Homegrown tech founder looks to untangle a key supply chain knot

Will Chu is helping speed up pickups and paychecks for truckers

Take everything you think you know about tech startup founders in San Francisco — transplants to the Bay Area collecting venture capital checks, driving luxury cars and bragging about their social media apps — and throw it out the window.

Let’s talk trucks, sports and solving real-world problems. That earthy conversation is what you get with Will Chu, the CEO of San Francisco startup Vector, which has the nuts-and-bolts mission of helping truck drivers with faster drop-offs, pickups and paychecks.

And Vector’s mission puts it squarely at the forefront of addressing a global bottleneck currently delaying delivery of everything from furniture and electronics to Christmas trees and toys.

Here’s Chu, 39, in a nutshell:

“If I was ever at a point in my career where I could take some time off, I’d just go to City College and take auto or wood shop,” he says with enthusiasm. The auto class might help him work on his 2010 Honda Civic, which has more than 120,000 miles on it. “It’s a great car,” he says. “I don’t freak out if someone dings the bumper.”

The easygoing Chu is also a jock who swims in the bay several times a week at the South End Rowing Club, the venerable 1873 rowing and swimming club near Fisherman’s Wharf. Twice a week during the winter he hits the 55-degree water of the bay in the dark, wearing just his Speedo swim trunks.

Will Chu, who is passionate about sports and being active, loves to swim in the bay and spend time with his kids. (Photo courtesy of Will Chu)

Will Chu, who is passionate about sports and being active, loves to swim in the bay and spend time with his kids. (Photo courtesy of Will Chu)

And unlike the stereotypical “startup bro,” Chu is a local kid. He grew up in Fremont, raised by a single mom who worked in tech. “Things are tough for women in tech, generally,” he says. “But back then it was so much harder. That really inspired me, so I followed in her footsteps.” Like his mom, he studied computer science at UC Berkeley where he also played lacrosse.

He has no specific Berkeley ambitions for his two kids, and in fact is married to a Stanford alum. His wife, Sarah, is a high school biology teacher. But family time and swimming in the bay, he says, fill up his life outside the office.

Vector’s SoMa offices look more like a trucking company than a startup. There are papers and model trucks, and unassembled furniture strewn around an office with trucking names on the meeting rooms. There’s not a kombucha keg or ping-pong table in sight. The three-dozen employees are mostly remote these days, but the company is thriving and hiring.

He can’t remember the biggest event in many startup founders’ lives: when he raised venture capital. “Our last raise was in 2018, maybe? I’ll have to check.” (We checked for him. It was May 2019, when he raised $12 million of the $16.65 million the company has raised total.) But venture capital is not a focus because Vector is profitable — and doing business with big local companies like PG&E and Clorox — and some of the world’s biggest companies, like Coca-Cola.

Vector digitizes the paperwork that has overwhelmed trucking companies for generations at a time when the supply chain desperately needs relief. Truckers have traditionally relied on bills of lading and other pieces of paper to pick up and drop off what they are hauling. With much of the world’s shipping industry snarled in a COVID-caused knot, Vector gives truckers time and relieves them of paperwork.

The company allows truckers to take a picture of their paperwork, tag their freight with a geographic tag with their mobile phones and get back on the road. In the old days, those truckers would have been waiting around in freight yards. Right now, it is a long wait.

Will Chu stands by a photo display of some of his employees along with a license plate displaying his company’s name. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Will Chu stands by a photo display of some of his employees along with a license plate displaying his company’s name. (Craig Lee/The Examiner)

Factories in China froze when COVID emerged in late 2019, and that led to a series of breakdowns. Chinese trucks could not pick up goods because factory workers were home, or getting sick. Then the virus hit China’s trucking industry, then its ports, then its ships, and so on. That domino effect of dysfunction has shut down trucking, with truckers not getting paid. Vector’s mobile solution based on digitizing paper documents and geo-tagging freight is a perfect fit for those problems.

Chu started his innovation of trucking when an old friend asked if he had any thought on modernizing his family’s small Oroville trucking company. Work there led to Vector’s app, and that really clicked when utility giant PG&E adopted the tech to help crews find poles that were dropped off beside the road for future work.

An early customer of Chu’s trucking innovation at the Oroville company says “He’s unique in the way he makes things happen and is very hands-on.” Gabe Anders, general manager of Shifflett Brothers Trucking in Oroville, says that in 2014 Chu “came in and asked questions, went off and engineered something, and came back with answers.” That was the beginning of Vector’s quest to cut paperwork in the trucking industry.

Those early lessons are applicable now, Chu says. “A lot of the supply-chain issues we see today are related to trucking capacity,” he says. So many deliveries are sitting at a destination, waiting for the next leg of a journey.

“There’s just so much freight sitting around. There’s no more room. We want to help truckers take a picture of their trailer, tag it with GPS and time stamp, then pick up and go. And we want to help truckers get paid faster.”

Chu the jock and son of an early tech worker wants to solve a 2020s problem with his down-to-earth ways. “Logistics is a team sport. It’s a relay race. You take the baton and go.”

jelder@sfexaminer.com

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