Denver Comic Con 2016 Interview – Sphero

Before we had the pleasure of interviewing Sphero co-founder, Adam Wilson, we sat through a great panel that gave us a brief overview of the company along with what the SPRK program is all about. Started by two people and an initial investor, Adam claimed that they were extremely lucky to be making something that Disney already wanted. When you listen to the presentation, however, you can tell that there was very little luck involved. With great leadership and a true desire to bring programming and technology to kids everywhere, it’s easy to see that this company would have succeeded without Disney. Being able to make BB-8 for the millions of Star Wars fans is just icing on the cake. SPRK was the highlight of the show and really showed that the company is interested in more than profits and expanding their company.

Giving back to the community and changing the way the kids think about their future is the real endgame here. SPRK is a program that will bring Sphero into the public eye and be the must-have item for students. We were given a mind-blowing presentation of all the ways Sphero and programming can be taught and applied in the classroom. I wish that we had this sort of technology in the classroom when I was in school, even though making a flower and playing Snake on the TI-83 was pretty cool for the time. I can’t stress enough what a passionate and amazing group of people this company has managed to assemble. I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting the other Co-founder, Ian Bernstein, but I was able to meet with Adam and a number of his other team members at their impressive booth. But enough about that, read this interview and then go out and buy yourself a Sphero!

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Hush Comics: For starters, tell me about your background. Where did you go to school, what did you major in, what interests did you have, etc?

Sphero: My background has always been with me being a bit of a nerd – comic books, video games, and computers. We grew up pretty poor so we didn’t have a lot of nice computers but luckily enough one of my friend’s dads worked at Sun Microsystems and he dumped all of their old systems on me. As a kid, I didn’t have Windows; instead, I had a really crazy Linux machine. I became really interested in Linux and robots and systems work. I wasn’t going to do it as a profession; instead I was going to build houses. As weird as that sounds, I was really into it and I just wanted to work a construction job. It was one of my girlfriends who told me “you’re way too smart to be working a construction job everyday coming home all beat up when you could use your engineering talent for something better.” So I went to the University of Northern Colorado, where I double majored in Math and Physics. During the last two weeks of my undergrad, I met my co-founder, Ian [Bernstein]. I was going to start my PhD in Physics at Colorado School of Mines, but I decided to cancel everything and start a business with Ian. There is a very fine window of opportunity for smart phone-controlled things could make its way, that was around 2010.

Hush Comics: Were there other ideas that you started with or was the Sphero the idea you always intended to go with?

Sphero: We actually built everything that is currently in the IOT space now. We built a hue light way before the hue light, we built little remote controlled cars, car starters from your phone and door locks you could open from your phone. We originally started off by building electronics boards, that was our first idea. We wanted to enable companies to be able to make things such as Sphero. We would be the company that makes the hardware platform, the board with Bluetooth communication, the processor with the IMU. We were going to make that and sell that, just the platform board. We were at Techstars in 2010 and the results were unanimously “don’t try to just make a platform, make a product and prove yourself.”

So at that point, we had decided that we were going to make robots. We didn’t want to make door locks or any of the other things we had been making. We envisioned our future and it was either door lock conferences or Comic Con… I wanted a fun company so we chose robots, but we were doing things like cars, quad-copters and tanks. It was so gender-specific and had been done so many times before that we were put off by the idea. We were cranking our brains looking for something that was more universal and thought, “what is more universal than a little marble or a little ball?” Ian suggested that we make a robot ball; we could turn it into anything. So that is where we ended up starting.

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Hush Comics: After coming up with the idea, you were eventually able to secure an initial investment for a million dollars. Were there any major setbacks to getting that started or was the transition from idea to reality relatively smoothly?

Sphero: The idea of selling a robot ball back in 2010 was a hard task and we heard “no” from a lot of people, to the point that we got used to rejection. We had begun to wonder if the idea was too out there. We had to get around the idea of the robot being design for some sort of utility, like the Roomba. People didn’t understand that it was designed for people to have fun and enjoy themselves; it took a long time for people to click in on that. Eventually, Foundry Group decided to give us a chance. Brad Feld, who was one of our awesome mentors at Techstars, told us that if we could put together a proof of concept, he would be our investor. We proved it and showed him that there could be a robot ball connected to a smart phone. We put together a nice business plan and showed him how we could get started. We showed how it could go into schools and do more. The money was initially very incremental. A million dollars for a hardware company is… you can spend that on parts and just getting the materials here. It allowed us to make a few thousand units and prove that these things could sell. We sold the initial batch and ended up getting more money because we were selling so quickly.

