In this episode of Be EPIC, Matt is joined by four University of Arkansas students, Peyton Smith; Canon Reeves; Rex Hearn; and Kaushik Ramini, co-founders of MORE Technologies. The startup company specializes in the sale of 3-D printable robots and recently sold its technology assets and patent to Sphero. They discuss the process of beginning a startup and how the acquisition will shape their future.
0:00:08.3 Matt Waller: Hi, I'm Matt Waller, Dean of the Sam M. Walton College of Business. Welcome to Be EPIC, the podcast where we explore excellence, professionalism, innovation, and collegiality, and what those values mean in business education and your life today.
0:00:28.6 Matt Waller: I have with me today MORE Technologies co-founders. It's a really interesting story about a company that was formed from students from the University of Arkansas. It has already had an exit, and so we're gonna be talking to them today. First, why don't you all go ahead and go around and introduce yourselves? So Peyton, I'll start with you.
0:00:54.9 Peyton Smith: Alright, I'm Peyton Smith. I was a student at Walton College. I majored in Finance and Management, and yep, I was a co-founder of MORE Technologies three years ago.
0:01:07.1 Canon Reeves: Yeah, my name is Canon Reeves. I am a computer science student. I have not quite finished my degree yet, I've got about 30 hours left. I co-founded MORE Technologies about three years ago as well.
0:01:18.2 Matt Waller: Kaushik Ramini?
0:01:19.0 Kaushik Ramini: Yeah, so I am still a "student", in quotation marks. I actually started this company with Canon right after my freshman year of college, so I actually only had one full year of college, so I've still got a quite of a ways to go. But yeah, I'm one of the co-founders here, and yeah, I guess I'll pass it off to Rex.
0:01:36.4 Rex Hearn: I'm Rex Hearn, I majored in Biomedical Engineering, and I kinda got started right when we all came together around the same time, that three years ago. And I've known Canon for a bit longer, and so that's how I kinda got into it.
0:01:51.9 Matt Waller: Great, well, it's a really exciting story. Of course, I've been following it since you started. It seems like it was I guess three years ago, a little over three years ago? But what I wanna focus on to start with really is, one, where did the idea for this come from? Canon, would you share with us how you all met?
0:02:15.9 Canon Reeves: Yeah, sure thing. So three out of the four of us are engineers, and so we got to kinda wonder how do we pick up the fourth business person, Peyton. That actually happened because I was working in the McMillon Innovation Studio, and Peyton came in and worked there as well, and we also took Dr. Rogelio's Social Elevation class at the same time. So Peyton and I were working on starting a nonprofit coding school, and around the same time I was tinkering with robots all the time, and I was wanting to build a robot for my little sister, and I had built one and Peyton had entered us in a start-up weekend just on a whim, had no idea what we were getting into, and by the end of it we had seven new pre-sales, and we were like, "Oh, maybe we should start a business." And so basically turned and said, "Who are the smartest people I know to build a robotics company with?" And Rex was an obvious first choice. He and I had been building robots together since high school. We went to the Math and Science school together, and so yeah, we've always worked together on different projects, and Rex has worked in the studio as well. And then a few months later, we brought Kaushik Ramini on.
0:03:21.0 Canon Reeves: So Kaushik Ramini and I met on the university's NASA Robotic Mining Competition team. He was just an exceptionally good mechanical engineer and a bright guy, and knew a lot about 3D printing, and so I thought we... We brought him on for a semester, and it was very clear that he would be a co-founder and a critical part of the team. So we all formed together and went rolling.
0:03:40.8 Matt Waller: So how did you all get started? What gave you the idea? What was your path to creating this MORE Technologies?
0:03:50.6 Canon Reeves: It was an accident. It was a very happy accident. But what led that path was Clint Johnson in the McMillon Innovation Studio. I came in as an engineer as a freshman. All about robotics engineering. I had no consideration for business or even what the customer experienced or felt in the things that I created. And we were working with the Innovation Studio and with Clint, he exposed me to that world of entrepreneurship and that community. And so I participated in a McMillon design contest my freshman year, we won that and then I got hooked on it and just never stopped. And then Peyton, he's got a bit different of a story. He was ahead of me on getting into this stuff.
