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 8, Lemnos’s Eric Klein speaks with Sankarshan Murthy, CEO and co-founder; Prahlad Athreya, co-founder; and Garrett Rayner, co-founder at Bumblebee Spaces, which is revolutionizing living spaces using robotics and AI. Bumblebee Spaces is a Lemnos portfolio company.
- Why did you start your hardware company?
Sankarshan: We didn’t start off thinking it would be a hardware company. I was trying to solve a problem of how we use space in our home. The user-experience around the house is very fragmented. How you rent, how you furnish, how you store things, how you retrieve things, how you lose things. The whole UX is broken. The way we compensate for it is paying a lot for housing to stay where we need to live. If we’re getting priced out of neighborhoods, we are now having a poor quality of life by having long commutes, being stuck in traffic, and spending less time with family. Where we live and how we live—there’s a disconnect. We want to fix that by creating space essentially. So we’re making space using robotics and AI.
- Had you worked on hardware projects before this startup?
Sankarshan: My background’s in hardware. Prahlad’s from software. Garrett’s from hardware. Garrett and I are hardware tinkerers. Garrett has a workshop in his garage. I’m more hacky. I worked on iPhone and Apple Watch, so we’ve seen a ridiculous amount of scaling. We’ve also seen things that come together with the precision of hardware that make a delightful user experience. There’s something very satisfying about working with hardware. Things are real. It’s tangible. It’s coming alive.
- How did you decide what would be your first product?
Garrett: The fascinating thing about space, whether it’s residential, commercial, or retail, it’s not used all that efficiently. If you think about a hardware product design, you’re doing a lot of packaging work, trying to make the best use of volumetric space. Housing doesn’t really do that at all. There was a pretty clear direction for us to move in once we started thinking about the spaces people live in.
Sankarshan: We are still evolving. We started with one specific module, with one specific way to insert it into the market as one channel. Then we realized that will only have so much impact, and our vision grew. We simplified and descoped a lot of our hardware, while we expanded the offering. Our hardware became simpler, but our vision and our ambition became greater when we went through this process of learning what really the market needs.
- What kind of engagement did you have with mentors, peers, or incubator colleagues early on?
Sankarshan: We have some really good advisors now. They come from leading different parts of the industry. They are entrepreneurial thinkers. They give advice without any personal stake in it. They give it just like they would approach solving the problem. This long conversation of unwrapping with them has been super helpful for us…. I also seek out people who are not big believers of the idea or they have some suspicion about why it might not penetrate. There’s some real value in extracting what is causing this adoption friction with them…because it’s all about seeing blind spots that we’re not seeing.
Garrett: Being in the Lemnos sphere and having access to other people who have gone through similar problems before [has been incredibly helpful]. There have been times when I’ve been banging my head against the wall on a problem, and then I think to reach out to other co founders or technical experts with some of the other companies. Just having people who have done it before, who can share some experience in the space, can be helpful in moving things along.
- Why did you choose to work with Lemnos?
Sankarshan: I’ve got to say Dave Merrill [co-founder of Elroy Air, another Lemnos portfolio company] had a big influence on why we chose to work with Lemnos because he was here. The fact that we got to sit next to him, learn from him, learn from his team that was a big, big influence. There are other hardware VC’s, but Lemnos feels like a workshop, a big community, and the people who are working on it are very hardcore hardware people. I remember talking to Jeremy as we described our thing, and within the first hour, he’s like, “Yeah, you should bring your stuff and build here.” It was how he connected with the idea that made a big difference. Somebody who was such an early believer in what we were doing. We were building this new category, which you need a bit of risk appetite and you need to be a futurist. You guys believed in us as a team and that gave us confidence to build and move forward.
- What are the most important tools you use to make your product?
Garrett: The first one that pops into my head is off-the-shelf open source tools for rapid prototyping integration. A lot of the work that we’ve done so far is on Raspberry Pie and Python. We don’t have to write our own code from scratch. We don’t have to get all our own little sensor modules and have those custom-made. We can just buy stuff and keep churning. That’s been huge.
Sankarshan: We decided we’re only going to use tools we deem necessary. We have a Slack and we have some rules around how the Slack channel works. Garrett’s the Slack police. We tend to integrate most of the tools into the Slack using the app integration. It’s been a big lifesaver of reduced emails, keeping our communication very streamlined, and also seeing this evolution of ideas evolve. We can see history of – we went through this debate, came here, and we went back.
- What has been the most surprising thing about this process of bringing your idea to the market?
Prahlad: One of the surprising things that I have learned as we’ve gone through the process of pitching our idea to various people is that a lot of people seem to want to invest in incremental known ideas. When something is fundamentally new, you actually have to do quite a bit of work. We almost feel like we’re creating a new category. We feel like we have to do quite a bit of work to find the right person to move forward.
Sankarshan: For me, the biggest surprise has been who finds value in space. Even though people are struggling day-to-day, paying half their income monthly, residents don’t value space. The people who value space are the people who are selling the space: the builders, the developers, and the operators of real estate. That switch in seeing who values that most and how it changes our business model significantly [have been surprising].
- What’s the hardest part of being a hardware startup founder?
Prahlad: I think the hardest thing is you know how Reed Hoffman says, “Ship even if you’re embarrassed about it.” I’m misquoting him, I’m sure. You can’t do that with hardware. You can be embarrassed about it, but the threshold for embarrassment for hardware is much higher than software. With hardware it can actually hurt somebody if we don’t have the right threshold of development done before we ship it. It takes initially more effort to get it out into the world, and to test it.
Garrett: One of the challenges that I’ve had a lot of time to wrestle with, and don’t know that I’ve actually even come to a conclusion on yet, is when do you spend the money on the tool? When do we go from building our stuff out of totally off-the-shelf components to forking up the 10, 20, 50, 100 grand that we might need for a production tool at the scale we would need?
- What advice would you offer to other founders?
Sankarshan: Look for trends and others’ opinions like business intelligence. When you’re younger, you don’t think of yourself as a futurist. If there’s one advice I would give myself, which now I constantly give, is develop this muscle to look around the corner.
- What book are you currently reading/ what are you doing to unwind from work?
Garrett: It’s really important to maintain that balance: get your stuff done, but do it from where and when you need to do it. I spent a month up on a mountain in May of last year, just disappeared because it was something I had to do, and these guys were totally cool with me disappearing for a month.
Prahlad: I’m learning a new musical instrument. So before I go to bed, I play that. It helps unwind but also learn something new.
Sankarshan: I do watch TV. I enjoy standup comedy, and now I’m reading this book Altered Carbon. But what is sacred for me is the time between dinner when kids sleep. I try to make that time as much available and unplugged as possible.
To contact Eric Klein, you can reach him on Twitter: @lemnoslabs or email: firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have questions or comments about this podcast, please send an email to email@example.com. To subscribe to this podcast in iTunes, click here.