as I was graduating college to be a part of a startup accelerator program centered around supply chain and retail headquartered in Northwest Arkansas called the fuel accelerator. And it was put on by some of the major corporations in the ecosystem alongside some of the startups here. And it was just an absolutely immense opportunity to come see the region. And it was my first time in Arkansas. I actually joke that before I moved here, I didn't even know where Arkansas was on a map, which is only a little bit true. Yeah, basically just packed up my car with everything I owned, and drove over here, which was 11 hours. And now it's home, which is kind of crazy to think about, I just feel really grateful for the opportunities that I've been given. I think that ecosystem here, especially around supply chain, and retail is best in class. And it's one of the secret sauces, I think that makes this ecosystem so unique. But I think one more element of it, that was really important for me is I was a new grad. And I was trying to build this new technology company in supply chain and retail and automation. But I didn't know anyone in the industry. And so one of the really compelling things about Northwest Arkansas is when I first moved here, I basically had a backpack on and I was pretty much a college student. But I was still able to have these one on one conversations with executives of the largest companies in the world, and really build these incredible relationships that still serve me today. And I think that that was really one of the magic elements that wouldn't exist in a different market like San Francisco or New York, or Boston or any of those obvious places. So yeah, I hope that's a good maybe roundabout summary of how I got here.

Matt Waller 1:19

That's great. Yeah, that ability to as an entrepreneur, talk with people who might be future customers is invaluable. So I can see why that was helpful. Would you mind telling us a little bit about what ox does? What is ox?

Charu Thomas 3:54

Yes, absolutely. So ox builds the world's first human centered automation technology. And we're focused on improving supply chain operations. We've raised three and a half million dollars in a seed round last year and since then, have scaled to a team of 26 full time employees. But our technology is powering facilities that do hundreds of millions of dollars upon billions of dollars of volume every single year. And we're making their frontline operators more effective and efficient. I know that's maybe a little bit opaque what that actually means like what does it mean to do human centered automation or operator experience? I like to kind of talk about it in terms of, you know, the actual operators who are using the technology. So, if you don't mind, I'd love to tell you a little bit of a story about one of our real frontline operators, Stacey.

Matt Waller  4:40  
That would be great

Charu Thomas  4:42  
Awesome. Awesome. So Stacy is a great example of an incredible frontline operator whose job is what we try to improve here at Ox and Stacey is an incredible person. She is a single mom. She has three kids, and she works incredibly hard. Her job is really really hard. because she comes in an extra hour every single day and manually prints out hundreds of pieces of paper, then she tries to stack and organize them so that they can get those three to 400 orders on the truck by 3pm. And if they don't get them on the truck, they just backlog and, you know, get more, they just have too much volume to really address. So what Ox does is we provide a lot of automation to take out some of those manual tasks that she has to do. So first of all, we make the process completely digital. And second of all, we provide a completely digital interface through any type of device, whether it's hands free devices, or, and we enable her job to be a lot more fast. So we basically take the average order fulfill time from 14 minutes to 10 minutes, which accumulates pretty quickly when you're doing hundreds of orders a day. So that's essentially what we do. And we are powering all the manual operations in distribution centers, stores, like our fulfillment centers, etc.

Matt Waller  5:56  
You know, entrepreneurs many times, especially technology entrepreneurs, they start out with a general idea. And they talk to people in industry, sometimes they come up with a prototype. But as they do that, they usually pivot quite a bit. You have an idea, you make a prototype, you try it out and say, well, that's not exactly. And sometimes people feel like they're failing when they're doing that. But actually, that's just part of the process. Did you experience that at all? .