Hush Comics: Now that you have grown as a company, starting with two people to where you are today with around 173, what is the makeup specialty-wise of the company now?

Sphero: Out of our staff, twelve or thirteen are in research and development. They work on prototyping and things that won’t come out for around two or so years. Sixty to eighty are on product teams with mix matched skill sets that are highly-functional for the team they are on. For example, with BB-8, there is a Mechanical Engineer, a Firmware Designer, an Electrical Engineer and a lead Designer. These people care about the BB-8 project the most, but there is an entire supporting team behind them. The other sixty to seventy are in sales, support, and marketing.

Hush Comics: Now that you are growing at such a rapid pace, are there plans to expand into other fields or are you more interested in taking what you have now and growing that further?

Sphero: We are going to expand into other fields, that R&D group that I mentioned earlier, includes a few PhDs in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning. With their contributions, we are going to eventually be able to make a much more advanced robot. We did realize through the Disney connection, whom with we have a great relationship, that the way to people’s hearts is with a character. If you do it really well, people don’t care as much about what it does. If you do that one aspect really well, you can build the rest out from there. We’ve taken that to heart and have used that in building our own IP and characters that we want to bring to life. We have robots that can dock themselves and sort of live forever, as well as robots that have cameras and can see people. We are working on the next platform of robots. If you can imagine BB-8, we took a Sphero and essentially added a head. That’s similar to what we would like to do with a new line of products. We have a connected play platform called the Force Band coming out for Sphero and the goal would be to have something very life-like from the movie, the app that goes with it connected to a wearable that communicates with system. Ultimately, at the end of the day, we would like a system that connects all of those together.

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Hush Comics: Are there any plans for integration of new tech such as AI, IR sensors, or beacon tech that the Sphero or BB-8 could track essentially giving you a companion that knows where you are?

Sphero: Of course, all of the above. We want capacitive touch. We want sound inside of the ball. That is really hard given the sealed shell design. We have some awesome engineers who were able to come up with something. We utilized something similar to the speakers that you can place on the table and use the table to produce the sound. We did that same thing in the shell so there is a thing that can vibrate the shell giving us a pretty loud little speaker. Some of those things are going to be in BB-8 and our Connected Play platform. We are going to add AI and some more advanced stuff in our next platform level.

Hush Comics: Now that you are selling at such a high volume, how are you keeping up with the sales demand as well as the rapid pace at which technology changes?

Sphero: As far as sales and how to distribute millions of a product, that was an art in itself. We have a great team in place for distribution and have that settled out. The physical logistics of getting a box from China to someone’s doorstep was already set up for millions of people. Making that box and that character the right thing and Disney-approved at that level of demand, as far as getting the product to people, was something we figured out. There are two different demands, there is getting people the product, but the other demand is that this is a Star Wars product. Those fans have a demand of wanting an exact movie replica. Making sure that it really feels like BB-8 is a harder demand to fill than just getting it to your doorstep. We don’t have a lot of artistic freedom and Lucas Arts retains the rights to make sure that it looks exactly the way they want it to and that is the hardest part of demand in my opinion.

To keep up with the changing pace of tech, we have taken a little bit from Google and allow our people to spend twenty percent of their time on something they want. We do something similar called Hack Fridays where we let our engineers sort of hack on weird stuff. We also go to a lot of technology shows because our employees are really into that. We try to hang out on the cutting edge of technology because a lot things we invented are just amalgamations of other peoples parts but as soon as a better processor or IMU come out we see that on the end. That’s how those things end up in our product. That is how we went from Bluetooth Classic to Bluetooth Low Energy. The demand of pairing a Bluetooth sucked and now you can just touch them together and go.

Hush Comics: You’ve talked about how important SPRK is to you and why that is important, but what is the end goal with that project? Is it more than just getting programming into the hands of children or is there something else?

