113: Developing Challenging Consumer Products as a Founder

113: How Founders Develop Complex Hardware Products

February 9, 2022

With Bob Christopher, Founder of Pleo

113: How Founders Develop Complex Hardware Products

Bob Christopher is the founder of Pleo, a massively successful robot dinosaur kids toy with hundreds of parts. This is one of his many products and product companies over a long and successful history in the product innovation world. He was also the director of innovation at Panasonic, and sits on a number of advisory boards at hardware accelerators. Today, Bob is going to share some valuable knowledge on how inventors, startups, and small manufacturers can understand what it takes to design and develop complicated mechanical and or electronic consumer products, with many development lessons he has learned along the way.

Today you will hear us talk about:

  • Being close with your design and development team
  • Engineering for half full, not half empty
  • Define what the end experience should be
  • Test and refine
  • Prove your worth to the manufacturers
  • Ensure your different types of designers work together
  • Be willing to learn, both the founder, and the designers
  • Build and break your prototypes
  • Listen to your stakeholders, especially further down the development process before you go to market.
  • The journey is part of the fun

The Product Startup Podcast
113: How Founders Develop Complex Hardware Products
With Bob Christopher, Founder of Pleo

00:00 | Kevin Mako (KM): Hello product innovators, today we learned from one of the leading electronic toy inventors on how founders can best develop complex hardware products.

00:11 | Voice-over: You’re listening to the Product Startup podcast. The show that helps bring your product idea to life, by chatting with successful inventors, product developers, manufacturers, and hardware industry professionals. Our goal here is to get to the bottom of what makes a product successful, from initial idea to getting your product on store shelves. We’re taking you step by step to build a functional product and scale your product business. Hosted by Kevin Mako, one of North America’s leading experts on hardware development for small product businesses. Now, on to the show.

00:47 | KM: Welcome back everyone. Today I’m very excited to introduce Bob Christopher to the show. Bob is the founder of Pleo, a massively successful robot dinosaur kids toy with hundreds of parts. This is one of his many products and product companies over a long and successful history in the product and innovation world. He is also the director of innovation at Panasonic and sits on a number of advisory boards at hardware incubators around the world. 

01:09 | KM: Today, Bob is going to share some valuable knowledge on how inventors startups and small manufacturers can understand what it takes to design and develop complicated, mechanical and or electronic consumer products with many development lessons he has learned along the way. Now on to the episode. Hey Bob, welcome to the show. 

01:25 | Bob Christopher (BC): Thank you. 

01:26 | KM: Excited to have you on today. You’ve not only launched a number of products, two major robotics products into the consumer market that many people will know. But you’ve also been the director of innovation for Panasonic. So you have been in the innovation sphere around hardware for a long time and have a tremendous amount of experience and today obviously we’re going to be talking about some of the best practices to developing your product and working with your engineering team. So as a quick background and highlight, how did you get to where you are? 

01:53 | BC: I used to be back in the day, I was in orthopedic, surgical medical development for new types of products for orthopedic surgeons. And I got really tired of basic working at big company. I thought let’s develop something that’s cool. And I just kind of fast forward, but through this complete circumstance, I met my co-founder of my first robot company, Caleb Chung, he’s kind of a famous guy. He was the founder and creator of the Furby. 

02:18 | BC: So if you anybody knows Furby it’s this little animatronic toy and billions of dollars of Furby as been sold. So it’s a pretty big success. Anyway, we connected in actually his brother’s place. He showed me this video of this robot moving and walking lifelike. And it looked like a living creature and I thought, wow, this is amazing. How did you do this? 

02:40 | BC: We of course then came together and thought about this and then built the company product around this tech that he invented. And so that was kind of the really beginning of me getting into robotics. So I got involved with Caleb. Built this company called you Ugobe, which made the Pleo robot and people don’t know Pleo, Google search, it’s pretty cool robot. It was a journey. It was a journey into the development of hardware. And how do you make this stuff work? 

03:06 | BC: For those that don’t know Pleo, it’s a robot dinosaur. It has 1,847 parts, 14 servos, 38 sensors. It’s a fully autonomous being. Doesn’t have any remote control. It has AI built into it. It’s learning. It’s a robot toy. It’s not like it’s going to be evolving into something, but it’s a really cool sophisticated robot. We built a really cool product, took a long time to get there.

03:29 | BC: And part of this is I just learned so much about building hardware in this journey. When I built the company, I realized that you cannot not be involved in engineering. You have to be involved in the actual development. So I was very much involved with the firmware, electrical engineering, some mechanical design, and learned a lot with my team about and this is just amazing. We were always testing our engineering and our design around the experience envelope. We were like, what’s that envelope we really want to have. 

