Welcome to Season 2!
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 Season 2 Episode 1, I talk with Noah Ready-Campbell of Built Robotics, a Lemnos portfolio company. Built recently announced $15 million in Series A funding to get its autonomous track loader to market.
- Why did you start your hardware company?
I grew up in rural Vermont and worked for my dad pretty much every summer. I did a lot manual labor, construction, carpentry, and carpenter’s assistant kind of work. When I was thinking about robotics, I thought, “Maybe there’s a way to bring robotics into construction in some way, shape, or form.” In our vision for the company, we automate heavy equipment to make construction safer, faster, and more affordable.
- Had you worked on hardware projects before this startup?
No, we first came up with this idea for an e-commerce business. It was called Twice, and the idea was basically to be an online secondhand clothing store. When I was thinking about what I wanted to do next, it was clear to me that I really wanted a business where technology was the core. I decided that robotics was the one for me because it felt like it was maybe a little bit further outside of Google’s sweet spot. I’d studied Computer Science in school and got a Master’s as well, but I’d never done anything in robotics. I just started learning. I probably spent six months just reading about robotics, talking to people, and then refreshing myself on “Oh, yeah. That’s how an electric motor works.” I was definitely intimidated by hardware at first. The thing I realized is that for most hardware businesses, the core of what they’re doing is actually still software.
- How did you decide what would be your first product?
I really needed to, again, roll up my sleeves. My parents live in rural Vermont. I rented a 15-ton John Deere excavator, and I said “Hey, mom. You’ve always said you wanted to have a pond. I’m going to dig you a pond.” So I spent a week on this machine. I put 77 hours on it. I started to understand what are the areas where a robot could be helpful. Then I traveled around the country talking to every excavation contractor that I even tangentially knew—a lot of like uncles, fathers-in-law, and friends of mine. I got a lot of really good feedback.
- What kind of engagement did you have with mentors, peers, or incubator colleagues early on?
I think there are two dimensions. One is industry expertise. For us, that’s hardware, robotics, perception software, construction, excavation, etc. Then there’s general company-building stuff, which is how you run a fundraising process, what are the legal ins and outs here, etc. I think that since I had done another company before, I felt a little bit more comfortable in the general company-building stuff, but I had a lot to learn on the robotics side of things. That’s actually one of the big reasons I wanted to work with Lemnos. You’ve got a reputation as being the hardware seed stage fund in Silicon Valley. I wanted to work with you so that I could kind of see around corners based on the pattern recognition that you guys have.
- Why did you choose to work with Lemnos?
The Forge that you have at Lemnos, it’s a little thing in some ways, but it’s actually really a huge deal for us because we were able to get in, spend a couple months here, and then go and find a larger testing facility. That flexibility, in terms of being a hardware startup where you’ve got actual stuff that you need to carry around with you and set up, makes a big difference.
- What are the most important tools you use to make your product?
Well, maybe I shouldn’t share that.
- What has been the most surprising thing about this process of bringing your idea to the market?
There’s a lot to learn in construction. I’ve been making all the dumb mistakes and learning a lot. I would say that even though I saw the high-level market numbers, going on to some of these bigger construction sites, the scale is really emotionally impressive. A few weeks ago, I was on a high-rise foundation on the Peninsula in Sunnyvale. Just this giant pit in the ground—50-foot deep pit, 300 feet long, 100 feet wide.
- What’s the hardest part of being a hardware startup founder?
Honestly, maybe it’s the logistics of finding office space. We’ve got a five-ton machine that’s driving around autonomously. Being able to be close to your hardware, it reduces your cycle time for iterating. I think that’s tremendously important. It’s one of the reasons we’ve been able to move pretty fast.
- What advice would you offer to other founders?
A lot of people talk about the financial risk involved in starting a company, but for most people in Silicon Valley with a technical background, they’re actually very fortunate in that it’s not financially risky. You can always stop working on your startup and go get a job as an engineer or project manager or marketer or whatever you do at some other company. It is a social risk. What’s more scary is doing something different from your friends or doing something that’s a little off the beaten path. But you have to take risks in life if you want to do something exciting.
- What book are you currently reading?
I love to read. I try to read every night just 20 minutes. It lets me sort of reset and fall asleep because otherwise I’m up thinking about work for hours. Now I’m reading Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain. One of the things I think is really interesting about it is the level of detail that he goes into about the craft of being a steamboat pilot, which is what he did on the Mississippi before he became a writer.
To contact Eric Klein, you can reach him on Twitter: @lemnoslabs or email: email@example.com.