I had the pleasure of interviewing Zach Scheel, co-founder and CEO of Rhumbix. Zach’s background includes serving for five years as a US Navy Civil Engineer Corps Officer and working with Bechtel for three years before co-founding Rhumbix in 2014 alongside fellow Navy Veteran and Stanford business school classmate Drew DeWalt.
Jean: Can you share your story about how you became a startup founder?
In 2013 I was working as a project controls engineer at the world’s largest copper mine, Minera Escondida, in the Atacama Desert of northern Chile. Each day we collected over a thousand paper timecards, which was the primary source of data capture for managing production and labor productivity on a $3.5B copper concentrator project. The manual, time-intensive, paper-based process resulted in a 1–2 week latency for reporting, and much of the data was inaccurate or lacked the necessary context for drawing insights on how to improve labor productivity. I thought there had to be a better way and was reminded of a software platform we used in the military called Blue Force Tracker.
During the Arab Spring of 2011, while stationed at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, each day we relied on Blue Force Tracker to determine the status of more than 3,000 troops throughout the continent via mobile devices carried by soldiers that relayed information on troop position, status, known threats, etc. At Minera Escondida, I wished we had the same level of visibility into construction operations that Blue Force Tracker provided in the battlefield. That was the a-ha! moment that led to co-founding of Rhumbix six months later.
Jean: What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
At Rhumbix, our mission is to continuously improve the way the world is designed and constructed by empowering the workforce with technology that delivers value to workers first. We recognize the data we’re collecting is extremely valuable for managers in the home office and field trailer, but we must first deliver value to our end-users, construction foremen in the field, for the right and privilege to collect this data. Most other software in the construction industry is built for managers and supervisors first, not the workers. As a result, our product has a distinctly different look, feel, and user experience. And foremen love it! We’ve had several customers tell us they never bought a piece of software their foremen liked until Rhumbix, but after a week of using our system they’d come up and say “Thanks for getting us something that actually saves us time instead of creating more work for us.”
Jean: Are you working on any exciting projects now?
That’s one of the great things about building software for the construction industry — our platform is used to help build some of the largest projects in the world! Right now my favorite project is the Mountain Valley Pipeline, a 303-mile natural gas pipeline system that runs from northern West Virginia to southern Virginia, connecting a vast supply of natural gas from Marcellus and Utica shale deposits to markets in the Mid and South-Atlantic regions of the United States. Every day our system is being used to manage costs, production, productivity, and timekeeping for thousands of workers on the massive job site, helping to ensure the project is delivered ahead of schedule and under budget for the thousands of businesses and residences that will rely on this transmission line for natural gas.
And as for internal company projects, we recently announced a partnership with Autodesk to integrate the Rhumbix platform with BIM 360’s suite of tools for architects, engineers, and builders. By integrating the two platforms, contractors will be able to digitize and standardize data collection in BIM 360 across all subcontractors on a project, eliminating the headache of non-standardized data that leads to countless errors in reporting and large amounts of unnecessary administrative work to double and triple-enter the same data in different systems.
Jean: What do you think makes a startup successful?
Team, Trust, and Empowered Execution. As Jim Collins is famous for saying, you have to have the right people on the bus — and the wrong people off the bus — and then figure out where to drive it. But team members alone won’t get you there without a strong foundation of trust. In the early stages of a company, everyone has to be trusted execute on their responsibilities and have an equivalent level of trust that their colleagues will do the same. When you combine these elements with a culture of empowered execution you have a strong foundation for startup success.
Jean: What is one piece of advice you would give a new and upcoming startup?
Pay attention to culture! Your company is going to have a culture, and if it grows big enough it will have many sub-cultures. As a founder, you can either be prescriptive about the culture you’d like to build, or you’ll be left with the culture that develops naturally. If culture is important to the company you’re building, then it’s never too early to start having company-wide discussions about the values that shape the people, processes, and products within your company.
Jean: Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?
I’ve been intrigued by the concept of flow my entire life, and in The Rise of Superman, Stephen Kotler provides a great framework for understanding flow states as well as guidance on hacking flow. Reading the book has enabled me to build more opportunities for flow states into my everyday life, which helps me continuously push the boundary of what’s possible both personally and professionally.
Jean: What are your “5 Lessons I Learned as a Startup Founder” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Don’t be afraid to trust your gut. Early on in our business, there were several decisions that my co-founder and I deliberated over for weeks, sometimes months. Each time, we sought counsel from our network of advisors, mentors, and board directors, and ultimately we ended up making the decision we both felt was right in our guts initially.
- Know when to ask for help. The corollary to trusting your gut is to know when to ask for help. For one of our first large contracts, I spent several days writing up all the terms and conditions to be included. When I sent the contract over to our lawyers to get their blessing, they said, “This is great work…do you know this is what you pay us to do for you?” It was a great wakeup call and taught me not to be afraid to ask for help with things.
- It’s okay to not be perfect. After receiving funding I felt this overwhelming pressure to execute on our plan as perfectly as I’d laid it out in our pitch deck. After a while one of our investors told me, “Zach, you don’t have to be perfect. Every startup has warts — and we’re here to help you get through them.” That’s when I learned how to start using our board for advice on problems as soon as they arise instead of trying to solve them internally first.
- You never conquer a mountain. Mountains can’t be conquered; you conquer yourself — This is a quote by Jim Whittaker, the first American to summit Mount Everest, and I think it’s especially applicable to starting a company. I used to think that raising more money would somehow make things easier, but what I’ve come to learn is that it never gets easier — you just learn how to deal with the chaos better, and over time you don’t get as stressed over the things that used to keep you up at night — you conquer yourself.
- It’s okay to drop balls occasionally, just don’t drop the glass ones. This quote came from one of my professors at Stanford, who compared starting a company to juggling an ever-increasing number of glass and rubber balls. If you drop a rubber ball, you can let it bounce a few times and pick it up later. If you drop a glass one, it’s gone for good. I now sort my daily/weekly/monthly to-do lists into glass and rubber obligations.
Jean: Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this.
Jeff Bezos. Beyond the endless list of questions I’d like to ask him about building and scaling a continuously innovating, world-changing company, I’d like the opportunity to sell him on the Rhumbix platform to ensure his new campus comes in dramatically below its $5B price tag! Don’t want to make the same mistake Apple did and end up paying 2x for your new campus ;-P
- Connect on Linkedin: www.linkedin.com/in/zscheel
- Connect on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Rhumbix
- Follow on Instagram: www.instagram.com/rhumbix/?hl=en
- Follow on Twitter: @Rhumbix
-Published on August 22, 2018