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Tiffany Chu, CEO and co-founder of Remix

Tiffany Chu, CEO and co-founder of Remix
Tiffany is the CEO & Cofounder at Remix (remix.com), a collaborative software platform for 350+ cities to plan their mobility future. Remix is backed by Sequoia Capital, Y Combinator, and Energy Impact Partners.

Tiffany is the CEO & Cofounder at Remix (remix.com), a collaborative software platform for 350+ cities to plan their mobility future. Remix is backed by Sequoia Capital, Y Combinator, and Energy Impact Partners.

Tiffany was a Fellow at Code for America, launched the UX practice at Zipcar, worked as an innovation consultant at Continuum, and wrote for Dwell. With a background in architecture and urban planning, she constantly thinks about how the built environment of our cities can be better designed for people and our planet.

Tiffany joins me today to discuss her start at Code for America and how she became a founder. Tiffany discusses her transition from design to sales and marketing to CEO especially with all of the challenges and heavy decisions during a pandemic.

“Can you get up and go to work everyday with a group of colleagues who care as deeply about the same things that you do?” -Tiffany Chu

Today on Startups for Good we cover:

  • The origins of Remix and the company’s evolution
  • What strong product-market fit looks and feels like
  • The fundraising options that Remix approached and the potential signaling
  • The ramifications and challenges of working with government agencies especially during COVID
  • How being a mission-driven company affects the culture of the company
  • How micro-mobility fits in with what cities are looking for
  • How to follow a very successful product launch with additional products
  • How Remix interacts with the open source community

Connect with Tiffany: On Twitter and Instagram @tchu88

Remix at remix.com and @remix on Twitter

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Transcript

Miles

Welcome to start us for good. Thanks for coming on.

Tiffany

Hey, Miles, it's great to be here.

Miles

I'm excited to talk about Remix and so many things. Maybe we could start with, how did you decide to be a founder?

Tiffany

Well, I didn't, I would say, I'm definitely one of those accidental and intentional founders. What I am, though I am a designer, and a urban planner. And Remix really came out of a funny, it's a grassroots side project that my friends and I, my colleagues and I at Code for America worked on when we were at the nonprofit, and really blossomed into something much bigger, something that we didn't really have any idea that it would become. And then that was the initial impetus that led me to become a founder.

Miles

Wonderful. So what got you start on this side project.

Tiffany

So at Code for America, which you are very familiar with, they have all of the fellows and this was in 2014, when they were running the fellowship program. They have fellows get to know each other by doing a hackathon. And at the hackathon, me and Sam, Danny and Dan and a couple other folks who are all sitting near each other at the office, we wanted to see what would happen if we use some of the new cool open source geospatial components and tools that were just coming out and build a grassroots way for residents of San Francisco to suggest a better transit network and better transit routes to the city. So that was what we built. And we unveiled the prototype at Beta, which was the mid year fellows event. And Code for America, recorded it and tweeted what we had built and it was like, you know, a little widget, you can drag and drop a route on a map, and, you know, see how much it might cost. You know, who might write it, etc. And it went viral on the internet. We got about 20 journalists who asked us, hey, like, how did this come about? Can we write about it? So they wrote about it? Then we got about 200 planners from cities and agencies around the world who then emailed us and said, Hey, I saw what you built. Can I please use it?

Miles

This was really powerful market poll. I mean, kind of product market fit that most founders I think don't get to experience.

Tiffany

Yeah, we were very confused about what was happening. Because at the time, we were all working on our individual team fellowship project. So I was working with the city of Charlotte and their IT department on helping them draft an open data policy launch an open data portal. So that was like my main focus. And then this funny side project just took off in this way that we had never expected. I remember we were up in the Marin Headlands for a Code for America summit, not a summit, it was the off site. And we didn't have any reception. And as we were driving in a bus across the Golden Gate Bridge, going back to San Francisco, all of a sudden, our phone started blowing up, because people had just been emailing us like literally all day because that was when all the press went out. And we were just dumbfounded. We like, looked at our phones. And we're like, is this a mistake? What just happened here?