0:04:29.5 Peyton Smith: Yeah, so I started in Walton as a finance major with dreams of Wall Street, that sort of thing, and then I think it was during my junior year, always kinda had the entrepreneurial bug, took Mark Zweig's entrepreneurship class, and that really, really got me interested in this entrepreneurship thing. And took his follow-on class, and then decided to take social entrepreneurship with Dr. Rogelio, and that was the class me and Canon took together and... Yeah, never thought I'd be starting a robotics start-up with three other engineers, but here I am.
0:05:04.6 Matt Waller: When you started the company, you probably had one idea about what your company would be providing or what kind of problem your company was going to be solving, and usually that evolves over time. Would you mind telling me a little bit about that?
0:05:22.8 Canon Reeves: Yeah, it was kind of interesting because when we started the company, it started with kind of a big event doing the Startup Weekend, and so there was that final five-minute pitch that I gave that kind of solidified like, "Here's our plan for the company." And I think a lot of details changed, but I think at the core, what we were trying to solve and what we were going after stayed the same. Things that changed were, for example, we weren't 100% sure if we were gonna be focusing on selling to schools and education or focusing on selling to consumers. We ended up going hard into education and, surprisingly, a lot of what we considered ended up following that path. Now, our product changed a ton between when we started the Startup Weekend and till the end of it, we were constantly iterating. We used a 3D print firm to manufacture all of our parts, so we could be very agile with our product development because the time to spin up a new part was just basically nothing. So the product looks almost unrecognizable from the first one, but the vision and the mission stayed the same.
0:06:18.1 Matt Waller: You mentioned you had to iterate quite a bit, both with the product and with who the customer is. How did you go about making those iterations?
0:06:30.3 Canon Reeves: Really what drove it was selling to customers and working with them. So we worked with Nerdies to teach summer camPeyton Smith from the very beginning of the company. So we'd have these week-long summer camPeyton Smith with 10 kids, and they would be building our robots, and we would see all the ways that they would get frustrated with all the issues that there would get. On top of that, we participated in the Delta I-Fund and the NSF I-CorPeyton Smith site at the University of Arkansas, and both of which really forced us to figure out who our customers were. We spent an entire summer going to education conferences and talking to teachers, and figuring out what they wanted and what they needed in their classroom.
0:07:07.4 Rex Hearn: And I'll say we really knew from beginning that the biggest, important thing for the product was getting it in the hands of the students. No matter how much we thought we'd figured out all the kinks, once we gave it to a kid, within five minutes they'd figure out something that was messed up with it or something like that. From the week after Startup Weekend or so, Canon asked, "Hey, the Fayetteville Chamber of Commerce wants to do a little spring break camp with our robots." And so that's really where I joined in on the company, but that experience of seeing the kids play around with that very early, early prototype, that alone was both really affirming, but also had a ton of notes of exactly what we needed to improve to make this from something that's cool and great to something that will sell great and really take us where we wanted to be.
0:08:02.0 Canon Reeves: Something that you mentioned that's pretty important, right, is like all companies shift their product a little bit, their market a little bit, once they narrow it into what they want, who they are. And that's where a lot of companies fail, because you have to invest so much, especially in a hardware platform, to get prototypes and figure out those mistakes. But we were really lucky, and I think the thing that kept us alive was the way we engineered things in our manufacturing method, specifically 3D printing. Because whenever we went to consumers and had issues with either a product market fit, or features being broken, or things that just needed to be tweaked because no matter how much you test something as an engineer, people are gonna find something wrong...
0:08:42.8 Canon Reeves: The ability to pivot and change our physical actual product so easily with additive manufacturing, made pretty much the only overhead cost being time, the amount of time it took to do all that stuff. There's no hard tooling and manufacturing and sourcing issues that came along with needing to make an improvement of our product. So we didn't have a hard V2 for a very long time, which is probably a problem when you're really big, but when you're really small, being able to make those changes, and then in the middle of a summer camp there being a massive flaw, and then you being able to fix that very quickly and by the end of the camp that being fixed, it's huge, because not only does that build confidence in your user, we also can move so quickly and learn so much.
