If you live in the greater Commonwealth, chances are you’ve encountered Relay Foods, whether by trying an introductory Bounty Box full of fresh, local produce or signing on to the weekly online grocery shop. While the company’s roots are as a tiny Charlottesville startup, they’ve become a mainstay mid-Atlantic grocery competitor. Their unique model provides simple access to local food and all your other grocery needs, all in one place.
Zach Buckner, Relay’s founder and CEO, is an engineer and entrepreneur whose varied interests include freight, operations research, machine learning, text analytics, simulation, and computer architecture. Buckner has founded three venture-backed startups, including Relay Foods, Inc. and Brainsy. In addition, he invented a next-generation industrial sensor line at Visi-Trak Sensors, LLC.
At Relay Foods, Buckner employs nearly 200 people, including the software developers who expand and maintain the site, which has won kudos for its user-friendliness and accessibility.
What sparked your initiative?
I have always loved freight, and I was looking for opportunities to apply my background in simulation, optimization, and analytics in a freight-related startup. I was particularly intrigued by how efficiently freight moves from manufacturers to distributors and from distributors to big box stores — this stuff moves at pennies per ton per mile. This is in stark contrast to the comical inefficiency in the way freight moves from big box stores to our homes in our big, largely empty cars — at $45 per ton per mile — a massive decrease in efficiency. I felt this gap could and should be closed. It was one part market opportunity, one part interest in the tools that are necessary to solve the puzzle, and one part my desire to make cities more livable.
When Relay started, I was a consultant for Elder Research which occupied the 3rd floor of 300 W Main St., a building that overlooks the Lewis and Clark statue. And I had an industrial sensor company on the first floor. Somehow, I ended up with a key to the unoccupied second floor of this building. So for the first several months of Relay’s life, we were squatting – illegally occupying – the second floor of this building. Which was probably the most beautiful office space I’ve ever seen in my life. We were there until Gabe Silverman (a 2014 Founding Cville Recipient) came up and discovered us late one summer night. He was such a good guy that he just thought it was funny and let it slide (we ended up paying him a little money in back-rent to make amends :)
Very much so. The first year of Relay’s incorporated life I was doing nothing but assembling and harnessing an advisory board. Like the Founder and CEO of Homeruns.com, the Founder & CEO of Plumgood in Nashville, Darden professors, and a Marketing Chief from Crutchfield. I basically assembled a big group of people to help me refine the business idea and I found that to be crucial. I would present a proposed solution, they would tear it apart, and I would come back again with a variant. That was crucial to Relay’s early success.
Three core facets of our culture come to mind.
First, we’re a group of dreamers – we are trying to envision a very different way to get groceries into our homes – more conveniently and more responsibly. This is such an audacious endeavor that it tends to attract the kind of people who want to change the world.
Second, we are a bunch of empiricists and experimenters. Relay has the complexity of an e-commerce company (like Amazon), combined with a distribution network (like Fedex) and a perishable supply chain (like Whole Foods). With this degree of complexity we need to concentrate on getting our operations right through successive iteration – and that requires experimentation and an empirical mindset.
Third, we are a hard working team. We have a luxury at Relay in that there is an incredible amount of talent in Charlottesville looking for ways to stay in Charlottesville. It feels like we have a much better shot at picking the best people than if we were in a much more crowded market, like Silicon Valley.
I very rarely give up. As a consultant before Relay, helping other startups get off the ground, I grew to appreciate that persistence is the virtue most correlated with success. Most people give up on an idea way too early. The only time I give up on an idea is when an overwhelming majority of the advisors I surround myself with are convinced that I am pursuing a dead-end. Fortunately that has been a pretty rare event in my career so far.
In the way that probably most engineers do – a project is successful if people are using your product or service, it is improving your customers’ lives, and you are generating healthy returns for your investors. Enjoying work but also having a lifestyle that isn’t entirely consumed by work. That to me is success.
A defining attribute that I have seen in some entrepreneurs is something I’ve heard called “coach-ability” . The degree to which the person is actually willing to accept positive and negative feedback and has a real desire to incorporate constructive feedback into their process. This requires a certain humility that I’ve found is pretty rare. With the limited data I have, that seems to be a major factor in predicting the adaptability of the entrepreneur and the business’s ultimate success.
I couldn’t imagine a better city for building a venture. We’re a city with a long history of embracing innovation. This is a city that feels like it is very much rooting for change-makers.