The Future of Retail Over The Next Five Years, with Kerry Liu, CEO of Rubikloud
I had the pleasure of interviewing Kerry Liu. As the Co-Founder and CEO of Rubikloud where he has led the company to become one of the world’s largest AI platforms for enterprise retailers. Founded five years ago, Rubikloud has grown to over 100 people, opened offices in four countries, and raised venture funding of $45M. In his role, Kerry works to manage and maintain a thriving company culture that recruits the best and brightest in the industry, while also maintaining relationships with global retailers and investors. In his spare time, Kerry is actively involved in the startup ecosystem as an adviser and angel investor to several tech companies.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was an early employee of a startup that was acquired. I realized during the acquisition that I was committed to leading my own startup and making it my professional life’s work to ensure we succeed. It all started out of my condo, where the company’s co-founders and I worked for six months to build the pieces that would eventually become Rubikloud. At the time, I saw the potential for machine learning to disrupt almost every industry. However, when we started seeking funding early on, we realized machine learning was only able to enter the enterprise through real use cases. I realized there were very few companies with the solutions that Rubikloud provides across all verticals, let alone specifically for retailers. Because of this gap, we decided to evolve from a data framework company to a full stack, data framework and machine learning company and began selling to retailers.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company?
Early on, the founders and I had the philosophy that we would fly anywhere to meet with potential customers. In one case, I took this to the extreme when I took a 48 hour round trip flight (with multiple transfers and all coach) from Toronto to Singapore to meet a potential client for a one-hour meeting. In hindsight, maybe it wasn’t the best use of time, we didn’t end up winning the customer — but it’s a good example of the energy and speed of the tech startup world. You have to run faster and smarter than the competition — and if we think a meeting can change our destiny but requires 48 hours of flight time for one hour of facetime, we get on the plane.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I first started Rubikloud, I was head over heels in love with our product and technology and I translated that into my pitches to senior executives in a potential customer space. It was difficult to hear them say they didn’t care about the technology or be really blunt when turning us down. And not just customers, but potential investors as well. It’s important not to let rejection shatter your dreams; you have to know your client and what they care about. You have to do your research in advance or you’re going to waste a lot of time with people who have no money or no interest — you can’t treat them all the same and you can’t assume they’re going to like or dislike your product or company for the same reasons. You’re going to encounter people who don’t care about the technology for its own sake, no matter how breakthrough it may be or how passionate you are about it, oftentimes their only concern is what the technology can do for their business.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We are an AI company at our core in that we actually engineer and utilize an AI product. We run 180+ machine learning models and crunch hundreds of terabytes of data on AI apps to generate real decisions. Our results come from the combination of those two components and allow retailers to make better business decisions that result in logistical efficiencies, increased revenues, and better customer experiences. The retail industry is facing a pivotal change and Rubikloud has zeroed in on the solutions that will not only see retailers through the change but will push them to become leaders in the industry.
We have intentionally chosen to be vertical specific — focusing solely on retail to become masters of the unique business challenges faced by this industry. In addition, unlike many SaaS solutions for enterprise, Rubikloud’s speed to implementation and value is extremely competitive; every one of Rubikloud’s solutions can be deployed in months rather than years and begin generating improvements in forecasting accuracy, inventory forecast efficiencies, & loyalty revenue.
Another factor that makes Rubikloud stand out is the talent we bring in; the people behind the technology. Our team is a diverse group of highly intelligent, passionate and hard-working people who understand technology and retail. 75% of our team are engineers and PhDs and many come from enterprise retailers themselves, so they are familiar with retail processes and needs. Our diverse backgrounds and life experiences bring us together to form an incredible team with a company-wide culture that supports who we are and what we care about — but also how we work together and lead each other.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Focusing on people and culture is essential. If you try to do it by yourself, you will ultimately fail. At the risk of sounding cliche, you need to surround yourself with experts who are better than you are. As long as you have a good team, you will thrive.
I also recommend finding yourself a group of ‘secret’ advisors who are invested in your success and separate from any formal, publicly announced board. They don’t have to be other founders; they should be people you trust, who know how to operate a business and who are invested in you — not your company.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Frank Pho from BDC Venture Capital gave me my first job in tech which really gave me a taste and love for the industry. I will also always value the early investors at Horizons Ventures who put their faith and money in us when we were just getting things started. At that point in the process, early investors are people investing in the team that’s putting the company together — they were investing in my team and I as individuals. That’s hard to do; harder than investing in a product or company or financial model — it’s having faith in the person.
I also think it’s important to mention that success isn’t a one-time thing. Launching Rubikloud isn’t one big success I’ve achieved — it’s not one round of funding, one client deal, or one revenue target reached — it’s a combination of many wins (and failures) over time, assisted by many people. The people who support you are there for the journey, not just the success.
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
This year we expanded our global sales and client teams to the U.K. & Ireland, Texas, and Hong Kong (including opening a new office in Hong Kong). In the next year, we’re looking to continue expanding people and offices to support our globally growing client base. We’re also exploring new verticals and working on developing interesting and valuable technology partnerships that foster advancements not only in our business but in the technology we use.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Rubikloud is educating the market on enterprise AI and disproving the common perception that the “retail apocalypse” and “the death of brick and mortar” are inevitable. Instead, we are redefining how AI fits into the shopping experience and ultimately how it enables traditional retailers to compete with market disruptors like Amazon. We strive to be a thought leader in both the AI and retail spaces through speaking engagements at respected industry events, fostering academic partnerships, contributing to our tech blog — Kernel, as well as other contributions to academia such as workshops, research papers and grants.
Can you share 5 examples of how retail companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers like to shop?
- Intelligent loyalty programs
In a world of Netflix and Facebook using AI to share suggestions and recommendations, consumers have come to expect retail loyalty and membership programs to be as intelligent and relevant to them as any other customer/member driven technologies. If it can’t be relevant, it’s only going to negatively impact the business.
Pricing, promotions, and inventory levels should be customizable on a micro scale. Retailers must be able to accommodate promotions and inventory levels that are different in Toronto versus London based on consumers in that area.
- Embrace digital
The store experience must be even more fast, seamless, and digital. Customers should be able to check out from anywhere in the store. Product information must be easily accessible so customers can learn about products when they’re physically in stores. Store associates should be product specialists.
- Consumer control over the “last mile”
Consumers will have more control over the “last mile” of the delivery of their purchase to suit their convenience. Whether consumers physically go to the store to shop and purchase, they buy online then pick up in store, or they buy online and the purchase is delivered to them. Whatever the combination, access to inventory and pricing have to be almost perfect and facilitate a seamless experience for the consumer. Any breakdown in the process is, and will continue to become, more painful for them.
- Heightened expectations for inventory assortment
Consumers will expect retailers to carry the latest assortment of cutting-edge products. Consumers desire to be surprised and delighted by both the inventory and the experience every time they enter a retail location. If they’re going to be the middleman between manufacturer and consumer, retailers are going to need to go above and beyond during every interaction.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Both myself and Rubikloud can be found on Twitter! Here are our handles: @kerryliu and @rubikloud
Rubikloud is also on Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn. All can be found under the handle @rubikloud.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!