Miles

And governments are not known for short sales cycles or quick decisions. You had people using the product very quickly, right?

Tiffany

Yes, there was no sales cycle. It wasn't we didn't even know I didn't even know what sales meant. At the time. People were just using it. It was like a free prototype that you could play around in you could navigate it. That was just really compelling to people, both armchair and professional planners. And we had about 30,000 maps made over the next couple months from a Gosh, hundreds and hundreds of different cities around the world both in you know really developed cities and also, you know, very emerging market cities as well. So I remember just going into the Code for America office and looking at what new maps were made. And all of a sudden, there were maps made in Africa and Asia, and then the World Bank reached out to us. And we were really just kind of amazed. And we didn't know what we had hit on. But we had we had hit upon something.

Miles

And how did we decide to turn it into a company?

Tiffany

So once all of that hullabaloo happened, we started with, I guess, user research. So we want to know what exactly we had hit on. So I had gone to Architecture and Planning school. And transportation is kind of adjacent to that. So I literally looked up on my LinkedIn, anybody in my network who had anything about transportation related in their profile, and I messaged them and invited them over for coffee at the office. And we did a user research session with them and ask them, you know, what's your role? What's your job? Like? What are your goals, what tools you use? And I think we talked to me about 1015 people. And it was really fun, you know, just diving into a whole nother space. And as we got to the end of the fellowship, this was, you know, December 2014. At this point, we decided that, well, first of all, none of us had jobs after the fellowship ended. So we didn't know we were going to do. So we might as well just keep following this thread, and see how far it might go. So we applied to yc. And we got in, I think we may have been one of the first ever government, Gov tech companies to get into yc. And that was, that was one once we got into yc, we were like, okay, we should probably incorporate.

Miles

Yeah, you had customers lining up from around the world, you have a well established, well respected incubator accelerator ready to help you. It's probably time to incorporate.

Tiffany

Yeah, it was really funny. I think we signed our first ever customer contract with the state of Oregon. And I don't think they knew that we hadn't incorporated at the time.

Miles

Well, well, and you then raise some money from big name venture capitalists? What was that like?

Tiffany

So I will say that my co founder and the former CEO, Sam, he did all the fundraising I was, you know, kind of along for the ride. And I think our approach was, we really wanted to work with the best, and also the folks who saw something there that most people didn't. And we ended up choosing Sequoia because they had a really interesting hypothesis around now was the time for government and digital transformation within government, which is an area that most investors if you said, the word government, which I know you're very well aware of miles, they would just run away from you and not look back. And and I think because of our traction, not really withstanding the fact that none of us, none of the founders had any semblance of sales or marketing experience. We were all product people and engineers. They, we wanted an investor that really believed in this hypothesis, which most investors didn't at the time. And so we chose Sequoia, and they've been along for the journey ever since.

Miles

And by picking a well known firm, early on in the company, did you have any questions in your mind about potential signaling, if they chose not to follow on or participate in the next round?

Tiffany

Yes, that was obviously always a big concern. But I think at the time, we didn't realize how big of a concern that was for real, because, you know, we had never raised money before. This is our first rodeo. Everybody will except for Dan. Dan had started an edtech company before when he was at Penn. But for, you know, the majority of our brainspace we weren't thinking that far ahead. But we were pretty focused on just listening to our customers and making sure that we could transform this crazy amount of energy into something real and sustainable, and something that looks like revenue. So that's what we were really heads down focused on Honestly, I think if You know, I were to go through this journey again and raise money, I probably would have thought about that question maybe 10 times as hard as I did the first time.

Miles

Well, it did work out for you.

Tiffany

I mean, so far,

Miles

So for your Series B, how do you approach fundraising.

