Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Brian Burling and I run eMotimo out of San Diego, CA. Our current flagship product is the eMotimo spectrum ST4 motion control head. We sell primarily to television and cinema production teams who are gathering footage for documentaries, narrative films, or visual effects. There are thousands of customers and heads throughout the world now. Our ST4 and accessories are easy enough for hobbyists to use while being powerful enough to serve the ultra professionals who shoot the most amazing footage on the planet.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I studied mechanical engineering at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo. Out of school, I joined a large technology consulting firm that implemented software for large companies with large contracts and large ideas. It was large and had nothing to do with engineering.
The “idea” isn’t as important as you think it is. Execution is way more important than you think it is.
Being the small fish, I learned how to work with all sorts of people in challenging environments where you were expected to be an expert on complex topics in weeks. I learned structure and project management. Work was always challenging, but the pace was frenetic.
After a few years, I left and went to work at smaller consulting firms that not only worked reasonable hours but paid more and had better perks. With my “big consulting” structure, I was able to help with project management and structure while becoming more of an expert in specialized types of databases. The smaller company grew up, and I left for a smaller company again. They grew up too! I knew I liked the small company atmosphere.
At this point, I had seen the inner workings of the successful medium and large companies and had managed a team of 10 consultants. The money was great. Stress was high and growing. I didn’t love what I did, I was just good at it. I had no relationship, no house, no kids, and no responsibility to anyone but me. Everything I felt was that I needed to step out on my own and try to start something I loved. I gave notice and left.
I had saved up enough money for a 6-month investigation into figuring out what was next. I dug in deep and figured out the environments and people I liked. I brainstormed and had a notebook of nearly 80 business ideas. 3 bubbled up a viable after peer review. eMotimo stood out as a niche where my passions could help me drive and stay focused.
Passion? Yes. In BBC’s original Planet Earth, there’s a scene capturing a tree on the Japanese hillside. It looks like a simple sliding shot, but then it transitions to timelapse where the seasons transitioned from winter to spring to summer to fall, all while the camera is moving. I was blown away by the results and what it made me feel. I eventually watched that clip at least 50 times and I was still amazed by it. I wanted to do it too but there was no gear for consumers that would support this.
I knew I could figure out the tech, and suspected that I could figure out the business side. eMotimo’s mission was to help photographers and cinematographers of all levels use robots to capture footage that has never before been possible.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Functional and solid modeling was something I was good at, but the skills needed to be dusted off and relearned so I trained as I went to get to my first designs.
Prototype 1 was built in my friend’s garage and was made of hardwood. I took it on a trip overseas to try it out. The interface was awful, the results were mediocre, but the form factor worked and the experience showed me where my designs needed improvement.
At that time, the sharing economy was kicking off and Techshop in San Mateo, CA had opened up recently. Techshop was the equivalent of a gym membership, that gave makers like me access to CNC mills, lathes, laser cutters, and lots of other fun, expensive toys. I knew how to machine. I knew how to program CNC (computer-controlled machines) and had originally planned on picking up a used one and a small space to run after prototyping for 6-8 months. Now Techshop meant I only needed to pay $100 a month and get access to way more. The prototypes got better.
I was able to use 5 core machines there in 2-hour blocks to create and refine the design not just for prototyping, but for light production. The key was iterating and small batches until I got it right!
Contracting machining for small orders and R&D is ridiculously expensive. So are small runs so managing and scaling from prototype to my first few hundred was always on my mind.
I engaged with other users and vendors who were emerging in this space and really focused on making a great product that was fun to use. We hacked a Wii Nunchuck gaming controller, to use it as the primary interface. The first product was the eMotimo PT. It was fun to set up and the results were brilliant. I totally underpriced it at $425, but I figured as long as I wasn’t losing money and learning, I was ok. The next product, a year later was the eMotimo TB3 - priced it better at $799, and eventually integrated it to a black version and sold it for $949. We sold a lot of them and had our first million-dollar revenue year.
On the software/firmware side, I knew enough about programming systems to be dangerous but was an embedded systems newbie. Our first products used the Arduino platform and I wrote all the code using public and shared libraries for the hard stuff. One of my best memories was just going up to a rented Lake Tahoe cabin for a week, getting snowed in, and solving problem after problem.
