Incubate. It’s a popular term in the venture-capital world, but when it comes to describing the hands-on environment at Bolt, a seed-stage VC fund, it’s almost too passive a descriptor.
Bolt began in Boston about two years ago and recently expanded to a small San Francisco location in the Autodesk Workshop at Pier 9 in late January. On the top floor of the company’s East Coast office, you’ll find open-seating workspaces, meeting rooms, and common areas. On the bottom, there is a prototyping purlieu outfitted with engine lathes, spectrum analyzers, oscilloscopes, and much more.
But Bolt’s most valuable asset isn’t its pair of Bridgeport mills or its high-end FDM (fused deposition modeling) machines. It’s the staff, comprising 11 highly experienced engineering and design experts who have lent their expertise to many fledgling hardware innovators and have shipped more than 60 million units of product.
“A typical venture firm will have a couple of partners, maybe an associate or two, and a marketing person,” says Ben Einstein, Bolt’s founder and managing director. “I just don’t believe that’s sustainable. I think the future of investing is value-add investing. Not saying, ‘You should work with us because we have the best partners and the best exits,’ but rather, ‘You should work with us because we sit with you every day and help you design your product.’”
Here, 29-year-old Einstein discusses how Bolt is disrupting the traditional venture-capital model for manufacturing, with four pieces of hardware startup advice to help the next wave of entrepreneurs get their ideas off the ground.
1. Don’t Believe the Hype. Things like wearables, drones, and 3D printing may be all the rage, but Einstein warns that the “substance-to-expectation” ratio is a little off. “3D printing is a totally amazing thing that I’ve been using for 10 years and love dearly,” he says, “but I just don’t think my mother is going to buy a 3D printer anytime soon and fix her car with it.”
Rather, he champions the “Keurig model,” where the hardware is less the primary reason for the purchase, and more a mechanism that enables an experience—in this case, the experience of enjoying a convenient cup of coffee. Bolt backs quite a few companies that fit this model, like Kuvée, a Wi-Fi-enabled device that serves by-the-glass wine while preserving the rest of the bottle for later.
2. Maximize Your Resources. Sometimes the missing ingredient you need to bring your creation to fruition is right in your pocket. The benefits of the smartphone, says Einstein, cannot be understated. Instead of building expensive and complex technologies like cameras, accelerometers, and LED displays—in addition to the product you’re trying to create—you just concentrate on your unique innovation, connect it to your smartphone, and you’re off and running.
Say, for example, you want to design and build a drone. Instead of spending money and time manufacturing a complex, handheld controller for it, why not use the built-in capabilities from an app on a smartphone to control your device and focus your saved effort on making the best drone possible?
And if you do need parts like touch displays, microcontrollers, or radios, all you need to do is look around. “There are millions of devices made every quarter, which means there are all these components available that are really cheap and really good,” Einstein says. “There’s no shortage of different models, all of which can be had at mass scale for relatively cheap. McMaster, SparkFun, and Adafruit are great for prototype components. Digikey and Mouser can also be great. And Arrow and Avnet are great for high-volume production for electronic components.”
3. Beware of the Crowd. Crowdfunding is another popular strategy that Einstein is wary of, as he feels that many young hardware companies are lured into the false assumption that a pretty Inventor model plus a snappy video equals hundreds of thousands of dollars.
“That is a trap,” Einstein says. “It’s a trap that unfortunately has killed many companies or has caused many of them to build products that they don’t want to build, don’t believe are right, or are ‘late.’”
Einstein’s reasoning is this: As soon as you announce your product to the world, you are immediately beholden to a multitude of shareholders who are constantly emailing you to find out when they can expect their stuff. Time lines are accelerated, corners are cut in the manufacturing process, and a “build it now, figure it out later” mentality overshadows a measured approach to create a product that is reliable, can survive shipping, and can be replaced, serviced, or repaired for years to come.
4. Achieve Life/Life Balance. You’d be hard-pressed to find more of a hot-button topic than work/life balance, especially in the startup community where the burnout rate is high. To achieve maximum happiness, people need some separation between what happens at the office and what happens at home. It’s an argument Einstein simply does not accept. “Maybe it’s contrarian, but I find that work and life are the same thing. It’s just life.”
The key to any job—from running a VC firm, to creating the hardware itself—is setting yourself up for sustainability. How many projects do you take on during any given year? How intimately involved are you in those projects? What type of infrastructure do you have in place, human or otherwise? For Einstein, the right paradigm at work is precisely what creates balance at home, and it feels good.
“If you ever wake up too many days in a row and you don’t have that feeling, then you should do something else, because this is not a rational career move by most metrics,” he laughs. “It’s highly irrational but highly exciting.”