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Duy Huynh of Autonomous.ai: “All startups make dumb mistakes”

First, I would say a leader’s attitude. Welcome changes, be the first to adapt, and see them as opportunities to test your ability as a leader and learn from them. Secondly, I would say the team’s power, because no one succeeds alone. If you can rally the hearts and minds of everyone on your team, […]

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First, I would say a leader’s attitude. Welcome changes, be the first to adapt, and see them as opportunities to test your ability as a leader and learn from them. Secondly, I would say the team’s power, because no one succeeds alone. If you can rally the hearts and minds of everyone on your team, you’ll bring out the best ideas, solutions, experiences, and creative approaches to problems, making the journey shorter and more fun. I would also say customer feedback is a key factor. A leader needs to listen to customers and ask what they need, rather than merely speculate. Often, their answers will surprise and inspire you, and ideally they can be part of the innovation process to build new products that they feel they can take partial ownership of. Finally, I would say focus is crucial. When you don’t have much to work with, you’ve got to stay focused on the goal 200% and work with what you have to produce a prototype. Get it to the market as quickly as possible, get feedback, and keep improving.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Duy Huynh, Founder & CEO of Autonomous.ai. Duy developed Autonomous as one of the first vertically integrated smart office furniture companies. By owning every touchpoint along the supply chain, the company is able to offer high-quality products directly to businesses and consumers at reasonable prices.


Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I’ve always been obsessed with creating. Through college, I became passionate about how advances in technology can help automate everyday normal tasks. After graduating, I started my career as a Software Architect working in robotics and artificial intelligence. After years working on some incredible projects with IBM, NASA and Fujitsu, I became increasingly aware of how I work and perform at the office. I started thinking, how can I help people work smarter, and lead healthier lives? Now I think bigger, how to help companies’ work smarter.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

When we first started Autonomous we started as dreamers. Back then I guess you could say, we had a slightly childish mindset. With very little knowledge about marketing and branding, all we focused on was building things that we liked. At the time all we cared about was fulfilling our passion for creating cool new products.

We began with the Maya Robot. An office assistant robot that recognized voices and objects, responded to questions and commands, moved around independently, and connected to other software and hardware devices. She was awesome, but we failed to acknowledge that at the time there wasn’t any demand for robots in the office. Plus, the entry level of this very niche market was way too high for a young, budget-tight start-up like us.

It was a huge blow to our egos. The situation forced us to completely rethink our product direction. We needed to learn fast and really hone our business model, marketing, and operation knowledge — which we knew absolutely nothing about.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

Things were hard for startups in the beginning when we were overloaded with tons of challenges and tasks. However, Autonomous had a sense of purpose and why we started this journey, and to be honest, we didn’t care about money. I spent 200,000 dollars before raising the seed around and our smart desk was born in a small apartment in New York. We focused on the fact that we wanted to create smart tools to help people with their working styles and habits.

So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

To say that I’m really proud of how far Autonomous has come doesn’t do all the feels for justice. We’ve come so incredibly far and our products have helped so many people across the globe lead a happier and healthier lifestyle. Five years since the birth of Autonomous we’re fast approaching the milestone of having sold and shipped 1 million units!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

All startups make dumb mistakes. It’s part of the territory, but it’s how we learn to grow. I’ll always remember an issue with shipping we had within our first 2 years of operation. It was crazy embarrassing at the time, shameful really, but you just have to take a step back and laugh about it.

With the launch of our first SmartDesk, we announced that the first 1000 pre-orders would be prioritized. Fortunately, but unfortunately, we didn’t foresee the huge market traction we would receive, and demand for our debut release skyrocketed to over 3000 units for our first batch alone. We obviously couldn’t handle such a task and on top of that made a big mistake.

Instead of prioritizing our products to the first 1000 pre-order customers as promised, we shipped out to the over 2000 orders that came after! What followed was absolute chaos. It felt like Armageddon. Customer service was drowning in tons of complaints everyday, and our brand reputation took a major blow. Credibility is everything, and it felt like we didn’t have any of it.

