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Where Sustainability Meets Cost Savings: How HBS Alumni-Founded Syrup Enables Merchandisers to Make Data-Informed Purchasing Decisions

Chuck Isgar (MBA ’25) speaks with Syrup Co-Founder and CEO James Theuerkauf (MBA ’21) about how his company is leveraging AI to help merchandisers more sustainably and accurately coordinate their supply chain.

James Theuerkauf (MBA ’21) and Ferdinand Stockmann (MBA ’21) met as first-years in August 2019, a day or two before starting classes at HBS. Intending to go back to McKinsey after graduation, Theuerkauf changed his mind. He and Stockmann did the Rock Summer Fellows program in the summer of 2020, out of which Syrup was born. As a consultant, Theuerkauf previously worked with brands in the retail space; he was spending time in Excel with his clients and could not believe that their purchasing and inventory planning decisions were not more data-driven. The magnitude of this problem is enormous: Theuerkauf explained that “inventory is the biggest balance sheet item” for many of these businesses.  

These firsthand experiences inspired the mission behind Syrup: reduce waste and save expenses that stem from poor inventory planning. While there is certainly a sustainability aspect to Syrup, its mission is dual purpose: “there is a clear monetary benefit to this as well.” There are two key problems Syrup is solving for clients. First, from a customer lens, Syrup helps ensure that consumers don’t walk into a store and end up unable to find the right product or size. Secondly, Syrup helps reduce leftover inventory at the end of a season.

As for Syrup’s product, it is an intelligence layer which sits on top of a customer’s core data layer. Syrup pulls data from its customers – such as inventory history, transaction history, marketing spend, and promotion schedule –  and other third party data to forecast demand through its advanced AI models. The output is a recommendation for a merchandising team as to how they can best plan their supply chains and coordinate replenishment. Ultimately, the final ordering of products is a decision made by each brand’s merchandising team and informed by Syrup’s data and recommendations. Theuerkauf describes the merchandising process as an “art and a science” and his respect for the “craft” of the job informs why Syrup seeks to heavily inform the process of merchandising with its predictive data streams, but not to entirely replace this delicate balance.

At present, a lot of merchandising planning is done in a spreadsheet with the assistance of a patchwork of software tools, such as those offered by SAP and Oracle. The issue is that these incumbent solutions are not forward-looking; they are based on historical averages, whereas Syrup combines historical data with other real time and forecasted data, creating a truly intelligent system. To fit into this complicated fabric of tools, Theuerkauf explains that Syrup does not intend to be a company’s system of record. Rather, their “ambition is to be an end-to-end nervous system.”

The timing is right for this company, and not merely because of recent advancements in the AI ecosystem. Theuerkauf explained that “if you look at regulations coming out in the European Union about the inability to burn products going forward, it’s going to be really important for brands to get [planning] right, partially because they care about their sustainability-minded customers and investors, but partially [because of] the pure monetary benefit as well. The way that [Syrup] talks to customers is always combining both.” There are also technical advantages to the current moment for Syrup’s growth, namely the massive availability of data: “part of the reason that it’s such an amazing time to be building this company is the incredible data availability that we have. We’ve never had access to so much data in human history.”

On top of the macro tailwinds powering Syrup, the team has an overarching purpose that drives its decisions: serve customers extremely well. The company is continually listening to its clients – in fact, this interview was conducted as Theuerkauf traveled after a day spent visiting a customer. Theuerkauf shared that they are “giving [their] customers more visibility, more self configurability, more control over the AI.” When asked about the biggest threat facing the company, Theuerkauf shared that “this is a gigantic, gigantic problem and it’s an age-old problem as well – how to get the right product put in the right place at the right time… there’s nothing new there. Because it’s such a big problem, you can’t solve everything all at once. There's a real benefit to making sure the things that we do… we do extremely well.”

As to the customer-obsessed team behind this intelligent platform, it appears to be a carefully-assembled mix of people with experience across software and AI, coupled with those who have merchandising industry experience. The current employee count is about 40 and with a recent $17.5 million Series A round of funding led by Accel Partners, Syrup plans to continue its hiring in the coming months. The company remains close to its HBS roots: when discussing the experience growing from a student startup to its current scale, Theuerkauf wanted to share his appreciation for the likes of advisors such as Professor Jeff Bussgang and Professor Toni Moreno who have helped – and continue to help – the company on its growth journey.

With an IPO potentially as large as $90 billion in flux, China-based fashion brand Shein has garnered significant media attention about a range of controversial practices. Shein took the world of fashion by storm with a data-enabled ecosystem that quickly creates low-cost products to match recent trends seen on social media. Acknowledging the criticisms of Shein’s sustainability, product quality, and human rights violations, Theuerkauf described the company’s supply chain as a “machine,” attributing it heavily to its ability to “read and respond to market trends faster and better than anyone else.” In this way, Shein serves as a model for how to build a fashion brand where data sits at the center of the planning, ordering, and inventory management process. According to Theuerkauf, “what [Syrup] wants to do is take the Shein model – the Shein demand sensing intelligence and operational masterpiece – and have it not just for super fast fashion, but bring that to every brand and retailer to make sense of their data that way.”

Chuck Isgar (MBA ’25) loves all things startups. He created and runs Above Board, a weekly newsletter which features Q&A's with investors and founders about startup investment, board management, and corporate governance. Most recently, he served as the Chief of Staff at Scenery, a Series A-stage startup backed by investors such as Greylock. Previously, he was a Schwarzman Scholar where he earned a Master in Global Affairs from Tsinghua University in Beijing, China. Chuck co-founded and was the CEO of Intern From Home, a recruiting technology startup that served students from over 600 colleges and was featured in publications such as The New York Times. Chuck earned his bachelor’s from Brown University, where he served as the Co-President of the Brown Entrepreneurship Program. He loves to golf, cook, and go on long walks.

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