World Entrepreneur Day: Robotify on challenges Irish start-ups face today

21 Aug 2019

The Robotify team in Talent Garden Dublin. Image: Robotify

To mark the World Entrepreneur Day, chatted with Robotify, a start-up founded to revolutionise code learning.

Robotify was founded by CEO Adam Dalton and CTO Evan Darcy, who met in secondary school. The idea behind their company is to create DIY robotics kits that allow children to learn how to code in a fun and intuitive way.

The pair now operate out of DCU Alpha’s Talent Garden, where their start-up has been able to expand and establish itself in the hub’s ecosystem environment.

Here, Dalton and Darcy discuss the challenges they have faced so far, and how they’ve learned to prepare for obstacles ahead of them.

So far, how has your start-up managed to overcome challenges related to capital?

We focused on getting the basics right before we looked into raising capital. The key thing for us was to try to get to a place where what we had was scalable, so much so that if we were to raise capital it would be pretty obvious that we could utilise it to drive growth.

We were able to access enough capital internally to get the business to a point where we felt it was investor ready. In doing this, we demonstrated that we were efficient with capital and could show clearly how we would utilise fresh capital from a raise.

It helped that our chairperson and co-founder Andrew [Murphy] had done all of this before. Evan and I are quick learners, so having someone who has been around the block helped. Regardless, we have tried to be frugal and have limited spending by learning how to do things ourselves. We’re self-taught programmers and usually when we don’t know how to do something we just Google it and figure it out.

Another really effective way to make progress with a start-up before raising is by utilising freelancers. Platforms like UpWork have a massive pool of talent for a relatively low-cost.

Certainly, the biggest challenges to overcome for us were expertise and traction. However, even if the state of the product is suboptimal at the point of MVP [minimum viable product], once there is clear scalability and product-market fit, it becomes relatively easy to raise capital.

Looking at challenges that are unique to entrepreneurs in Ireland today, what challenges do you think your company faces now that it might not necessarily have faced 10 or more years ago?

One of the biggest challenges, which SaaS companies like us face, is the rate of change in the industry and the rate at which new competitors enter the market. Anyone can start a business now and start selling online with a bit of effort and some well-thought-out strategy.

Because it’s so easy to start a business, and as there’s an increased number of resources available to people, this brings a new challenge to businesses today. It’s becoming increasingly important to find the niche and really hone in on that niche. Maybe 10 to 15 years ago more people were developing technologies for broader markets. Due to the saturation of these markets, it’s actually very difficult to scale within these bigger scopes.

For Robotify, we found our niche in between two different industries: code learning and robotics. We effectively analysed the issues in code learning and robotics, and developed an extremely niche product that has the ability to scale in a way that we feel very excited about.

Two young men in brown jackets stand beside an older man in a suit.

Darcy and Dalton receiving the DCU President’s Award for Innovation in 2017. Image: Robotify

Besides capital and finding a niche, what other challenges have you met since the launch of Robotify?

Pushing through the tough times. There have been times on our journey where we have felt utterly lost, defeated or doubtful of ourselves. It is tough to keep morale high during these times, but it always pays off to persevere.

The toughest times are already behind us. Running a start-up in your early twenties also means that you have to make sacrifices and deal with situations that most of your peers do not. It’s the challenges that make things interesting though, so we wouldn’t have it any other way.

What are some ways in which you have prepared yourself for potential obstacles or challenges?

We run right in at the deep end. Usually, our process involves setting a goal in place and then reverse engineering it to get to the point of where we started. By the end of that process, we have learned everything we need for said challenge. That process just repeats itself and accumulates over time, and that’s where the learning happens. Just like on Robotify!

Has Talent Garden’s ecosystem environment helped Robotify on its journey?

As a young, small start-up, it has been a brilliant way to bring a bit of the Bay Area to Robotify. Coming to work in a place like Talent Garden Dublin makes you feel like you’re going to get stuff done and make exciting things happen. Our team love it here and this kind of environment is perfect for what we do.

Having neighbours close by and meeting new people is one of the most important aspects for us. For our small team of five, it has been great just having other human beings around to chat with over a cup of coffee in the Talent Garden café or a beer at the community events.

Five men and one woman stand in front of a glass wall together.

The Robotify team. Image: Robotify

What is your main piece of advice for a young entrepreneur in Ireland today?

Do not get caught up by arbitrary things like raising money, excessive personal brand building or the rest. Focus on the important stuff at the beginning, like the concept, business model and product-market fit and scalability of the business.

If you tick those boxes, then go learn how to get where you want to be. If you really can’t do that, then find a co-founder that can help you pour blood, sweat and tears into the business.

Once you have MVP, test it with users. Are your validations right? If not, iterate until you’ve found what works. But keep scalability in mind throughout all of this.

Too many young people fall victim to the whole idea of running this cool, tech start-up, going to these fun networking events and subscribing to a notion that you have to raise capital just because that’s how it works in the Valley. We fell victim to this in the beginning and we honestly wasted the best part of two years focusing on the wrong things.

TLDR: Focus on what’s important and eventually the rest will fall into place.

Kelly Earley was a journalist with Silicon Republic