Lead(H)er: Laura Scott, COO at Takeoff banner image

Lead(H)er: Laura Scott, COO at Takeoff

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If you’ve ever ventured into a Trader Joe’s grocery store on a Sunday evening to do your grocery shopping for the week and felt like the entire neighborhood had the exact same idea, you know all too well how stressful this necessary chore can become. Amazon’s Alexa can manage our homes, and we’re so close to self-driving cars, so when will the robots make grocery shopping easier? They already are, and if Laura Scott has anything to say about it, they’ll soon be helping shoppers all over the world.

Scott is the COO at Takeoff Technologies, a Waltham-based company that turns 10,000 square feet of existing grocery stores -- about an eighth of the location’s space -- into tiny warehouses staffed by automated fulfillment robots. Instead of having a person do your shopping for you or getting groceries sent over from a warehouse on the outskirts of town, which usually happens when you order groceries online, Takeoff’s bots pick up to four orders at a time from 15,000 SKUs right in the store and deliver them to a single employee through a series of racks and lifts. This employee can then bag the goods and send them off for delivery. Despite the tech involved, the whole operation costs grocers half as much as it does for consumers to shop for themselves.

Takeoff wasn’t operating any sites before Scott arrived in October 2018. Two months later, it had two -- the first of their kind in the entire world.

“Now we're going to be building that blueprint and refining it and perfecting it so that we can literally launch multiple sites a day in every corner of the globe,” Scott said.

It’s an ambitious goal, but Scott has the experience to help make it a reality. She’s been in management and operations throughout her entire career, beginning with the Woodstock Soapstone Company, which sold factory-direct woodstoves and gas stoves primarily through catalogs and later the web. Scott then earned her MBA from Dartmouth University and returned to Woodstock for another six years before joining Wayfair as the then-fledgling company’s Director of Supplier Operations.

At the time, Wayfair was struggling with fulfilling orders. The majority of orders weren’t delivered on time, and for about 10 percent of orders, Scott said, items customers had purchased weren’t actually in stock. Scott created a supplier team out of 25 former customer service representatives with the goal of helping suppliers ship smaller quantities of inventory on time and improving the customer experience. Once she and her team resolved that issue in the U.S., they turned their focus to the company’s European and Canadian operations. Shipping rates and backorder numbers improved dramatically, and while Scott was proud of her work, she missed the challenge of solving problems.

Scott took the summer off after leaving Wayfair and enjoyed the break, but when her kids went back to school, she realized how much she wanted to go back to work. After some searching for the right move, Scott landed at Takeoff.

“What I loved about Wayfair and now love about Takeoff is that we’re solving problems when there’s no blueprint,” Scott said. “You can’t call anybody or look this up online, because nobody knows how to do this. I don’t know how to do it either, but I know how to put the right people into the room to dig into problems and figure it out.”

Like she did at Wayfair, Scott is looking to create a recipe for success. This time, she and her team are working to figure out how to install Takeoff’s mini-warehouses as quickly as possible in grocery stores around the world.

“The level of rigor that you need to have behind that process of getting a site up and running and training retail clients is huge,” she said. “When you think about going from launching one or two sites here and there to launching multiple sites per day in different places, that’s impressive. I’m very excited.”

Quick Q(uestions) and A(dvice)

What do you like to do in your free time?

I have two kids and a husband, and anything that gets us outside is ideal. We lived in Vermont and New Hampshire for a while, so even though I’ve been in Boston now for 10 years I miss walking in the woods, hiking, and being in nature. Having a dog is fantastic because it reminds us every day, if not every weekend, to get out and get to the water or mountains or something. Boston actually has a pretty decent array of walks in the woods, and all the towns have some sort of conservation land or area with trails.

How do you manage stress?

I think there are two things that help the most. One is getting outside. I bike to work, run, and swim. Even getting outside for just 15 minutes for a quick walk is a huge help. That always helps me get my head in the right place. When I have something that's really weighing on my mind, the best thing for me to do is actually talk about it with somebody else. Somehow the act of verbalizing what's going on and how I'm thinking about it and the options that I see works. Half the time the other person doesn't even have to say anything -- I just need to talk at someone for a minute!

How many cups of coffee do you drink in a day?

I’m not a coffee drinker - I don’t really do caffeine. I tried to like coffee in high school when it was cool, but I thought it tasted so bad! So I never got into it.

What’s one of your favorite places in Boston?

My favorite place in the Boston area is Hull. It's a 25-minute ferry ride away from Boston, but you feel like you are in a completely different universe. It has an amazing beach, and it’s got big hills and cliffs into the water and a cute downtown shopping area. It feels like it moves at a different pace. Most people don't know about it, so it's sort of a Hidden Gem.

What’s one of your proudest accomplishments?

About six months into my tenure at Wayfair, we reached a moment where things were still not going great with the supply chain. We had a meeting about our strategy with suppliers, and a lot of the proposals that were on the table to solve these problems relied on implementing some sort of penalty, like chargebacks for late shipments. I had talked to enough suppliers at this point to know that they weren’t shipping late to be malicious -- they just didn’t know how to drop ship. Their entire business was about shipping full truckloads of furniture to places like Jordan’s, and we were asking them to ship one bedroom set to Joe and Jane Doe in Belmont. So I gave the team some examples about why I thought penalties were the wrong way to go and why we should partner with the suppliers and be the retailer who helps them figure out how to do this. So they gave me some more time to try that strategy, and it paid off. I get asked all the time about why Amazon isn’t crushing Wayfair in this space, and I think the answer is that the relationships that we built with those suppliers are incredibly strong.

How does where you are now compare to where you saw yourself ending up 10 years ago?

That would have been right before I joined Wayfair. I was the general manager of a small, family-owned manufacturer of wood stoves and gas stoves -- we’re talking a $7 million business. I had no idea that Wayfair was going to become what it did, so it's hard to say where I thought I’d be. I knew I wanted to be working in tech and eCommerce in some way, but I never expected anything like this!

What’s your advice for recent college graduates?

I would say, don’t overthink it. A lot of people worry about taking the best, most strategic first job out of college, but they’ve got a long road ahead. Focus on whether you’re joining a company where you like the people, feel like you’re going to be challenged, and feel comfortable with whatever you’re selling or doing. When you find that place, dive in with both feet, and don’t hold back. I think a lot of people are used to professors giving you assignments and checking in on you, but when you go into the working world your boss probably isn’t very aware of what you’re doing or thinking about it often. New grads might expect the kind of management that they've gotten from their professors, where their professors have a lot more insight into how they're doing, and then they sit back and wait for their boss to recognize that they aren't being challenged anymore. They don't speak up, and I think that’s a problem. You have to tell people what you want to be doing and what you need.

Samantha Costanzo Carleton is a Contributor to VentureFizz. You can follow her on Twitter @smcstnz.
Images courtesy of Laura Scott

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Takeoff is helping grocers thrive in eCommerce.

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