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 7, Lemnos’s Eric Klein speaks with Linda Pouliot, co-founder and CEO of Dishcraft Robotics, a Lemnos portfolio company. Dishcraft is revolutionizing commercial kitchens with robotics, computer vision, machine learning, and innovative design.
- What compelled you to start your hardware company?
I am driven by two different things: I love applying a technology to a problem, and I really love making life better for humans. When I was a kid, I had to do housework. That was one of the tasks that my mother gave me. So when I was an adult and I realized you could use technology to solve vacuuming in this instant that was the thesis behind starting my first company—to make my life better and other humans better. When I started Dishcraft, it was pretty similar, there was someone from the restaurant industry that came to me and said, “I have 22 restaurants, I’m really worried about our labor staffing problem and I’m also really concerned about costs because minimum wage in California is increasing in 2020. Can you use robotics to solve some of the problems for my company?” I was interested enough that I put myself to work in a restaurant because I wanted to experience the problem myself. Then I realized technology could solve some of these issues, and we can make the staff and the workplace better. So it was the perfect calling to the things that really drive me.
- Had you worked on hardware projects before this startup?
My degree is in fine arts. I was a painter, but my first job was as an art director for a manufacturer. I loved seeing how things got made. Then I came to Silicon Valley 14 years ago, and met someone who said I’m going to build a robotics company. I had never had any experience in robotics, but I loved solving problems. This is the classic Silicon Valley story—how you can start as an artist and end up being a CEO of a hardware company.
- How did you decide what would be your first product?
I was not from the restaurant industry, so we started by analyzing hundreds of hours of time motion studies to see what’s happening today in kitchens and where can we provide the most value. We asked certain questions. What roles are the hardest to fill? Where do operators need the most efficiency? Where could you improve safety and workers comp issues? What equipment exists today and where are opportunities to upgraded or improve it? Are there opportunities perhaps to create something more sustainable? We looked at all this and we looked for the most labor intensive repetitive task that would provide the most value for the kitchen. I can’t discuss yet what we’re building, but stay tuned for that.
- How did you decide who would be your mentors?
I think mentorship is a two-way street, and you’re both looking to learn from each other. I think specific to Dishcraft because it was hardware and in the commercial kitchen industry, we needed to hit the ground running with people who really understood both those spaces. In terms of hardware, I reached back to a lot of people that I had worked with before. So for example, when I started Neato, Giacomo Marini became our first investor and board member, and is a great mentor to me because he had done many of the same things we were trying to do at Neato, and also today at Dishcraft. He had introduced the mouse to the United States, so he knew how difficult it is to create something new and change behaviors when that doesn’t exist. And he knew how to scale. But I also needed to augment it with experts from the commercial kitchen industry. So I have spent a lot of time making more relationships with commercial kitchen designers and architects and food operators and chefs and owners.
- What have you gained from working with Lemnos?
It was very multifaceted what Lemnos offered, and that was incredibly appealing. I had never experienced that prior in any of my other startups. So there’s a network of CEO’s, which is fantastic. I think that Lemnos creates an entire community. So, for example, if I have a question about something, I can write the CEO network and someone there will help or they will know someone to send me to who can help. I think Helen really helped me understand the investor side and their approach to think about when I fundraise. And the expert sessions that I attended completely increased my network and introduced me to different perspectives and food for thought that ended up becoming very beneficial.
- What was the road to your first round of financing?
When I started Dishcraft, having learned how hard it is to raise money at Neato, I decided that before I start really working on the idea, let’s just see is this VC backable? And so I called two investors, of which one Lemnos was one, and said this is the market size, this is how we think we’re going to solve it, but we haven’t done any technology yet, is this even fundable? And I think given my previous experience, plus the enormous market we’re tackling, we had a term sheet within a matter of weeks, which I’d never experienced in my career before.
- What has been the most surprising thing about the manufacturing process?
We’re still very early. At first we were thinking, “Can we build a few units that are functional? How do you get from the few units to dozens? Where do you build those and how fast can you build them to supply them? What’s the size? What are the costs?” In order to save time, we decided to build everything in the US. That’s very new for me because when I did Neato, it was small units, hundreds of thousands of units, but because of the quantities we opted to go overseas. Actually one of the things that surprised me the most was how much us partners care about what we’re doing and want to be part of our culture. They’re so invested in the quality of what we’re doing. That’s been really delightful.
- What have you learned through customer engagement?
I think this is an ongoing thing. We have a exercise that we call it 30 and 30, which means you do 30 customer interviews in 30 days, and every employee who comes and joins our company reads those findings because it teaches them that perspective. We also have, when we onboard a new employee, within their first month they need to work in a commercial kitchen to really understand the problems. What I learned through customer engagement was that we were solving the right problem, and that’s why we always continue to do this exercise.
It also really cleared up some misperceptions that I had about the industry. I thought because it was such a slow moving industry that the people would be very afraid of robots, and they would think that they’re like the terminator, but in fact I found that for an old industry, they were completely welcoming and desiring new technology and robotics. I mean I remember we had a huge debate of, do we drop robotics from our company name because we didn’t want to cause fear in the industry, and in fact it’s been an advantage to have the name be Dishcraft Robotics.
- What’s the hardest part of being a hardware startup founder?
For me personally, hardware is hard and patience is very hard for me. I’m not proud of this, but I read the last chapter in books first because I love the ending. So I’m anxious to be there live in commercial kitchens and be delighting customers. Hardware takes a long time to get to market.
- How do you find a much-needed work-life balance?
I decided that the only way for me to really bring my A game to work is if I carve out time to be a human being outside the office. I want to ensure that I’m home at 8:00 PM every night. I want to ensure that I have breakfast every morning with my husband, and in fact that I cook it so that it’s a nice way for us to start off our day. I set up working out as a priority. And I think that that ends up bringing a richer experience to myself and I’m happier. Then I encourage everyone around me to do the same because then I find that they are happier.