King of Convenience: Pierre Lebeau, Founder and CEO of Keecker
Life as a solo founder, trusting your creativity, and solving the big problems
Pierre Lebeau never considered himself an entrepreneur; an intrapreneur, maybe, but not someone who would set out on his own to build a standalone product. He didn’t think he was creative enough. In his seven-plus years at Google, he worked on products like Earth, Voice, Analytics, and more, always with a guaranteed and immediate user base of millions. There, he learned that if he focused on solving the big problems, he’d never have to worry about a market.
The idea that finally turned Pierre from Googler to Xoogler was what came to be known as Keecker. It’s a voice-enabled robot who combines entertainment, communication, and monitoring into one smooth, mobile robot who follows you around from room to room, projecting YouTube workout videos, checking that you haven’t left windows open, lulling you to sleep with the sound of the ocean, and much more. Specs are as follows: Android-based, app-controlled orb (iOS or Android) loaded with a 720p projector, 4.1 speaker package including subwoofer, multiple web cameras and proximity sensors, Chromecast, voice control and a stripped back Android interface powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon quad-core processor and hefty 12Ah 300Wh lithium-ion battery offering six hours of continuous movie watching (Wired).
For years, Pierre kept a log of some of those “big problems” that he observed, a varied list of industries and products that he felt could be improved, as well as things he just didn’t like. It was precisely by going over this list of problems once again that Pierre was hit with the idea for Keecker. Pierre says, “This product is solving about three or four or five things that I had listed on the list. And everything was kind of pre-crunched, and then the unblocking element was that one sentence, ‘What if I put a projector in this?’” It was an idea stronger than any he’d ever had, and it came to him while riding home one night on his motorbike:
And from that just one sentence, it just like it was kind of an enlightenment and then I was driving my scooter and everything kind of came in the right place at the right time. So, in five minutes I really had everything about this product… I started to draw things. Two days afterwards I woke up at 2:00 AM and typed 10 pages of stuff to explain, to draft pretty much what this product was about. And that document? Everybody reads it when they enter the company because it's exactly what we're trying to do, still today… So it was very, very clear and really kind of strong, like strong enough to wake you up and to say, ‘Well, I have to write it down because I'm just going to go crazy if I don't.’ And then also strong enough to say, ‘Okay, I'll stop Google and I'll start that.’
Pierre set about bringing his vision to life. Fully committed to his lightning strike of an idea for Keecker, and armed with years of experience as a product manager and working with startups at Google, he started on his entrepreneurial journey. Initially, he wanted very much to have a cofounder along for all of the hard work and endless decisions that would inevitably arise. However, when no one appeared, he decided that he’d rather travel alone than wait for a partner who might never materialize, squandering his passion and vision in the process. He was determined, experienced, and comfortable enough financially to go after his vision alone, aiming to swim but knowing that if he sank, he’d better do it quickly.
“But still in the end by yourself, and the hardest thing is to kind of get the energy to go and push again when you're really low and kind of get up again and continue.”
He knew the value of having a sounding board, and initially found community in a group of entrepreneurs in France, all working on a broad variety of projects spanning industries and technologies. He views this group as a kind of “AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) for entrepreneurs”: “It just allows you to share, because you are very much by yourself, so it's good to talk to people that have similar difficulties.” As Member #4 of Hardware Club, Pierre joined another kind of entrepreneurial group, one which focuses on building a strong network of hardware founders who can help one another with problems many of them share. Particularly as a solo founder, he found comfort and a great deal of assistance in being part of such a focused community.
“And if someone comes in along the way, then that's great. But I'm not going to get married to someone just because I need to get married, because it just turns into a divorce most of the time."
