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 2 of Season 1, Lemnos’s Eric Klein speaks with Ilya Polyakov, co-founder and CTO of Revolve Robotics, a former portfolio company of Lemnos.
- Why did you start your project?
Being a long-time robotics guy, I really was against the idea of a non-roaming robot. I was convinced that this is a good idea when I was Skyping with my wife in New York. She was with my six-month-old baby, and we’re using a tablet. She’s fumbling with it, my daughter’s trying to eat the tablet, and that just doesn’t work. She needs to be able to get up, walk around with a baby, and I need to handle the aiming of the tablet. So originally, I made this thing for myself, but I figured if I need it, a lot of other people need it.
At the same time, as a company, we were working on a roaming telepresence robot. We saw a lot of crazy technical hurdles with that, like navigation and doors and Wi-Fi holes, and we were like, “What a minute, we can solve this problem with a stand.”
- What did you do before deciding to start a hardware startup?
My history with robotics goes back to the mid-90s. I used to fight combat robots—first on “Robot Wars”, then “BattleBots”. Even back in high school, I started fighting robots and building robots. I did it all through college. Then I did industrial automation for a number of years, doing assembly robots and assembly cells for factories. That was my baptism by fire out of college. Then, I worked with my co-founder Marcus at our last startup for about seven years, developing electro active polymer, artificial muscle technology.
- Have you always been a Maker?
I have always been a maker. I got my soldering iron at age six. I grew up in communist Russia, before the collapse, where things were really shoddy. You held on to things and you patched them up. Cars would last 30 years because they just got to this permanent state of repair where you just kept it alive. That kind of maker culture, it was a survival thing.
- What is your day like?
One of the reasons I chose to do this is there is no such thing as a typical day. There are no set hours, because you’re always working. You’re always on email. I wake up in the morning, get on email, because the East Coast guy’s already sent you stuff, and you need to reply as soon as possible. One nice thing is we’re not working with China, so I don’t have to be up at three in the morning dealing with this.
- What’s the hardest part about being a hardware startup founder?
Software. I’m a mechanical engineer by degree and I’m a designer kind of. I’m a hardware guy. Realistically, hardware nowadays is software wrapped in plastic. At Revolve, we have one person helping me on hardware and six contractors working on software. The software stuff has been really challenging, and navigating all the different ecosystems we have to operate within. We do web-ops, we do server ops, we do front-end web development, we do push notification, we work within iOS, and we do Bluetooth. There are just so many components outside of the actual hardware. By comparison, the hardware is the easy part.
- Why did you choose Lemnos?
Our old startup spun out of SRI. So getting funding spinning out of SRI was easy by comparison. We came in, we started talking to investors, and we’re like, “Oh crap, we kind of know what we’re doing, but we really don’t.” Then going to hardware meetups, it was clear that there’s a very cohesive scene here in San Francisco—a community. It was clear that an incubator like Lemnos was going to be the heart of it.
It is a community and everybody works together; there’s good camaraderie—having other people that are going through the same thing, especially here at Lemnos, where there’s no class system and where everybody’s at different stages of development. Like Chris with Sproutling gave us amazing ideas on search engine optimization and you know A/B testing with Google Ad Words. Which is awesome.
- What are the most important tools you use to make your product?
My HTC1, my Google edition, mainly because it doesn’t suck. And my Honda generator. I have a Honda EU2000 generator that has survived six years in the desert and it’s still going strong.
- What advice would you offer to other founders?
Number one is you’re no longer an engineer. You’re no longer whatever you thought you were going into this. You’re now a marketing professional. Your job is to define your market, to zero in on who your customer is. You really need to do this. Otherwise, you’re going to learn really hard that you were wrong.
Secondly, don’t try to handle everything yourself.
Thirdly, quit your job. Jump off the cliff, because you’re not going to take this seriously unless you do. You’re not going to have the fire under your ass to do this.
- What book are you reading or TV series are you watching?
So recently it’s been the last season of “The Walking Dead” on Netflix. Zombies are really good when you’re on Solidworks. I do this because it realigns my brain. There’s a lot of distractions around me, but if I get sucked into the show, then I get sucked into what I’m doing. It’s kind of like a defibrillator for your brain.
- What is the best gadget you are carrying now?
We did not have time to get to this answer, but to learn more about Ilya’s approach to management, how his alter-ego as a DJ informs his start-up pitches, and more, please go to our podcast.
To contact Eric Klein, you can reach him on Twitter: @lemnoslabs or email: firstname.lastname@example.org. To contact Revolve Robotics, their Twitter is @RevolveRobotics and Ilya’s email is email@example.com.