One of the most enjoyable things I get to do in my job is to be involved in creating amazingly fun products. If you hang around in our office at Foundry Group you see plenty of Makerbots, Fitbits, an Oblong Mezzanine, an Occipital Structure Sensor, ModRobotics Cubelets, littleBits, 3D Robotics drones, and Spheros.
Now we’ve got some BB-8s (from Sphero) in our office. And if you want one, you can buy one right now.
The story of Sphero and BB-8 makes me smile a huge smile. I’m a massive Star Wars fan and saw the first Star Wars movie in 1977 when I was 11. I had a digital LED Star Wars watch from Texas Instruments that I wore proudly every day. Recently, I’ve been wearing Star Wars Vans. Yoda adorns lots of spaces in my world and “Do or do not, there is no try” is one of my mantras.
Sphero was originally known as Gearbox when it entered Techstars in Boulder in 2010. It’s origin story is summarized in the Techstars Founder Stories series and our journey with Ian Bernstein, Adam Wilson, Paul Berberian, and the team they subsequently assembled has been awesome.
Shortly after we led the seed round the company changed its name to Orbotix. It released its first product – Sphero – a little over a year later and was off to the races.
Last year, Orbotix did an unusual thing. With two successful products under its belt (Sphero and Ollie), the team was working on the next product concept. At the same time, Techstars had partnered with Disney to create the Disney Accelerator. While Orbotix was now a substantial company (with around 50 people), Paul, Ian, and Adam decided to go through the Disney Accelerator to create their next product. They had no idea what it would be, but they just wanted to isolate themselves from the rest of the company and invent the next thing. Paul spent 50% of his time in LA and the other 50% of his time in Boulder. Ian and Adam spent 100% of their time in LA and went through the first Disney Accelerator program.
The story of how BB-8 came out of this has been talked about plenty of times including an article in Wired and this morning on the front page of the Denver Post. It’s a great example of the power of a prepared mind, magical technology, and the Techstars corporate accelerator dynamic.
Today, Orbotix is called Sphero. The latest product from Sphero is BB-8. And, as a Star Wars geek, I couldn’t be happier to have a tiny part in bringing BB-8 to life.
Today, Orbotix, the maker of Sphero, has raised a new round of $15.5 million, led by Shea Ventures and including new investor Grishin Robotics. We were the original investors in Orbotix and I joined their board in the fall of 2010 after they went through the Techstars Boulder program.
The first post I wrote about Orbotix included an aspirational phrase for what they were working on.
Orbotix is creating a new game platform that combines common physical objects, smart phones, and a software marketplace. Their first product will “reinvent the ball” through the creation of a robotic ball controlled by a smart phone.
They shipped Sphero 1.0 just before the end of 2011 so their first real year in the market was in 2012. Sphero 2.0 shipped in the fall of 2013 and was praised in reviews like the one in TechCrunch which gushed Sphero 2.0 Is Twice As Fast, Agile, And Awesome.
Connected play is a new category that I’m completely obsessed about. When the iPhone and iTouch came out, there was an incredible shift to mobile devices for games. Suddenly, the toy that kids were playing with was a virtual one – something that was occurring on a sheet of glass they held in their hands. For a kid like me who grew up with video games on an Apple ][, this was pretty awesome. But it felt limiting, especially as I watched kids (and adults) react to Sphero.
As someone who has seen behind the curtain at Orbotix, littleBits, and Modular Robotics, it is amazing what you can do, and where you can go, when you connect physical objects with a smartphone. As an investor in these three companies, I’m psyched to be part of inventing a new category we are calling connected play.
Ever since Orbotix was founded, we’ve been talking about robots and education and how Sphero could play a role. Last week, my friends at Orbotix rolled out a new program called SPRK which stands for Schools, Parents, Robots, and Kids. They’ve already got six lesson plans up with more coming.
To get a feel for the potential of Sphero in education, take five minutes out of your day and watch the video below. At the minimum, it’ll make you smile.
For those of you that missed my note yesterday, I’m going to start using the first paragraph of my posts with an announcement about something in my world. Today’s is the launch of a new product from Orbotix called Selfiebot. My Orbotix friends are masters at creating amazing robots and are hard at work on the next generation of what we are calling “connected play.” Selfiebot is an autonomous flying robot that shoots HD photos of you, freeing you from the limitations of a handheld startphone when taking selfies. Check out Selfiebot today.
While we are on the topic of Orbotix, let’s talk for a little while about expectations for outside board members. Yesterday I met with an outside board member of another company I’m on the board of. He’s been on the board for about six months and is feeling uncomfortable with his contribution. He’s a very experienced CEO with a large exit under his belt, a founder/investor in several other companies, and an excellent operator. But he hasn’t been an outside board member much. He wanted to get feedback from me on how he was doing and whether his expectations for his own engagement were correct, and what he could do to work with the CEO and leadership more effectively.