Pierre worked for a time with a young engineer to familiarize himself with the electronics and hardware involved, which had, until then, never been his area of expertise. The first five years of Keecker weren’t easy (building a startup never is), but Pierre’s laser-focused vision remained his North Star, guiding him and Keecker through their first hires, the creation of their initial prototype, a three-and-a-half-year building process for their next iteration, and the loss of time and resources from working with an ill-suited production partner. He set out to build Keecker at a time when consumer robotics was still a new field, and was able to get traction and funding from exhibiting at CES in 2014, despite only getting their prototype working for the very first time at 3AM the opening day of the exhibition.
Here to Entertain (and much more)
Pierre’s main goal with Keecker was, and remains, to simplify technology for its users. While the robot allows users to throw parties with mobile speakers, move from the living room to the bedroom to continue their Netflix-and-chilling, and teach their kids about the solar system on their ceilings, it does much more, too. Keecker’s built-in sensors, cameras, and programmable platform allow it to travel around the mapped-out area of the house, to check for windows left open while you’re away, to detect anomalies and ask you about them.
Keecker also allows for the removal of some little-used devices from the home, as it’s able to move the technology from one place to another: “It starts with the fact that you don't have to have a dozen devices everywhere and in every room, all the time, fixed, gathering dust and not being very useful for 95% of the time: cords, cables, power extensions, all this kind of crap, things that just take up your visual space.” Essentially, Keecker can take the party to where you want it to be, and take it away when you’re done.
In addition to all of the great use cases for Keecker at home, they’re helpful in other collective environments, too:
Where we wanted to focus on is simplifying shared technology, so we don't focus on personal technology like smartphones or headsets… but really on things that belong to a group... that's the same thing with Keecker, it belongs to a house, or a business, or team. About 30% of our customers are businesses; we've worked with hotels, with businesses that want to have solutions for video conferencing, and projection, or presentations, etc. For a meeting room… you could always book Keecker as a resource and then say (to Keecker), "Hey at that time, be there". Then business owners don't have to equip all these meeting rooms with very expensive fixed devices. And then at night, the Keecker can be a kind of security guy, it can also move around. So the value is interesting for businesses.
While it might seem like there would be a myriad of privacy concerns with use of a shared technology such as Keecker, Pierre notes that most of the voice commands one can give the robot don’t trigger any security issues: “There's nothing that goes up on the cloud, whether it's voice or cameras, etc., unless it's really activated… if you just go and ask (Keecker) to go to the bedroom, the voice section is local, it doesn't go up in the cloud… similar to the camera, it doesn't really record anything.” This differentiates Keecker from a Google or Amazon product, which functions primarily on the cloud.
Bumping into walls
Of course, building Keecker has not been without its challenges. Apart from all of the difficulties inherent in designing a robot that can maneuver around and map a space, serve as home entertainment system and office assistant, and keep an eye on security, Pierre and his team are focused now on issues like scalability and distribution. By changing their manufacturing partner, they were able to significantly reduce the price of each Keecker unit from upwards of €4000 to €1790. In his initial 10-page document, Pierre had set a target price for Keecker of $500, and this still remains a goal. Keecker distributes mainly in Europe for now, as it’s closer to home for them. They’re present in more than 30 stories, including Fnac and Boulanger, major electronic chain stores in France, and in Harrods and Selfridges in London, as well as independent retailers throughout France that sell high-end consumer electronics. One of their major challenges now is to increase distribution in Europe and worldwide.
Building the future, quietly
“Today, people don't have a problem of not being friendly enough with the machines. It's not a problem that really exists. Maybe in the future it will, but not today.”
Behind Pierre’s studious, spectacled gaze lies a mischievous twinkle and a keen eye for the long game. One of the major errors he sees in consumer robotics today is makers who attempt to create a need that doesn’t (yet) exist; building robots who’ll be friends with their owners, according to him, is not where the market is. He differentiates Keecker from products that might initially be construed by competitors, saying,
We wanted to build a solution for people. And initially it was solving home technology, which is giving you a screen, sound sensors, and security wherever you wanted, freely without cables and all that. And it just turned out that it was a robot… I don't care about speaking to a machine, I just want it to do something… Today, people don't have a problem of not being friendly enough with the machines. It's not a problem that really exists. Maybe in future it will, but not today.