0:09:27.3 Matt Waller: So if you have the option... If an entrepreneur has the option of making prototypes with additive manufacturing techniques, it sounds like it's a good idea 'cause you can pivot so quickly.
0:09:42.0 Canon Reeves: Oh, most definitely. The thing that was unique with us is we very quickly went from, "Okay, we're gonna have these 3D printed prototypes, and then go to injection molding and pay for the tooling and put in almost $100,000 for our first product," to, "Well, let's just design from the ground up to be 3D-printed, because it scales so well." So we started designing and optimizing all of our parts specifically to be manufactured with additive manufacturing, which was really exciting because we were riding that wave of pro-sumer additive manufacturing machines becoming reliable enough to actually do manufacturing full scale, but also cheap enough to where you can buy up 12, 15 of them really cheaply and actually run consistent manufacturing.
0:10:24.7 Matt Waller: How did you make your observations of the young students working with your products?
0:10:32.5 Rex Hearn: That's something that changed a lot from the beginning to the end. We had a ton of enthusiasm, and so we wanted to do proper focus group days and everything like that, and we did quickly realize trying to do those that they became, for the size of our team, very hard to manage, both the day itself and to get everything organized while we were trying to get everything else going on as well. And so that's where those Nerdy summer camps really, really helped out is at least every year we would have a five or six weeks long summer camps where we would be the teachers there doing with our product, so we would be both instructing and also have the ability to step back a little bit and just see how the kids were working with it.
0:11:26.2 Matt Waller: Similarly, you spent one summer with the ICOR, right, visiting conferences of teachers and stuff. How did you do that, and how did you take notes on it, and how did you synthesize all of that?
0:11:44.2 Peyton Smith: Yeah, so Canon and I spent, yeah, I guess summer 2018 with the I-Fund, that was before the I-Corps and it was all very new to us, we just kinda dived into it. The first conference I remember us going to is I think National Science Teachers Association Conference in Philadelphia. We went in as just two college students looking to get some information, and we talked to, I think, it was over 100 teachers by the time the weekend was over. So we spent the whole summer talking to teachers, calling teachers around Arkansas, just driving to meet teachers at different schools. It was a big learning experience, and by the time the summer was over, we had an idea for what the product was gonna be, but hearing all this feedback, one, validated a lot of the ideas we had, but two, shaped it into a better product before we got too into the weeds on product development.
0:12:34.5 Canon Reeves: And to put some kind of concrete examples behind this, it was as simple as you'd get tickets to a conference, walk around with a notepad, find people that look interesting to talk to. And that doesn't just mean teachers, we also talked to other vendors. So we got to know the other entrepreneurs and business owners in our industry. It was very special to me to, you know, two years after that first conference to go back and see the same familiar faces, these people that were very willing to help their would-be competitors out, because we're eager to solve this problem, we were working towards the same vision as them. And eventually we started to continue to go to conferences, but instead of getting booths, we would put robots on our back, and so we had this sort of like escalation of robots where we started with putting a drone on our back just by accident, and it was very popular. And then I got in this cycle of trying to one up myself in terms of the crazy robot that I would build, and that was the point where it got too popular, because we couldn't make it into the conference hall, we were being swarmed by teachers and then the conference took notice and kicked us out. [chuckle]
0:13:35.1 Kaushik Ramini: Actually, I think that was actually humanoid. We also had like a, I think it was 8-foot tall or 9-foot tall humanoid robot costume that I would wear. And I think the way this actually started, we were at, I think it was like TCA or something, a conference, got a hotel a little bit further away, it was like, "Ah, we don't wanna pay for an Uber and take all the stuff in there," And so we were just using lime bikes to get around, and so we just strapped the robots to our back and then scooted to the conference. Eventually like, "Okay, we'll take them out and hold them so we can show them to people." But very quickly, a lot of teachers were like, "Oh, look at those guys with the robots in the back. Genius marketing idea." [chuckle]
0:14:10.0 Matt Waller: Scrappy.