Charu Thomas  6:27  
Oh, 100%. I think that every single day is an opportunity to learn more and change, refine, I don't think it ever really stops, to be honest, which is one of the exciting parts about it. But no, I mean, like a pretty clear example of maybe a specific moment. For us that was an obvious sort of pivot was somewhat early on, originally, we had primarily our hands free technology. And it was kind of basically the interface itself. And over time, we realized that it was really, really hard to integrate that technology into the existing legacy systems that we were trying to integrate with, right. So really, that's what became one of the biggest challenges. And so one thing that that led to was us building basically more of the infrastructure for the automation technology itself. And so we started doing a lot more of the process, elements of it and building kind of the tools that need to be kind of layered on before you can even add human factor elements to it. So yeah, that was a pretty big learning for us and required us to basically build almost new elements of this technology that we hadn't initially set out to build. But I think it was actually really, really important and compelling. Because it made us stickier, it made us touch more of the infrastructure. I think ultimately, it drives a lot more of the efficiency. And now we can even see the breakdown, you know, we can see which parts of our technology drive different elements of efficiency improvement for our customers. So it's been great to kind of be able to offer kind of a toolbox, so to speak of different capabilities that we can apply to different scenarios, and see the outcome in real time.

Matt Waller  8:07  
You got your seed funding of 3.5 million was it about a year ago or so? I can't remember exactly.

Charu Thomas  8:16  
Yeah, about a year ago, or 18 months. And yeah, it's been such an immense journey. since that time.

Matt Waller  8:23  
You got to the point where you started to get a good approach, good model. But you also have to come up with a business model, not just product and or solution. That's as tricky sometimes is coming up with a good prototype. Can you talk a little bit about that journey at all?

Charu Thomas  8:42  
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. I would say that we're Software as a Service. So we're driven by, you know, user counts, device counts, that type of thing. One thing that I would say was really, really helpful. I'm going to kind of maybe cheat out of this answer a little bit, is hiring an amazing team. So one of the executives that we've brought onto our team, his name is Brian Clark. He's our CRO and he's absolutely incredible. Dean Waller I'm sure you know plenty about Brian and how amazing.

Matt Waller  9:12  
Oh yeah.

Charu Thomas  9:14  
But prior to joining Ox, he was the head of Walmart Global Business for NCR and scaled that business immensely to half a billion dollar run rate by the time he left. And prior to that he was an executive at HP and Salesforce. So one of the pieces of advice that we got early on from one of our advisors, who you might also be familiar with his name is Mark Lore. He's the former CEO of Walmart E-commerce, and an incredibly prolific entrepreneur. And he told me, this was probably like, two years ago that as a CEO, you need to focus on three things, vision, capital, and people. And so you know, he kind of was like, you clearly have a vision, you know, you're doing, you have some money, maybe now it's time to go find the best people in the world, especially at the enterprise sales level to come join you on this mission. And so that's essentially what we did. We hired Brian, who was genuinely one of the best people in the world to do this. And he's basically kind of taken that entire aspect of our business and figured out a lot of the repeatability, the process, the sales cycle, the business model, etc. So I'm just really blessed to be surrounded by people who are so immense, so smart, really smarter than me, and just have added so much to our organization.

Matt Waller  10:30  
Well, I think you were smart to hire those people. I mean, when you're right, Brian, he's scaled the NCR business, but he had experiences you said it, Salesforce and HP and somewhere else I can't remember. And it does make a difference to have that on your team. That's a great, great point. And then you said Mark Lore is one of your advisors. You've really brought on some amazing people. That's good job.

Charu Thomas  10:58  
Thank you so much. Yeah, no, I mean, it does really take a village to build a company. And I'm super proud of the people that we've, you know, been able to rile into the village.

Matt Waller  11:08  
So Charu, I know, since you've received your funding, and then hired some great people, you're making money in entrepreneurship, a lot of times they call that product market fit, you found product market fit, you have traction with customers. And so then the next thing that's usually comes up after that is trying to scale it. But scaling takes money, usually. And technology companies in particular, a lot of times needed money for scaling. But would you talk a little bit about this stage of what you're doing?

