Interview with Haytham Elhawary (CEO @Kinetic)

The goal of this post is to level the playing field between hardware and software startups. Software has had decades to find reproducibly successful models in different verticals (such as SaaS and Freemium mobile games), but hardware has only had the last few years. The knowledge exists, but it hasn't been distributed evenly. Through interviewing the founders that do this every day, hopefully we can change that.

                

Haytham is an excellent guy and one of the first people I met in the hardware scene upon moving to New York. He runs the very popular NY Hardware Meetup which is attended by hundreds of people every month and boasts a presenter list that reads like the who's who of the hardware world. He is also the CEO of his own hardware startup, Kinetic which seeks to eliminate employee injuries in warehouses brought about by incorrect lifting practices with their wearable device.

 

How are you known, and how do you see yourself?

Because of the hardware meetup, I hope people think that I'm generally well connected and willing to use those connections to help them. Very honestly, I feel very attached to the hardware community. I really want people to build their startups and be successful.

I see myself as a CEO in training. I often feel that you can have the impostor syndrome - on one hand you're telling people like your investors and future hires that everything is great. But on the other hand, especially if this is your first company, you're often learning new things. It's not like you've been trained how to deal with everything. In general, you've got to learn quickly and you've got to have a good network where you can ask people how they did things ranging from the basic "What bank account should we use" and "How do I do HR for my employees" all the way up to "How do I raise money". My entire job is to learn how to do these things.

 

When was the last time you did any soldering?

About a month ago we were getting 20 devices ready to deploy at our most important pilot site. We had planned to have hardware finished about a week before. The weekend before we were still putting everything together... That was pretty frantic actually. The thing is that there's just so few of us that when things do hit the fan, we all have to chip in.

 

What's unique about hardware vs. other startups?

There are lots of things, but let me just highlight one. Because hardware has so many components: firmware, electronics, mechanical design, industrial design, one of the unique things about it is that there's no such thing as a full stack developer. You just can't find one person who can do all the engineering. It's usually skill sets that are held by lots of people, and as a startup you just can't afford all those people.

So you really have to think about what you have in house, and what you need freelancers for. When do you need to bring those freelancers in, and how do you get access to good people.

 

How do you know people want your thing?

If I were to say what our main risk is, it's that one. Some people have technical risk, and we have a little, but we're not building satellites. We know that the problem exists, because there's a lot of stats to back it up. There's a problem around people getting injured in workplaces, and people are concerned about that problem. The questions really just becomes - can we build a solution that solves that problem, that's scaleable, and affordable? That's the main risk for us.

We've tried to derisk that by not quitting our day jobs until we had six companies signed up for a pilot of our product that didn't even exist. We used a tablet and built a dashboard, and what we asked people was "If you had this data available to you, would it be interesting?". It was important not to focus on how it works because while consumers have become quite tech savvy and they understand about wearables, safety managers haven't even heard of fitbit. We couldn't explain it as a wearable, so we had to show it in terms of what knowledge they could get out of it.

 

Have you ever had to ship late? (How did this feel?)

Haha, no because we haven't had to ship anything. But I'm sure we will ship late! 

I think B2B is a little more forgiving, because it's just money out of a budget, not their personal money. It's worse to give them a product that doesn't work well, than to give them a product late. There's always a balance, and you can always perfect it more.

For our pilots, there was one specifically that we delayed. The reason is because we get one chance with these pilots, and it doesn't matter if it's a month later because these companies operate very slowly anyway. So it's best to ace that chance that you get, or you wont get another. Unless you find another location of that company where they don't know each other and don't talk.

Right now the equivalent for us of shipping was to have the prototype ready for our pilot. I could tell my employees: "Let's build this thing and when it's done, I'll get in touch with the users and we'll put a date on the pilot". What I've found is this works, but you don't get the time crunch. You don't get the same productivity out of people like when you're on a deadline.

 

What's a hardware specific challenge you've faced that a software startup wouldn't have?

The main one for us is the durability of the device. We're a data and software company, but we need hardware to pick that data up. That hardware therefore needs to survive, so we can continue to collect it. A lot of people in consumer hardware think about aesthetics, and then robustness, and for us it's the other way around. Aesthetics don't really matter because it's being worn by employees, doing manual labor, that just don't care. However durability counts a lot, and that takes time, money, and a certain expertise.

 

What's your grand vision?

This goes into how you define success. Most companies will fail... You and I know that, but we really don't care. We do this despite the odds. If your grand vision is to 'succeed' in terms of being acquired or getting an IPO, then the odds of you being very disappointed are high.

For me what would be success is to be proud of what we achieve. I would like to get a product to market. I'd like have a product that works very well and helps people. I'd like to have built a team that are good professionals, and I enjoy working with. That's the rare things about startups, it's the only place where you get to choose who you work with, at least for the most part.

In terms of the grad vision for the company, I've always liked the quote "People shouldn't have to risk their lives for their livelihood". That's what happens in the workplace when you get injured. Coal has to be mined, steel needs to be melted, there are professions that are very dangerous. These people will take more risks when they go to work than a Wall St banker, in the physical sense. I like the idea that we can make products that make the workplace a little bit safer so people don't have to risk their lives. The mission that we sign up to when we all join this company is to work towards a workplace that has no injuries.

 

Who taught you more about how to run a business than anyone else?

The people I've learnt the most from are peers who are starting businesses that might just be a little ahead of you, and can give you really practical advice.

Probably the single thing that's been the most useful for us is the idea of the lean startup. Everyone repeats it and it's become trivialised. But really understanding what that means and being able to make decisions based on "What's my biggest risk, and let's address that first" and being able to internalise that in your decisions is very difficult, but very useful.

 

What advice would you give to someone just starting out in hardware?

I'd tell them to think if there's any way they could make their business without building hardware. 

 

Anything else you'd like to add?

The way I see we're a bit different to everyone else is that we're not consumer. Consumer hardware companies usually have the advantage that they can crowdfund. It's a way of proving out the market. B2B companies can't crowdfund, so then we're in the position of "How do we raise money?". Often investors will not give you money until they see pilots, or at least some traction that corporations want to buy your thing. 

The way we got around this is we built an MVP that was juuussst good enough to do a two week pilot. A lot of the time at the end of the day we'd have to fix stuff so it would work again the next day. Just good enough with the money that we had from a few angels, Techstars, and a bit of our own money.




Ariel Briner
Ariel Briner

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