0:14:11.3 Kaushik Ramini: Yeah. [laughter]
0:14:11.6 Matt Waller: Good job. Well, one thing I wanted to really bring out that I think a lot of people who are interested in entrepreneurship, or just, not even in entrepreneurship, just owning their own business, they don't realize how much work people like you who are successful at this put into understanding users and customers. Did any of you, before you got into this, really understand how much effort had to be put into understanding users and customers?
0:14:47.0 Canon Reeves: No, the amount of startups, I think the number one reason startups, if I remember correctly, is building something customers don't want. And for us to have built something that customers did want and then exit three years later, I think that's a testament to just how important that is and how much work we had to put into understanding the customer's needs.
0:15:08.2 Peyton Smith: And beyond that, we weren't just like, "Hey, look we have this idea, let's make it," we were very close to the problem. And in a lot of ways, we were actually the possible consumers of it. Because we all built robots through high school, and I specifically taught robotics through high school and afterwards as well, and so these were directly addressing the issues that I saw whenever I taught using existing platforms. And so I came in with extensive knowledge of competing platforms from a teaching point of view, and Canon and then Rex, came in with an understanding of the usability from an advanced point of view. And so we had this really good team understanding, going in with a lot of background knowledge.
0:15:46.5 Matt Waller: Well, you know, your point about your experience as a teacher of robotics, you knew what the problems were, and you knew what the platforms were, which is another piece of this, right? Because successful companies solve real problems, and many times it's very difficult to know what the problem really is unless you've experienced it to some degree. And so your team, you and your team, have experienced it, but then you didn't stop there, you weren't presumptive and say, "Okay, well, here, I'm gonna come up with a solution and solve." No, you dug in and observed users, interviewed customers. At what point did you realize you had product-market fit?
0:16:35.6 Canon Reeves: I'm bias, I don't know that we ever hit it. Here's why. When I think of product-market fit, I think of holding a rocket ship to the ground. You've got a rope to it and you're holding it, and what I think the 99% of startup experiences are, is trying to pull a boulder up the hill. And I think we were pulling a boulder up the hill for most all of it, it has to do with the industry and the type of product. Education takes a long time to refine the product to where any general user, any general teacher, you can walk in on the science teacher in any classroom in Arkansas can pick it up and do well with it, it takes a lot of work to get there, it's very hard. And we were at a point where your robotics teacher would understand it, your robotics teacher that really goes above and beyond would pick it up well. So we had our part of the market that loved us, but we had not hit, I think, a broader market adoption. And around when COVID hit and the Sphero deal happened, we were in the process of making that next iteration. So even at the very end of the company, we were changing and iterating so that we could get closer and closer to a product-market fit.
0:17:35.0 Matt Waller: That's really a good point. And yeah, you're right, so you basically know you have product-market fit when you've got customers wanting the product and you're not having to push it so hard. But then at that point, you have to start scaling, and I know it's kind of an iterative process, too, right, you start getting closer and closer to a product-market fit, and eventually you start saying, "Oh, what's our business model gonna be?" Would you mind speaking to them a little bit?
0:18:04.6 Peyton Smith: Yeah. So, first, our big question was, Canon mentioned earlier, are we selling to consumers or are we selling to education? Initially, I thought both were very viable markets, but I was definitely in the consumer camp. Not because I didn't believe in the education market, but because we talked to so many investors and people that had been in this space, and all of them said education is tough, it's slow sales cycles, it's hard to sell to schools, it's like signing with the government, there's a lot of approval bureaucracy involved. And so we did a kickstarter for that, and I think, I guess, March of 2019. And that did reasonably well, definitely not as good as we'd hoped, we raised about $22,000. But at that point, some of those backers were educators, and we'd been making some traction outside of the kickstarter campaign as well with teachers around the state. And I think then it became clear that education was our market, but beyond that the big question was, "How do we sell into education?" There's all these different ways. Are we picking up the call, you know, the phone, doing cold calls? Are we sending emails, driving to schools, banging on the door?