Tiffany

So for our Series B, as you become a more mature company, you have a clear idea of who you are and who you're going to be. So we wanted to find a partner and investor that believed in the same specific vertical, they had, like, you know, a vertical thesis about something that we really cared about which for us, it was around sustainability. And for them, we ended up going with Energy Impact Partners, they were, you know, one of the best known VCs around helping companies and markets around the energy transition. And so there's a huge amount of overlap between transportation and energy, and that kind of belief in that thesis. And that singular focus, which is what EIP is about, really was very compelling for us. And we wanted to be aligned on a mission level. And we felt that they were they were very aligned with us in that way.

Miles

Great. Um, you were talking about that Sam started out as a CEO. And you saw yourself originally as more of a designer planner, how have you made the transition to being CEO now?

Tiffany

Well, that was also an adventure. So Sam and I were actually both designers, Sam was the one who convinced the three others of us to actually think about starting a company as a viable option after the fellowship, if it weren't for Sam, we all probably would have gone to get our various individual mid level tech jobs somewhere. And so as the CEO, you know, he really did an incredible job building the company for the first five years. And at the end of last year, at the end of 2019, he was ready to take a step back. And, you know, I had been the face of the company externally to our customers for so long, it made a lot of sense for me to step up into the CEO role. And I felt it was a fairly natural transition. In that, I had actually been doing a lot of the sales and the marketing and the external facing stuff. As a founder. I mean, we were all doing lots of different things. But that's kind of where a lot of my energies landed, I think, maybe because I'm, I was the most extroverted one out of the four of us. And so, I've been, you know, figuring out for the last 12 months, what it means to be CEO, not just a CEO, but what it means to be CEO, during COVID, and how to really develop and retain and nurture a team during a really difficult time, I probably wouldn't have picked this year to step up If I had known what was in store. But you know, here we are.

Miles

Here we are, how has COVID impacted the business?

Tiffany

Well, if you talk to me in March, and April, you know, I was literally running around with my head cut occident know, if our city and agency customers have wished our around the 350 mark, if they would all just call us up and say we're sorry, like, we got to go, we have no idea what's going to happen with our budget, so we're gonna Peace out. So I was like, so scared. And it was a really, really low point at the time. So, I mean, a lot of other founders, probably were doing the same thing, you know, in their own respective sectors, except for, you know, Zoom and Slack and everybody in those in those areas. But for, you know, b2b and b2c, it was this huge, wide crevasse of the unknown. And so what I did was, you know, I huddled with my exec team, we actually figured out a financial plan that would allow us a path to, you know, basically get to profitability in a reasonable amount of time. And we didn't, we did that by actually reducing our future hiring, we had, you know, pretty aggressive hiring plans, and we cut back on those instead of laying off anybody on our team. So, you know, really proud to say that we didn't have to do go through any layoffs. I know, many, many founders did. And that is probably the, the fear of that kept me up many, many nights in March in April. And as we kind of continued through May, June, we saw, you know, a couple customers in maybe more tourism, heavy cities, areas that are like a little bit more reliant on sales tax, you know, say, hey, maybe we can continue the contract. But, you know, we'll come back later, or, you know, something like that. And so there were a few of those. But then, by and large, we'll realize there was this huge amount of energy from cities and agencies that were just like, okay, we have to figure out how to adapt our transit system and our transportation networks to help the city become more resilient during COVID. So it was like, on the one hand, we had like, a couple customers leave because of budget uncertainty and budget crises, but then on the other hand, on the other hand, And became much more prevalent was just this uptick in planning activity in our back end and remix. So it was very, very confusing the the signals that we were getting at the start of COVID.

Miles

At the same time that your customers were worried that they wouldn't be able to afford the product, they needed it more than ever, because of the dynamic changing nature of planning their transit during this this time of pandemic.

