Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello everyone! My name is William Santana Li and I’m the Chairman and CEO of Knightscope - we build Autonomous Security Robots (ASRs) that are patrolling the country today to reimagine public safety and better secure the Nation.
It is a unique combination of self-driving technology, robotics, and A.I. to provide the over 2 million law enforcement and security professionals really smart eyes and ears for them to be able to do their jobs much more effectively.
By way of background, I’m a former Ford Motor Company executive and if you check out my LinkedIn profile here - you’ll see that during my tenure it looks like I’m ‘unemployable’ as can’t seem to hold a job for any reasonable period of time! All kidding aside, Ford was an awesome training ground for what I’m doing now at Knightscope.
We’ve raised over $70 million in equity over the last 7 years to build all this technology from scratch - and yes, we physically build the machines ourselves. Made in the USA! We are backed by over 16,000 investors and 4 major corporations.
And for me, since it is still early days, I’m fascinated by the fact that we have already had numerous crime-fighting wins and you can read here about our positive impact on society.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I’ll give you the short answer but if you want the long-form answer please check out my blog on it here (“Why Did You Build Knightscope”). Basically, I was born in NYC and someone hit my town on 9-11 and I’m still profoundly pissed off about it - and I’m dedicating the rest of my life to better securing our country.
Some things that look unbelievably gorgeous on paper or some slide deck - once you implement them carry a high risk of being the complete opposite.
When we started the Company back in 2013, we were told the following:
- “Hey, Bill, you are out of your mind. This will never work.”
- “It is hardware and software. You should pick one.”
- “This is impossible. It will take $15M to build the prototype and still won’t work.”
- “Physical security is not an investment thesis. You need to go away.”
So we ignored everyone - and set out to do what we said we were going to do. We have a long-term slightly ambitious mission to make the United States of America the safest country in the world.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
You just download everything from the cloud - and it is done! Just kidding. I get really annoyed with over $100 billion going into startups every year and 85% of it going to software, maybe 10% to biotech and the rest goes into “other”. Then when an awesome entrepreneur has a great idea, she is told ‘no’ because there is some sort of hardware component and that is ‘hard’. Well, that is only because most of these so-called ‘smart money investors’ don’t have any sector expertise - and therefore presume it is hard. And since when in our country do we shy away from what is hard, what is difficult, and what is supposedly impossible? I take great offense in this regard.
A car has 13,000+ parts in it and takes about $1.5 billion to get out the door, with likely 400 prototypes, 400 team members, and 4 years (plus or minus depending on your starting point). To me, our ASRs are basically really simple vehicles to build - geez, no windshield, no glass, no seats, no exhaust, no pyrotechnics for airbags, etc.
One great supporter, we’ve had since Oct 2013 has been the Plug and Play Tech Center down the street from us in Sunnyvale, CA (we are based in Mountain View and you can get the virtual nickel tour here in 120 seconds). After numerous attempts we got accepted into the accelerator - and they put a roof over our head, introduced us to some key folks, and just been genuinely supportive throughout the process (and to this day!).
Describe the process of launching the business.
What a nightmare. We had built the world’s most miserable prototype by Dec 2013 and somehow won a demo day with it. We got to v2.0 by May 4, 2015 (yes, “May the Fourth Be With You”) and that was the first day we ever put one in public, in the real world. We didn’t know what to expect. Would people go nuts? Would society allow us to do this? Will we ever sleep again (all of us pulling all-nighters).
But after we saw bright red lipstick kisses on the robot, tons of robot selfies, and families driving hours to come to see the robot, we knew we would be OK….somehow!
Biggest lesson learned. Everything you worried about going wrong - was addressed and didn’t go wrong. The things you never discussed, though would be fine, or didn’t even cross your mind - will all fail.
“Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth." - Mike Tyson
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Try everything. Experiment. Experiment. Experiment. This is very important especially if you are in uncharted territory and no one has done it before. And sometimes you as the Founder need to do something that your entire team is 100% against - which can be very painful. But if you are right, you might have saved your company or unlocked the holy grail.
Sometimes you get a triple bottom line on advertising. Here’s a video from our recent campaign that was primarily targeted to investors - but in the end, we got not only investors but clients and recruits!
