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 7 of Season 1, Lemnos’s Eric Klein speaks with Dave Merrill, co-founder of Sifteo and Elroy Air, and Venture Partner at Lemnos.
- Why did you start your project? and
- What did you do before deciding to start a hardware startup?
Sifteo started at the MIT Media Lab. Jeevan and I reconnected there as graduate students. We recognized that we both shared this interest in how to make our interactions with information more effective and to evolve them past the current state-of-the-art interfaces. The idea for Sifteo cubes as a game system basically happened when we were deciding to start the company. The moment that we realized we were really on to something was when the talk that I gave at TED went on the Internet and just went wild. It was kind of a viral success before there was such a thing as Kickstarter. I would look at that talk going online as our equivalent Kickstarter moment, except that I wish I had a pre-order button next to it. I did not.
- Have you always been a Maker?
I’m a tool guy. I grew up watching my dad use woodcutting power tools like table saws and circular saws. When I was little, I played with a lot of what I now understand to be constructivist toys like Lincoln Logs, Tinkertoys, and things where you were building complicated structures out of a lot of simple pieces. Before I went to college, I did a bunch of my own projects in the garage, kind of taking after my dad. For physics class, I built a model roller coaster that was awesome with a lot of hot glue and WeedWacker line.
- What is your day like?
I remember when we were designing cubes for the first time as a company I would spend some part of my day working on circuits, debugging and doing PCB layout, and some part of the day interacting with our industrial design firm. When you’re in the phase where you’re manufacturing, you get used to a mid-afternoon start to the communication with China, if you’re doing China-based manufacturing. By 3:00 p.m. or 4:00 p.m. we’d start to get some emails from our guys over there, and start to be available for whatever problem solving is going to be needed that day. Now, I may go to a meet-up and talk about Sifteo or speak on a panel or things like that just to keep the company out there in the public imagination. It’s hard to say what a typical day looks like because there are no typical days, really.
- What’s the hardest part about being a hardware startup founder?
For me, it’s that transition that a lot of engineers in management go through. When you started, you loved to tinker and you spent all day building. As a founder, there’s so many things that require your attention, you probably are not going to get to spend much time, if any, actually getting your hands dirty with code or circuits. It’s navigating that transition of like, “Okay, so, how do I reallocate my time?” Then also, “How do I kind of reallocate my sense of satisfaction in what I’m doing every day?” If you’re a person that really loves making and building, as soon as you are a manager, it’s great because if you’re fortunate, like Jeevan and I have been, to be working alongside a super talented team of engineers and designers and customer support people, then all the sudden the capabilities of what you can do have been amplified dramatically.
- Why did you choose the funding route you did?
The momentum was not captured by the TED Talk, although a ton of public awareness happened. That was useful because it allowed us to get any meeting we wanted and raise our first round of funding. It was very useful in getting the validation of the public excitement about this idea.
- What are the most important tools you use to make your product?
Yeah, we’ve abandoned a lot of SAS tools in the last few years. Really, having Google Docs, and then having a server in your office somewhere where you can dump big files and share them, those are really the only two things that are important for us. We keep all of our email and calendar and everything on Gmail too.
- What advice would you offer to other founders?
Really go after customer development to make sure that you have product market fit. The lean startup, lean fad thing that’s happening right now does reflect this underlying truth that the less resources you can expend getting the product market fit, the better. So go after that.
And a lot of hardware founders back their price point out from looking at their cost of goods. I think that that is not the best way to do it because, really, kind of related to the first comment about product market fit, you should find what price point the market will bear for your product, and then back out what the product can be on the inside based on that.
- What book are you reading or TV series are you watching?
I read a lot of technology pieces. I really like MIT Technology Review articles where they do some tear down or go in depth into something. Kids’ books are, actually, pretty cool. Coming back to kids’ books as an adult, you kind of see them in a different light.
- What is the best gadget you are carrying now?
Unfortunately, we did not have time for this response, but if you would like to learn more about Dave, his lessons learned in the development of Sifteo tiles, or why he loves his son’s favorite book, listen to our podcast.