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 6, Lemnos’s Eric Klein speaks with Sébastien Boyer and Thomas Palomares, co-founders of FarmWise, a Lemnos portfolio company who recently announced their Seed Round raise.
- Why did you start your hardware company?
Thomas: When we finished our graduate studies, we were interested in ways that computer vision and natural learning could improve people’s lives. My grandparents were farmers, so it has always been a field in which I was really interested. We started to talk a lot of farmers, understand their daily problems and what were the issues preventing them from going fully organic. We realized they were using a lot of pesticides because they didn’t have a better solution or because it was a very harsh process to do manually. We felt like we could come up with a way of making their job easier and moving them to a more sustainable way of farming.
- Had you worked on hardware projects before this startup?
Sébastien: Both Thomas and I, we define ourselves as software guys, so we’ve actually never really worked on hardware before. We’ve played with some Legos and we’ve built a few pieces of furniture, but really, this was our first serious hardware project. Interestingly, it was also our first startup.
- How did you decide what would be your first product?
Thomas: The long-term vision of our project is to automate pretty much everything from seeding to harvesting. Obviously, as a startup, we want to start very focused, so we started with the weeding process.
Sébastien: Currently the two main ways farmers are dealing with weeds in the field is either by spraying herbicides throughout the field or by hiring people to go out there and use very basic tools. We are basically providing an alternative to those processes.
- What kind of engagement did you have with mentors, peers, or incubator colleagues early on?
Sébastien: As pretty young entrepreneurs, surrounding ourselves with experienced and talented people was very instrumental. As soon as we graduated, we joined an accelerator program in the Valley, which was a very good program and well connected and helped us get in touch with a lot of mentors—both technical mentors and business-oriented mentors. Obviously not everyone is interested or excited about what you’re doing, but you just need a couple of people to be excited enough to really push you through this first hurdle of trying to build this network. Now we’re very lucky to be working with five official mentors—purely technical people with experience building products, but also people coming from the farming industry and business people with experience in other industries.
- Why did you choose to work with Lemnos?
Sébastien: At the very beginning, the reason why we choose this accelerator was for the network. We were very honest with ourselves about being young, international founders. So obviously, our network at the very beginning was close to zero. Choosing an accelerator that’s actually in San Francisco and has a reputation for being well connected was instrumental for us. We had come from software background, so we wanted to surround ourselves as soon as possible with people with experience building hardware products and hardware companies. Lemnos was, by reputation in the Valley, one of the most well-known hardware accelerators.
- What are the most important tools you use to make your product?
Thomas: I don’t know if it counts as a tool, but we started in a place called TechShop in San Francisco. For a fairly cheap monthly subscription, you have access to every machine a hobbyist could ever dream of. That was very convenient at the beginning, because we definitely couldn’t have afforded to buy all those machines. We had access to them on a daily basis and we could prototype very quickly. We still go there sometimes. We even met our lead hardware engineer and first employee, who was working there as a consultant, there. That place ended up being really useful in developing the whole first product.
Sébastien: I don’t know if you can call it a tool, but having access to a test field that’s pretty close by and convenient to iterate on. I think was one of the most important things when we built our first product.
- What has been the most surprising thing about this process of bringing your idea to the market?
Sébastien: One of the most surprising things when we started was to see how many people were willing to help us, like potential customers from the farming industry that were interested in getting a product like that. But also people outside of this field. That kind of was surprising at least to me, because when you start your first company, you can feel like you’re jumping alone into the very unknown area. But the first thing that you realize quickly, is that you’re actually not alone, and if you believe in your vision, you can get a lot of people to help you.
Thomas: For me the most surprising was how naïve we were and how easy we thought the challenges would be. There has been a lot of realization, but I’m very happy that we’re naïve and optimistic in the beginning, because a lot of stuff we would never have dared to try. Probably they just ended up being more difficult, but we always managed to make them happen.
- What’s the hardest part of being a hardware startup founder?
Sébastien: I guess one of the key differences between hardware and software startups is the time that it takes to grow, both to scale revenues and number of products. So matching investor’s expectations with what you can actually achieve in six months is one very challenging thing. It’s feasible for a software startup to have 500% growth month over month. It’s quite challenging to have that for hardware startup.
Thomas: I would say also that with hardware or a startup that combines hardware and software it’s always pretty hard for everyone on the team to understand the challenges of the other people on the team, like the software understanding the hardware or hardware understanding the software. Every hardware decision we’ve made is going to impact the way we do software and vice-versa. It is really important to have everyone aware of what’s happening. That was fairly easy when we were four, when we could have everyone present at most of the meetings. It starts to get harder as we get bigger.
- What advice would you offer to other founders?
Thomas: I would say “Just go and start to try to make something.” When we were speaking with farmers, it was hard to explain the idea when they wouldn’t see the prototype. As soon as we had even a little something, they were super happy that we we’re trying to bring something on their farm and really working on it.
Sebastien: Try to have a very frequent iterative process—a very short time between when you experiment in the lab and actually test in the field. Even very early on, the smaller this period is, the better and quicker you’ll be able to get to a product that actually works. For us, for instance, pretty much none of the components that are on our prototype were first decisions. We basically changed every single component of the machine. The only way we were able to achieve that was because we had this weekly field test that allowed us to quickly go from an idea to checking if this idea works for real.
- What book are you currently reading/ what are you doing to unwind from work?
Sebastien: I usually read books about founders. One of the last books I read was The Hard Thing about the Hard Things.
Thomas: For me, I mostly do climbing and boxing. In both of situations, if I’m not fully focused on the exercise, something bad will happen. So, that helps just to completely forget about work and just focus on the sport.
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