Episode 1: Robot Launchpad’s lean year

08 October 2012

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I thought I’d document our somewhat unusual journey through lean startup methodology and robotics. I founded Robot Launchpad almost a year ago to test the assumption that robotics and lean went together, that startups were startups whether they were hardware or software, that Silicon Valley was the place to do it, and that growing my own startup was the best way to test all these assumptions.


Lean refers to the increasingly influential ‘lean startup’ methodology of Eric Ries, that focuses on a fast cycle of ‘build, measure, learn’, using minimum viable products to get to the ‘measure, learn’ stage quickly. The key concept is ‘innovation accounting’ which tries to identify meaningful metrics that may be completely unrelated to anything in a traditional business plan. The key concept is that a startup is “an organization formed to search for a repeatable and scaleable business model”. [Steve Blank 2010] As such, a startup operates under conditions of extreme uncertainty, not having a product/market fit.


I was on the robot conference rounds, finishing my masters thesis in human-robot culture, and a common discussion theme was ‘Why is it so hard to get investment in all these wonderful robot ideas!’ and ‘What is going to be the breakout robot business?’. I’d also just moved to Silicon Valley from Australia with my partner who is running a technology accelerator. The opportunities in Silicon Valley for startups seemed immense compared to the tiny startup ecosystem in Sydney.


In hindsight, I started trying to find something that didn’t exist because of some cultural misapprehensions. To me, ‘Silicon Valley’ was a brand rather than a fixed location and ‘tech’ meant hardware not just software. The more I looked around, the more it seemed that there was very little bridging the thriving startup scenes and the hardware/robotics communities. It looked like people were interested in closing the gap though.


It was comparatively easy to pitch the idea of Robot Launchpad and collect great cofounders and advisors. What was our plan? Test the core assumption – that robotics and startup communities together would produce increased innovation and growth. How? First, to run events, like hackathons but with a business model competition, like a startup weekend but for robots.


We developed our very own ‘robot startup’ competition format but had limited support for something new and untested. We also were being viewed as ‘competition’ by potential partners. Solution? Did we need our own competition or could we test by adding value to other events?


We partnered with a global cloud robotics hackathon, we ran the robot track at Mega Startup Weekend, we had a 2 day roboticists retreat, we ran a robot/hardware track at Google IO afterhack weekend, and quietly infiltrated a number of other events, groups and discussions.


Summary? Core assumption valid, but customer segment and business model still missing. We’ve been wildly successful at creating excitement about robotics at startup events, and vice versa. We’ve inspired other events. We’ve followed up with the people who’ve produced robot business ideas and watched their journey.


Success, in so far as we’ve thrown down a bunch of fertilizer and watched things grow; lovely weed choked uncultivated robot startups. Business model? Everyone wants robots or robot tracks at their events/conferences. Do we want to become event managers or a PR firm? Not really, I want to find structural elements in the situation that can get a global solution, positioning as a potential high growth startup not a service.


Business model? Customer segment? Early stage startups need the most assistance and are least able to afford it. We’ve been exploring offering tailored events or classes in business model generation, customer segmentation, innovation accounting etc. to early stage startups. Something class, web or group based that is affordable, repeatable and ideally scaleable.


Test? Advertized several workshops on our growing newsletter and new website. Result: very little interest. Followed up with interviews with robot startups about what they need/want? Most robot startups just want publicity leading to more customers and better access to VC funding. The startups that recognize a need for advanced coaching/advice also know that it’s available directly from lean startup circles, workshops, classes and books by Steve Blank, Eric Ries, Alexander Osterwalder, Trevor Owens, Patrick Vlasqovits, Brant Cooper etc. Or these resources are available in accelerators, something robot startups would like to join.


Partway through the year we realize that we have moved from running events and growing a robot startup community to being an accelerator. We’re still partnering with lean startup groups on robot specific issues. We also see value in developing a quality assurance checklist specific to robot startups. This is a potential business model.


Test? Startups sign up. We interview them, explore the gaps and look for opportunities, we make introductions. Success, but slow. Startups are interested but given the overall numbers, the variation in verticals and growth stages, it’s difficult to have a ‘cohort’. Or to see measurable results yet. We hope to have a couple of high profile robot startups talk about how we helped, when their funding rounds are finished. We’d love to manage a fund or partner with a fund. That’s under discussion.


But the reality is robotics is currently small, rapidly growing and hugely prone to being absorbed into other verticals. Hardware specific funds and accelerators like PCH International, HAXLR8R, Lemnos Labs and Grishin Robotics exist or have formed recently, and existing funds, like Y Combinator, are accepting more robotic startups. Investors may be our real customer, but the market is already responding to the need.


Not all accelerators offer seed funding, some offer connections, some offer resources, some offer facilities. Some of the robot startups in Silicon Valley wanted a space. Kind of like a tech shop or hackerspace. I don’t see this as a viable business model. I don’t think it’s my priority. In fact, I don’t think this is going to work at all, but why not test it? (Remember, we’re a boot strapping startup. We don’t know what our business model is or our product/market fit. We’re using lean startup methodology. We’re going to test everything!)

…to be continued…

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Andra Keay is the Managing Director of Silicon Valley Robotics, founder of Women in Robotics and is a mentor, investor and advisor to startups, accelerators and think tanks, with a strong interest in commercializing socially positive robotics and AI.
Andra Keay is the Managing Director of Silicon Valley Robotics, founder of Women in Robotics and is a mentor, investor and advisor to startups, accelerators and think tanks, with a strong interest in commercializing socially positive robotics and AI.

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