Describe the process of launching the business.
We were active on forums where users who wanted to do this too were based. I showed my cards and where I was going and developed a small following. I had zero dollars for advertising and just put it out there. The interest was low at first but grew as I started sharing results.
You will never please everyone so don’t try. Recognize toxic relationships early and get them out of your ecosystem as quickly as possible.
eMotimo was bootstrapped with 60K of my money. I took no money as I didn’t need any to figure out where this was going. I wanted to avoid the distraction of other’s opinions early. I had saved up enough money to figure things out in less than a year. Originally, I had budgeted for purchasing a small CNC machine and leasing space. With connecting with Techshop and not purchasing equipment, my runway was extended to two years.
By the time Kickstarter came into the picture, I was already making direct sales and connecting with exactly who I needed. It would have been wise to circle back and we have considered this several times, but always punted as we had the capital to launch our products the way we wanted. The marketing is good for consumer products though, especially for products that are only a few hundred bucks.
Regrets? I changed eMotimo’s structure from Sole Prop to LLC, to Scorp over the years. None of that is fun and lots of paperwork and accounting. It was a natural progression, but I wish I had known where things were going early and had fewer hops.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
For the first 4 years of the company, we spent zero dollars on advertising and relied solely on word of mouth. We were ahead of our time and competitors on functionality so it was easy to sell. We were innovating quickly and solving problems fast. Our once of the year Black Friday sales were huge and anticipated. We sold direct, and through a few online resellers domestically and internationally.
We did sell through Amazon for a while which was good for quick fulfillment but pulled back after they facilitated easy “rentals” of our equipment where people use the equipment and then returned it once the shoot was done and they didn’t need it anymore. Amazon then proceeded to lose a couple of units and not refund us so we stopped. Our product is niche and people find us through other channels.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
The future is bright for eMotimo. Our flagship product, the spectrum ST4, really our 4th gen build, has held up well in our space and there is still a growing demand for it. When designing this, we built in a much healthier margin to support resellers making a better profit. These larger margins have also enabled us to absorb sourcing challenges introduced by tariffs that started mid-2019 without being too reactive.
Currently, about 65% of our sales are direct and 35% go through resellers. Our volume of orders is low compared to most businesses, but the average ticket price for direct sales with a new spectrum ST4 is $3650. Our operations are light with 3 full-time employees to support manufacturing, customer support, sales, and fulfillment.
Right now we are investing in integrations to extend our products and services to better enable our customers with remote production requirements brought on by COVID-19. Need a remote control camera that looks like a live operator is controlling the rig? We will have you covered.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I love that my successes and failures are my own with eMotimo, but I do wish I started with a partner. Two times I have tried to bring on a partner to help throughout the years and it never ends up being equitable for one side of the relationship.
Doing it all is a great place to start if you have the tools and resources to pull it off… but don’t get stuck there. I am glad we grew organically and relatively slowly. It allowed our teething mistakes to be minor, rather than company-ending.
There are hundreds of ways to get distracted and spend money and time where you don’t need to. For example, we could have invested in patents and tried to lock up portions of the market, but it would have been expensive and slowed us down and likely wouldn't have protected us well without spending a lot of money and a lot more time… and ruined our lives. Want a great read? Try Unlocking the Sky.
Luck and timing were with us with Techshop. Unfortunately, their business model wasn’t sound and they went out of business, but they helped launch a lot of makers. I loved that place and wish it was still here even though we don’t need it.
Having a lot of problems is just fine as long as they are solvable and you are diligent at knocking them down.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
For our storefront, we use Shopify. It has its limitations, but the credit card processing is fixed with reasonable rates, even for rewards cards and international transitions. We used a couple of other merchant services accounts for years and the rates fluctuate and increased without my control. A consistent 2.6% off your top line is way better than getting a promotional 2.4% off cards no one will ever use to buy a $3500 robot.
We use ShipStation for fulfillment as it's flexible on shipper and we can now compare rates. We like UPS mainly as they are quite reliable and haven’t ever lost one of our shipments. We use DHL for our international shipment through InXpress as their rates are way lower than UPS by quite a bit and it is really nice to have a rep to call for questions.