I’m an enormous believer in the value of outside directors relatively early in the life of a company. I like to keep boards small and weighted toward outside directors as the companies grow, rather than just a cadre of VCs sitting around the board torturing the CEO with conflicting advice and opinions. I’ve written about this extensively in Startup Boards: Getting the Most Out of Your Board of Directors.
I generally see three types of outside board members getting recruited to a board of a VC backed company.
- The friend of the VC: This director is really a proxy for the VC and not an independent thinker. Danger danger.
- The friend of the CEO / entrepreneur: This director is really a proxy for the entrepreneur and not an independent thinker. Danger danger.
- An independent director. Now, this person can be a friend of the VC, or a friend of the CEO / entrepreneur, but is an independent thinker. Or they might be someone from industry that is known to one of the investors or the entrepreneur, but is recruited specifically by the CEO to join the board. Or it might be someone lightly known, or even unknown, but again is an independent thinker.
Note the emphasis on independent thinker. It doesn’t matter who the relationship originates from. There is a unique role for an outside director in a startup company and it’s one that can be profoundly helpful to the CEO. But that person needs to be operating from a headspace of an independent thinker, not a proxy for one of the other participants on the board.
The person I was talking to yesterday is definitely #3. While I’ve known him for a long time and was an investor / board member in his successful company, he most definitely is not my proxy. I learn an enormous amount from him about the particular dynamics of the specific business since he knows it so well, so when he talks, I listen carefully. I have no interest in being in between him and the executives of the company or hearing about what comes up in his operating level discussions, unless he feels like it’s a board level issue and discussion. But most importantly, I want the CEO to learn from this outside director and his experience by developing his own deep, personal relationship.
Back to Orbotix. We’re recruiting at least one outside director to Orbotix as part of the continued scale up of the company. Paul Berberian, the CEO, wrote a magnificent short overview of his expectation for a board member that he’s sharing with everyone he’s talking to. I asked his permission to reprint it here – it follows. If you are considering adding an outside director, I encourage you to prepare a similar document, and make sure it’s for all of your directors, including your investor directors.
Orbotix Board of Directors Expectations
Orbotix is a startup company and our expectations for board members can be summed up with the following statements:
- Be True
- Be Prepared
- Be Present
- Be Available
- Be Supportive
- Be A Player
Be True: No bullshit or tap-dancing on any subject. Be honest with your thoughts and opinions. Our time together as a group is limited and holding back or sugar coating any issues or concerns you have with the business is simply wasting time in trying to get to the real discussion. If you don’t have an opinion or relevant experience to make an informed decision – say so. No one knows everything. And of course all the other table stakes for serving on any board such as always act in an ethical manner and in the best interest of the company.
Be Prepared: We put a lot of time into preparing the board book – read it in advance. We do not review the board book at the board meeting unless there are questions. The first few minutes are open for questions, approval of standard business items and then we dive into a deep discussion on one to three key subjects. These subjects will we outlined in the board book but additional material may be presented at the meeting. Try to come to each board meeting with one big question or insight you’d like to be addressed during our strategic discussions. Each board meeting will end with an executive session where the directors can give feedback to the CEO as well as talk privately without management present. The lead director will then follow up with the CEO to provide any final thoughts on the meeting.
Be Present: We have four board meetings a year and expect board members to be physically and mentally present. Board meetings are typically 3 hours or less. If you cannot attend physically getting access to a high quality video conference system can be a substitute. We take great care to plan BOD meetings around your schedule so please make them. Missing one board meeting can happen, but it should be rare. If you miss multiple board meetings we assume that something else is taking priority and you should evaluate ongoing participation. When at the board meeting turn off you phone and laptop and participate in the discussion. We will take breaks to allow you to check messages. If you are highly distracted due to other pressing matters, please let us know in advance so we don’t question your willingness to participate. We have a “small group meal” in advance or after the board meeting – typically a dinner the night before. The meal will have 2 to 4 people and will include an equal number of board members and management. This is the opportunity for the board to get to know management and each other at a deeper level – groups will be different for each board meeting. They are not designed to conduct the board meeting in advance. An Orbotix exec will coordinate the meal in advance.
Be Available: One of the key roles a startup board member can provide is to act as a coach or sounding board for the CEO. These interactions typically occur between board meetings. Making time on your turf to have these interactions is invaluable. The expectation that these meetings will not exceed more than a few hours per quarter. Often approvals are needed in short order – board members are expected to be responsive on emails / calls that clearly declare action needed in the title or message.
