In this series, “The Mind of a Founder,” (name lifted from PBS’s The Mind of a Chef, since I’m a big fan), I’ll periodically round up thoughts from our founders to share with the community. If there are any particular themes or questions that you’d like to see me address, please tweet at me or shoot me an email.
In this episode, I talked to three of our founders, all working in hardware. In no particular order, they are: Luke Schoenfelder of Latch, Ashley Crowder of VNTANA, and Jerry Hu of Meural. Below, find a brief description, in the founders’ own words:
Latch: “Latch provides seamless access to a building. It is something a building buys to benefit everyone – it makes it easier for everyone to do what they need to do in a modern building.”
VNTANA: “VNTANA builds the world’s only scalable and interactive hologram systems with data collection capacbilities allowing brands to engage consumers in fun augmented reality experiences while collecting data for ROI.”
Meural: “Meural is a startup at the intersection of art and technology. We build a digital canvas that enables people to stream art.”
I asked all of them a series of questions and poked them on general themes. Below, I’ve broken it up into categories with their thoughts. Below that, you’ll find some fun Q&A to really get inside their minds!
On the challenges of running a hardware startup…
Running a hardware startup has added complexities that a software startup may not. For instance, it is much easier to implement changes with software (often this can happen at the push of a button). Additionally, more capital is required upfront to go through various iterations and re-designs, before a product even touches the hands of the consumer.
One way VNTANA’s gotten around this is to do a number of large-scale experiential events that bring in cash to fund the next generation of their hardware, decreasing the amount of capital needed in the next raise. By contrast, Meural sells directly to consumers through an eCommerce platform, so their biggest challenge is balancing supply and demand, especially for an early-stage startup, in which capital is limited and it’s hard to hold excess inventory.
On the challenges of creating a physical product while still being able to remain nimble…
Since Latch produces a smart lock that requires installation and is more difficult to iterate on, Luke puts a lot of emphasis on getting things right the first time. He says, “in-field fixes, particularly for devices with intermittent internet connections, are generally non-starters. You need to invest the time to get it right the first time, especially when you’re dealing with a product with the up-time requirements that [Latch has].”
Meural has more flexibility in producing product and tweaking it with additional versions. Jerry believes there needs to be a strong emphasis put on listening to your customers and being aware of what the competition is doing. Ashley agrees with customer feedback – at her multi-thousand person live demonstrations, she pays extra attention to what customers have to say, and how they’re using the product.
On finding useful resources early on…
All hardware founders agreed that setting up strategic relationships and manufacturing partnerships early on was key. They have all exploited their networks and relevant investors in order to make that happen. Beyond that, Ashley used a couple hacks to get her going. Home Depot was her number one resource at the beginning – she bought tools and specialty parts there and got advice from various electricians and contractors. Jerry used meetup groups and local universities to gain access to engineers and specialists.
All founders agree that when it comes to hiring, past experience and performance is the key indicator. Since early hardware startups are focused on building product, those key hires need to have a demonstrated record of executing. As Ashley says, “we would rather see someone who’s built actual products over a traditional education, so it all comes down to their portfolio.” Luke adds on to this by saying, “past performance is more important when hiring hardware folks because the stakes are much higher… in your earliest days you may be able to just make do, but engineering has to be the number one focus as soon as you have the capability to bring the right people into your team.”
On setting up the business for mass-market scale…
Business development is the key to mass-market scale, for all our founders. As Ashley points out, “VNTANA’s focus is on forming venue partnerships to increase our installation base. The more units we have installed, the more advertising can be sold.” Similarly for Jerry, he believes that finding the right point of sales that fit the brand is key to scaling quickly.
Claire: What’s the biggest failure you’ve had so far, and what did you do about it?
Luke: “I dropped out of college when I went the first time. I really struggled to find meaning in what I was learning and how it would impact the rest of my life. I took almost a year to clear my head and then started again with a totally new outlook on what I wanted out of my life. Once I had set that new course, nothing was able to slow my trajectory.”
Claire: Have you always had the “entrepreneurial” bug?
Ashley: “Yes, I’ve always had side hussels since I was a kid selling lemonade and water on the bike trail. My co-founder and I actually met because we were both importing glasses from China and selling them on the side.”
Claire: What’s your morning ritual?
Jerry: “Coffee, write down the list of key tasks and execute them accordingly, review the day’s calendar and prepare for meetings coming up.”
Claire: Which founders do you admire the most?
Ashley: “Toni Ko, found of NYX Cosmetics, which sold to L’Oreal, and now founder of Perverse Sunglasses. She moved to the US at age 13, had to first learn English and worked at her family’s beauty supply company before starting her first company at 25.”
Claire: What piece of advice would you give to a founder who’s just starting out, in hardware?
Luke: “Ask yourself if there is any way you can build a first version of the experience you want to build using someone else’s hardware. There has to be a monumentally compelling reason to build hardware into your business. It’s not just harder than software, it’s an order of magnitude harder. Great businesses have been built using off-the-shelf hardware to start… Dropcam is probably the best example of this and their overall product experience was second-to-none.”
Claire: Do you have any side projects or hobbies?
Jerry: “eSports, running and advising other startups.”
Ashley: “I do a lot of yoga to stay in shape and stay centered.”
Thank you very much to Luke, Ashley and Jerry!