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Today is Orbotix day at Feld Thoughts. I’m sitting in the House of Blues in Chicago getting ready to watch the Excelerate Labs Demo Day practice pitches waiting for everyone to show up and listening to the sound check guys blast music and say “hey hey 1 2″ over and over again. I put my headphones on and listened to the new video by Sphero announcing and demonstrating their six new apps – Color Grab, Tag, Exile, Doodle Grub, a new version of Golf, and a new version of the core app which is massively upgraded.
Orbotix just released a new version of the Sphero firmware. This is a fundamental part of our thesis around “software wrapped in plastic” – we love investing in physical products that have a huge, and ever improving, software layer. The first version of the Sphero hardware just got a brain transplant and the guys at Orbotix do a brilliant job of showing what the difference is.
Even if you aren’t into Sphero, this is a video worthwhile watching to understand what we mean as investors when we talk about software wrapped in plastic (like our investments in Fitbit, Sifteo, and Modular Robotics.)
When I look at my little friend Sphero, I feel a connection to him that is special. It’s like my Fitbit – it feels like an extension of me. I have a physical connection with the Fitbit (it’s an organ that tracks and displays data I produce). I have an emotional connection with Sphero (it’s a friend I love to have around and play with.) The cross-over between human and machine is tangible with each of these products, and we are only at the very beginning of the arc with them.
I love this stuff. If you are working on a product that is software wrapped in plastic, tell me how to get my hands on it.
It was the second week of TechStars and I was doing office hours with each of the 11 teams going through the Boulder 2010 program. I was sitting across the table from Adam Wilson and Ian Bernstein who each looked tired and dejected. In front of them were three slides.
I asked them what was wrong. They said they were having trouble deciding which of three different products to pursue. They’d had a dozen meetings with different mentors and were getting wildly conflicting data, which we refer to in TechStars as “mentor whiplash” and is a normal part of the first 30 days of TechStars for every team.
A few weeks earlier, Adam and Ian had their company Gearbox accepted into TechStars. They were hardware / software / robotics nerds and loved to tinker around. Their TechStars application and video had something to do with robots and their crazy desire to stay up all night hacking on them. When I’d last seen them a few weeks earlier, they were full of energy and life. Now they just looked defeated.
“Tell me about each of the ideas.” I asked. Adam started with the first one. “It’s a door lock controlled by your smartphone. The door lock market is really big.” said Adam in the most deadpan monotone voice I’ve ever heard.
“Ok – what’s the next one?” I asked. Ian mumbled something about the second slide on the table. I don’t even remember what he said.
“What about the third one?” Adam chimed in again, a little more animated this time. “It’s a robotic ball controlled by your smartphone.”
“Why are you having trouble deciding?” I asked. Adam kept going. “Some of the mentors like the door lock market but it seems like a really easy product to create and there are lots of door lock companies. And some don’t like it because it’s not defensible. No one really understands the second idea. And then there’s the ball – some mentors love it and others hate it.”
“Well,” I asked, “Is there one you love a lot more than the other two?” Adam and Ian looked at me quizzically, the same way my golden retrievers do when I ask them if they want to go for a walk. “Really, you just want to know which one we love the best?” asked Ian.
Adam jumped in, “Are you kidding. The ball. It’s a robotic ball you control with your smartphone.” Adam stood up with a gleam in his eye. “Brad, IT’S A ROBOTIC BALL YOU CONTROL WITH YOUR SMARTPHONE! HOW COOL IS THAT.”
At that moment, Sphero was born. And I knew that if Adam and Ian could make any progress over the next 10 weeks creating a robotic ball controlled by a smartphone, I wanted to invest in these two amazing guys. Their passion and obsession around the idea of a robotic ball you control with a smartphone was awesome.
Over the ensuing weeks they were regularly asked “what’s the market”, “who is the customer”, “how big is the market”, “isn’t it just a toy?”, and a bunch of other skeptical questions. As the weeks went by, they kept answering these sames questions with some variant of “we don’t really know but here are some ideas.” They kept working on the prototype and once they could drive something in a sort of a straight line, more eyes started lighting up and the “how big is the market questions” started to diminish.
Fundamentally, they didn’t know the answer, nor was it important at this stage. There are a zillion balls in the world and an endless set of applications for them; at this point Adam and Ian were pursuing the vision of a product that they were obsessed about. While some mentors and investors wanted to understand all the market and customer dynamics, others were able to see, or dream about, the enormous potential opportunities if the product could ever be created.
Sphero is now available in some Brookstone stores around the US. There’s a handy map on the Sphero site and I’ll include a list at the bottom of this post.
Occasionally one of you, dear blog reader, will ask if you can do anything for me. I usually say something like “just do awesome things” but this time I have a request. If you live near one of the Brookstone stores with a Sphero, go check it out. Play with it. Have your kids play with it (if you have kids). And if you like it, buy one.
Cats are cute, right? What could be more cute than a cat playing with a Sphero?
How about the President of the United States playing with a Sphero. Ok – that’s not cute, it’s cool.
Now, how about you playing with a Sphero? At a Brookstone store. And then buying one? That would be mega awesome cool.
If you travel through any of the following airports on Memorial Day, go check out our little robot friend
- Chicago (O’Hare)
- Dallas/Fort Worth,
- Los Angeles
Following are the addresses for the stores in alpha order by city.
- Atlanta, GA - 4400 Ashford Dunwoody Road, Suite 1360
- Braintree, MA - 250 Granite St # 12
- Columbia, MD – 10300 Little Patuxent Parkway
- Concord, CA - 424 Sun Valley Mall # 1
- Costa Mesa, CA - 3333 Bristol Street, Suite 1870
- Dallas, TX – 214 North Park Center
- Danbury, CT - 7 Backus Avenue
- Denver, CO - 3000 East 1st Avenue
- Freehold, NJ - 3710 Route 9
- Houston, TX - 5085 Westheimer Rd
- Louisville, KY - 5000 Shelbyville Rd # 1380
- Lynnwood, WA - 3000 184th Street SW
- Marlborough, MA - 601 Donald Lynch Boulevard
- McLean, VA - 1961 Chain Bridge
- Miami, FL - 8888 SW 136 Street
- Minneapolis, MN - 162 Market Street
- Nashua, NH - 310 Daniel Webster Hwy
- Orland Park, IL - 736 Orland Square Dr
- Orlando, FL - 4200 Conroy Road
- Palm Beach Gardens, FL - 3101 Pga Boulevard
- Raleigh, NC - 4325 Glenwood Ave
- San Diego, CA - 7007 Friars Road
- San Francisco, CA - 3251 20th Ave
- Santa Monica, CA - 1311 Third Street Promenade
- Schaumburg, IL – 60173 Woodfield Mall
- South Portland, ME - 364 Maine Mall Road
- Troy, MI - 2801 West Big Beaver Road
- Waterford, CT – 850 Hartford Tpke # P207