Trevor Blackwell: Robots Are His Business

Aug. 16, 2011
Trevor Blackwell CEO of Mountain View, Calif.-based AnyBots, talks about the challenge of starting a company that straddles the worlds of business and science fiction.

When Trevor Blackwell tells you that he expects robots to take over the world, he’s not fooling around. Well, maybe a little bit. But there’s no denying the fact that Blackwell, CEO of Mountain View, Calif.-based AnyBots, is already building a line of mobile office robots. The machines, which are designed to serve as avatars for humans located across town or on the other side of the world, are operated via a Web browser through a Wi-Fi, 3G or 4G wireless connection and can freely roll around an office, production site, sales floor, convention center or lobby.

Anybots says its robots can enhance training, sales and customer service activities. Blackwell believes that the machines are also well suited for technology support, such as helping an employee master a new software application or fix a minor computer glitch. A video camera and speaker mounted inside the robot’s head allows the operator to speak with colleagues from a remote location while also being able to hear and see them.

I recently spoke directly with Blackwell (without using a robot avatar) about the challenge of starting a company that straddles the worlds of business and science fiction. Here’s our conversation:

Getting Rolling

JE: Trevor, how did you get involved in robotics?

TB: My previous company was doing pure Internet software. After I was finished there, I wanted to take on a new challenge. I thought robotics was the most interesting thing that was going to change the world in the next several years.

JE: What was your inspiration for starting Anybots?

TB: Back in 2001, I thought the Internet was about 80 percent finished. That turned out to be a little premature (laughs). But I was ready for a different challenge.

JE: How did you begin Anybots?

TB: Well, first there was a lot I had to teach myself. I taught myself a little bit of machining, a little bit of mechanical design—I already knew a lot about electronic design—and some control theory and some software. I learned a little bit about everything I needed to know. It took me a couple of years to really feel up to speed. I then started growing the team and developing products.

JE: What sort of technology background did you bring to Anybots?

TB: My previous company was called Viaweb. It was the first e-commerce software on the Internet that small merchants could use to sell things. That was acquired by Yahoo! in 1998, and then I worked at Yahoo! for about three years. I left Yahoo! on a Friday and began Anybots the following Monday.

My Robot

JE: What is AnyBots’ goal? Do you have a vision for the company?

TB: To take over the world with robots. More realistically, to put a service robot in homes and businesses.

JE: And right now you’re focusing on conferencing technologies, correct?

TB: Right.

JE: Please tell me something about your current technology.

TB: QB is a robot that’s about five-and-a-half feet tall, weighs 35 pounds and rolls around quite comfortably in an office. It connects to the Internet over WiFi, and you can log into it through a web browser. What this means is that from anywhere, with a laptop, you can interact with people as if you were there.

JE: How does QB change videoconferencing?

TB: It’s a different feeling than videoconferencing for a bunch of reasons. Videoconferencing usually means everyone sits around a meeting table. But with a robot you’re not confined to a meeting room: you can roll around a lab, go find people wherever they are or greet customers coming in the front door. It’s much more versatile.

Maintaining Balance

JE: What advice do you have for people thinking about becoming entrepreneurs?

TB: Just do it. Start talking to customers on day one. I actually made the mistake of not talking to customers from the beginning. But as soon as I started talking to customers, I found that they had needs and that they were happy to tell me what they were and were happy to pay for solutions.

JE: How do you balance your business and technology duties?

TB: It’s a painful struggle every day. I’m constantly trying to find large blocks of time to work on deep technology problems while having to make several customer or business calls every day. And I haven’t found a great answer to the problem. Working 24-hour days, I think, is the answer (laughs).

JE: How do you seek balance in your life? How do you keep your venture from taking over your entire life?

TB: I have a fantastic, understanding woman in my life who drags me away for weekends once in a while. She keeps me sane.

JE: What’s the biggest challenge associated with being an entrepreneur?

TB: Managing the ups and downs. In just about any venture, there are days when it looks like you’re on the edge or disaster and days when it looks like everyone is going to be rich and it’s going to be awesome and you’re going to take over the world. The challenge is to keep going and to keep making smart decisions on both kinds of days.

Nuts and Bolts

JE: As you began Anybots, how did you find reliable advisors who would guide you through uncharted territory?

TB: Largely by contacting people in the robotics field whose textbooks I liked. And by talking to people at Stanford and Carnegie Mellon, where I had some connections.

JE: How did you raise the capital to begin your business?

TB: It’s entirely self-funded.

JE: How did you go about creating a leadership team?

TB: Really, it’s still just me on the leadership team. The team’s only 11, total.

JE: With such a small team, how did you select the best people to develop your robotic technology?

TB: A lot of them contacted me. As soon as I started publishing things on our website about what we were doing, I started getting a stream of really promising resumes. I think partly because we were one of the only non-military robotics companies.

JE: Has it been particularly challenging to start a company in today’s depressed economic environment?

TB: In some ways, I’ve found it to be an advantage. It’s easier to hire people, to rent office space, to get suppliers to turn around projects faster.

Inspiration and Community

JE: Are there any entrepreneurs who inspired you?

TB: I was inspired by Steve Jobs back in 1978, when I first got my hands on an Apple II, and I continue to be inspired.

JE: How important is the surrounding environment—the local community—to a startup’s success?

TB: I’ve only tried \\[launching companies\\] in Silicon Valley and Boston, both of which are pretty good places to do it. It’s amazing the number of different kinds of resources and advantages you get by being in a startup hub. People understand what you’re doing \\[and\\] everyone gets how startups work and they’re willing to listen and help.

JE: What’s the biggest crisis you’ve faced as an entrepreneur?

TB: There are so many. In my first business, which was ultimately successful, we almost went out of business three or four times because of funding problems, patent litigation \\[and\\] founder conflicts. But the more you find out about businesses, the more you find out that every business has these \\[challenges\\]. Apple almost failed when \\[co-founder\\] Steve Wozniak left. For every successful business you can think of there are probably a half-dozen points in its history where it was almost dead. So it’s encouraging to think that you’re not alone.

JE: Does being a startup make you more innovative?

TB: Yes. The essence of being a startup is that no one will tell you, “That’s not your job; you can’t do that.” Certainly in our state, with 11 people and 10,000 things we’ve got to do, anyone who takes on any job is appreciated.

Entrepreneurship Insight

JE: Can entrepreneurship be learned?

TB: It can be learned best by doing. You do learn some things in a business program, but most successful entrepreneurs started with a background in the field they were interested in, whether it was technology or food or whatever, and then figured out the business as they went along.

JE: Are most entrepreneurs serial innovators?

TB: Yes. With most of the entrepreneurs I know, if their current business somehow disappeared they would be working on the next business in no time.

JE: Is there an ideal age for becoming an entrepreneur?

TB: I don’t think there’s an ideal age, but there is an ideal phase of life. It’s hard to do if you have small kids at home or if you’re in grad school. You have to devote all your time to \\[the business\\], so it’s best if you’re in a phase of life where you can do that.

JE: Do you think that entrepreneurs are happier than other people?

TB: No, but they would be even unhappier if they weren’t doing what they love doing.

JE: Is there anything else a new entrepreneur should know before getting started?

TB: I think the advice I heard about having children applies: It’s harder than you can imagine, but also more rewarding than you can imagine.

JE: Thank you, Trevor, for taking the time to talk with me.

TB: My pleasure.

Trevor Blackwell; CEO; Anybots; 650-776-7870; via Meredith Klee;; 415-684-9407; [email protected]

About the Author

John Edwards

Based in the Phoenix area, John has over 30 years of experience writing and talking on electronics and IT topics.

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