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 4 of Season 1, Lemnos’s Eric Klein speaks with Art Tkachenko, co-Founder of Pantry, a former Lemnos portfolio company.
- Why did you start your project?
I realized there was such a tremendous potential in RFID (radio frequency identification) and it was underutilized due to, I thought, an incorrect way of deploying the technology and taking advantage of the technology. At one point, in my free time, I came across an article saying that a big part of grocery sales for grocery stores comes from selling only 90 SKUs or 90 different products. While if you go to Safeway there’s 30,000 SKUs.
I thought, “Why can’t I just go to my lobby and get [my groceries]?” I live in an apartment complex in the city. It’s a very busy commute to get to any grocery store; it takes me half an hour. So I realized that this could be done and we could have food available at the places we spend most of our time, and done in a very elegant, user-friendly way.
- What did you do before deciding to start a hardware startup?
I was focusing on wireless communication technologies as an undergrad. Before graduate school, I worked on interplanetary communication systems for satellites. In grad school, I studied cognitive radio. It was sort of wireless technology as well.
- Have you always been a Maker?
In the ’90s, in post-Soviet time, there were no toys in the Ukraine. So you built your own toys, you made your own fun. In high school, I was in robotics club, and we were building a lot of electronics systems. We didn’t have Digi-Key or anything like that. Definitely no Mouser. We had the electronics flea markets, where you could go and look at old PCB boards and try to scavenge old chips to use in your project.
- What is your day like?
We use a lot of help from Russia for our software development, so we actually work two or three shifts. We interact with Russian developers and software developers at night. Every time I come in the morning, the first thing I do is catch up with all the software team, see the progress that happened overnight. It gives everyone visibility of what’s happening in the company—even the people in Russia. I think that makes outsourcing so much better, when other people far away feel that they are part of the culture.
- What’s the hardest part about being a hardware startup founder?
To have a narrow focus on exactly what needs to be done, what’s the best thing that could be done for the company. We get inquiries continuously. Narrowing the ones that are really important, the ones that need to be pursued, and being consistent on dropping the ones that are secondary are probably the hardest challenges. I don’t think I’ve got it figured out yet.
- Why did you choose Lemnos?
I don’t want to hide the fact that funding was an important part. Also it’s a validation that someone else believed in what you’re doing, and that’s quite important to the team. Being an entrepreneur, there are challenges on all fronts, and it’s smart to get as much help as you can. An incubator is a fantastic place to get a lot of meaningful feedback from people around you. It’s a community of like-minded people, and you are not developing in a vacuum of the great technology. Being in an incubator, helped us realize that it’s not about just technology. It’s about the full picture, the opportunities and relationships. That was a very big win for us to be a part of this group.
- What are the most important tools you use to make your product?
One of the beautiful parts of Lemnos is the access to tools. Being in proximity to a tech shop is a great resource. On the software side, it took us a while to figure out the right set of tools. We use Jira quite a bit. We also use GitHub. We’re using Smartsheet, which we find quite useful. We’re pulling information from GitHub, from Jira, from [others] into one dashboard. So we have one display to see the progress of all the factors of the company.
- What advice would you offer to other founders?
Stay true to your vision. It is very important. Because there’s certain things that we see this company being in the future, and it’s hard to explain that in a 10-minute meeting. People don’t always realize where you’re going, and they give you feedback without realizing there’s something else you have in mind. So you have to keep the vision in mind and get feedback, but don’t overreact to it. And don’t get upset by more work, more challenges coming your way.
- What book are you reading or TV series are you watching?
I used to enjoy a lot of reading and a lot of research. I’m fascinated with learning different software developments and new data mining techniques. But lately, there’s so much to learn within the aspects of what I’m doing now. So, fortunately or unfortunately, [I don’t have time to read].
- What is the best gadget you are carrying now?
We didn’t have time for this question, but if you would like to know more about Art, his fascination with vending machines and refrigerators, and how he works with his team in Russia, listen to our podcast.