The old rules no longer apply. Here’s my playbook for making these ventures work.
A few years ago I had a jarring discovery. I’d spent more than 15 years building and launching technology products, but all of a sudden the skills and instincts I’d honed seemed irrelevant. In fact, if I stuck with them, they’d likely lead my company to ruin.
That’s the realization I had with my company Lytro, which is building a new kind of camera and software for creating movies, TV shows, and virtual reality experiences. With Lytro I’d embarked on a new kind of challenge — that of a “hard tech startup.” These are companies where, at the outset, you don’t know whether the core tech needed for your invention will work at all. The forces of physics, biology, and Moore’s Law can bedevil you in unexpected ways. Building a winning product is already challenging enough; with hard tech startups, the obstacles are even greater.
Our goal at Lytro is to unlock new creative freedom across VR and traditional film and television. With Lytro Cinema, this means letting directors and cinematographers control more aspects of their shots — such as focus, exposure and frame rate— computationally in post-production. (Historically, they had to commit to these choices at the time of the shot.) We had to develop the world’s highest resolution, highest frame rate image sensor; invent a new kind of optics; solve enormous data and storage challenges; and create a whole new class of imaging algorithms. When we started out, we had no idea if any of that was possible.
Companies facing that kind of challenge have to throw out a lot of conventional startup wisdom. Over the last decade, now classic books such as Eric Ries’ The Lean Startup have become the default sets of principles for building successful products and companies. With a rapidly growing global Internet population and a dramatic reduction in infrastructure costs (such as through Amazon Web Services), an entrepreneur could rapidly and inexpensively iterate an idea to achieve product/market fit. The explosion of smartphones and the emergence of the social web amplified distribution, allowing young companies to much more easily reach their target customers. But those rules of thumb don’t apply to hard tech startups.
Through this experience, I’ve come to adopt a whole new mindset. I’m hugely excited about this evolution in startup thinking and believe we are on the verge of turning ideas that were long the subject of science fiction into reality. Some of today’s most vibrant areas of entrepreneurship are in hard tech areas, including autonomous vehicles, space, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and genomics. The output of these companies may be even more dramatic and profound than the build-out of the internet has been.
Below are the lessons we’ve learned so far about how to build a hard tech startup. Although the examples are specific to Lytro, I believe they apply more generally to companies trying to build anything radically new leveraging cutting edge technology.