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 3, Lemnos’s Eric Klein speaks with Jon Hollander, CEO, and Eric Gregory, VP of Engineering, of Seriforge, a Lemnos portfolio company.
- Why did you start your hardware company?
Jon: My process was kind of unusual. I was at an art exhibition on mathematical knitting. This mathematician, she had knitted these incredible three-dimensional shapes out of yarn, Klein bottles, Möbius strips, all these really complicated three-dimensional curved manifolds. I thought that she had just reprogrammed this machine that they used to make fighter planes or racecars and just reprogrammed it to make these mathematical sculptures. I was talking to the artist and she’s like, “No, I did these all by hand. I think everything like that is made by hand, to be honest.”
I didn’t believe her. I didn’t really know too much about the field, so I went online and started looking for a YouTube video of this mysterious machine that was being used to make all these carbon fiber parts. It didn’t exist. It was General Electric making fan blades by hand—1,700 pieces of carbon fiber, 300+ hours to make these fan blades. I thought, “This is insane. This is a 21st century material. You’re literally making things that go into space and you’re doing it using the same skill set as 19th century, pre-industrial revolution craftspeople!” Where are the machines that they use to make these composite parts? I thought, “This would be an interesting problem to crack.”
- Had you worked on hardware projects before this startup?
Jon: Growing up, my family had a small aluminum foundry, so it was aluminum die casting, giant presses and furnaces in a machine shop. I grew up around machine tools and factory manufacturing processes, at least on the metal working side. We were always mechanically facile. I studied electrical engineering in college, and I went to law school as well. But I always like building stuff on the side. I bought a CNC mill and made widgets and things on the side just for fun.
Eric: Like Jon, always a tinkerer. Always built a lot of small things, mostly electronics. I tinkered a lot. Even my background formally is software. I’ve always dealt in the hardware/software realm.
- How did you decide what would be your first product?
Eric: When Jon started down this process, I kind of watched from the sidelines. I was really intrigued. It was in early 2014, when he called me and said, “I need to show you what I’m working on.” He showed me the CAD models of this machine. I said, “God, does this really work?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “That’s fantastic. This is something I would leave my job over.” Through that year, we worked on the idea together. We actually dove into the business because we really wanted to understand the market and make sure we weren’t creating a technology that didn’t have a place. We convinced ourselves that there was a real need for this. And by fall, I said, “I need to do this,” left my job, joined Jon, and we founded the company.
- What kind of engagement did you have with mentors, peers, or incubator colleagues early on?
Eric: Fortunately, we have good networks of people who turned us on to some really good leaders in the industry and we talked to them. We try to just get as many good contacts and get value from all of them.
- Why did you choose to work with Lemnos?
Jon: Well actually, I don’t know if you know this, but I stalked Lemnos before we even pitched you guys. I was living near you, and I was in the process of launching this company, trying to figure out whether to go the venture-funded route at all or try to bootstrap or whatever else. I got invited to a Lemnos happy hour party. I was hanging out, mingling with people, trying to figure out who were the founders versus the other people who were friends of Lemnos. I peeked around and looked at different things to try to get a sense of what the place was like. I don’t know if I met any of the partners at that party or not, but I definitely talked to some of the other Lemnos founders and contractors. So I kind of got a little bit of inside knowledge before we decided to actually come here and pitch.
Eric: [The biggest thing from being with another group of hardware entrepreneurs is], one, just that network effect. Having people around to help move you forward. Then there’s the simple thing of “Hey, does anybody know blah, blah, blah?” You put that on the wire and you get an answer in eight seconds, and then you move forward. That just greases the wheels for things going real fast. The other thing that speaks to the program here was having that outside voice chiming in periodically at checkpoints on certain aspects, whether it’s business development or product design, or whatever we’re doing. Just making sure that we’re checking the boxes on where we need to be and those touch points. Invaluable, keeping us on track.
- What are the most important tools you use to make your product?
Jon: The tools aren’t that important; just know how to use them. Know what you’re trying to do. There are a lot of tools available for the tactical aspects of sprints and scrums and all that. I still haven’t found a replacement for Microsoft Project for the longer-term view on this.
Eric: In my mind, my biggest tools for solving problems are an open mind and a sense of adaptability.
- What has been the most surprising thing about this process of bringing your idea to the market?
Eric: I can give you a positive one. When we made our very first sample parts and we didn’t have any in-house testing capability, we had to send it off to a customer. Our customer was going test something before we could, and it tested really well.
Jon: This is more of a business thing, but when I started this company, we were going to sell machines. We were going be a 3D printer company but for composites or a machine tool company. When we brought on our VP of Business Development, he really pushed us to examine this objectively, to look at our business model and ask, “Is selling machines really the right way to go?” If you asked me that four years ago, I would have been, “Absolutely. There’s no way we’re going do anything different.” Then when we were in business, it’s like wow, selling parts off the machines that you make, as opposed to selling the machine, is a way better business model. Current revenue, lowest barrier to entry. You don’t have to convince someone to buy and invest and learn how to use this incredibly complicated machine. You just give them what they actually want, which are the parts.
- What’s the hardest part of being a hardware startup founder?
Eric: Hiring. We have high standards. It goes back to those values and we filter for that. We’re fairly particular. The hard part isn’t finding people. What’s hard is setting yourself up that way means that you’re inevitably going to be in the situation where you haven’t hit your staffing plan. Now you have candidates you’re interviewing that aren’t meeting the standards you set. You’re now in that position of “Do I compromise my values to hit an objective on paper?” That’s hard, meaning it’s that emotionally hard thing to do, making those decisions.
- What advice would you offer to other founders?
Jon: Make sure you’re in love with your idea, that you’re in love with the industry. You really have to commit to it and you have to follow through, even when it’s a slog and even when it’s like, “Oh, I can’t believe we’re not further along.” If you’re not sure, you’re not 100% committed to that idea or this industry or this vision, that’s okay. Spend more time exploring it. But before you pull the trigger and say, “This is what I’m doing,” hire up a team, and everything else, you have to be 100% on board personally for thick and thin.
Eric: Also on the personal side, don’t underestimate the impact it has on your personal life. You’d better clear your decks and be ready for a commitment on the level of marriage.
- What is your favorite gadget?
Jon: My wife and I just had a baby, so I have an adorable two-month old. That’s my favorite gadget right now. I wake up in the morning, pick her up, and she recognizes my face because of this huge smile. She gets all excited and bounces around.