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 4, Lemnos’s Eric Klein speaks with Jeremy Conrad and Conor Lenahan, co-founders of Quartz, a Lemnos portfolio company. Quartz identifies, tracks, and predicts everything that moves on a construction site, making construction measurably safer.
- What compelled you to start your hardware company?
Conor: I spent some time working on some really large organizations. I spent some time working at small organizations, and I started to have that itch. I knew I wanted to get something started.
Jeremy: I’ve always been building stuff my entire life. My first job out of college is building weapons grade lasers in the Air Force. That is when I really discovered I wanted to start a company. And after spending eight years as a venture capitalist, that part of me just got the itch to get back in the driver’s seat. What it comes down to is the ability as a founder to have an incredible impact and have decision-making capabilities.
- Had you worked on hardware projects before this startup?
Conor: I’ve always been drawn towards making things, it’s something I’ve always loved. I was a construction worker in the summers [during high school], and I really loved learning this is how you work with wood, this is how you build a house, this is how you set up drainage and a yard. And that went to a mechanical engineering degree.
Jeremy: I certainly always had an interest, but I came into my own when I got to MIT. MIT has such an incredible set of programs to support undergrads to do projects. My first two years I worked on a satellite program. I worked on drones, I worked on a self-driving car for the Darpa Grand Challenge with Kyle who ended up founding Cruise, so my entire undergrad was really small teams building advanced hardware. Then going into the Air Force, where it’s very big hardware.
- How did you decide what would be your first product?
Jeremy: When we started, we agreed we don’t want to be an R&D company, where we spend years in development. So we asked, “What is the simplest, easiest thing that we could get into market that helps build towards our long-term vision?”
Conor: The way we got to this idea is that we went through 1500 really bad ideas first. We had the benefit of being able to set a couple months aside for doing fairly broad research into what direction we wanted to go. As we were doing all this research, construction kept jumping out. Construction is something that’s super important and people interact with everyday in their life. It’s one of the most inefficient and wasteful industries on earth, and there are incredible strides to be made in the industry. We found a path that involved six months of development work to getting something that went into the world, got us real answers, and had us interacting with customers.
- How did you decide who would be your mentors?
Jeremy: There are two core groups and one are the investors. Lemnos was our first investor, and being able to work with the entire Lemnos team has been a key part of this company’s development. The other set of people is founder peers. I forced Conor early on. I said, “You need to meet more people who are at our level or one to two years in front of us.” Because whenever something goes wrong, like yesterday we had an issue with the product. First thing we did was text and call a couple people and see what they say about those types of really rapid iteration. Often times it’s people who have subsets or different skillsets than we do.
Conor: And anytime we pick a piece of software or want to grow or work with a new process or trialing a new vendor, it’s so nice to be able to have a group of people we can ask, “Hey, what decision did you make and what do you wish you had known when you had made that decision?” It’s really invaluable and honestly we encourage our employees to do the same thing. And on the flip side of that, I think another thing that Jeremy has been real bullish on that I really enjoy is turning around and being that mentor for other people. Taking lots of meetings and making sure we’re explaining our path to other people actually helps us clarify our thinking and understanding of where we are and also helps build a lot of goodwill in the community.
- What have you gained from working with Lemnos?
Jeremy: I think the biggest one for me is the other founders. I was just talking to Tim Harris, the CEO of Swift last weekend. And he’s someone I try to check in with probably every two months because they’re a lot farther along than we are. I always ask, “What do you wish you knew at my stage? Or I have this one problem, do you have any advice on it?” Interactions like that are incredibly useful. And the ability for the Lemnos team to be supportive of problems like recruiting or customer retention or whatever it is, just being able to get that information, that heads up is so valuable.
Conor: I mean just to echo the community statement. It’s so valuable to have this list of companies and founders. We’ll pick up the phone because they’ve been in the same boat. There are enough events that bring people by so you get to meet them in a friendly context. Just being able to look around these corners and get the questions answered is invaluable.
- What was the road to your first round of financing?
Conor: I think for me it was really good that we had time to do a round of talking to potential investors way before we were looking for money really helped the brainstorming process in getting an understanding of how do we take the ideas that we have and the passion that we have and translate that into something that resonates with the people that we might want to work with. That was a really nice way to work through things. Even if you have a clear idea of what you think you want to be working on, being able to build some time to go talk to people, build that idea, and think about how you’re going to communicate it is really useful.
