Find creative ways to secure funding. Our initial path involved working with the government to develop the foundational concepts. I have other friends that have used incubators or friends and family rounds, but it is important to know that the first check to go from concept to tangible product is usually the hardest. The key to making it successful, however, is not getting the check, but instead using the money to build a product that people will want. Even at the very beginning, getting lost in technology when what matters is your eventual customer is a recipe for disaster.
Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.
Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?
In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Tim Swift, CEO and founder of Roam Robotics.
Dr. Swift holds a PhD in Mechanical Engineering from UC Berkeley where he developed the technical foundations for many of the commercial wearable robots used today. Tim was an early employee at Ekso Bionics and was one of the original 3-person team that invented Ekso, their lower extremity rigid exoskeleton for gait rehabilitation and paraplegic mobility. In 2013, Tim joined Otherlab to help develop a new type of robotic platform that would greatly reduce weight and cost without sacrificing capabilities. It was this effort to make robots that are accessible and practical enough for everyday life that led to the founding of Roam Robotics.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Happy to! I’ve worked for more than a decade in wearable robots, first at UC Berkeley, where I got my Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering, and then at Ekso Bionics where I helped create some of the technical foundations you see in commercial wearable robots today. While working at Ekso Bionics, I saw how most wearable robots weren’t able to scale in the field, so I created a new category of wearable robotics to fill the gap. Roam Robotics started in 2014, to create products that are lightweight, affordable, and wouldn’t compromise capabilities for the everyday consumer.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
While working at Ekso Bionics a lightbulb went off that we could be doing more. The experience of helping people walk for the first time in decades is a powerful force for a young engineer, but regardless of what I did, at the end of every hour, I had to sit and watch my customer transfer back into their wheelchair and roll out the door like it never happened. I had a front-row seat to see the gap between the promise of robotics and the limitations in mobility that so many people feel today. So after leaving Ekso, we developed a system based around high-strength fabrics and powered by compressed air and calculated it could lower the weight and radically slash costs. Roam’s products are built on creative engineering and existing manufacturing processes for cost-effective scaling. We produce them at a fraction of the cost of other products available today, and the results that we’re seeing are exceeding even our own internal projections.
By realizing the potential robotics could have on mobility, our devices break the limit on human movement through products specific to recreational users and those in lines of duty, as well as a customized knee orthosis for day-to-day use that will ease the burden of common motions like moving up and down steps or getting up out of a chair.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
There are so many people I could mention who have inspired me throughout the last 20 years. One in particular is Saul Griffith, founder and chief scientist of Otherlab. I worked with Saul on a daily basis for years while at Otherlab and saw how a fresh set of eyes and a willingness to question the things we always assumed to be true created new solutions to some of the biggest obstacles in the robotics industry and start-ups as a whole. I can very comfortably say that Roam would not exist the way it does today if it was not for the experience, and confidence that Saul and the entire Otherlab community provided as Roam set out to build an entirely new future for wearable robots.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Roam Robotics is a wearable robotics company focused on improving human mobility. We’re aimed at solving for the one in five people who experience limited physical mobility and catalyzing the next evolution in the wearables story: consumer wearable robotics. While the first generation of wearables focused on displays, our technology restores and augments human beings’ physical mobility in ways previous devices haven’t. Our technology delivers high-power by using high-strength polymers and fabrics instead of metal and motors, which allows our products to weigh orders of magnitude less, and make them much more cost-accessible for regular consumers.
Ascend, which launches this year, is actively intervening, meaning it can sense different body movements (sitting, ascending and descending stairs or inclines, kneeling, squatting, etc) and automatically adjust to the wearer’s needs and provides precise support in the right moment for the correct muscle groups.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Roam was founded with a vision to channel innovative technology and robotics to transform our livelihood for the better by humanizing ourselves and each other. Our team strives to bring goodness into the world on a daily basis by serving as leaders in a revolution for wearable robotics that will help people lead healthier and happier lives. By pushing boundaries and exploring robotics in a way no one has done before, we are creating a solution through our devices that can change the lives of millions of people. While testing Ascend, our first-of-its-kind knee orthosis that targets pain relief and improves everyday mobility, we discovered that not only did participants display improvements in functional abilities and pain reduction, but also reported high percentages of confidence building while wearing the device. And this is what we want for people who use Roam’s devices, to see themselves as strong and capable individuals.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
In addition to having a background in your company’s field, for me that was being able to create novel engineering, there are a handful of character traits that have allowed me to find success and helped me along the way:
- Have grit and perseverance.
- Be confident, but never arrogant.
- Maintain your vision. Nobody cares about your “thing,” they care about where you are going.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
Early on, I was told that the breadth of Roam’s potential was scary by some investors that we presented to. They had advised me to focus wholly on certain markets that they saw almost exclusively because they only understood a portion of our scope instead of targeting a wider audience with what I had envisioned for the company. We chose to ignore their guidance, and instead maintained a clear conviction on everything that Roam could be — focusing on our mission and the future.
