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 6, Lemnos’s Eric Klein speaks with San Gunawardana, co-founder and CEO, and Krassimir Piperkov, COO and co-founder of Enview, a Lemnos portfolio company. Enview uses massively parallel 3D computer vision and wide-area remote sensing to create the best maps in the world.
- What compelled you to start your company?
San: A couple of things. I think there’s a really big element here of this chance to create something from nothing in particular. I’ve had the privilege of working for some great cultures and some less than great cultures as well. And the chance to kind of craft that from scratch was fascinating. I think the chance to also really solve some genuine problems, to use some quite fancy advanced technology, and bring it down to earth to solve very practical service problems is a meaningful thing to do. And I love to challenge myself. I feel like I’ve done some difficult things professionally. A start up by far is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, so it’s very much a fulfillment sort of thing for myself.
KP: For me, it was to actually build something out of nothing. As a teenager, I had my own martial arts studio. It was a small little adventure, but I had the chance to actually build something out of nothing. I wanted that feeling back in my life. And it took me only 20 years to get that.
- Had you worked on hardware projects before this startup?
San: I come from a background of aerospace engineering, working satellites, airplanes.
- How did you decide what would be your first product?
San: In some ways when we first started to look at the problem, that solution space included hardware potentially. We knew there was a lot of dollars being spent on inspection of infrastructure and energy assets, largely done from the air. That was something that initially going into it, you would look at the physical hardware of the aircraft. The helicopter is a very natural thing to go and replace, and naturally that’s where we also started looking. When you actually get into it though and spend time understanding what is the pain and the challenge and the opportunity, it turns out that, yes, the hardware is one difficult part that needs to be solved. However, the analytics, like what do you do with the data that comes off the hardware, became a much more interesting and challenging problem. And that’s where we ended up focusing.
- How did you decide who would be your mentors?
KP: One of the reasons why I moved to the Valley was to surround myself with people that are closer to the start-up ecosystem and don’t think that starting a company is weird. From day one, we wanted to get some advisors and mentors, and we found that in you at Lemnos. You and Helen and Jeremy have been super helpful with advice, and we also actually interviewed specific people to be advisors, start up advisors for us. We subsequently hired someone who’s been with us for three years now. We meet with him on a weekly basis and that has been super helpful. We needed somebody with a lot of start up experience who could be a voice in the room to short cut some mistakes that founders often make. Someone who has been there, done that, started a few companies, and could also make us better at leading teams.
San: In many ways it’s perhaps quite similar to hiring for a role that you’ve never hired before. You identify perhaps a list of pains or things that you’re looking to solve, you identify a list of outcomes of a successful hire. And then you go talk to people and do your best to assess them against that. And if you have the luxury of some time, if you’re not under an incredible schedule pressure, you can actually come up to speed quite a bit and get a sense of who’s good out there and who isn’t. I will also say that network was incredibly important as far as vetting people and getting introduced to the right folks. If you have that network organically, fantastic. If not, I think that’s a necessary thing to build as a founder.
- What have you gained from working with Lemnos?
San: The Lemnos community is an unusually genuine one. I personally have found it frustrating to be in most founder social events because everyone’s talking about how they’re busy crushing it and it’s just a lot of chest thumping. It’s rare to have real discussions about some of the challenges. It’s not an easy path. And also some of the painful lessons learned. So that’s one of the most valuable things I’ve taken away from the family, the community. And that exchange of information was definitely at its highest bandwidth point when we were physically in the building.
KP: Yeah and the partners, you guys were very involved in it. It was obvious that you were genuinely passionate about helping the companies, which was the case. I think we met with you almost every week through messaging and you helped us.
- What was the road to your first round of financing?
KP: I think a network is, again, a huge enabler. Going to people that we trust and vice-versa. People that venture community trusts are enormous. I think that’s how we found you, through Harris. Also getting to know investors at events like 9 to 12 months in advance.
San: That’s literally what we did with Lemnos. There was probably about four to five months where we decided to work with Lemnos, sit here and get to know folks before deciding to move forward on terms. I think that was a very helpful process. It also ties into something I’ve encouraged potential founders to be very in tuned to. It might seem like the power dynamic is very much against a presumptive founder, that the VC has all the money. That part is true, but people should not relax or do short shift on the diligence they do on the investor. You yourself are a very valuable commodity. The company that you’re building should be valuable as well. And so being mindful of reference checking and doing all those diligence. It’s like you’re making a hire, a very similar conversation.
- What has been the most surprising thing about the manufacturing process?
- What have you learned through customer engagement?
San: We start with a hypothesis. The hypothesis is generally overly broad and sometimes grossly inaccurate. The only way to get information and feedback on it is to take it in front of the customer. And so one of the interesting and fun things early on was to take prototypes of varying quality and robustness in front of people and get feedback. Being able to iterate quickly again was quite helpful. I think getting feedback from a variety of customers was quite important. Not just one major customer, but several to understand that we were solving a global common problem. There’s always this discussion about here’s what the customer has asked for and wants. And then engineering how feasible is this? Sales: how much ARR is this? How much revenue? Is it repeatable? Has anybody else asked for this or is this just a one off? And as those discussions progress, it starts to become pretty clear whether it moves the needle for the company. What’s perhaps more important and useful for us is to establish some high-level guiding principles about what truly is important.
- What’s the hardest part of being a hardware startup founder?
KP: A million things come to mind, but the one thing that really surprised me is the time that things take. I always want to do things quickly and a lot of them just don’t get done that quickly. Sale cycle included. It just takes a long time. I don’t think there’s a silver bullet, just a lot of tenacity and aggressive follow up.
San: The content switching is incredible. Like the amount as a founder you need to do, and the frequency and speed and quality at which you must do it is overwhelming. If you can do that well, it helps in the early days. It’s probably not a good long-term way to operate. But certainly in the early days when you can’t afford to have a dedicated staff with leaders in each area, that becomes fundamentally enabling for a founder. And that was I think for myself one of those big takeaways, like “Oh my goodness, I have to do this at a level that I’ve never done before.”
- How do you find a much-needed work-life balance?
KP: I don’t think I’ve found work life balance yet. It has changed because in the beginning for one I was single. So it wasn’t affecting that many people around me. But now I’m married. So I have to be a little more careful. I try to go to the gym, read books if I can. I fail on both very often. But finding time to actually spend time with my wife, that’s important.
San: For me, it’s hard to limit the number of hours that need to go into the company. It’s challenging. Like KP, I was single when we started the company, and am engaged now. My fiancée is understanding. What I’ve found to be very helpful is to be very transparent about, “Hey, I need to get something done here.” And during those times that we do make for each other to be actually fully present, which is brutally difficult to do—to silence the phone, to not be thinking about work in the background, to actually be present.