0:19:18.3 Peyton Smith: It was a constant learning process over, let's see, 2019, 2020, of, you know, how to figure that process out. 'Cause none of us had sales experience, and yeah, it was a big learning curve. And we just found out, you just have to... You can't forget about sales. It's easy to forget about sales. It's got to be the number one focus beyond the customer.
0:19:37.3 Canon Reeves: We were always iterating on our sales process, but I think we did a good job from the beginning of locking down our unit economics. We were very cautious as a hardware startup because it's so easy to get in a rough position as you scale, both from a distribution perspective but also just the logistics on the backend. I will say we did have strong margins throughout the whole thing. We never sold at a loss, we always had 70% margin, 65-70%. So I think we were building a stable, sustainable business. It just takes a while to build the sales funnel, and make that consistent.
0:20:10.2 Matt Waller: When you get to that point where you are on the cusp of product-market fit, you start feeling the pull, and your business model is not solidified, parts of it are, parts of it aren't, at that point, really, you can quickly wind up getting into a scaling kind of a phase. Because as you start the scaling, you can modify the business model a little bit. But at some point, you have to be bringing in enough money to hire people, design and implement processes and implement technology to be able to really scale. One of the big challenges with your company, regardless of how good the product is, you've got to deal with the channel. So that's where you were, and what did you do next?
0:21:06.9 Rex Hearn: I'll go and say that we were really on path to maybe not figuring it out but really hitting that hard right when COVID hit, while we were trying to scale everything up. All the demand was going away. So we kind of missed out on that a little bit just because the market kind of fell out from underneath us.
0:21:28.7 Peyton Smith: And to paint a picture for 2020, we had completed the kickstarter in... Was it summer of 2019? So summer of 2019, we were shipping units, and we moved to the Startup Village, and we were having a hard time keeping up with demand, with 3D printing and our fulfillment process, but we definitely felt those pains as we were trying to scale up our print farm, our packing process. And in the point where we had to get an ERP, felt kind of different. It was just like, Oh, we actually have to like put inside the system what the order time and the minimum order quantities are. We had received $50,000 from the Delta I-Fund, and we had made that last for a long time, we got our kickstarter money. We were in the process of raising a $250,000 seed round. And were still meeting with investors right up to when COVID hit. And so when COVID hit, we had to take a step back and say, What can we do to generate income and improve the product still and be ready to come out at the end of COVID ahead? And so we had started applying for grants. So, one of the first things we did was apply to the technology development program grant, and we received $50,000 from that, to essentially develop the next version of our product. And we were in the process of applying to an SBIR for a drone product, and that is when we actually met with the CEO of the acquiring company, and this all came onto our radar, in July of 2020 or so.
0:22:47.8 Matt Waller: So during COVID, you met the CEO of the company that would eventually acquire you?
0:22:54.8 Peyton Smith: Yeah, and we had met him before at a conference, just briefly, so this company, we saw ourselves working with them from, even from the beginning when we started. We had shown him all the ways that we had integrated our products and kind of shown him this vision for how we can work together, but we didn't pitch it as like, you know, "Buy us." We had no idea that was even an option, and he basically discussed that with us. He says, you know, "You guys are on the start of what's a really hard climb to build a great education company that is sustainable. And we love your product and there's just all these ways that we can work together." So I think they saw it as a way where they've built up the distribution channels, they've built up these back-end systems, and they saw it as a way to accelerate what we were doing and for us to expand and grow their business as well.
0:23:35.0 Matt Waller: So, will you all be continuing to work in a similar way going forward? Or how will your lives look different?
0:23:44.9 Canon Reeves: Yeah, it'll actually be really similar. So we've all taken jobs with Sphero. I'll be a product manager, overseeing basically the relaunch of our products at Sphero. But as far as how our day-to-day lives are changing, we're still going to be working out of the Startup Village on Dickson Street, and we'll be there for the time being. It's almost like a Sphero satellite office now. So, we'll still be working closely together, and what's great about the deal is we still get to work on the products we love, and a lot of times you sell to a company and they may or may not use it, but we're still working on the same things we were working on six months ago, and now we just have all the resources to get it to where we wanna take it.
