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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.
We constantly hear about “product market fit.” But my post yesterday about The Power of Passion When Starting Your Company was about “founder market fit.” And I’ve come to believe that – especially among first time entrepreneurs – founder market fit is much more important than product market fit at the inception of the company.
I stumbled on the phrase a few times over the past year and it’s been rolling around in my head a lot since. The first time was on Chris Dixon’s blog Founder / market fit which led me to a guest post by David Lee of SV Angel on More Thoughts on What Makes Great Entrepreneurs Great.
I’ve seen this over and over in TechStars. Founders come in with something they are super excited about. As they get exposed to mentors and feedback, they quickly start moving around within the market (or domain) as they search for a clearer focus, which could be defined as product market fit prior to getting a product out there and doing any real testing. This search is usually qualitative – it involves real feedback from potential customers and users, but it’s not a measured, tested approach.
In parallel, there’s often a Lean Startup methodology going on that does more quantitative tests of the specific product. But in a lot of cases, the qualitative feedback at the very formative stages is just as, if not more, important to make sure you end up in the right zone to test.
Underlying all of this is the regular shift away from something the founders are passionate about. The Orbotix example in my post is a great one – it would have been easy for Adam and Ian to decide to work on something that had a better product market fit, like iPhone enabled door locks, instead of something that not only hadn’t been invented yet, but also wasn’t obvious what market would really want it (a ball controlled by your smartphone – ok – that’s cool, but who will buy it?)
They, and their co-founder and CEO Paul Berberian had a vision for who would want a ball controlled by a smartphone. And Adam and Ian were obsessed with the idea. The three of them had extraordinary founder market fit, well before they figured out the product market fit.
We’ve got lots of other examples of this in our portfolio. I can’t tell you the number of times I get asked “what would someone ever use a personal 3D printer for?” But Bre Pettis at MakerBot is completely and totally obsessed with bringing 3D printers to the masses. While product market fit is getting clearer with each new product release, the founder market fit in this cases was awesome. Or Isaac Saldana of SendGrid, who initially named the company SMTPAPI. He has a great chapter in Do More Faster where he wrote about how he “Looked for the Pain” as a developer, found it in sending transaction email, and created SMTPAPI (now SendGrid) to address it. Or Eric Schweikardt who is unbelievably focused on creating the next generation robot construction kit at Modular Robotics. Sure – the “market comp” in this case is Lego Mindstorms, but Eric’s vision for the market goes well beyond this, and the product follows.
I’m not suggesting that product market fit isn’t an important concept. It is. But at the very beginning, especially with first time entrepreneurs, founder market fit is even more important.
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.
This morning we announced that we have just led a $3m investment in Modular Robotics. I’ve joined the board and am psyched to now be an investor in two Boulder-based robotics companies – ModRobotics and Orbotix. In the spirit of “show” vs. “tell” (which everyone in TechStars has driven into their brains over and over again) here’s a short three minute video that shows how ModRobotics first product – Cubelets – works.
Dan Primack at Fortune has a nice article up about ModRobotics titled ‘Robotics for kids’ start-up raises $3 million. For a little history of the rapid progression of the robotics movement in Boulder, take a look at my post titled Boulder is for Robots. And – if you are in Boulder and interested in robots, join the Boulder is for Robots Meetup Group.
My partners at Foundry Group and I are psyched to be working with Eric and team on creating the next generation robot construction platform. I believe the machines have already taken over and are just patiently waiting for us to catch up with them. As part of this, every kid should learn how to program, create things, and work with robots. ModRobotics plans to be an integral part of that.