Recently, I went to pitch a few investors about my new startup, a stealth robotic venture. I was pumped. We have a dream team, a large market opportunity, and are tackling a problem that is tailor made for my background and skill set.
We start pitching. I launch into a brief overview of my work history, confident in the story since my first startup, Neato Robotics , is a great achievement from both a technical and sales perspective. The pitches went well and we closed a round of funding quickly, but I discovered something odd—whenever I mentioned Neato, blank looks would stare back at me from around the meeting table.
Seriously? You don’t know…? Neato Robotics is the number two player in the robotic vacuum cleaning market. So why doesn’t anyone I meet ever know about it?
Neato makes an awesome product, the Botvac, a superior product to the leading autonomous vacuum, iRobot’s Roomba (as attested to here and here and here). Neato vacs sell at Best Buy, Costco, Target, and can be found on Amazon and many other stores all over the world.
Okay, iRobot was already a Goliath when I co-founded Neato, but I wasn’t deterred; I’d be the roboDavid to this Goliath. I was inspired by the flaws I saw in the Roomba to form a company that would develop a superior product through superior technology - a vacuum that would know where it had cleaned in a room and where it still needed to travel to complete its job - compared to the Roomba which did not contain this intelligence. iRobot was first to market, sure, but I was certain we could crush them. Our product could self navigate a room, had a bigger dustbin, could maneuver into corners and travel closely along baseboards; our product also had more suction and vacuum power than a Roomba. How could we not win over the Roomba, which just bounced around randomly and whose round shape kept it from sucking up those pesky dust bunnies in the corners of the room? Sure, iRobot had deeper pockets, an exponentially larger team and a hefty TV advertising budget, but Neato was a superior product. Shouldn’t this be enough?
Here’s what I’ve learned: Nope, it wasn’t enough. It’s actually really hard to overtake the first to market. iRobot created a perception in consumer minds that proved hard to break. Consumers tend to believe that the market leader is the superior brand. Learn from this. Get into your customer’s minds as hard and fast as you can, preferably before the competition does. And make sure you build a kick-ass technology while doing so. You’ll have a lot of extra work to do on the back end if you miss this golden opportunity. And hey, you might come in silver anyway… but silver isn’t gold.
I haven’t forgotten this lesson. My stealth robotics venture has no rivals that I can see. It will be first on the market, if I can help it.