Changing Hats

It is a truism that the founders of a start-up business have to wear many hats. We are all familiar with the image of the owner/operator running by the office supply store on the way to work to pick up copier paper, cleaning the windows before the doors open, meeting with their banker, taking a client to lunch, taking the garbage out before going home to work on the ad copy for the new brochure. It is the essence of the start-up and small business lifestyle.

Many HatsIt is also true that as the business evolves, the tasks shift over time. A few years back, we were in the research phase of R&D. We focused on exploring the possibilities of a new way to design the brains for intelligent robots. Our white-boards were covered with models of human cognition and neuro-anatomy. We were breaking new ground in software development methodologies to build the brains for our yet-to-be robots. This is the academic hat, our mortar board, and gave us our first technical book Robots, Reasoning, and Reification. You can tell it is an academic book, we used an Oxford Comma in the title!

A little over a year ago, our business changed hats – we spent less time on the ‘R’ part, and far more on the ‘D’ of development. Putting together tens of thousands of lines of code that would implement the intelligent behavior; designing and prototyping new robot bodies that would enable us to prove out the research. And, as is always the case, returning to the white-boards to refine the designs, open new areas of research, and loop back to developing functional prototypes. This was less of a hat, and more of a face shield and lab coat phase.

Then we switched hats again: the white-boards were just as often filled with analyses of the potential markets, and we spent much of our time talking with potential customers to refine the benefits that our robots would provide. We focused more on the hunt for funding to keep the operations going, and designing the ‘look and feel’ of our new robots. We started relying more on project plans and Gantt charts – tracking the progress of our development. And always returning to the white-boards to refine solutions, analyze new problems as we learned more about the domains. We focused not on enabling the robots just to do the tasks they are assigned, but to do those tasks well. Check out Projects versus Products. This is our construction hard-hat – we’re out in the rain pounding nails to put up walls and a roof that have to hold up under the snow and rain.

Mobile Camera System on patrol in a gallery

Mobile Camera System on patrol in a gallery

Once again we are switching hats. Now we are moving into the product design and production set-up phase. It is all well and good to have a robust prototype robot that can do a full days work, but we need to design and build a business process that can turn out robots on demand to meet the needs of our customers.  Sure, there is still software development going on as we fine tune the performance of the robots, and learn more about what our customers need. I’m not sure what the best hat description for this phase would be – I kind of picture the 1950’s drafting tables, and guys (it’s the fifties, there were mostly guys) wearing suits and white button down shirts, perhaps donning a fedora to walk down to the local bar for a Manhattan after work.  In any event this will be a focus for a big part of the team for the next six months.

The rest of the team will switch yet again as we move into the marketing and sales phase for our first product off the line – the Mobile Camera System security robot. So that means we focus on building a clear, simple message about how we can make our customer’s lives better, reducing costs, increasing security and safety. That message needs to be consistently presented across a variety of media, to a variety of different customers; each with their own needs.  We need to be on target, and get geared up for our impending product launch in August – less than seven months away.  Every time I look at our internal website I see a countdown timer, reminding me that we have (as of today, less than 170 days to go!)  Did I mention – I’m a software engineer, not an MBA?  Oh well, just one more learning curve to try to catch up with the real experts on the team.

Where is your robot? Ours are being built at Gamma Two Robotics, here in Colorado.

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