Tuesday, October 17, 2006
Helen Grenier and iRobot rock
I'm currently at the DowJones VentureWire Emerging Venture conference out in San Jose and have the privilege of listening to a keynote interview with Helen Grenier, founder and Chairwoman of iRobot. A couple of things struck me during the interview as hallmarks of successful startups. These are model adaptation and making the product easy to buy.
iRobot started out with an industrial vacuum cleaner that they worked on with Johnson Controls. It turned out that there were too many problems and too hard to sell in that environment. One of the engineers came up with the idea of doing a dirt simple (pun intended) robot for the home. They locked down the price point at $200 and only allowed features to be added that kept the price point intact. This caused them to create a bare bones housing with just features that enhanced cleaning (moving from hardwood floor to carpet, getting underneath furniture, moving around corners, etc.). iRobot then took this vacuum (called the roomba) to a focus group of housewives and they absolutely hated the idea of a robot in the house. In order to get sales off the ground they didn't call it a robot, instead it was categorized as a "floor sweeper". Keeping the product at $200 made it affordable and competitive with other sweepers. This is a classic story of a company adapting their business model on the fly to find the crossing of demand and value at a level that will sustain the business.
iRobot has since moved into the defense industry with their line of Packbots. Packbots are lightweight robots that can traverse all kinds of terrain and go into dangerous areas without the need to send in humans. For example, they can be sent in first to explore caves that are inhabited by enemy combatants to look for arms caches, etc.
You can also find an interview with Helen from 2004 on Engadget here.
Bottom line: smart executive with a passion for product + adaptive mentality = success