As we get ready to launch our third season of “Into the Forge,” the Lemnos podcast, we are taking a moment to look back at the wisdom shared from the first two seasons. We ask each founder the same 10 questions, and their answers shine a light on the diversity, frustrations, and joys of the hardware startup experience.
Question Two: Had you worked on hardware projects before this startup?
In each Into The Forge podcast, we ask each founder if they had worked on hardware projects before starting their latest company. The results might surprise you. Hardware startup founders are as often made as born into the business.
If you don’t know hardware, start a company with people who do.
After investing in 50+ hardware startups and interviewing many of their founders, we have learned that you don’t have to have grown up with a soldering iron in your hand to be a successful hardware entrepreneur. Many of our founders, whether experienced in hardware or not, learn through osmosis while building their first hardware product.
Some of our founders have been tinkering with hardware since their childhood, but our founders from Built Robotics, FarmWise, RavenOps, and Nima are all starting their first hardware company with no significant previous hardware experience. A common thread these founders share is that if you don’t know hardware, co-found with someone who does or hire early employees who know hardware development. We would add ask questions and join the best community of hardware entrepreneurs you can find (hint, hint, Lemnos!).
Below you’ll find the origin stories from the founders interviewed for Into The Forge. You see many different paths explained throughout the first two seasons of the podcast. Enjoy, and get ready for more stories in Season Three, coming soon!
From Season Two:
We first came up with this idea for an e-commerce business. It was called Twice, and the idea was basically to be an online secondhand clothing store. When I was thinking about what I wanted to do next, it was clear to me that I really wanted a business where technology was the core. I decided that robotics was the one for me because it felt like it was maybe a little bit further outside of Google’s sweet spot. I’d studied Computer Science in school and got a Master’s as well, but I’d never done anything in robotics. I just started learning. I probably spent six months just reading about robotics, talking to people, and then refreshing myself on “Oh, yeah. That’s how an electric motor works.” I was definitely intimidated by hardware at first. The thing I realized is that for most hardware businesses, the core of what they’re doing is actually still software.
Kav: Never an official hardware product. I bought Zigbee components, took them out to a field, and tried to use the Zigbee protocol to figure out locational data based on where I was. I tinkered with things and played around with various hardware stacks, but never even thought about fully building a hardware drive before this.
Andy: As a kid, I kind of built my own desktop and did some of those various weekend trips to RadioShack—just building kind of random stuff. I also had some experience at a hardware-software company called Theatro, which I helped start. We built a communication device for retail store associates, but I really didn’t have exposure to the hardware side of that development process.
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, I was always a tinkerer. Always built a lot of small things, mostly electronics. Even my background formally is software. I’ve always dealt in the hardware/software realm.
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.
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.
Sébastien: Both Thomas and I, we define ourselves as software guys, so we’ve actually never really worked on hardware before. We’ve played with some Legos and we’ve built a few pieces of furniture, but really, this was our first serious hardware project. Interestingly, it was also our first startup.
Randy: This was the first time in hardware. One of the scariest tasks we needed to tackle was trying to form a hardware startup. But that’s actually where swarm really plays into this. Instead of building a much more complex mechanical engineering system, we’re going all the way to a Bayesian dynamic system. With swarm, we’re able to use off-the-shelf robotics, build in our own sensors, and turn this back into a software dynamics problem of how to interact between the different robots. So we’re much more into what traditionally has been our sweet spot.
Josh: I spent 11 and a half years prior to doing this in the Air Force, flying V-22 Ospreys and doing special operations in that aircraft. You have this weird relationship with a flight control computer—when you as the pilot are asking the airplane to do something, and it will either do it or not do it based on its own conditions and its own interpretation. And so, when our drones are flying around and they’re making all these autonomous decisions, it’s always in the back of my head, “What would it be like if I was actually sitting in the middle of that thing?” Because that’s the world I lived in.
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.