Sphero: It can go anywhere, but there is an end goal in mind. I think of the Texas Instruments TI-83 as the thing you had to have. If you went to school, then you got one of these calculators. We hope to be something like that in the robot world. You have the Sphero, that’s like the TI-83, and you’ll need that to do the basics, but you can get more advanced to perform higher-level studies with robots. Ultimately, it is about helping kids realize that they can be more than what you thought you needed to be. There is a world out there where you can be just a robot programmer, but that wasn’t out there until just recently and kids don’t know that. It is important to us, because that is what got us here – two dudes who like to make stuff, making stuff, and showing it to people to get them excited. I’m afraid that a lot of people just watch YouTube and think that they know how to make something. They don’t realize that they lose a lot from not building or 3D printing something themselves. SPRK was a way to get kids physically involved with the robot.

Hush Comics: Have you considered an internship for students that would allow them to see what the industry is like and whether or not it is something they would enjoy for a career?

Sphero: We haven’t thought of anything like that yet. It would be something that would be on the radar when we have a little bit more resources. It would be nice to do a convention or some type of internship but that would take more infrastructures in our company. It is exciting to think about that but with a startup, especially one that is on a crazy rocket ship, it is hard to make sure that you are covering everything. That is one of the things that we think about though, being able to do more.

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Hush Comics: Is there any chance of selling the proprietary board in the Sphero so kids can begin to make their own things with it?

Sphero: We know that the board is one of the best inertial boards on the market for the price. The board should be sold on its own at some point. We did have thoughts about selling it by itself but someone needs to actually support it. Tutorials need to be written and if there are problems someone needs to support it with a fix. We need to be able to make sure we are able to do that.

Hush Comics: Have you considered a partnership with Sparkfun that could do some of that back end work for you the way they handled the Arduino?

Sphero: That makes a lot of sense and is probably the route we would go. I’m actually pretty good friends with Nate over at Sparkfun. They are right next to us, literally right down the road from us. If we pursued it, it would take a little work because some of the stuff on there is proprietary that we would want to get rid of. For the most part we have opened everything to everybody anyways.

Hush Comics: Are there any plans for selling kits that teach more than just programming such as the internal wiring or soldering and putting all of that together? Also is there a chance of putting that into another format such as a game that can make learning fun and effortless for kids?

Sphero: We thought about it and it was a little bit too complicated or low level for us, and we liked the higher level thing. So instead of teaching you how to solder a wire, we are teaching you how to do some larger system thing. It is more about the logical system than the basic hardware system. The good thing about this is that teachers are making a lot of their own activities that teach more than just programming.

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Hush Comics: Now that you have this partnership with Disney, are you in a better spot to get rights to future droids or is BB-8 going to be your primary focus?

Sphero: This BB-8 was a BIG gamble for Disney; they usually work all their Star Wars products through Hasbro. They have been their main hardware manufacturer for years. They had to open a sort of special section for us in the smart phone controlled electronics department. Neither Hasbro nor anybody else had anything like that under control. They have given us exclusive rights to BB-8 controlled through smart phone and that’s done really well for them. It’s done better than any other toy from the franchise and they saw that this type of smart toy with a connected play is a future category for people. They are definitely betting on us.

Hush Comics: Are your employees required to contribute to the SPRK program or is it a completely different team using teachers?

Sphero: It is a different group that is led by an educator who knows the standards of most of places; however, most of our employees will volunteer to go to the SPRK events. Especially after we get these awesome videos of the kids, if you don’t volunteer after that you are heartless (laughs). You have these kids with their videos talking about wanting to be a programmer or a geologist that uses robots for something. These kids are putting things in to perspective and now they want to change the way industries work by bringing technology into their worlds. I’d say every one of our employees has volunteered for one of these events.

Hush Comics: Is there anything that you wanted to talk about or anything that you wanted people to know that we haven’t covered?

Sphero: We covered SPRK but I really want people to know that it is more than just programming. Check it out and you will see that we have lots of great things going on.

Hush Comics: Final question, you mentioned on the site that you eat a lot of bagels, what is your favorite bagel place?

Sphero: Einstein Bagels. We get it every Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. Someone was super into it at the office and we all got into it. Einstein Bagels, give them a shout out.

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