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 5, Lemnos’s Eric Klein speaks with Dave Merrill, CEO and Clint Cope, co-founder of Elroy Air, a Lemnos portfolio company. Elroy Air recently announced that it had secured $4.6 million in seed funding to develop its large autonomous cargo delivery aircraft.
- Why did you start your hardware company?
Dave: We are a transportation company in the aerospace space. We are developing a system to carry goods, to carry cargo by air over hundreds of miles. Clint and I realized it could be done and that it could change the world if it was done, and that we were uniquely suited to do it. That was so exciting that we just got started immediately.
- Had you worked on hardware projects before this startup?
Dave: I was at Stanford doing symbolic systems, then I did a Master’s in Computer Science, then went to the MIT Media Lab, and basically fell in love with hardware. I grew up building physical things, like woodworking and building things out of metal. When I discovered electronics and hardware, it was this amazing fusion of my interests in software with building physical stuff. I never really looked back.
Clint: I think I always had like a pretty natural mechanical curiosity and an aptitude toward that. It probably started with radio-controlled cars. I would be hacking parts and moving them back and forth in-between kits. But I think the moment that my parents knew that I was going be involved in hardware was the day my father and my grandfather were struggling to install a hanging toaster in our kitchen, and they tried every which way possible. They were about to put it back in the box, when I grabbed my grandfather and said, “The bracket’s on backward, Grandpa.” Sure enough, Dad and Grandpa turned the bracket around, and the toaster fit.
- How did you decide what would be your first product?
Dave: We both became very interested and experienced in building things that fly, and realized, “Hey, there seems to be a lot of noise and a lot of competition at the small scale, like the small camera drones, small delivery drones scale, but it seems like there are opportunities to make something bigger and useful that nobody’s doing yet at a larger scale.” So that’s where we got excited and started working on Elroy Air.
- What kind of engagement did you have with mentors, peers, or incubator colleagues early on?
Dave: At Elroy we have a handful of advisors that we call upon them when we need their input, and it’s been really helpful. We’re an aerospace company and a transportation company. Right now we’re in our prototype phase and our seed phase. So we’ve gone a little heavier on business and technical advisors, but I think over time we’re very likely to have some key advisors, or even board members, that come out of big aerospace.
Clint: I think another set of advisors that’s been really amazing to kind of re-engage with is all these manufacturers, some of them I’ve known since I was in my 20s.
- Why did you choose to work with Lemnos?
Dave: Lemnos is awesome. I met Jeremy when Lemnos was just starting. So, when I was leaving 3D Robotics, I think you mentioned, “Hey, you want to come and be an Entrepreneur in Residence with us?” That seemed like a great next step, because what better way to contribute back a bit and also figure out the next thing then to be fully embedded in place where new, cool hardware companies are getting started. That made it very easy. Also, when it was time to start the company, it was easy to just flip the switch and start building right here in the same place where I’d been thinking and helping out.
One of the things I loved about being here was there are all these other companies around that are pretty early stage, and there’s a lot of sharing of knowledge that ends up happening. If you start a company at home and you’re in your garage or you start it at a WeWork where everybody else is doing software, I don’t think you’d find that same kind of cross-pollination that you do when everybody spends some time in a place together. That’s what makes grad school great, and that’s what makes this place great.
Clint: Having somebody on [the Lemnos] staff who’d been in the Air Force and understood how difficult aerospace was, I was like, “Yeah, we want to make this link with you.” They’re just great. I totally think of Lemnos like grad school, but it’s like grad school for grown ups.
- What are the most important tools you use to make your product?
Clint: At the performance parts company I founded, I was able to do mass customization using 3D printing. Getting that first experience with mass customization, I’ve carried that back into using it to ideate very quickly. When you’re doing your CAD, don’t ever make it so anything’s ever carved in stone. Make it so you can change things very, very rapidly and take advantage of tools that are already built in the software. We never really lock ourselves into a decision when we know that we’re going to have to iterate to get to the right final solution.
Dave: I would say Google Docs and spreadsheets. I’m thinking kind of back to the customer development phase early on when we were trying to figure out what the right thing to make was. Every time I’d talk to an expert, every time I’d go talk to a potential customer, I’d just open a new Google Doc, dump the trace of the conversation, and share it so everybody who needed to see it could see it. I think that’s important for achieving this shared space of understanding in the company.
- What has been the most surprising thing about this process of bringing your idea to the market?
Dave: I think we’ve started to realize that we are becoming known in our industry, even though we feel like we’re pretty early stage. That’s a pleasant surprise. Somebody e-mailed me the other day saying they’d been following us for a long time, and maybe interested to invest. I was boggled by that—how could somebody be following us for a long time—because we had this very low profile web presence.
- What’s the hardest part of being a hardware startup founder?
Dave: There’s a lot of unknowns, and I think for me it’s just kind of self-managing that internal state. I think there’s this amazing blog post that Brad Feld wrote about how every founder carries around, I think he called it, “a bag of despair with them at all times”. Even if you talk to a founder, and it sounds great, and they’re doing awesome and they’re killing it, it’s guaranteed that there’s something that’s worrying them that they’re not talking about.
Clint: I’d say that it’s probably self-care. I think sometimes you are going so hard at a problem that sections of just being a basic human start to break down. So I think it is important to remind yourself that if you don’t take care of yourself, not only you suffer, but also the company suffers.
- What advice would you offer to other founders?
Dave: Reach out to people who can help you. One thing about the global culture of venture and innovations now is that people want to connect—even if somebody seems like they are so senior and successful, and why would they want to talk to you, the first-time start-up founder. If you’re in their space, and you’re doing something interesting, most people will make time to talk, even if you’re green and new. That’s one of the biggest things that I feel like I had enough pluck to do, even though I’m actually kind of an introvert. But you have to just do it. Most people will say “Yes” to a coffee meeting.
Clint: I think mine is more seguing a bit from the self-care thing I talked about. I had in big block letters at my office at Airware on this folded sheet of 8.5×11 the letters T-A-D-L-Y-B. It was my little abbreviation for “The Aircraft Doesn’t Love You Back.” That little note reminded me to go home and see my wife and kids more times than not. Usually I’d come back the next morning totally refreshed and ready to tackle stuff. It’s real easy to get kind of wound up in wanting to make your product succeed, but that product is not going to succeed if your home life doesn’t remain healthy.
- What book are you currently reading/what are you doing to unwind from work?
Dave: I’ve got a pretty good home workshop. Either I go down there and build something that I’m fixing around the house, or I bring my kids down there and we mill something out together. That’s just unwinding time for me.
Clint: Yeah, and for me it’s a pretty close tie between just working on my Mini and doing “Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down” with my kid listening to David Bowie. He’s only four and a half, but he has good taste in music.
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