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 3 Episode 1, Lemnos’s Eric Klein speaks with Colin Beighley, co-founder and Director of Hardware Engineering, and Fergus Noble, co-founder and Chief Technical Officer of Swift Navigation, a Lemnos portfolio company. Swift provides centimeter-accurate RTK GNSS positioning for autonomous vehicles, robotics, precision agriculture, UAVs, and surveying. Swift products deliver 100X better accuracy than cell phone GPS.
- What compelled you to start your hardware company?
Colin: Our story goes back to 2012, in Santa Cruz where Colin and I met working on this flying winter bind. The idea was to take a huge kite with a rigid wing tethered to the ground. It had propellers like a drone. It would fly up and when it would catch the wind, the propellers would become turbines, generate power, and send it back down.
Fergus: Colin and I were tasked with how to fly this thing, control it, and find out where it was. Through that, we started learning about precision GPS technology primarily for drones, and our old boss, Joban, at Joby Energy, gave us a little bit of angel funding to explore the idea of taking this technology to market.
- Had you worked on hardware projects before this startup?
Fergus: I’ve kind if been a long time hardware tinkerer. I was a physics major, but I’d always built electronics, software, tinkered with firmware, embedded systems in my spare time, but this was really the first time doing anything like this in a professional context. It was definitely a bit of a leap to go from bedroom tinkering to starting a company actually building hardware product.
Colin: I did do a little bit of GPS stuff in college, but for me, it really wasn’t before college.
- How did you decide what would be your first product?
Fergus: The first Swift product was a derivative of some technology we had been working on. We built our first prototypes, did a lot of testing, and then we actually launched that first product with a Kickstarter campaign, and that really took off in a way that we hadn’t anticipated.
Colin: It was a natural extension of what we were already working on. We thought, “Okay, we built this thing for this one application. We have a bunch of interest from other companies. Let’s see if we can kind of broaden the applications that it can support.”
- How did you decide who would be your mentors?
Colin: I think we’re sitting here with one of the mentors that we found extremely useful.
Fergus Noble: Tim, our CEO and third co-founder, took a very thoughtful approach to it. He looked at the areas where we needed to level up our expertise and actively sought out on LinkedIn or through other people in our community the best experts in those areas. He then would find someway of getting a connection to them. It gets easier over time, as your network grows, and if you have investors, they’re a fantastic resource for this because they’re spending a lot of time networking with all the best resources in the area.
- What have you gained from working with Lemnos?
Fergus: When we came into Lemnos, we had a pretty good idea of technology but we had much less of an idea of how to kind of build a functioning startup. Lemnos was instrumental for us in taking those first steps of adding a bit of structure to our product process and our engineering process. [We received] fantastic advice on fundraising and our first rounds.
- What was the road to your first round of financing?
Fergus: It’s been a very interesting road. Our very first funding was from our old boss, the CEO of Joby Energy, who just gave us a little bit of cash to get started. To try and make that little bit of angel investment go further, Colin and I actually moved the company and ourselves to Vietnam for four months. Then through the success of the Kickstarter campaign, we got a top up on our angel investment that funded the first batch of hardware that we built.
Tim started consulting with us on how are we were going to fundraise, and we just enjoyed working together so much that he joined as our third co-founder. From that point, we kicked off our first real fundraising process and it was really tough. It was several months of refining our message. Then we would try to get a couple meetings with people that we’d identified as the most aligned with what we wanted to do to get some feedback. After probably three months, we felt our message was starting to resonate. Then we started reaching out to some of our A-list folks.
- What has been the most surprising thing about the manufacturing process?
Fergus: One thing I wish somebody had told me in those early days is that you’re never going to design the perfect engineering or product process. I often joke to people that as CTO, my role changes basically every six months and being ready for that would’ve been very helpful. So basically, as soon as you feel you’ve got it figured out, something in your environment is going to change. Either as the team grows or the products change, you’re going to have different needs, so being ready to constantly evaluate your process, push it forwards, find something that works well for right now, and continue to evolve it.
Colin: I think one of the big things that I didn’t realize going into this is how much of a specific skill set hardware operations has in and of itself, and you really need a good person there. If you don’t have that side of the house in a good state or constantly improving, it’s going to be a thorn in your side for your entire existence.
- What have you learned through customer engagement?
Fergus: I came from a physics and engineering background, so engaging with customers was totally new for me. You can start with your perfect version of what you want to build, but no plan survives contact with the customers. So getting that feedback early before you’ve made large investments is a good thing to try and do, especially in the hardware business, where tooling all these different things make those iterations so much more costly.
And finding the right customers and right people at those companies and then collating that information is as important as getting it. You’re gonna get a wide range of customers and figuring out which of these opportunities are actually gonna scale is important. Does this customer who is five-unit order have potential to grow into a fifty thousand unit order? Then maybe I want to listen to what they’re saying. Or is this just a university project or something like that, maybe I’m gonna put less weight on that feedback.
- What’s the hardest part of being a hardware startup founder?
Colin: I would probably say that the hardest part, to use an old clichéd phrase, is it’s a marathon, not a sprint. We’ve been at this for seven and a half years now and there’s still a lot of stuff for us to do. It takes a long time to get to any sort of product that really has real legs and has value. The vast majority of us are grinding our way through many years of doing this.
Fergus: For me, I would say the most challenging part is the pace of change on a personal level. I found this in my current role—what the business needs in me is different every six months. So to keep up with that, you have to stay flexible, and just keeping up with that, year after year, has been very challenging but also extremely rewarding.
- How do you find a much-needed work-life balance?
Colin: I need to take care of my health, sleep, nutrition, exercise, and my relationships with my family and friends. Because, when you’re grinding really hard at work and you don’t have one of those things squared away well, it’s really going to bite you.
Fergus: I’d really echo what Colin said, keeping a baseline level of health and that little bit in reserve because times will come where you have to grind. Having that solid foundation to fall back on is really what’s going to keep you sane.