Tiffany

Yeah, exactly. And to illustrate that point a little bit more for the audience who might not understand the ins and outs of transportation, for example, at the SFMTA Muni had to go from 89 routes to 17. Because of, they had to reduce their own budget, and they had operators who are out sick with COVID. And they just couldn't operate the system, the way that they used to. So we saw in remix, literally, Muni, like cutting routes over the course of a weekend in remix, and, you know, figuring out obviously, which ones are workhorse routes and which ones we had to keep running, because that's, you know, a lot of essential workers, and frontline workers use that route to get to hospitals and grocery stores, and etc. So, every single agency was doing some version of that. And then in addition to cutting routes, you had to figure out well, if and when the city reopens, you know, there's all these phases, you know, level yellow, and orange and red and every phase needed to correlate to a different level of reopening of the transportation network as well. So we saw that happening and remix like all these new phases and iterations of service planning, where typically you would only do this type of huge holistic network, rethink redesign, once a year, maybe maybe once every quarter if you're a fairly active transit network. But we saw this happening, like every single week, every single month, there was a new set of changes that the cities were rolling out, from slow streets, to restaurant, outdoor dining, to pop up bike lanes. We saw all of that being planned in remix, and we had never seen this happen as fast before.

Miles

Oh, well, thank you for being open about your experience personally, in the fear that you felt it's a tough time to go through when you're not sure what the future of the business will be.

Tiffany

Yeah, it was rough.

Miles

I'm, I'm curious, as the sense of mission in the business, have been helpful to recruiting or getting investors? Or is that something that has been mainly about your own motivation?

Tiffany

I would say the mission is first and foremost, why we're able to hire the talent that we are. And the reason why is because, you know, anybody could work at any tech company, now with, you know, any some level of skill set. And the differentiator from a recruiting standpoint is, can you get up and go to work every day with a group of colleagues who care as deeply about the same things that you do? And at Remix, for us, it's about access, it's about access to opportunity. And that's what mobility and transportation stand for. It's about climate change. You know, transportation is the single largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions in the US. And so getting people into more sustainable modes, that is a huge climate change crises issue, that transition that can actually help solve if we do it, right. So it's like these two axis around transportation, mobility being a social justice issue, as well as an environmental issue. Usually some intersection of those two areas is what gets people excited to work out. We make sense why, you know, I get up to go to work every day. And I think that has been a pretty strong differentiator for us in the way that we hire.

Miles

That's wonderful. How does micromobility fit in with what cities are looking for or with products as you're building them?

Tiffany

Yeah, so micro mobility is is really exciting because it presents a whole nother set of form factors of options, that cities can help make available to their communities as an alternative to the single occupancy vehicle. And in many places where transit might not be viable, maybe the density isn't there, or maybe the funding is not there, what have you. Cities are at this point where you cannot just give your community the option to walk or to buy, you know, a $20,000 vehicle in order for you to have any access to any opportunities, that just is not the way that local government should position themselves. So what we've seen micro mobility is a really innovative way to help plug that gap, and to make space for those trips that are, you know, between half a mile and, you know, three miles, which is typically where people are, are spending most of their time outside of their house anyways. And I think the entire industry has been really enamored with that concept around giving people more options. So that's been the pro side of micro mobility. And anything that gets people away from the emissions of single occupancy vehicles. I get excited about and remix gets excited about, I think, where there gets to be a little bit of tension is when you have a lot of VC money just kind of being pummeled and thrown into micromobility technology companies and mobility, operating companies in general. And that vast differential between how much VC money is going into that versus how much money is going into under invested communities in general, places where, you know, the road hasn't been paid for 80 years because that Street has not been prioritized, whether it's due to equity reasons or other reasons. There's kind of this huge mismatch in perception around who micromobility is for. And so I think that's kind of the conversations in which cities are starting to engage on and I think, the more that micromobility speaks the language of cities, the more that micromobility tries to become a part of the holistic transportation network along with transit, and pedestrian paths and bike lanes, the better our communities will be off.