Be Supportive: As a board member you are expected to support the company and CEO. If you support the company but not the CEO you have three options 1) coach the CEO 2) replace the CEO or 3) resign. Unless there is some unusual circumstance, options #2 and #3 should not be without warning as it is expected feedback will be shared with the board in the executive session. An engaged and supportive BOD member will use their best efforts to help Orbotix succeed. Examples include leveraging your network for creating meaningful partnerships and introductions, and freely sharing your expertise and insights on strategy, products and performance. Additionally we expect every board member to speak about the company favorably in public and share their enthusiasm for our work with others.
Be A Player: We make fun things. That is why before each BOD meeting starts we begin with a play session to highlight our accomplishments and developments since our last meeting. We want our BOD members to embrace their inner child and play with our creations, offer feedback and most importantly share with their friends and family to help us shape our products and experiences. We cannot build fun things unless we are all having fun – so let’s play!
I’ve loved being involved in Orbotix from the very beginning. I got to know Adam and Ian, the founders, even before they got into Techstars. Their original company name was GearBox and they probably wouldn’t haven’t gotten into Techstars except that both Nicole Glaros and I said “we love these guys – fuck it – let’s try a hardware company this time.”
Paul Berberian, one of Adam and Ian’s lead mentors during Techstars joined them as the third co-founder before demo day and we led the seed round shortly after. Orbotix is now 40 people, with hundreds of thousands of Sphero’s out in the wild and being played with, and a new product (currently codenamed 2B) coming out this fall.
The company is on the forefront of a new category I like to call “connected play.” It’s not a static toy, like kids have been playing with since the beginning of time. It’s not a game on a pane of glass like an iPhone or iPad. It’s a dynamic toy that you can play with online, via your pane of glass, or in the real world, with friends, connected together online. And it gets upgraded continually, with new software and new games.
I’ve talked in the past about how I love origin stories. I bet you didn’t know that before there was Sphero, Adam and Ian made an iPhone-based garage door opener well before that was cool and trendy. Enjoy the three minute origin story of Orbotix.
If you wonder how kids describe a Sphero, this short video will make you smile. And then laugh. And then smile some more. One of these kids needs to be on The Voice.
Sphero says, “buy me, buy me, buy me.”
I’m a big fan of Jason Calacanis’ show This Week In Startups. I usually run naked (no headphones) but when I listen to something it’s usually an interview or a book.
Amy and I had dinner last night with Paul Berberian and his wife Renee and Paul mentioned Jason had interviewed him at Techstars FounderCon in Chicago a few weeks ago. So – I grabbed my iPhone, downloaded the interview, and listened to it. Dynamite stuff.
Earlier in the morning I read Jason’s post on LinkedIn titled The Great Venture Capital Rotation. I think it was originally titled “The End of Venture Capital Sort Of” (based on the URL). In addition to being provocative, it lined up nicely along a few others posts on this topic from Fred Wilson (Leading vs Following), Hunter Walk (AngelList Syndicates Will Also Pit Angel Against Angel) and Howard Lindzon (So You Want to Angel Invest…Be Prepared to Lead and Follow.) Naval, Nivi, and the gang at AngelList have really busted some stuff open and it’s interesting to watch it play out.
Teaching kids to program is not an easy task – their attention span is short and what they are able to accomplish in a brief period of time is often uninspiring which results in them losing attention quickly.
Robots help a lot with this!
The Orbotix team has turned their Sphero into a fantastic programming aid to introduce coding to kids as young as 4th grade. In about an hour kids will be commanding their robot to drive geometric patterns while also learning a bit about angles, degrees, time and distance calculations, loops and conditional branching. If your my age, you might remember Logo and turtle graphics. It turns out to be really cool to toss a robot into the mix, instead of just a computer screen.
Coding is done via a simple app on either Android or iOS devices and sent to the Sphero via Bluetooth. The younger kids learn to program using a simple scripting language developed by Orbotix called MacroLab – the older kids learn BASIC which Sphero can interpret to do some complex tasks.
Orbotix is hosting a “Sphero Rangers” event at the Google offices here in Boulder this Saturday from 11am to 2pm. Robots and programming devices will be provided – but bring your smartphone if you want to use your own. Attendees will also be able to get a Sphero at a discounted price. If interested sign up here: https://www.meetup.com/
So – I’ve apparently been hiding under a rock and had no idea about the Nyan Cat phenomenon. The original Youtube video has 89,604,608 views as of this moment. Insane.
Time to download Sphero Nyan Cat Spaceparty. A perfect combination of a cat, a ball, and an iPad.