Charu Thomas  11:44  
Yeah, no, absolutely, absolutely. It definitely feels really, really interesting. You know, I know, when people think about product market fit, there's that image, you know, that they paint of, there's not enough desks for enough people, we can't hire people fast enough. You know, people are, you know, sitting on places, media is calling you. And it definitely feels like that here at Ox. We had four people start earlier this week, and we have more desks that are coming in, we have to completely rearrange our office, we're feeling the momentum, the inflection point, you know, with product market fit. As we continue to grow over the next 12 to 18 months, we have pretty ambitious plans in terms of increasing volume. So if we do our jobs, right, ideally, we'd increase volume by about 32 times what we're doing today. So we're excited about that, obviously, that's an immense challenge. And we're already kind of building that infrastructure to grow into that company that we know we can be.

Matt Waller  12:39  
Yeah, that's tough, because you got to find the right people. And we're in a stage in our economy where it's hard to find people. And you've got to implement processes and technology that allow you to really scale. And that's always trickier than it is expected to be. But again, you know, having Brian, in your organization, I think that will probably help with that part of the process as well, I suppose.

Charu Thomas  13:10  
Oh, 100%. And you know, another executive that we brought onto the team, about 12 months ago, is our Chief Operations Officer Brent Sperry. Prior to joining ox, he was an executive at NCR and also ran tech operations for Walmart. So he's deployed technology for stores and distribution centers, both domestically and internationally. And he was kind of the person in the War Room. So when anything went down, even a POS system, he was the one at the end of the line. So I mean, he's been absolutely immense as well, at transforming our organization. I like to joke that, you know, just a couple months ago, actually, we got like a travel policy. And like, we just got an employee handbook recently. So there was a lot of infrastructure that does come with growing and scaling and being a real business that, you know, we're kind of getting our big boy pants on a little bit. So it's been a lot of fun.

Matt Waller  14:02  
Churu I know that as CEO, young CEO, where you're hiring people that are quite a bit older than you, that can be challenging, in some ways.

Charu Thomas  14:14  
Oh, man, I think it's going really well. Like I said, I've been very blessed and fortunate by the people that we've been able to recruit onto our team. And I think that that's been so game changing for us. And for me, personally, because I learned such an immense amount from each of them every single day. I do think it can be humbling a lot of the times because I do realize that there's a lot that I don't know, and really don't know what you don't know, right? So I'm finding out a lot of the gaps in my own knowledge and expertise that are in some ways expected. It's also allowing me to open up and see what I really like and what I'm good at and where I get my energy from and like really build kind of a specific role that really fits my strengths best so I think it's been a great opportunity. And obviously, there's still a lot of growth that we have to do within our team as we continue to scale and grow. But I'm super excited by the people that we've been able to recruit so far. And I know that that's going to continue to be a trend and one of the most important things that we do here at Ox, so 

Matt Waller  15:14  
You've raised money, you got three and a half million dollars in seed funding. But now you're soon gonna have to have money for scaling. How do you go about raising money?

Charu Thomas  15:26  
Yeah, it's a great question Dean Waller, for me, as a first time entrepreneur, it was completely opaque at the time. But I think in summary, basically, what you have to do is you have to create momentum for venture capitalists, they don't have any incentive to say yes, or create a deal unless there's other demand and market. It's kind of like selling a house, you know. So first, you have to basically build a list your hit list, and then prioritize them effectively. And then you'll find warm intros to them. So theoretically, you know, through LinkedIn, or through your existing network, find someone who knows them and can introduce you. And then finally, it's kind of the pitch process and making sure the logistics of it is all within kind of a two week period. So that you can kind of they'll talk to each other and get more momentum. If you space it out too long. That can kind of be the kiss of death, where you will never close a deal because they just, they won't have any reason to, to close. Right. So I think that that's pretty much it in a nutshell. But it does take a lot. It takes, you know, hundreds of investors, especially for a first round without any network, so we spoke to probably 200 investors when we were raising our seed round. And that's just kind of what you got to do, unfortunately, until you get a little bit of credibility. So

Matt Waller  16:42  
That's a lot of selling and talking. And clearly, we're very technically competent, you were considering getting a PhD in computer science. So this is a big change. Getting a PhD in computer science versus talking to 200 potential investors. That's, that's a big difference.

