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 10, Lemnos’s Eric Klein speaks with Matt Delaney, co founder and CEO; Kevin Peterson, co-founder and software lead; and Jason Calaiaro, co-founder and hardware lead at Marble, a Lemnos portfolio company. Marble is creating a fleet of intelligent courier robots to reliably and securely transport goods people need and want.
- Why did you start your hardware company?
Matt Delaney: It wasn’t about hardware. It was about robotics. It was about realizing that robotics is finally taking off and the ability to actually start a company to build robots that solve real problems. Now we live in a world where all these trends have converged to make building complex, mobile robots that can solve interesting tasks for humanity.
- Had you worked on hardware projects before this startup?
Jason Calaiaro: When I was 12, I built a Roomba before there was a Roomba out of a Lego Mindstorms kit. That was really fun. I think that was my first experience in robotics.
Matt Delaney: Yeah, did the same kind of thing. Mindstorms kit, built an electric fish food feeder thing, so my grandparents didn’t have to come over and feed the fish while I was on a vacation. Modding my go-karts and go-peds.
Kevin Peterson: I built hardware for a long time. My dad is a physicist, so I used to work on his telescopes. In high school I built boards, amplifiers, and stuff like that for his telescopes. Then when I got into college it was mostly computer-vision, but making RC cars drive on their own. That transitioned to building self-driving cars for Carnegie Mellon University, and from there, spaceships with Jason.
- How did you decide what would be your first product?
Kevin Peterson: Marble started out originally looking at hotel robots. That quickly changed to looking at delivery, and we’ve gone through a bunch of different concepts there. I think it’s important to note that it’s a process of discovery. You don’t know perfectly when you start what the outcome’s going to be.
- What kind of engagement did you have with mentors, peers, or incubator colleagues early on?
Kevin Peterson: You should talk to as many people as you possibly can, but at the end of the day, you have to make your own decision. In terms of picking the right people, always talk to the best people you can possibly talk to. Run with the most awesome crowd you can. Over time that’s going to be where you find your co-founders, it’s going to be where you find your mentors. If you’re doing interesting things, people will come to you.
- Why did you choose to work with Lemnos?
Kevin Peterson: We needed to build stuff, we needed hardware incubators, and we wanted to have a network of people around that had done this before. Just seeing the space, raw and open, and everyone moving fast and some of the conversations that we had, it felt like this is a place where we could really get moving fast on building the company. Looking back, having the support in the beginning is just incredibly important out the gate. Then also having that network of people all solving similar things around you. It’s just so valuable because you can just save so much time by talking to people who have actually dealt with hardware problems like, “Hey, where are you guys getting boards made?” or, “Where are you fabbing whatever?”
Kevin Peterson: I’ve got to say, Lemnos feels like a hardware shop. I’ve spent my life in everything from physics shops to robots to the shop at South Pole, crazy places. Lemnos has that feel. You walk in and there’s a gigantic vehicle, something’s sewing next generation materials, and there’s a robot driving around. You just don’t see that everywhere. It’s got that garage shop, this is going to be the next generation, super high tech, but still so, so scrappy. There’s real magic in that.
- What are the most important tools you use to make your product?
Kevin Peterson: I think probably the biggest killer of good ideas is thinking about things. The one thing that keeps moving everything forward is to just go and do something. If you sit around, you analyze how perfectly a wheel is going to turn, but it doesn’t mean the wheel is going to turn. But if you put a motor on a wheel and you turn it, the wheel turns. Taking a step and taking a step, iterating, making mistakes and correcting those mistakes as quickly as you possibly can is a huge, huge tool that I find to be incredibly valuable.
Jason Calaiaro: I think that the investment in an awesome recruiting process is something that’s really undervalued. You aren’t going to make your product, your people are. It takes a while to accept that, but if you can really embrace that and you come to see that the most impactful thing you need to do is perhaps invest fully in an awesome recruiting process. And you have to own it.
- What has been the most surprising thing about this process of bringing your idea to the market?
Matt Delaney: We built a lot of robots and tried them out in academia or in a testing zone. But putting robots out in the middle of the city is fascinating to watch how a random person who never expected a robot to be there interacts with them. Some of the interactions have been people saying, “Oh, hey, robot, let me help you along this sidewalk.” It’s like, “What?” So I’m delighted by some of the surprises that we get to witness, which are a lot of humanity’s first interaction with robots in everyday life. That’s something that in history books, it hasn’t happened before.
Jason Calaiaro: I think one of the most surprising things for me is how humbling it was. There are so many things that you have ideas about, you have assumptions, you may carry them as convictions, and I watched time and time again the world step up to you and challenge you in ways that you didn’t imagine. I think it’s difficult for anyone to go through this process and not to be humbled by it.
- What’s the hardest part of being a hardware startup founder?
Matt Delaney: Safety issues. We have to think about policy, because robot laws aren’t written yet, and everything is multi-disciplinary. It’s so integrated.
Kevin Peterson: This concept of the lean software as a service startup where you can just scale it infinitely is very different than what we do in hardware. Where there’s a capital expenditure, it might cost you tens of thousands of dollars to do an experiment, or more. Also time, because you have to build a prototype, you have to build another prototype, and only after a few of those are you going to get it right. The expectations of speed to get something out to market are different with hardware than they are with software.
- What advice would you offer to other founders?
Matt Delaney: Don’t forget to exercise. I have fallen in the trap of working a little too hard and then having to step back. I need to take care of my body so I’m at my top. Basic advice, but indeed important.
Kevin Peterson: Try more things. Hire people faster. I spent a lot of time at the beginning of Marble coding myself. Now looking back on it, most of that code is not being used. There are a couple things that are, but it’s been replaced by really great people. Obviously you have to get to a demo-able point. There’s always this question of, “What do you do?” versus “What do you get somebody else to do?” But get more people on board so you’ve got a better gang earlier.
- What book are you currently reading/ what are you doing to unwind from work?
Kevin Peterson: Perspective. When I do eventually get six hours of sleep in a night, it’s like a whole new thing, and I know for these guys, sleep is really key to maintaining mental stability and just not wanting to kill the people you’re working with. That’s one thing. Also breaks are really healthy. Taking time, whether that’s a conference that you go to and it’s just a totally different setting, or something like what we do pretty often, which is we’ll take a couple of days off site and get away from the day-to-day. We do this usually when it’s clear there’s an issue we need to resolve. Everybody goes and relaxes, and that’s very helpful.
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