He again states the importance of solving the “big problems”, and emphasizes that those must be real and present issues that people struggle with. Building solutions to those problems allows for the inclusion of extra technology that can sow the seeds for new interests and consumer demands, which is how he sees some of today’s best-selling products:
It's very much like your smartphone. Initially you bought it because it was a phone, and then you had all these apps, which were cool. And now it's kind of the opposite, people buy it for the apps and they randomly use the phone. And it’s very similar to Alexa and Echo. Echo was sold as a wireless speaker that had some talking and intelligence in it. It was very smart because it addressed the need of people wanting to buy wireless speakers. The voice stuff, if it doesn't work, you don't care because you've got the wireless speaker. It turns out that people now don't even see that as a wireless speaker, but really as a voice assistant, and it really amazes people. And now it's becoming its own category. But selling it just as a voice assistant would have been a big mistake.
His advice for other startups in the consumer robotics space? Don’t fall into the trap of trying to invent markets for technology that’s still a few too many steps down the road; instead, solve people’s current, pressing problems, and quietly introduce cool, innovative bits under the radar. (This advice pertains to entrepreneurs in the software space, too!)
Challenges of funding hardware
“We're a platform for software that resides on a physical product that is hardware.”
Pierre notes that the rules of funding for hardware startups are very specific, and that many funds choose not to fund hardware companies because they don't really understand the business models. He says that it’s often easier to find funding in Asia, as hardware is a more visible and fundamental business there, whereas in Europe and in the United States, there are fewer hardware startups, and more of a focus on services driven by software. Pierre points out that those business models are very dependent on traction, users, and acquisition, while simultaneously light on working capital because they rely just on people and machines. Hardware, on the other hand, requires the people, the machines, as well as a factory setup, working capital to buy components, tools, etc.
Although hardware models may require a great deal of investment up front and are slower to iterate on, according to Pierre, once established, retail channels and their resulting sales can essentially become self-perpetuating recurring revenue for the business, without much active work required. Barriers to entry are higher in hardware, which can be a positive element for companies that have successfully established themselves as leaders in their markets. Interestingly, Pierre considers Keecker to be a hybrid model:
We're more of a software company in terms of team and what we do as a focus, but we design our own hardware in order to make sure that the software that runs on it is good enough, and both are very much intertwined. It’s very much like Steve Jobs used to say, that there's initially no differentiation between hardware and software, it's just a global experience. And that if they're designed together, they can really create value. That's what we do, because we're a platform for software that resides on a physical product that is hardware.
This global view of the software and hardware together make Keecker’s design more seamless and elegant. Keecker also allows users to develop on its platform, to effectively customize their own machines.
Advice from the virtual trenches
When asked what wisdom he would share with hardware founders just starting out, Pierre says the following:
You have to be very passionate and motivated, really believe in it. Design and integrate the hardware and software together so that you can follow the manufacturing each step of the way, and as part of one team. Don't waste your money with consultants or third-party design houses, because they'll cost you more and they'll waste your time; just focus on getting the right people. And think twice about investors. They're very, very difficult to find in hardware. The main difficulty is to be able to handle and have an understanding of hardware and software, and funding all of that together as one. You have to be resilient.
“You’re never really satisfied.”
Pierre defines success as being proud of what you’re working on, knowing that you’ve achieved something. For him, this meant getting a “sufficiently good” product out on the market, a product that his team can now focus on improving and refining. He knows that it’s not finished, and it likely never will be. But “as soon as you can feel proud of something that you’ve done, whatever the metrics you’re considering, it’s an element of success.” Certainly, no one would begrudge Pierre for being proud of his team of nearly 30 people, who’ve built a sleek product that portends of more utility and style in the future to come.