I’m a big fan of ‘do everything’ because a fully integrated marketing plan can sometimes be profoundly more effective than a surgical strike.
So digital, print (yes, offline print), radio, TV, streaming, etc. working together can be a smart move in some cases.
Plus don’t forget PR efforts. We get a good amount of inbound requests and we try to be responsive.
One last item to think about - perhaps just a mindset. Sometimes it can feel like you are running a nationwide political campaign to get your technology elected. There is a lot to learn from thinking about it that way.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Well, despite being told this was ‘impossible’ by a LOT of people - we now hold contracts across 5 time zones, have operated over 1 million hours in the real world, have numerous crime-fighting wins, and gearing up to scale the business further - now, that we’ve bumped our collective heads numerous times (otherwise known as ‘lessons learned’).
We primarily sell directly given the ever-changing complexity of the technology - and operating the company is a challenge because we not only design, engineer, and build the machines - but we deploy, service and support them 24/7/365.
Right now we are spending a lot of time recruiting (you can check out the openings) and fixing a lot of technical and process debt. Not proud of it, but given the relatively modest resources to build what we have built (most institutional investors that have walked through would say most would have burned a quarter billion dollars by now), we kinda hacked our way here. But now is time to fix the foundation and start investing in growth and scale.
You have got to have a burning passion and belief in what you are doing or setting out to do. Likely bordering on irrational and perhaps an unhealthy drive to force something to happen.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Yes, of course. I’ve had probably over 1,000 people work for me in some sort of fashion. Some people are cut out for the pain and suffering of a startup. Some rise to the occasion and although operating outside their comfort zone make stellar teammates. A lot of people (majority) can’t handle the volatility, managed chaos, and madness of startup life which is OK. Problem is that you’ll never learn any of that during the interview or onboarding process. You’ll find out who is really who - months or sometimes years later.
Also, some things that look unbelievably gorgeous on paper or some slide deck - once you implement them carry a high risk of being the complete opposite. So the most important thing is to get as much experience in the field as possible. I don’t like the “fail fast attitude” - prefer is “learn fast” and adjust, and fight and fight and fight until you get what you want to be done. Don’t let anyone ever tell you ‘no’. You are the Founder, figure it out, and force it to happen.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Intercom has been really cool for me - both hilarious and frustrating. So if we closed over 16,000 people, you might imagine how many people we actually interacted with or pitched (scared to imagine that number). But when we were raising capital, on our landing page for the offering, the little blue button on the bottom right of the page for instant messaging was basically me answering questions - 7 days a week, 7 am to 7 pm.
But most users thought it was a bot. “This is not the CEO. Prove it.” I don't know how many times folks were shocked that I would answer their questions personally. And the Intercom app is also pretty good - so would be answering them at a stoplight, at the dry cleaners, during a meal, or a walk or after a jog or during a movie. Wherever and whenever.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Not proud of this answer. The Company had been going through a tough time because some bankers we hired screwed up. So I spent over 15 months working 100+ hour weeks non-stop to fix the problem. Now fixed the problem and back right side up - but haven’t had the time to sit down and just read or listen. Working on fixing that now.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
What is wrong with you? Are you out of your mind? 95% of startups fail. 80% never make it past their 3rd anniversary. You will have the worst day of your life and the best - likely within a few hours of each other. A startup will drain you mentally, physically, emotionally - and psychologically. Do you have a screw loose? Are you two cubes short of a tray?
You have got to have a burning passion and belief in what you are doing or setting out to do. Likely bordering on irrational and perhaps an unhealthy drive to force something to happen. And you better know how to take a lot of negativity, rock-throwing, and naysayers - and turn that into ‘negative fuel’ to drive you to make things happen - otherwise you will collapse from the weight of everyone telling you ‘no’. Investors telling you ‘no’, your family, your friends, your customers, your employees, everyone.
So buckle up. It will be one of the most painful experiences of your life - but if it is something genuinely important, then likely success will be very, very sweet!
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Yes, we are recruiting robotics folks, software, sales, etc. You can apply online here.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you like to learn more please visit our website (and at the bottom are the links to social media and signing up for our newsletter).
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