Giri: I studied computer science, but I’m not a hardware guy. I didn’t really do a whole lot of hands-on hardware work, but I grew up in a household where there was a lot of that. My dad was a tinkerer. I learned how to work on a car at an early age. Then I was fortunate early in my career to work on a lot of hardware-based projects. I spent time in the Aerospace and Defense industry at Lockheed Martin and got to work on wireless sensor networks and the airborne laser program. A lot of the projects were about software that runs at a very low level, basically directly on the hardware.
Dirk: Growing up as a kid, I was always building stuff, always into taking apart pretty much any device. I got a mechanical engineering degree, but I was introduced into programming through a requirement for my mechanical engineering degree. I was like, “Wow, I can get something created just by sitting in front of a computer and I’m still building something.” Maybe it’s not as tangible, but you feel the same satisfaction of building something virtually.
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.
From Season One:
I’ve always been one of these clichés. I have been coding since I was nine. Even early on, when I was in seventh and eighth grade, I started into electronics and built stuff that annoyed my parents—alarms that wouldn’t turn off from my room, CBs, robots and stuff. But software has always stuck with me. I felt like early on, when computers were young and not many people knew how to work them, it felt like I was inventing.
I have always been a maker. I got my soldering iron at age six. I grew up in communist Russia, before the collapse, where things were really shoddy. You held on to things and you patched them up. Cars would last 30 years because they just got to this permanent state of repair where you just kept them alive. That kind of maker culture, it was a survival thing.
I mean, I’ve been tinkering with electronic circuitry and soldering since I was eight, nine, 10 years old; and I’ve been building those computers where I basically bought those components, figured them out, put them together so that I can compile faster. I basically always had the single fastest computer that you can build at any point in time.
In the ’90s, in post-Soviet time, there were no toys in the Ukraine. So you built your own toys, you made your own fun. In high school, I was in robotics club, and we were building a lot of electronics systems. We didn’t have Digi-Key or anything like that. Definitely no Mouser. We had the electronics flea markets, where you could go and look at old PCB boards and try to scavenge old chips to use in your project.
I was the girl in high school that was really good at math and science, but at a certain point, it was more important for me to have a cute perm and go to the prom, so I didn’t pursue that in college like I should have. I kick myself for it because I’ve always been technically inclined. I pick it up really easily. There were times on this project when I wish I could have done more, but there are times that I impressed the hell out my team by learning stuff.
I’ve always been an innovator, a creator, and a builder. I’ve always created things from furniture to two-wheeled electric vehicles in my garage. I started a vegetable oil conversion business in Los Angeles to take any diesel motor and allow it to run on waste vegetable oil. I invented some technology, started a company, and started realizing very quickly that the waste vegetable market is basically a commodities market and it’s very difficult to penetrate.
I’m a tool guy. I grew up watching my dad use woodcutting power tools like table saws and circular saws. When I was little, I played with a lot of what I now understand to be constructivist toys like Lincoln Logs, Tinkertoys, and things where you were building complicated structures out of a lot of simple pieces. Before I went to college, I did a bunch of my own projects in the garage, kind of taking after my dad. For physics class, I built a model roller coaster that was awesome with a lot of hot glue and WeedWacker line.
Yes. I spent a lot of time at TechShop, which is a community workspace that’s like a gym. You pay a membership fee, but instead of barbells and machines, there are CNC mills, laser cutters, 3D printers, and prototyping tools to make a hardware product or furniture. There, I worked as a consultant for different startups, prototyping their hardware for them—just learning the tools day-by-day. Before that, I also built 3D printers for a company, and that was the first time I really honed my chops in the hardware world.
Shireen: I’m going to surprise you; I was a total maker. I remember in middle school, I took a straw, drilled a hole in my toothbrush, and filled it with toothpaste. Then I drilled a hole in the bristles. My mom was like, “You know, those toothbrushes exist.” But I was like, “No, look. I’ve, simplified it.”
Scott: I guess Shireen and I had similar childhoods, because I did a lot the same stuff. I think my first introduction to engineering was probably through Legos. I was always taking things apart. Before you had the remote controls for your light and your fan, I made a whole pulley system in my room for that. It progressed naturally to taking physics classes in high school, and then going to MIT and being a mechanical engineer.