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Innovation economy

She’s running her Cambridge startup out of an RV

Robin Liss hit the road to raise money for Suvie, which sells a cook-and-refrigerate appliance

Robin Liss said one drawback to running her company out of a recreational vehicle is not having a room she can escape to when she needs to make an early-morning call to China. “That has probably been the hardest part of working from the RV.”
Robin Liss said one drawback to running her company out of a recreational vehicle is not having a room she can escape to when she needs to make an early-morning call to China. “That has probably been the hardest part of working from the RV.”Handout (CUSTOM_CREDIT)


For Robin Liss, Thursdays are for staying put somewhere there’s a good wireless connection.

Liss has been living ― and running her startup company ― out of a recreational vehicle for the past month. She schedules most of her internal calls and videoconferences with colleagues on Thursdays, so she makes sure she and her boyfriend, David Simpson, are not driving down a remote highway that day. “Or at least we keep the drive to early morning or late night,” she explains.

Liss jokingly refers to the 24-foot vehicle as Delta II, since in her peripatetic pre-pandemic life, she had attained Diamond status as a frequent flier on the airline.

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Liss still owns a condo in Cambridge, and her company, Suvie, still has an office there — though it is mostly unused. (The company sells a $900 countertop appliance that can both refrigerate and cook food, using the sous-vide method of heating bags of ingredients in warm water.) As she looked toward the fall, she knew she’d need to raise another round of funding to keep the company going. While other entrepreneurs might line up a slate of Zoom meetings with prospective investors, Liss came up with a different plan. She bought a used RV at a Vermont dealership for $34,000 and hit the road.

After all, if Suvie’s 30 employees were interacting with Liss primarily as a face on a screen, what difference did it make if she was in her Harvard Square home office or at the Hollywood RV Park in Los Angeles?

Liss says the ongoing road trip, which started Aug. 29, is about two things: visiting friends and family and meeting with current and prospective investors.

“We haven’t seen a lot of national parks or roadside attractions on the trip,” she says. Instead, Liss and Simpson have sought out urgent care clinics when moving from one state to another, to get COVID-19 tests. And they’ve avoided public restrooms and dine-in restaurants.

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“We take health precautions very seriously,” she says, adding that the main reason they chose to travel by RV “was so we could travel in a socially isolated way, and see family who are socially isolating.”

She has also had meetings with current investors in her company and with others to who, she wanted to make a pitch on investing — some in backyards, others in public parks, separated by six feet and with masks on.

Why does Liss feel so strongly about meeting face-to-face?

“Business is built on trust and relationships, and it’s very hard as human beings to build that trust and those relationships remotely, for whatever reason,” she says.

Prior to the trip, the company had raised $12 million, primarily from individual investors, as opposed to venture capital firms. “The people who’ve invested in us are those who have connected with my passion, the team’s passion, and our hard work and grit. It’s hard to get that sense over a Zoom call,” she says.

One of Suvie’s local backers is Andy Palmer, chief executive of Tamr, a Cambridge data-management startup. “She’s a role-model entrepreneur,” he says of Liss. “When things aren’t working for her, she basically changes and mixes it up. This trip was definitely that. And it worked — she got her financing done.”

Liss says she had always been curious about RVs, but her fast-paced lifestyle never seemed to offer the opportunity for much ground-based travel. A year or two ago, it wasn’t unusual for her to sleep two dozen nights a year aboard a plane, traveling for work to China, California, and other places. (The Suvie appliance is manufactured in China.) “Compared to sleeping on a plane, the RV is luxury,” she says, though she and Simpson do occasionally bump up against the extremely limited square footage. When she needs to make a 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. call to China, there’s no other room to escape to.

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“That has probably been the hardest part of working from the RV,” she says. Liss pays for a Verizon portable hot spot, a subscription to public Wi-Fi hotspots offered by Skype, and, as a backup, she can link her laptop to her AT&T smartphone.

Liss is currently in Texas and plans to stop in St. Louis to see relatives on the way back to Cambridge. She expects to arrive home sometime in October. But Harvard Square is not known for its RV-sized parking spots, so she thinks she will need a place to store the Gulf Stream B Touring Cruiser.

Plans beyond that are hazy. She’d been thinking of driving to Las Vegas in January for the Consumer Electronics Show, which she normally attends,but it’s going to be held online. She may visit family in Michigan over the holidays.

Running a business from the dinette of an RV is not exactly a trend — but at least one other local founder is doing it. Brent Grinna is chief executive of EverTrue, a Boston company that helps schools and colleges raise money from alumni. He bought a 36-foot Winnebago in June and set out for Iowa so that he and his wife, with their three children in tow, could visit their families.

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“We greatly value Wi-Fi and laundry facilities,” Grinna says from West Glacier, Mont. During meetings with colleagues and customers, “My Zoom box looks the same, but we are all much happier.” His itinerary has him heading to Seattle, Sonoma Valley, New Orleans, and Key West, Fla., before returning to New England next spring.

And Palmer, the investor in Suvie, acknowledges he has started to look at RVs himself and to think about planning his own trip out West. He’s considering visiting his daughter in Los Angeles and seeing his company’s customers around the rest of California, over a few weeks.

“There was a thing that we got addicted to in our tech lifestyle: You’re always popping on a plane to go somewhere else, do something else, meet someone new,” he says. “Maybe that modality doesn’t work anymore.”

Business used to involve jetting here and there at 650 miles per hour. But perhaps 65 miles per hour is the ideal speed for the coronavirus era.


Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.