This taught me that blindly focusing on an outside party’s opinions and doing everything to make them happy, doesn’t always make sense for building out a company. I would remind them that they are asking me to build a bad company just to match their previous work experience.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
When I first started to wrap my head around what Roam would become, I remember meeting some friends at a conference and when asked the question of what’s next, my answer was met with laughter. I had this moment where I realized that the idea of building robots in a different way than we have already tried was so foreign that we seemed crazy. Having seen this market, I was confident that it was far more crazy to stick to a failed path then build a new toolset. So we continued to drive ahead and 8 years later, I am sure I was not the crazy one.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?
The process of creating a successful product can have its highs and lows. Once we released our first product in 2018, Elevate, a smart wearable robotics to augment skiing, we knew we had tapped into something that could change lives. That kept us going and developing new products.
I was also able to focus on not being completely overtaken by the “startup madness.” There is this idea that you can put life on hold, but that’s not the case. Everyone needs to strike the right balance between their personal and professional life to stay alive in this business and not burn yourself out.
The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
When I first started my entrepreneurial journey, I was very surprised by how low the lows really were, and how the outsider perspective is very skewed. The hard parts of starting a company are harder than I anticipated. In order to successfully manage and navigate these lows though, you must understand that your worth is not solely based on the product or company you’re building. You must identify your value and place it into the world as something bigger than what you’re making, so you can better cope with the roller coaster you’re about to embark on.
There is a skill in preparing yourself for the gambit of options out there as you navigate the early months of a startup. I constantly remind myself that I’m living out my dream and making people’s lives better. I’m a good dad, loving husband and am confident that I will leave this world knowing that I made people’s lives better.
Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?
Depending on your business plan and goals, either option, bootstrapping or the venture capital route, may work. When it comes to bootstrapping, it offers more freedom as it focuses on the customer and is profit-driven, but there’s sometimes little money, and slow growth. Competitors also have the ability to catch up quicker.
On the flip side, with the infusion of VC funding, you risk spending less time focusing on the business itself and potentially losing some control, but you gain quick access to experts that can help and support your vision for faster growth. So it really comes down to the technology, the vision and market opportunity when deciding between the two options.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
- Having scalable technology. Scalability is the key to any successful technology. Take traditional exoskeletons as an example — the promise of exoskeletons is to help people do real things in their real world. Unfortunately, most are so bulky, heavy, and expensive to make that not many real people will get to experience the technology. At Roam, we prioritized scalability with the end goal of getting real people into our devices and had to think of novel ways of tackling mobility challenges using robotics.
- Being able to identify your product market fit. It’s imperative to hyper-focus your understanding on the needs of the industry and beachhead customers you are targeting. Because our devices are targeting so many different kinds of mobility challenges for a variety of activity levels, experience, and mobility goals, we had to become experts in serving the needs of these customers. Surrounding yourself with the right experts and prioritizing user testing as soon as possible are the best ways to accomplish this.
- Stay focused on your brand mission and vision. Our vision is to push the boundaries of human mobility. There are many different ways to do this, and so many demographics we could tackle. The largest issue we thought we could address right away was knee pain — either due to osteoarthritis or sustained activity — so we put our focus there. We can and will expand beyond this, but I think many startups try to tackle too much, too soon. I’d tell other founders to focus on the products or innovations that will help the most people in the least amount of time, and start there.
- Curate a team of superb talent. Roam sits at the intersection of a few different industries — robotics, consumer wearables, design, hardware — so it was important to me to bring in team members with a variety of experience to keep us on the right path. From the very beginning of our story we had a mix of seasoned robotics talent with soft goods technicians that had never seen a robot in their life. The flexibility of these various viewpoints and skills helped make us successful.
- Find creative ways to secure funding. Our initial path involved working with the government to develop the foundational concepts. I have other friends that have used incubators or friends and family rounds, but it is important to know that the first check to go from concept to tangible product is usually the hardest. The key to making it successful, however, is not getting the check, but instead using the money to build a product that people will want. Even at the very beginning, getting lost in technology when what matters is your eventual customer is a recipe for disaster.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Mistakes are bound to happen when you first start out. Some of the most common mistakes I’ve seen are:
- Underestimate the power of fundraising and having investors on your side.
- Take the wrong advice and ignore constructive feedback.
- Try to grow too quickly.
Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?
I think the number one thing to do to avoid burnout is to surround yourself with the right team. Knowing you have a strong team that you can lean on and trust helps to alleviate the added stress that comes with fundraising, planning, and navigating the waters of a new business. At Roam, I’ve built my team from a team of 2 … to 50+ industry veterans who all have a passion for helping others and are as passionate as I am about the vision for wearable robotics!
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. 🙂
To be blunt, I feel like that’s exactly what we’re doing! People matter. I have a family member with mobility issues, and know first-hand what increased independence can do for their mental well-being. So it’s simple, my movement would be the mission to make people more mobile, and allow them to do things their body no longer allows them to do. With the work we’re doing at Roam Robotics, I’m living out my dream.
We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
If I had enough free time for a quiet meal, I’d honestly spend it with my wife and kids! They’ve believed in me and continued to support my entrepreneurial dreams everyday.
The success of Roam is based on those who believe in our vision. In some cases, I’ve had more meaningful conversations with a lift operator at a ski resort when working on Elevate, compared to an expert consultation. I’d like to continue spending time with people who understand that we’re changing the world and with people who believe and care about the future of human mobility.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!