Miles

So if I'm understanding you correctly, you're saying there are problems but you're optimistic about the way micro mobility fits into the transportation landscape?

Tiffany

Oh, yes.

Miles

Now you've launched products specifically, or a product specifically to address micro mobility data needs that a city has. I'm curious about innovating after you had such a big bang for your first product. Has that made it harder to create new ones?

Tiffany

So what I'll what I'll share here is, I think, because we had such strong product market fit, pull at the very beginning, it set an extremely high bar for every single new subsequent product that we experimented with, you know, we, as a team, we weren't content just to, you know, be a one hit wonder, we knew that we wanted to have more impact beyond just, you know, public transit planning, we wanted to figure out what are all the other ways that we can make transportation successful in a city, and a lot of them actually quite adjacent to public transit. So one of our next products was actually around street design, because we had heard from so many cities and agencies that the reason why their transit networks were running slowly was because they were buses were getting stuck in traffic. And cities were not prioritizing transit, above cars in, you know, in a common corridor. And so we wanted to help cities think about allocating the right of way in a street to prioritize the most people within the least amount of space, which would be transit. So that was like a very natural progression of our product roadmap. And then once all of the bike shares and scooters and everything, etc. tricycles, motorbikes, e bikes, etc. landed on our streets. Couple years ago, we saw that as a huge opportunity To more clearly connect the dots between all of these new mobility options, and helping cities think about how to fit those into the overall mobility picture with regards to space allocation. So that's why we created our mobility product to basically work hand in hand with our street design inner transit product, so that cities would no longer be planning in a silo of every single mode in its own department in its own team. And you could actually see your entire transportation picture at once.

Miles

Hmm. And so with that high bar, do you feel like you've been able to reach it?

Tiffany

I would say it's been really challenging to recreate that exact moment that we felt, you know, riding back across the Golden Gate Bridge after offside, and just seeing, you know, hundreds of emails flood into our inboxes, with people wanting to use our product, like, I don't know, if, if I tried for the rest of my life, if I could ever create recreate that, again, I think what the way that we have approached that knowing and being, you know, the pragmatist that we are, if we can't recreate that exact magic moment, again, what we can do is to use a lot of the success that we've had as a jumping off point for understanding user needs, at a deep level, to allow us to uncover other pain points that are adjacent to where we are now, and use that to lead where our product roadmap should go next.

Miles

And you've been successful with that, which was great. One of the things I was curious about, I'm at a bit of a theory that the way you were able, at the beginning and Part Part of the reason you were able to move so quickly in sales cycles with governments that normally take longer to buy, is because you were replacing a consulting budget, there was an existing line item, not for your software, but to pay outside folks to do this type of planning. Is there any truth to that?

Tiffany

I was it was a combination of things. The reason why we were able to move into procurement cycles in such an efficient way, is because we were not necessarily replacing consultant budget, but we were helping to expand staff capacity. And, you know, there is quite a bit of funding for either outsourced services or, you know, other software that's supposed to be doing the same thing around expanding staff capacity. And so we were able to tap into those budgets. But I think more importantly, and it is not like any one thing it was that and the fact that we could be very useful very quickly. With you know, we could just turn on logins, you know, in like a minute, we didn't need a nine month onboarding, like a lot of it. procurement processes we're used to, because we were able to just turn on and be effective for XYZ project that was coming up already, like a city was already doing a redesign, or they were already doing a comprehensive operations and assessment or something, we could say that, hey, you will be two to five times as efficient as productive with all of your staff hours on this project and save basically 50% of your budget that you had allocated to that project, why don't you just try us out as a part of it, and they could see the value immediately. And then that's what able that's what enabled us to get into the sales cycle. So quickly.

Miles

How do you interact with the open source community?

