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 Four: What kind of engagement did you have with mentors, peers, or incubator colleagues early on?
In each Into The Forge podcast, we ask each founder how they found and engaged mentors, peers, and Lemnos early in the development of their product. Not surprisingly, mentors are critical to the success of a startup, but creating and maintaining these relationships is the challenge and opportunity.
Noah from Built Robotics rightfully highlighted that hardware startups need mentors experienced in all the aspects of creating successful companies, not just in building hardware. VCs will often highlight that you should have mentors and/or advisors for product, market, team building, and raising capital. Those just happen to coincide with the key attributes they make investment decisions on!
FieldVision’s founders highlighted that advisors are a long-term source of wisdom and connections; so maintaining frequent communications is key. You have relationships with mentors—not one-time meetings. Flybrix extended the definition of mentors to include VCs, as VCs can expose trends that they are investing in around product and markets.
Our founders (thankfully!) commented on the value of working with a partner like Lemnos, but that value extends beyond just the time with the Lemnos team. The founders we interviewed universally said that having peer hardware founders you respect to talk through issues is a huge key to success. Someone has the solution to the problem you face, so having a community of hardware founders around you, like the 100+ Lemnos founders, gives you an unfair advantage as you grow your hardware startup!
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 think there are two dimensions. One is industry expertise. For us, that’s hardware, robotics, perception software, construction, excavation, etc. Then there’s general company-building stuff, which is how you run a fundraising process, what are the legal ins and outs here, etc. I think that since I had done another company before, I felt a little bit more comfortable in the general company-building stuff, but I had a lot to learn on the robotics side of things. That’s actually one of the big reasons I wanted to work with Lemnos. You’ve got a reputation as being the hardware seed stage fund in Silicon Valley. I wanted to work with you so that I could kind of see around corners based on the pattern recognition that you guys have.
Andy: We’ve worked really hard to build an advisory team that has a deep set of experience in cameras, hardware, and manufacturing, which also includes Lemnos. Part of what led us here is that we knew that we wanted to fill that founding team gap with some deep experience. I’ve built out a bench that we feel like does that.
Kav: We have a set of advisors that we essentially approach every month or two, give them a pitch, tell them the story, and give the update around where we currently are. For us that’s been an incredible way to test our thesis and to validate our thinking and to incorporate feedback. We found folks who like sports, who are interested in the product natively. Our most key advisor, the Dean of Engineering at Wash U, started three or four computer vision companies, and he used to work for the New England Patriots. So he had this natural affinity to the idea and was more than willing to give up his time.
Eric: Fortunately, we have good networks of people who turned us on to some really good leaders in the industry and we talked to them. We try to just get as many good contacts and get value from all of them.
It’s important to ask your colleagues and friends. Talking with a lot of people early on, especially Eric and Jeremy at Lemnos, really helped me figure out what the right thing to do at the right time was. It also helps to talk to investors about what they are seeing. So it wasn’t just my friends who were saying that that sounds like a sensible idea, because investors know what’s coming on the edge of technology. Then you can figure out what thing you might be able to get traction on within the broader community of investors.
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.
Sébastien: As pretty young entrepreneurs, surrounding ourselves with experienced and talented people was very instrumental. As soon as we graduated, we joined an accelerator program in the Valley, which was a very good program and well connected and helped us get in touch with a lot of mentors—both technical mentors and business-oriented mentors. Obviously not everyone is interested or excited about what you’re doing, but you just need a couple of people to be excited enough to really push you through this first hurdle of trying to build this network. Now we’re very lucky to be working with five official mentors—purely technical people with experience building products, but also people coming from the farming industry and business people with experience in other industries.
Randy: Through our early growth, we kept entering and leaving these expansionary and contractionary phases. You have this core idea, but as you’re trying to solve the problem, you’re coming up with three, five, 10 different possible solutions that could all be applicable. So, the expansionary period would be always where we would go to our mentors, to the incubator, to our peers. I think we must have gone through twenty of these different phases, and we could not have done that without the mentors and peers that we had, especially here at Lemnos. They were instrumental in giving us exactly the resources we needed to work through that.
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.
Giri: One of the interesting things about starting a company is that there is no shortage of advice. It’s a balance of finding people that you respect and managing your own ego, being able to say, “Okay, even though this is what I believe and the direction that I want to go in, can I pull that back and really take critical or analytical feedback because I really do respect what this person has to say, even if it’s contrary to what I might be thinking in the moment?” It’s one of the hardest things for founders because you can’t be the expert at all of the things.
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.