In each of our podcasts, we ask top hardware entrepreneurs the same 10 questions to better understand the challenges and best practices in starting a hardware company. In Episode 9 of Season 1, Lemnos’s Eric Klein speaks with Shireen Yates and Scott Sundvor of Nima, formerly 6SensorLabs, a Lemnos portfolio company.
- Why did you start your project?
Shireen: It really started with a personal issue of mine. I had suffered for a number of years from not being able to eat out without getting sick. I had severe food allergies, and gluten, specifically, was the most intense. I had always gone out, lived a pretty social life, and then I got diagnosed in college. It completely changed my life to lead a diet-restricted lifestyle. Once I found out what I was actually allergic to, it was very hard to avoid some of those foods while eating in social situations. So, I had this issue and put up with getting sick. I met a lot of people who also had the similar issues. Then I had the great privilege of meeting Scott at MIT, and we had a shared passion about helping people live healthier lives.
- What did you do before deciding to start a hardware startup?
Scott: My education was in mechanical engineering. I think that definitely helped a lot. It gave me a great insight into the product development process. That’s something that they really drill into you at MIT. When I met Shireen, I was working in consulting after I got my mechanical engineering degree.
Shireen: I have a background in online sales and marketing—as far out as you can get from hardware. When Scott and I actually got together at MIT to start building this product, my expectations were absurd. Scott had a lot of education to do that summer, but I sat down with Scott and the engineering team at MIT and said, “Okay guys, we have four weeks to prototype, so I expect to have beta users at the end of these four weeks.” We had absolutely nothing at that time. It was just an idea, and our product is complicated.
Scott: It was a lot of fun working with those extreme expectations. It was also definitely a learning process for me. I thought things would go a lot more quickly, and cost a lot less money than you realize that they do. One of the great things about working with someone who is so far removed from hardware is that you have this constant tension. It really pushes the engineering team.
- Have you always been a Maker?
Shireen: I’m going to surprise you; I was a total maker. I remember in middle school, I took a straw, drilled a hole in my toothbrush, and filled it with toothpaste. Then I drilled a hole in the bristles. My mom was like, “You know, those toothbrushes exist.” But I was like, “No, look. I’ve, simplified it.”
Scott: I guess Shireen and I had similar childhoods, because I did a lot the same stuff. I think my first introduction to engineering was probably through Legos. I was always taking things apart. Before you had the remote controls for your light and your fan, I made a whole pulley system in my room for that. It progressed naturally to taking physics classes in high school, and then going to MIT and being a mechanical engineer.
- What is your day like?
Shireen: No day is the same. But, typically, we have a mix of making sure that we’re on track with our product development team and managing the schedule that we’ve built. The business development side is about 20 to 30 percent of the day—looking at the market, getting consumer feedback, looking at strategic partnerships on my end. And if we’re in a financing stage, a lot of the day is spent figuring out the financing strategy.
But, every day, the common thread is a check-in with the team in the morning and “founder time”, whether it’s planned or not. Scott and I spend a significant amount of time just chatting about planning, what’s going well, and what’s not going well.
- What’s the hardest part about being a hardware startup founder?
Shireen: Turning my head off to not think about the business, especially when I go home and spend time with my husband. It is so obvious when I’m physically sitting there and not totally there.
Scott: Also utilizing the resources that you have available and knowing when to connect with the higher leverage resources you have. As alumni, we have connections to a bunch of just fantastic resources, and through our own networks and the MIT network, we have these great connections. So, it’s figuring out when and how best to use those resources. It is not always as intuitive as we would hope.
- Why did you choose Lemnos?
Shireen: It was a really big decision for us. We had just spent the summer at MIT, and MIT had started an accelerator-type program. Coming out of that over the summer, it was like, “Are we ready to go into another accelerator versus going out on our own in the big scary world?” We talked to a lot of folks who had done it on their own, as well as folks who had gone through some of the options we were considering. And, Lemnos was our top choice. I was struck by the wide range of life experiences—people who had started companies before on their own, people who hadn’t, and this common feedback that you need all the support you can get, that you can draw on each other’s resources.
- What are the most important tools you use to make your product?
Scott: I like my productivity tools. What I have found for my own personal organization to be the most important I got from, I believe, Marc Andreessen’s blog. It’s just keeping an index card with you every day. Before I go to bed, on the front of it, I write down the three highest priority things I want to get done the next day. If I accomplish those three things, then that was a great day. Then, on the back of the card, as I go throughout the day, I write down everything that I accomplished. One of the things that’s difficult when you’re running a startup, is that you wake up and before you know it, the day is over, and you have no idea what happened. By doing this, I’m actually able to track a lot better what I’m doing and what I’m spending my time on.
Shireen: I also really like RelateIQ; it was just bought by Salesforce. It’s a CRM tool that integrates everything with Gmail, or whatever mail platform you’re using, and your calendar. And you can build lists to keep track in a way that minimizes creating all these docs and spreadsheets.
- What advice would you offer to other founders?
Shireen: Make sure people are going to buy it. Understanding your market is really critical. And then from a personal standpoint, I would say manage your emotions, because there are highs, like you feel like you’re on top of Everest, and there are lows, where you’re at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. And the delta between those can rock you. So, try to manage your emotions and use whatever way you can, whether it’s exercise, meditation, or a good glass of wine, to stay as even as you can.
- What book are you reading or TV series are you watching?
Scott: Every day on the way to and from work, I’m listening to audio books. Right now, it’s “Delivering Happiness” by Tony Hsieh.
Shireen: From a relaxation standpoint, I like to disconnect with this one TV show right now called “The Killing”. It’s a really light show.
- What is the best gadget you are carrying now?
Shireen: I’m an achievement-oriented person. I do love my Nike+ FuelBand. I’m sad that I might not have the option to buy one in the near future, but I like to track my steps.
To contact Eric Klein, you can reach him on Twitter: @lemnoslabs. If you have questions or comments about this podcast, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. To subscribe to this podcast in iTunes, click here.