SAN RAFAEL, Calif.–It’s launch day for Sarah Stocker’s new company, and though there’s still a lot of work to take care of before going live, her
iPhone is doing its best to challenge her. “Launch! In 9m,” it taunts.
Stocker is co-founder of My Robot Nation, a startup that gives buyers a set of simple Web-based tools for designing their own small, collectible 3D-printed droid figures.
It’s a recent Tuesday, and as part of my Day on the Job series, I’ve arrived at Stocker’s hillside home about 30 minutes north of San Francisco to chronicle the last hours before My Robot Nation’s launch.
My Robot Nation)
A month ago, Stocker and her co-founder, Mark Danks, soft-launched the company into beta–hoping to both attract a passionate niche audience and demonstrate the broad promise of customized 3D-printed products. A few hundred robots later, the company has attracted a passionate group of customers, and even the support of Google–which first featured My Robot Nation as part of the relaunch of the Chrome Store, and then promoted it to the 7.4 million people who follow Chrome’s Facebook page.
But now prep time is over. My Robot Nation has its public relations firm ready to send out press releases, a series of national news sites are already preparing stories timed for the next morning, and Stocker and Danks and their far-flung team have a slate of bug fixes and new features to complete. Yet, no matter how important the launch is, they can’t afford tunnel vision. Not even today. There’s the whole future of the company to worry about.
Succeed or go home
It’s likely that inexperienced startup founders would be tearing their hair out at this point, but not Stocker and Danks. They’ve shipped a ton of products, having worked together for years at giants like Electronic Arts and Sony. Now, though, they’ve ditched their corporate keycards and they’re on their own.
The two bootstrapped My Robot Nation, so if launch goes well, and the company flourishes, they and a team helping them out from home offices in Canada, Brazil, Colorado, San Francisco, and New York get all the rewards. If it doesn’t, there are no deep pockets to protect them or their investment.
That means the challenge facing Stocker and Danks is clear: Succeed at selling custom 3D-printed robots to a niche market of collectors and enthusiasts and then expand to the mass market with a wide variety of items. Or, go home.
With logs crackling in the fireplace in Stocker’s living room, classical music on the stereo, and a gorgeous, crisp Marin County day visible through the trees outside her window, she and Danks are putting the finishing touches on some holiday-themed robot elements that are part of the launch.
Stocker says she put in some new feature requests “in the dead of night last night,” and some are ready to test. One is a new “holiday head,” but she doesn’t like what she’s looking at: it’s marred by a digital smudge thanks to what she calls “the wrong texile density.” It’s got to be fixed or it’ll come out of the 3D printer looking wrong. So Danks grabs the digital file and sets about solving the problem.
Danks’ adoption of the smudged-head issue has freed up Stocker to handle another of her million different remaining tasks–doling out a set of promotional codes for robot reviewers. “I has the power,” Stocker says gleefully. I’m going to give away free robots now!”
My Robot Nation)
Around noon, Stocker and Danks shift gears. The prelaunch checklist is still missing a lot of check marks, but they have to go meet Mike Ludlam, their technical artist, to talk about the art they’d use in a potential new partnership with a major technology company.
Over lunch the three discuss the deal that’s on the table, but that’s months away. Right now, they need a realistic assessment from Ludlam of what they’re capable of doing for the partner, particularly when it comes to the kinds of art details they can offer potential buyers. “We have to leverage and balance the pie in the sky with what’s possible,” Danks tells me later. Ludlam “often sees ways to look at things we wouldn’t have thought of.”
CNET Day on the Job’s Daniel Terdiman talks with My Robot Nation’s founders
Among other things, the discussion centers on the number of different kinds of content–digital skins and decals and the like–that could be incorporated into the potential partner’s 3D-printed items. The goal would be to let users click once and automatically fill a whole body section with, say, a cow-, zebra-, cheetah-, or camouflage-patterned skin. The user should find it extremely simple, but on the production side, it’s complicated geometry. Ludlam is the one who knows what the job entails. “He understands the difference between two [content items] and 25,” Danks said. “Two you can do by hand, 25, you need a process.”
‘A betting man’
Back at Stocker’s house a little after 1 p.m., she and Danks dive right back into their launch day tasks. Danks says that if he were “a betting man,” he’d put money down on going live around 5 p.m. He doesn’t say how much he’d bet.
That might have something to do with the next agenda item, a Skype video call with Scott Harmon, vice president of business development at Z Corporation, the maker of the 3D printers My Robot Nation uses. The main agenda isn’t launch. It’s how Z Corp can help My Robot Nation down the line.
The takeaway is that My Robot Nation may soon start getting recommended to companies that approach Z Corp about doing customized 3D-printed products. That’s big, because Z Corp talks to major entertainment IP holders all the time about bringing 3D-printing projects to market. “We’ve…already got the solution,” said Stocker. “To have [Harmon] at the manufacturing level say [to Z Corp's partners], ‘These guys already have the solution’…it’s huge for us.”
Then she adds, “One of our targets [has been] to see if we could be the go-to people for a platform that lets you customize things. And we seem to have succeeded in that. And that’s really exciting.”
Professional 3D printers can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, so few companies that specialize in making products with the machines actually own them. And neither does My Robot Nation. Instead, it contracts with Offload Studios, a small outfit in British Columbia.
For Stocker and Danks, the next meeting is another Skype video call, this time with Bill Henderson, Offload’s owner.
With hours before launch, Stocker and Henderson talk about the FAQ Stocker has been trying to finish all day, and she explains that one section seems like it could be confusing to potential buyers–the order-processing time. They want to make sure potential customers don’t have unrealistic expectations of how long it will take to get their hands on their newly designed robots, especially not with Christmas approaching. They settle on language that says “from order to hold it in your hands takes about 8-10 business days in the U.S., about 10+ business days internationally, depending on country.”
Before ending the call, Stocker, Danks, and Henderson talk big picture for a few minutes, discussing a road map for the kinds of items My Robot Nation might sell in the future. Stocker explains that the company’s goal is to pursue a mass market customer base, something that likely means offering simpler products than robots with 9 billion possible permutations. “We want to make a product that is much more personal to people than greeting cards,” Stocker says, “but has a greeting card price point and simplicity.”
But she also argues that the company needs something in the future that will let its current customers “scratch their itch.”
Henderson suggests they should pick the brain of a specific buyer who recently bought one of My Robot Nation’s most expensive models, and Stocker loves the idea. “Mark and I were talking about ways to reward him,” she says. “Yeah, let’s roll him in on how we can extend My Robot Nation.”
It’s nearly 5 p.m. now, and it’s becoming clear that Danks’ prediction was a bit optimistic. There’s still a number of tasks to complete, including some final bug hunting.
My Robot Nation)
Yet both Danks and Stocker have to leave soon to pick up their kids, so whatever work is left will be put on hold. Still, each keeps on working right up until the last minute, tackling bugs that remain in the system and crossing them off, one by one. (They finally hit launch at about 10:30 p.m.)
“You can always tell people who have done a product release before from those who haven’t,” Stocker says, speaking of the bug hunting. “People who have never done it before freak out…. If you haven’t done that a bunch of times, it’s apparently very unnerving. But I kind of like it, because it’s kind of closure. And anytime you catch something, you’re like, thank God. You’re relieved you found it before you shipped it to the consumer.”
If your company is interested in being featured in Day on the Job, please send a note to daniel-dot-terdiman-at-cbs-dot-com. Unless given specific permission, I will not reveal any proprietary information or forward-looking business plans I encounter during my time at the companies I visit.