Jeremy: For me, with the bias of being a VC, I screened a lot of deals. Venture capital is designed for the highest growth, largest companies in the world. So when Conor and I were looking at various ideas, the is one thing that we maintained in our mind was that the mission of Quartz is to make construction safer and more efficient globally. And it’s a multi-trillion dollar industry. And so for us it’s like a lot we can go do with that. The other thing, as Conor said, is if the first day you meet somebody is the day you’re asking them for money, I think it’s really difficult. So the ability to be in the Bay Area and meet people in a soft contacts—maybe it’s at a venture capital holiday party, maybe it’s just asking for introductions and having lunch with someone—but building that rapport with the people who are going to invest in you is key. It’s going to be a five, seven, 10-year relationship if they’re an investor in on your board. And a lot of VC’s have a default bias to people that they understand.
- What has been the most surprising thing about the manufacturing/ prototyping process?
Jeremy: We were hacked. Our very first product is a series of cameras and a computer that runs them to help crane operators, and we had a security setting we hadn’t installed. We have now solved this problem, but on Monday our thing got ransom-wared and so luckily it was just filled with test data and we had backups. Now we have a much more robust security posture so this won’t happen again. But we lost a couple hours yesterday.
Conor: Yeah, that was fun. And it was a machine that wasn’t really designed to be exposed to the Internet, so we hadn’t been paying attention to the settings. And then the contractor there was helping us, we needed to change something real quick. So we just set up remote access. It was a good lesson.
- What have you learned through customer engagement?
Jeremy: Probably the biggest surprise for us is historically construction has not been a particular technology forward industry. In general we found that people are pretty receptive. A lot of that comes from unemployment is very low nationwide and actually across the entire West, so they’re struggling. Every conference we go to that’s about construction, almost every talk includes someone saying, “How do we find people to enter this industry?” So we were strong leaders in the ability of technology to help these people be more productive and be more effective in their jobs, and that resonates with everyone from the GC to the person on the ground swinging a hammer.
Conor: And I think another thing that I’ve slowly been realizing is people think of construction as technology adverse, but what I think actually happened is the people trying to bring technology into construction, do so with this attitude that they know so much more about the industry and than people working in it do. A lot of people, they develop these products without any engagement with the customer.
- What’s the hardest part of being a hardware startup founder?
Conor: Process, and this is what I spend a lot of time at the moment talking with founders of different companies about. The process of designing a software product, the speed with which you can make changes and revise what you’re doing is a beautiful thing when you’re working on just a software product. And in making hardware, because someone has to go spend weeks making the thing in the real world, you’re limited in the kinds of processes that you can use. The way you have to plan involves getting 10 different things made by 10 different vendors to show up on the same day so you can move forward. Finding that balance where you are not dragging hardware through a process that makes it impossible for them to get a complete revision together, while not hampering the software team to some degree that gets rid of all these advantages that have been discovered in the software creation. It’s very difficult knowing where to set those dials, how to keep people motivated, how to make everyone feel heard. It’s a really interesting challenge, and I’m enjoying a great deal like threading that needle and finding the right process.
Jeremy: For me, it’s safety. We spend a lot of time asking,”What is the minimum thing we’re going to deploy that we can guarantee will be safe?” And as we do our product selection and feature selection, that’s something that we’ll continue to think about going forward.
- How do you find a much-needed work-life balance?
Conor: Both of us value the fact that this is going to be a journey. This isn’t the next six months of our life, this isn’t the next year of our life, this is the next decade of our lives potentially. To burn ourselves out or to waste valuable fuel this early is very detrimental. We both agreed early on that we wanted to make sure we were building a company that didn’t drive us insane or burn us out. And we are trying to instill that value in our employees as well.
Jeremy: We also talked a lot about how we want to be healthy and fit. So our snack bar is nuts and things like that, not candy bars. That kind of stuff can be really important. When I was in the Air Force, one of the commanders said, “Someone is having the worst day of their life today. If the way we can succeed is only if everyone’s at their absolute best, we are destined to fail and share it.”