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 Three: How did you decide what would be your first product?
In each Into The Forge podcast, we ask each founder how they determined what their first product would be.
Their answer is, simply put, they listened to their customer.
It’s obvious, but the founders we’ve interviewed let their customers tell them what to build. FarmWise, Fieldvision, RavenOps, and Privacy Labs (now Helm) all said this is the key to success. You also have to understand the market around the customer. Fieldvision, along with Seriforge, Flybrix, and Elroy Air, all said that extensive market research is critical to building the right product. The FarmWise founders built a value ecosystem diagram to better understand how value, and money, flows through the agriculture ecosystem to understand the best opportunities and who would benefit from their solution. FarmWise also recommended starting with a tight focus for your initial product, aligning with the old adage of doing one thing well versus two things half well.
Your first product idea doesn’t always turn out to be the one you ship or build the business around. Both Flybrix and Marble discussed refining their products based on the market. In Flybrix’s case, their prototyping platform, i.e., Legos, turned out to be so compelling to customers as a product that they pivoted their product to productizing their prototyping platform for consumers and educational customers!
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!
I really needed to roll up my sleeves. My parents live in rural Vermont. I rented a 15-ton John Deere excavator, and I said, “Hey, mom. You’ve always said you wanted to have a pond. I’m going to dig you a pond.” So I spent a week on this machine. I put 77 hours on it. I started to understand what are the areas where a robot could be helpful. Then I traveled around the country talking to every excavation contractor that I even tangentially knew—a lot of like uncles, fathers-in-law, and friends of mine. I got a lot of really good feedback.
Andy: I had been working at various startups and also been a coach for both youth and college lacrosse. When Kav started to speak to me about what was possible with computer vision, how we could build this camera, and what we could do with it, I immediately knew from coaching that there would be a huge impact on what coaches would be able to do for the teams in terms of development. But I also knew that there would be a lot of use for parents.
Eric: When Jon started down this process, I kind of watched from the sidelines. I was really intrigued. It was in early 2014, when he called me and said, “I need to show you what I’m working on.” He showed me the CAD models of this machine. I said, “God, does this really work?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “That’s fantastic. This is something I would leave my job over.” Through that year, we worked on the idea together. We actually dove into the business because we really wanted to understand the market and make sure we weren’t creating a technology that didn’t have a place. We convinced ourselves that there was a real need for this. And by fall, I said, “I need to do this,” left my job, joined Jon, and we founded the company.
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 important it is, especially with the nuclear reactor, to have really validated designs before you start to make it for a 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.
Thomas: The long-term vision of our project is to automate pretty much everything from seeding to harvesting. Obviously, as a startup, we want to start very focused, so we started with the weeding process.
Sébastien: Currently the two main ways farmers are dealing with weeds in the field is either by spraying herbicides throughout the field or by hiring people to go out there and use very basic tools. We are basically providing an alternative to those processes.
Josh: When we were looking at oil and gas and some of these heavier industrial applications, we had this rule: we wanted to switch from us pushing toward customers, to receiving pulls from customers. We weren’t originally looking at this internal space, where we actually go inside of their equipment and do these inside-out inspections. Customers were telling us that. And what we noticed was, when we finally picked up on that signal, and pitched that back to customers, they said, “I need to get you to talk to so-and-so and so-and-so, because this is big.”
Garrett: The fascinating thing about space, whether it’s residential, commercial, or retail, is 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 ass we went through this process of learning what really the market needs.
Giri: We started to think, given what we understand about the threats that are out there and given what we understand about different ways to approach the problem and what our needs are, what does a product even begin to look like? We started prototyping along that path and then we decided to take it to a broader audience to get feedback.
Dirk: Before we talked to a lot of people, we tried to create a very rudimentary, as-fast-as-possible solution. And the reaction that we got from people made us take the next step, knowing that we’re working on something that could have a huge mass appeal.
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.