Tiffany

Ooh, yes. So we have been very, very thankful for the OpenStreetMap community, we've actually built our entire platform off of Open Street Map. And that's been, you know, a big reason why our customers like that, as well as they see something wrong with the way that the map is, you know, describing a certain part of where they, where they work, they can actually just go into OSM and edit it and then it gets reflected back in remix pretty quickly. So that's been incredible. We have used, you know, quite a bit of open source components, and I've open sourced you know, a couple of tools ourselves around the way that we work with transit and honestly, miles I'm not the best person to be talking about this. I would love to hand the mic over to to Dan and Danny on my team to explicate on that a little bit further.

Miles

Yeah, it wasn't looking for all the details, but just interested in that dynamic of building on top of this open map, which has enabled your business, and so fascinating from a business model perspective, and fascinating to think about what other businesses can be built on top of it as well. I'm curious, what advice would you give to an aspiring founder.

Tiffany

So I think one of the most pivotal things about doing Y Combinator with my co founders, is the fact that it really just gave us a kick in the pants, when it came to figuring out our business model. And along with that, because we were just surrounded by so many other you know, early stage founders who were kind of, you know, flailing in the same way that you were. It also gave you a sense of camaraderie. And the one piece of advice I remember one of the yc partners giving us was, don't fall in love with a solution, fall in love with the problem. And that resonated so much with me. Because, you know, living in San Francisco, I see all of my friends and friends of friends, and you know, everybody on the street is starting their own something or other. And you know, half the time, you're not even sure if they're solving a problem, that's a real problem, or are they just trying to be a founder, because they think everyone else is the founder. And so that ethos really rubbed me the wrong way. When I moved to San Francisco, I didn't realize it would be so prevalent. And so I was like, you know, I'm never going to be like that. And then, you know, I became a founder. But I think what is maybe different, and the advice I would give is, if you're not all day, every day, like reading and soaking up news, and the news that you're soaking up is like in the space that you are working in, like if your passion and your energy is not aligned with like what you think about normally, outside of your workplace, like on weekends, then you're going to get exhausted really, really fast. Like for me, because I went to planning school. You know, I've been just really interested in urbanism, cities, communities equity for a little time, that's like what I just read and consume and soak up on a day to day basis. And that also became how I started to understand our customers and our customers needs and what they were trying to do. And so if they're not one in the same, and you become a founder, I think you'll get burned out really quickly, because all your energies are not going to be directed in a way that is where your passion lies.

Miles

Is there a book or article that you'd recommend to aspiring founders?

Tiffany

Oh, gosh,huh? Yes. Many I'm going to have to think on that one Miles. Oh, okay. I have one. So I was recommended. This book called playing big. And it's by Tara Mohr Playing Big, Practical Wisdom for Women Who Want to Speak Up, Create and Lead. And the reason why I recommend this book, I recommend this book, actually, to a lot of my, my girlfriend's a lot of the women leaders on my team. Because there's this pivotal chapter, I think it's chapter four. It's called unhooking from praise and criticism. And the reason why that chapter changed me is because, you know, for the first couple of years, whenever I would get feedback about anything from anybody, I would just like, kind of break down inside, you know, like, try to smile externally, but like, inside I was broken. And I was just so bad at taking feedback for whatever developmental reasons, you know, whatever happened in my childhood, and this book really helped me reframe the value of feedback, and unhook my personal sense of value from the words that somebody else was giving me and be able to take value from that if only if I wanted to.

Miles

Wonderful that you're being so open and vulnerable, sharing lessons you've learned, I think it's can be really helpful for people.

Tiffany

I hope so.

Miles

In closing, where can people follow you online?

Tiffany

Oh, well, you can follow me on Twitter. I'm at Tchu88. Also on Insta Tchu88. We're at Remix on Twitter. And we're at Remix.com.

Miles

Awesome. Thank you so much for coming on.

Tiffany

Thanks. While thanks so much for having me. Thanks for believing in us really early on.

Miles

Cool. All right. Have a wonderful day.

Tiffany

You bet Talk to you soon.

Miles

Bye