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Daniel Pizzata of Modbot: Building Robots and Building a Business
Earlier this month, Daniel Pizzata of Modbot was kind enough to sit down with us and explain not only what Modbot does (robots for everyone!), but also his own hard-won wisdom about how to improve your chances of success — in business and life — as a hardware entrepreneur. Here he is in his own words.
Hey I’m Daniel, co-founder of Modbot. Our goal is to make robots so massively accessible that real robots can be built by anyone.
Modbot is a set of modular building blocks for building useful robots. You can assemble them like Lego to create any robot that you can think of. You can even build and control them from the cloud.
Why Start a Robot Company?
Since my co-founder Adam Ellison and I were kids, we’ve been living in this world where authors and creative minds have painted an amazing picture of what our future would be like. It included the robots that would help us to achieve the tasks that we want to do every day. The dream is that they wouldn’t only be monotonous drone-like creatures, but that they would have a sense of soulfulness — they would have personality and character.
We believe the primary reason it isn’t already happening is because they are expensive and complex. They are locked away in expensive research facilities and people don’t have access to them. But if we can take that technology and hand it to millions of people — millions of minds — then the bandwidth for innovation in robotics can radically increase. We can see these pieces of technology become part of our world, and even start talking to them as part of our dynamic environment.
We believe that our vision of robots everywhere can be part of our future, and we intend to pave the path to get there.
What It Takes to be a Hardware Entrepreneur
I came from a full-time career with a paycheck and the traditional concept of stability. I lived in a great place in Melbourne, Australia. It was all going the way that life is supposed to . . . except that I didn’t want to work for someone else.
I think that same urge is felt by a lot of people. Being entrepreneurial obviously comes with risk, so it’s very easy to say, “I’m willing to take on the risk and live in squalor and do whatever it takes to get there.” But be smart: if you do it right, you don’t have to. Personally, I moved overseas and gave up being close to my family and my existing network, and there are times when that’s tough. But my experience has taught me that taking the steps towards achieving the levels of success you desire, will by far outweigh even the worst of the tough times. Realizing your true potential and the feeling it will give you is the peace of mind we all seek.
The key is realizing that you get that peace in the journey and not just the destination.
Here are some of the key things I’ve learned:
- Ideas vs. Execution. Don’t expect that the key to success is reserved for the most amazing idea, because the most amazing idea is irrelevant without the skills to execute it. At Modbot, we talk about execution as the path and the degree of learning that is required to actually make any idea come to life. Because without the knowledge of those steps, it’s very hard to take any idea to fruition.
- People make the difference. Before trying to find that incredible idea (unless you already have it), focus on finding incredible people. I’ve started companies before, and they had levels of success that weren’t what they should have been. I hadn’t realized how important people were for progress. The biggest difference with Modbot is that I found someone that I knew I got along with well. Every now and then we’ll talk to each other to make sure we are aware of what’s going on: Is everything okay between us? Are we communicating the way that we should be? We accept the fact that we are in a relationship now. We are in the startup equivalent of a marriage. Because of this experience, I actually think there’s more value in spending time understanding who it is you want to work with and how they’re going to affect the future than it is to really, really hope for the great idea. When you put incredible people in a room together, the ideas come naturally.
- Pour yourself into it. We went through an insanely rapid pace of development to get this technology built. That’s hard, because you do need to learn to sacrifice your time. I said that you shouldn’t sacrifice yourself completely for anything, but at times idealism and reality don’t line up. When confronted with a need to sacrifice, do so in stages. If you pour everything that you’ve got into your project, what you’re really doing is maximizing the possibilities. So when it’s right, pour absolutely everything you’ve got into it, because nothing lasts forever. You pursue it until you can see that it’s giving you the level of joy and satisfaction that you need or the level of success that you want and then force yourself to take a break. Whatever happens, I guarantee you will learn a crazy amount in the hard times — but if you don’t take breaks from the hard times, you will end up nothing but crazy.
- Find equilibrium. Pour your energy into your project, but don’t give up your life and the things you do in your everyday environments in order to do that one thing. Make sure that you’re fed (in every sense), and make sure that you have friends in that new environment. That way, when you pour your energy into being part of that new world, it will pay you back. We seem to box life up into work, hobbies, partners, vacations — and that’s fine. If that works for you, then make a list on a piece of paper and give yourself an evaluation. How are you performing in the key areas that give you balance? Without equilibrium and balance, the business can’t thrive because you’ll burn out. If you think you won’t . . . you may already be crazy.
- Pay attention to the business. In a technical environment, you can spend so much time trying to solve the technical problems that you completely miss the fact that no one knows the great problem you’ve solved. A business that is inherently technically focused may never reach a market. But a business that is completely business-development focused may never have a real product to sell. If you have strengths in one field, acknowledge your weaknesses in others and fill it with people or learning.
- Crowdfunding. If you intend on starting a crowdfunding campaign, I would really, really stress that whatever budget you’ve allocated for time is not enough — you need to double it. It is a very difficult thing to pull off, and it’s very important that you know how many different aspects are going to be required to come together at the same time. The biggest recommendation I can give for crowdfunding campaigns is to have people that have already pledged to your campaign before you’ve even started it. It’s almost like a pre-preorder. You want so many people that come on board on the first day that the press go wild about it. It will catalyze your campaign, and the likelihood of success will increase significantly.
- Go to China. Never underestimate the potential of face-to-face interaction, especially with your manufacturers. We’ve recently spent time in China and we’ve now built a relationship with a company that can build our parts, and build our parts at a significantly reduced price than we can anywhere else in the world. We gained first-hand knowledge not only by seeing how bits and pieces are put together on the actual production lines, but also about how to build the relationships with the people there. That experience is completely invaluable and can change the way that you design. What you learn is an approach to design for manufacture — design that can scale. And the reality is, the people that know manufacturing the best are in China.
Those are some of the most important things I’ve learned so far working at Modbot. In closing, raising a company is unsustainable without the people in it — and that includes you.Tend to the company’s needs, but if you don’t tend to your own and the needs of those you work with, you will lose sight of what you set out to achieve. It’s very easy for me to say that this company is going to work because I believe in the idea and I believe in the people.
Good luck to you!