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 4, Lemnos’s Eric Klein speaks with Amir Hirsch, co-founder and CEO of Flybrix, a Lemnos portfolio company.
- Why did you start your hardware company?
- How did you decide what would be your first product?
We started thinking about building flying cameras. This was 2014. There was a lot of hype around drones at the time. So I entered into the drone space, intrigued by the opportunity first to make flying cameras, but secondly to explore pocketable designs and industrial designs that allow a drone to fold up. In that process, we were using Lego bricks for prototyping. We 3D printed these little connectors to hold the motor onto a Lego brick, and we were using the Legos as part of our way of exploring different industrial design options. We realized that we were sitting on top of a pretty cool product idea, and we decided that we would take that to market.
- Had you worked on hardware projects before this startup?
Before this startup, I worked for my co-founder Robb Walters, who started a company called Integrated Plasmonics. We were developing a small spectroscopy device towards the blood testing market, which we learned was probably not the best market to target. There was a lot of regulation to get to that market. But we learned a lot in the process about prototyping hardware: how much things cost and how far out your expectations are from reality. Before that, I had also worked on a nuclear power plant controller. I had built some high-end computing systems. My background is in electrical engineering. So I knew how, especially with the nuclear reactor, important it is to have really validated designs before you start to make it for a product.
- What kind of engagement did you have with mentors, peers, or incubator colleagues early on?
It’s important to ask your colleagues and friends. Talking with a lot of people early on, especially Eric and Jeremy at Lemnos, really helped me figure out what the right thing to do at the right time was. It also helps to talk to investors about what they are seeing. So it wasn’t just my friends who were saying that that sounds like a sensible idea, because investors know what’s coming on the edge of technology. Then you can figure out what thing you might be able to get traction on within the broader community of investors.
- Why did you choose to work with Lemnos?
Jeremy is one of my best friends; I’ve known him since MIT. I am the original Lemnos fanboy right here. I wanted to go through the program. I wanted to be part of this community and be able to see a lot of innovative technology happen up close. I think Lemnos’s strong suit is being able to pick founders who will make real technology. I’m really impressed with the technical skill in this building, and I would say that for anyone who is a serious electrical engineer or mechanical engineer interested in hardware, that Lemnos is the best place to go. I fantasize about working for half of the other companies at Lemnos.
- What are the most important tools you use to make your product?
The most important thing we’ve figured out is how to do prototyping. There are a number of different services where we can get boards made at different time lines. There are fast turn things in this city that will give us a board in three days. There are vendors that we can get things from in a week or 21 days, and there are different price points. Now, for some things, it’s fine to just put out an order and wait three weeks and continue to work. So learn how to balance your time. If something is super high priority, you can get it turned really quickly and finish it, and the other stuff will come later.
- What has been the most surprising thing about this process of bringing your idea to the market?
Having these cash flow crises happen, scrambling, and getting the money you need to do production. However, actually navigating it was a good growth experience. There’s wisdom gained there to tell other founders to stand by for angel investor credit, to have that built into your assumptions. The other surprise was just how well received the product was by the market. I’d never had a product that on launch did hundreds of thousands of dollars a day.
- What’s the hardest part of being a hardware startup founder?
I would say it’s the laws of physics. Physical product actually requires work; you actually have to make something. What that means is you have to reframe what you think about funding—air freight, all these other things that you have to account for. In hardware, especially consumer hardware, your cash flow is limited by how much credit you can get to make inventory and then move that through a sales pipeline. So it’s this acknowledgement that you are going to be in debt.
- What advice would you offer to other founders?
Revenue is better than fundraising. It might feel unnatural, you may want to dive right into R&D, but talking to customers very early on, figuring out what will get money in the door, that can actually fund your company. Not just going out doing prototypes and talking to investors, but rather, going out talking to customers, doing contracting for them. A repeatable sales cycle is worth a lot more than any technology you can create, because it will keep your doors open.
- What book are you currently reading?
I’m a total nerd. I only read non-fiction, biographies, or technical journals. Right now, I am absolutely obsessed with reading every technical journal I can read on through-silicon via technology. I’m very interested in 3D integrated chips, and where that’s going.