Zendesk is used for Support, Chat, and Knowledge Base. It has been a good and growing toolset that scales up and down as needed.
For marketing, and email outreach, we started using HubSpot. We use the standard social tools, Facebook and Instagram primarily, but have them all, but seem to be posting less and less as the environment can be toxic and time-consuming without significant swings up or down of our sales. Our product is niche and those looking for a solution will find us.
Upwork has been pretty good for us to find consultants for various stages in our designs like electronics board layouts, but we use it sparingly and for short term projects as you do need to manage it well.
For project management tools and internal communication, we use Sheets/Drive and Trello for collaboration on lists. We have a large internal NAS for a company cloud that is backed up offsite hourly.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
What Color is Your Parachute? - Is a big waste of time if you just want to read it. It is an amazing tool if you really do the exercises. I have bought it for at least 20 people I know - employees, friends, and family. Only 1 person has really used it well and built out a petal diagram that is meaningful. I look back on the work I did on this and my Petal Diagram for 10+ years ago and it is still spot on. Can you put in the work to figure out objectively what you want? It is really powerful to be able to know what you want and be able to articulate it. There is no perfect job for you or anyone unless you make it.
Getting to Yes - There’s a lot of bargaining and interactions with all sorts of people. Knowing and keeping an eye on your true interest enables you to come up with creative solutions with those whose interests align with yours. It also enables you to recognize those who push position-based negotiation and make sure your interests are being served.
Unlocking the Sky - The Wright brothers didn’t invent flying, they just patented it and were essentially patent trolls who slowed it down for the next 30 years. Innovators, they were, up to a point where they became litigators. They died pissed off that everyone else “stole” their ideas. Curtis, on the other hand, innovated his entire career. He also patented but didn’t slow down after a single big race. Who do you want to be like?
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Understand who you want to be and what you want - read What Color is Your Parachute? and really do the exercises. Introspection and breaking down the walls of what you really want is difficult and very few people can get through it. If you can, you have a map to evaluate an opportunity. There are so many opportunities and pitfalls out there. Know what you want. Know what you don’t want.
The “idea” isn’t as important as you think it is. Execution is way more important than you think it is. Get a good group of trusted advisors around you to bounce ideas off of. You need people who won’t blow sunshine and help you find problems that you haven’t seen.
Trust your guts and abilities after you have done your homework. If you are trying to be innovative, solve hard problems that truly create value. For the first 5 years of running my business, I was looking over my shoulder knowing my competition was going to trounce me and make the killer product that would make eMotimo irrelevant. They have come and gone, or are in the wings, trying again. We have done the hard things and we are hard to beat on merit so customers keep coming back to us and we keep finding new ways to help them.
Don’t be afraid to get hands-on and do things and make things. The barriers for doing so in low volumes is more accessible today than at any time in our history.
Bring people in to do the jobs you don’t enjoy as quickly as possible. Running a business isn’t easy, but aspects of it should be fun for you daily. Sure, we are closing our books and doing our taxes, and applying for permits, but I also get to chat with a BBC production team and brainstorm on how to creatively set up a remote shooting blind with remote camera operators a mile away (that is my fun).
You will never please everyone so don’t try. Out of our thousands of customers, we have had to fire 3 of them as they sucked up resources with complaints and negativity. Criticism that is constructive should be sought out. Recognize toxic relationships early and get them out of your ecosystem as quickly as possible.
eMotimo just turned 10 years old and is thriving. Our products are standing up to the test of time and word of mouth is still one of the best ways we find customers. Ideas are still pouring out of my head and wrangling them into executable projects is something I love. We get notes from customers of all levels that really appreciate the thoughts and effort we have put into our products. Watch out for eMotimo spectrum ST4 footage in Planet Earth 2, and the upcoming Planet Earth 3. I am stoked that the teams who inspired me with their creativity, are now using eMotimo tools to enable them to get some of those amazing shots.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are looking for an operations manager, and an embedded systems engineer, an assembly technician, and an entry-level mechanical engineer.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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