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 1 of Season 1, Lemnos’s Eric Klein speaks with Chris Bruce, the CEO of Sproutling, which was acquired by Mattel.
- Why did you start your project?
I feel like I worked on a lot of products that are sugar water, to use the phrase from Steve Job’s biography. I wanted to work on something that I care about. I wanted to work on something that I could spend 10-15 years at, building a big company. It’s a very passionate project and it has to do with kids, which I have two of, and I love them dearly. That’s pretty much why I decided to focus on products that help families have better, easier tech.
- What did you do before deciding to start a hardware startup?
Before my last startup, which was a social gaming company, I worked with Shawn Fanning at Rupture, which got acquired by Electronic Arts. That was a great experience just from complete chaos to an organized company. I think it’s a great, great time to do startups and create value from nothing.
- Have you always been a Maker?
I’ve always been one of these clichés. I have been coding since I was nine. Even early on, when I was in seventh and eighth grade, I started into electronics and built stuff that annoyed my parents—alarms that wouldn’t turn off from my room, CBs, robots and stuff. But software has always stuck with me. I felt like early on, when computers were young and not many people knew how to work them, it felt like I was inventing.
- What is your day like?
Unfortunately, it’s a little bit different than I think traditional entrepreneurs, because I have two kids. I’ve been in startups before I had kids and then after. For me, it’s really a time shift. I think what I have learned now is that I have to be much smarter about my time, much more effective with what I do.
My typical day is early, like maybe 5:00 a.m., and I get a little work done, and then I see my kids in the morning, then I head off to the lab. Other times, I do a lot of meetings, unfortunately. When you’re a CEO of a company, it’s endless meetings. The best days are the days that my nose is to the grindstone, and I can just sit in front of the computer coding all day.
- What’s the hardest part about being a hardware startup founder?
One of the hardest things is, with software, I can work all night and have something. I don’t need to rely on any outside vendor. The hard things are dealing with shipping, like this particular chip because I need a board assembled and that chip happens to not be available, but it’s going to be available soon, so getting that. I feel like I’m waiting on components and other things. In a perfect world, I’d be able to just push a button and print out a PCB board and then have all the stuff on it.
- Why did you choose Lemnos?
I’ve started a couple companies, and I think I have a pretty good network and a good skill set for starting a company. But hardware is different. There’s so many things I didn’t understand about delivering a consumer electronics device. How do you get it on the shelf, how do you get the thing manufactured, what is a contract manufacturer, what are logistics? So I felt like we needed a hardware incubator to really help educate us on how to avoid those pitfalls and how to make connections with the investors. Lemnos has been invaluable. It’s also neat to work with other companies in the space, to share ideas, to help out. I’m in a community, and unlike the maker or hacker type community, which I do love, but here we’re all trying to make something commercially viable. We’re all in it together.
- What are the most important tools you use to make your product?
I do a lot of iOS development and mobile is fantastic, especially when you combine mobile and hardware and great firmware and software, the potential is fantastic. I actually, through great pains, have gotten all my tool chain working in Mac, surprisingly. For most people it’s Windows, a few Linux, but for me I got everything working in Mac. I actually code all my firmware in Xcode, surprisingly.
- What advice would you offer to other founders?
I’d give pretty much any entrepreneur three pieces of advice. The first is really think about what are the behaviors that the product is requiring from the customers and make sure that you’re not trying to create new behaviors. The best products in the world take some behavior people already do that suck, and make it suck a lot less, or make it great or better.
Number two would be that people buy benefits, not features. I think a lot of people tend to market their products and talk in terms of “this is a 486 with two megs of RAM” or what have you, but in reality, I think people don’t buy things based on the features. They buy based on what is it going to do.
The third one is that people don’t want data, they want insights. I think that is a really important thing to grasp.
- What book are you reading or TV series are you watching?
I tend to read a lot of technical books. I’m reading one on lean analytics, the “Elements of Computing Systems”. Somewhere I managed to read the entire “Game of Thrones”. I don’t think I slept much.
- What is the best gadget you are carrying now?
Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for this answer, but to learn more about Chris and his lessons learned, listen to our podcast.