How it all began –part 3 (2021)

How it all began –part 3 (2021)

This was a very emotional year. This was the year where I felt the emotional rollercoaster of startups. The highs were really high and the lows were really low. I think this is the place where most founders probably give up. I heard this interview with Sam Altman when he was at Google. He said something that really resonated with me when I was thinking about this year: “The most underrated quality (in founders) is being really determined...the hardest thing about starting a company is the level and frequency of bad stuff that happens to you…so much about being a successful entrepreneur is just not giving up”.

During 2021:

  • We raised our first $765k using Y-Combinator’s SAFE.
  • We delivered our first units to paying customers - and they didn’t work.
  • We got our first real office and we loved it.
  • We started making the next 25 systems using 10 3D printers and we had all sorts of terrible issues.
  • We were accepted into MassChallenge.
  • I had my first mental breakdown.

I’ll talk about the mental breakdown later. Let’s start with the good stuff.

At the beginning of 2021, we had managed to raise $765k from friends, family, and a VC with the goal to make our technology more robust and get 25 units made and sell the majority of them.The market outlook was (and continues to be) very exciting. We had a terrific team in place with experts in developing hardware and software products, as well as designers who understood the customer journey incredibly well. We had the best people assembled to solve the challenges ahead and great product requirements documents in place (see resources list).

first office space

We also got our first real office in the Seaport District of Boston and it was OH SO NICE to work alongside real people again. COVID was still raging but we now felt comfortable working with others as long as there were masks on faces and Purell everywhere. 

And remember the Boston University/GLP cannabis startup competition we lost in 2019? Well, we applied again in 2021 and we won! We took the $10k prize and invested it in 10 3D printers so we could make our next machines and beyond.

We also started work on the lamp for the system (our first prototypes used salad bowls from Target as the lamp shade!) and filed most of our patents and trademarks. Now, it was time to spend money on lawyers because we wanted to protect our work. The back end was starting to take shape and the mobile app worked most of the time.

Now to the bad stuff:

The first two units that we delivered to customers never worked. One of them could just not connect to WIFI (networking issues have always been a huge problem in all of my career) and the customer eventually gave up on us. The second customer stuck around and I had to go to his house every Wednesday night to fix his machine and change the water for him. Silver lining - I got to experience how people would live with our system.

3D Printing

3D printing is both wonderful and awful at the same time. You can do so much with it. But, when you’re making prints that take four days to complete, anything can go wrong and it usually does. It was very challenging to keep the printers working and not have them affected by temperature changes in Boston. Also, it was during COVID and everyone was buying 3D printer material to make things. Supply chain issues were terrible during this time. Silver lining - we designed our product with a lot of flexibility in terms of electronics out of necessity and this now enables us to deal with any supply chain issue that comes along.

Now, on to mental health. I’m a resilient and persistent person. I work and work and work because I don’t like to drop the ball or give up - probably to a fault. I pick up the slack when needed and take on as much as I can and more. This year (2021) was very taxing on me. I felt out of my element constantly in terms of product development and market research. My confidence started sinking to an all-time low and I had impostor syndrome. Things were not moving along as quickly as I had hoped and things simply were just not working. I felt frustrated with my team because I wanted them to bleed Annaboto and work tirelessly to solve the problems. Remember in Year 0 when I said: “You should love the problem you are trying to solve enough to be miserable.” Well, I was miserable.

I did not sleep or eat. I started fainting because I was exhausted and this became dangerous because it could happen at any time and one time I banged my head on the bathroom counter. I also had a mental breakdown one day when I delivered a system to our UX designer and it just did not work out of the box. That night I collapsed in my living room after hours and my wife came out to find me on the ground crying, crying without end. It was time to seek help.

I began talking about this with others and thankfully got a lot of support. I guess I wasn’t alone feeling like this. I was trying to be brave by not saying how bad I felt and it was only hurting me. So after speaking with experts, therapists, and my friends and family, I came up with a few rules that turned everything around:

  • Stop drinking alcohol - This change alone made me sleep better and I became way more effective.
  • No work after 8 pm - Sleeping well also made me more effective.
  • Friend Wednesday night - Another game changer. I had forgotten how to be human.

In order to win a race you have to finish the race; crashing along the way is not an option. I learned this when I used to race cars, and had forgotten this point.

The Team 

Toward the end of 2021, things were looking brighter. We participated in our first tradeshow (NECANN Boston) and got rave reviews on the product. We found some customers and delivered their machines. We still had issues with about 50% of the systems shipped, but 50% worked and that was better than all systems failing. We were also thinking about our next round of funding so we could purchase molds and mass produce the product, starting conversations with new investors....things were looking good. 

My goal for this phase was to redesign the product for mass production and perform external alpha testing with paying customers. We built 25 units and we raised $765,000 on a SAFE note, $380,000 was spent this year.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Flexibility Fosters Resilience: The importance of adaptable design and processes will help navigate unforeseen challenges, especially in hardware development.
  2. Embrace the Journey, Expect the Unexpected: The essence of startup life. Emphasize readiness for both highs and lows and value staying determined through it all.
  3. Well-Being Fuels Achievement: The critical role of mental and physical health in sustaining long-term productivity and success.
  4. Prioritize Rapid Prototyping and Testing: Encourage a faster iteration cycle to identify and address flaws early, embracing 'fail fast, learn quickly'. Ship product to customers asap. You don’t know what you don’t know.
  5. Cultivate a Supportive Environment: Foster a culture that encourages open communication about challenges and struggles, enhancing team resilience and collective problem-solving.

What To Do Differently:

  • Set Healthy Boundaries: Implement work-life balance practices earlier to prevent burnout and maintain personal and team well-being.
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