0:24:32.6 Rex Hearn: Yeah, so, I'm moving into an electrical engineering role. So at MORE our main stuff was all the mechanical and that's what Canon and Kaushik Ramini are really good at, so I kind of bolstered us with the electrical, and some of the programming and supply chain, and just wherever anyone else was feeling a bit too overworked or anything like that. And so I'm moving into that position with Sphero, where I get to work on these tougher problems that are more what I've been wanting to do and I can put my sole focus on it, which is so much nicer not having to worry about business side of the company, or supply chain or anything like that. I can focus in and get the stuff done that I want to.
0:25:15.4 Kaushik Ramini: Rex kinda hit on this, but the majority of our job has just shifted from kind of doing what we do now, but mostly just focusing on the things that we'd like to do, and that we're good at. Yeah, I'm a mechanical engineer, but the majority of my time before the acquisition was spent on operations, doing so much packing, running a bunch of optimizations, doing a lot of industrial engineering, manufacturing side of things. Now I just get to be a mechanical engineer. I think something fun to end on, 'cause I know we're running close on time is, just to give you an idea of how crazy you have to be to be in the situation and how, which is truly not about anything but the product. It was right after we launched Kickstarter, and we were doing a lot of international orders and things were crazy. And like I said, a lot of what I did was operations. I just came out of wisdom tooth surgery, and I literally was on my way walking to the car, the nurses were holding me up, and I was completely out of it, and I got a message from Singaporean customs because there's an issue with one of our packages and some of the formalities were wrong. And so I was literally getting on the phone with Singaporean customs, and I could barely speak English, and I was texting Peyton as well, and was like, "Get all these forms ready, I'm gonna go them out 'cause they all have my name on it." And Peyton was like, "Are you okay! ?"
0:26:27.0 Kaushik Ramini: And I told him what happened, I was like, "Yeah, I just came out of surgery, but it's okay, I got this." And he was like, "Okay, just transfer everything onto my name and I'll take care of this one instance." And I'm like, "Okay." [laughter]
0:26:38.3 Matt Waller: That is a good way to end. Well, hey, really, Kaushik Ramini, Rex, Peyton, Canon, this has been a real joy for me actually to just see... Again, I hadn't been super involved as Dean, but I've been aware of every step and I remember when you won competitions and reading about it, and of course I've talked to you all about it as well. But I feel like this is a real joy to see that you all made your learning experience here the most it could be. I'm proud of you, each of you, but also I can tell you many faculty are... I've told a number of people I was gonna record this with you, and I think sometimes it's hard, it's a big school and you don't know what everyone's thinking, but there were a lot of faculty following what you were doing, and to see your success is joy for everybody. And I think it's good for our community as well. So thank you for what you've done. I appreciate it.
0:27:43.9 Canon Reeves: Yeah, and thank you, just for being a great dean, and I loved my time at Walton. I know... And speaking of faculty, Sarah Goforth has been instrumental in our success, has been a great advisor, and then some of my professors, Mark Zweig and Rich Lawrence, were instrumental in getting me involved with this and just teaching me so much about life and entrepreneurship and, yeah, I just have a lot to be thankful for, for my Walton Professors.
0:28:11.9 Kaushik Ramini: Huge shout out to Sarah Goforth. Honestly, I don't know if I'd still be a student if it wasn't for Sarah specifically, so... [chuckle]
0:28:18.6 Kaushik Ramini: Thank you so much, Sarah, for helping me balance school and work, just huge rock star.
0:28:24.2 Matt Waller: Well, thank you all and best wishes in the future.
0:28:30.4 Matt Waller: Thanks for listening to today's episode of The Be EPIC podcast from the Walton College. You can find us on Google, SoundCloud, iTunes, or look for us wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to subscribe and rate us, you can find current and past episodes by searching, Be EPIC podcast, one word, that's B-E-E-P-I-C podcast. And now, be epic.