We learnt a major important lesson which I always make sure to share with young entrepreneurs who want to start doing business. Don’t underestimate the small details. You’ve got to cover your ass, so to speak, and stay aware of every single possible scenario. And if that’s too big of a task for you alone, get the necessary help.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

The quality of our products compared to the reasonable prices we offer stand out at Autonomous. For example, with SmartDesk 2, our best-seller, we are one of the very first companies to introduce it to the market. Another cool product, the ErgoChair, which everybody would think it’s for the office; it’s actually fit for gamers who need to sit longer than anyone one of us. Trust me, when you sit on our ErgoChair, you can’t believe it’s just 399 dollars.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Exercise is a big part of my everyday life. I’m a huge believer that staying active is the secret to avoiding burnout. It keeps the mind sharp. A lot of the time we forget to take the necessary “time out”. Scheduling exercise into my daily routine forces me to zone out and focus on something that’s not Autonomous. I’m really into boxing and after a good session I always come back refreshed. Sweating it out activates my train of thought and definitely helps me focus.

Of course, a SmartDesk and ErgoChair can help avoid work burnout too. Haha.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

The first ‘persons’ that I immediately think of are our very first customers. I will always regard them as our greatest helpers. It’s more than just about buying our products. They tested and gave us their practical feedback on every part of their shopping and user experience, which helped so much in ameliorating our product line, customer service, shipping and all other aspects of the business. I remember when we were facing a problem with our online reputation because our competitors were trying to bring us down — it’s a long and painful story — our loyal following would fiercely defend us across social media, review sites, and Google reviews to name a few. To this day I still deeply appreciate what they did for Autonomous.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

This is something that the team and I have really pressured ourselves to start thinking about over the past year. Human connection is what drives us to produce better working solutions, but why should that stop at product design? It was time for us to search for other meaningful ways to improve the lives of others.

We recently held our first ever fundraising campaign to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day this year which was an incredible success. We donated over 12,000 dollars to the Earth Island Institute to help fight against global warming and climate change. We’re also currently running a DIY SmartDesk Competition, giving undiscovered artists within the U.S. and Canada the opportunity to have their creative genius take centre stage and be seen by the world.

We’re blessed to have built a successful platform

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

First, I would say a leader’s attitude. Welcome changes, be the first to adapt, and see them as opportunities to test your ability as a leader and learn from them. Secondly, I would say the team’s power, because no one succeeds alone. If you can rally the hearts and minds of everyone on your team, you’ll bring out the best ideas, solutions, experiences, and creative approaches to problems, making the journey shorter and more fun. I would also say customer feedback is a key factor. A leader needs to listen to customers and ask what they need, rather than merely speculate. Often, their answers will surprise and inspire you, and ideally they can be part of the innovation process to build new products that they feel they can take partial ownership of. Finally, I would say focus is crucial. When you don’t have much to work with, you’ve got to stay focused on the goal 200% and work with what you have to produce a prototype. Get it to the market as quickly as possible, get feedback, and keep improving.

Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?

Very interesting question. I guess no matter how successful you are, you still have those ups and downs. An entrepreneur, a founder, a leader is someone who can not quit, can not stop, you have to keep moving, take risks, fail and succeed. We’re all human beings.

Sometimes I feel a lack of motivation, inspiration, you know like in the middle of nowhere, but those moments help me to define myself and guide me to lead the ship. I believe not just me, but other entrepreneurs would feel the same when you start something small, you watch it grow everyday then it develops thrivingly, that feeling is better than anything else. But going along with it is near-debilitating anxiety and despair — times when it seemed everything might crumble.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would say that people should invest more in building smart and healthy working habits.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

We’ve just launched Autonomous Labs! We developed a public forum to help encourage more multi-directional conversation, rather than just one-way communication between us and a single customer. Autonomous Labs is a place for all parties involved to collect ideas and provide input towards existing and even future products. We love hearing from our community, because at the end of the day they are who we aim to please. It allows us to take their input to the next level. As I mentioned earlier, our loyal customer base have been true heroes in our business and product development processes so it only makes sense for them to be a part of Autonomous every step of the way.

All constructive and critical feedback is welcome and only helps us to move forward. And we want to move forward, together.

This was very inspiring and informative. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this interview!


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