Charu Thomas  17:03  
Right? Yeah. No, I mean, it definitely is, it's actually really funny, because so with the PhD programs, I applied to two PhD programs, and was interviewing, and they're like, incredible PhD programs, by the way, like, the best in the country best in the world. And so one of the professors I was interviewing with he, first, I guess, maybe what I'll say is, I don't know if I do the best job at interviews in general, like, I'm not really a great interviewer. I've never really had a job before that I've, you know what I mean? So maybe that had something to do with it. But he basically said, like, yeah, everyone at the stage who's getting an interview is a great fit for the lab. So I think that the thing for me that was really, really interesting about entrepreneurship is, first of all, the opportunity to make an impact on a global scale. I knew a lot of people who'd had PhDs who built really great technology. But first of all, it's like a 20 or 30 year timeframe, typically for it to be commercialized, and it might not ever see the light of day. So I think that that was something that was really intriguing about entrepreneurship to me was the ability to make an almost immediate impact directly with my work rather than kind of doing something and then hoping for the best over a long time. So.

Matt Waller  18:16  
So some students listening to this might be thinking, oh, I might want to start a company, or maybe they don't want to start a company, but they'd like to work for an early stage company. Do you have any advice for them?

Charu Thomas  18:30  
Yeah, for people who are looking to start a company, one of the things that was very, very helpful for me was being surrounded by people who've done it before and could give me really close feedback. So the fuel accelerator program was game changing, because I just didn't really have the knowledge or resources to really take the next step until I was able to see it directly in front of my eyes. So that's one piece of feedback. For those of you who do want to join an early stage company, the obvious answer for me is you should absolutely do it. I think it provides an immense opportunity to take a really big jump in your career honestly. In a lot of cases, at an early stage company, there's an extra benefit of being able to get at a higher position than you would maybe be able to get at a traditional enterprise, just because there's just a bigger opportunity to grow and take more initiative and control and take more control of your destiny. So I think it's especially valuable for people who are really ambitious, and want to make a big impact and don't necessarily want to have kind of a boring nine to five job for the next couple of years. Right. So I think it's just such a great opportunity. And, you know, you're gonna learn an immense amount I know I have, you know, throughout my time, and the person I am today is so vastly different than the person I was three years ago.

Matt Waller  19:51  
Charu, so many of us are really proud of what you've done and grateful that you elected to come to Northwest Arkansas to do it. Congratulations.

Charu Thomas  20:02  
Thank you so much Dean Waller that means the world especially coming from you.

Matt Waller  20:07  
On behalf of the Sam M Walton College of Business, I want to thank everyone for spending time with us for another engaging conversation. You can subscribe by going to your favorite podcast service and searching be epic. BE E P IC

Matt WallerMatthew A. Waller is the dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business, Sam M. Walton Leadership Chair and professor of supply chain management. He is also the host for the Be EPIC Podcast for Walton College.

 

Walton College's EPIC values -- Excellence, Professionalism, Innovation and Collegiality -- are the heart of Dean Waller’s podcast. Since the beginning of the series, Waller has interviewed business professionals, industry experts, CEOs and Walton College students to bring listeners first-hand accounts directly from the entrepreneurial world.

 

Waller is an SEC Academic Leadership Fellow and coauthor of “The Definitive Guide to Inventory Management: Principles and Strategies for the Efficient Flow of Inventory across the Supply Chain,” published by Pearson Education. He is the former co-editor-in-chief of Journal of Business Logistics. His opinion pieces have appeared in Wall Street Journal Asia and Financial Times.

 

Waller received an M.S. and Ph.D. from Pennsylvania State University and a B.S.B.A., summa cum laude, from the University of Missouri.





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We're sitting down with innovators and business mavericks to discuss strategy, leadership and entrepreneurship. The Be EPIC Podcast is hosted by Matthew Waller, dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas. Learn more...

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