04:04 | BC: And Caleb was good. I mean, he was religious about this. He was like, this is the experience that come with Steve jobs like this. You have to have this experience. Otherwise everything sucks. And his comment was, it’s easy to make things look broken. So you can over promise your product is, do all these things. And then it, of course, it’s going to look broken because it’s not going to do it all the time. And so we were very concerned about just not putting too much out there with our product. We wanted in terms of promises.

04:31 | KM: Promises are a big thing, especially for a new hardware founder and you’re involved in making very complicated products, which is great to have you to talk about on the show today because a lot of consumer product, especially these days when you’re getting complex mechanisms mixed with electronics, mixed with robotics, mixed with different material science. And as you said, going into all sorts of maybe experimental things like a new set of gears, all of these things add complexities. 

04:54 | KM: So the best thing that you can do as a founder first and foremost, is making sure to condense that into your starter products. So you’re not trying to do too many things at once. You can always scale into other things. And we’ve talked about that quite a bit on the show. So I appreciate that you brought that up. Another thing I found very interesting about what you brought up is mentioning about you working heavily with your engineering and design team.

05:17 | KM: You’re the type of founder that you didn’t want to just sit and have them go and run at it and talk to them months later and see where they were at. You wanted to be evolved on a regular basis to make sure that the design and engineering that was happening was matching the vision that you had for the product down the road. 

05:32 | KM: The vision for your product was Testament to both you and your founder on what was important from a user experience perspective. And then making sure that trickled down to the day-to-day design and engineering. Can you highlight a bit more of about what you found was working in managing a design and engineering team, especially because we’re talking about a complicated product and how that ended up being a very big success based on that work you were doing with the design team in the early days.

05:55 | BC: Yeah, in the early days, it was actually pretty natural, organic. Everything kind of flowed. But then as the company got bigger, we had to definitely think about how to build the right layers in people. And my main offices were in Emeryville Berkeley, but our R&D facilities were in Boise, Idaho. That was a challenge because we had to go fly back and forth. I had about 25 guys working for me in Boise. 

06:20 | BC: And I think it comes down to kind of really the right people. I mean my CTO and my VP of engineering were just amazing, really good. They had this kind of, I mean, I’ll say the glass half full. They knew the possibilities that we were up against. And also of course the challenges. What I would say my engineering group back in Boise would always think about things in a very curious level.

06:42 | BC: And of course would want to challenge the development, but is always around the experience envelope I just mentioned. So we always wanted to acid test everything against this, what is expert? So we had to spend time actually defining what the experience on how’s it going to move? How’s the software going to work? What’s that experience we want to have from Pleo. And we had this, what they call an ethos. We had this kind of like seven criteria that Pleo always had to meet.

07:14 | BC:  And all the engineering decisions had to kind of follow that criteria. And if it was at a whack, we would do it. So it worked out really well. It was kind of surprising. We made a lot of hard decisions about hardware with using this guidepost kind of, okay, this isn’t going to really support the experience and the brand and the image we want to create with this product. We went out on a press tour and I remember I was going out and I think I was talking to Walt Moberg back in New York Wall Street Journal. 

07:42 | BC: He was a big guy at the time. And he said to us, hey man, your robot’s got a battery built into it. You can’t take it out. He was saying, it’s going to be a problem for you guys. And so we agreed. So we had to stop. We actually were going into manufacturing. We had to stop our manufacturing schedule and then regroup and then figure out a way to basically create a removable battery. And we did it, we did it within like six weeks, we had redesigned it. 

08:10 | BC: And within three months we had the whole redesigned put into China and they were building molds on it. So we just got it in time, literally for the first week in Christmas, it was just in time to ship the first 5,000 units out. My investors, they were so worried and everyone was like under pins and needles. Of course it was like, it was make or break time. But we knew what we’re doing was the right thing to do. 

08:37 | BC: So we had all these different design approaches to solving problems around, again, this kind of experience envelope. And then I guess kind of that also reflected on our team. So we had this way of looking at things about solving problems, again, kind of glass half full. And I want people who were challenging. They wanted to challenge the engineering decision in a good way. So let’s make this better. Let’s make this faster, let’s change this part, make it more interesting. That was the kind of the mode of operation with my engineering team.

09:10 | BC: So as a founder, I was there a lot. I spent a lot of time with our group in China. In fact, it was always kind of like this weird thing in China where you almost had to be an ambassador, on behalf of your company with these manufacturers and these suppliers, because they’ll test you, they’ll see if you have the business discipline or the wherewithal. 

09:35 | BC: They’ll look to say, is this person going to have a product that’s really going to be successful? I mean, they kind of give you that look like, are they going to sell me? Are they going to make hundreds of thousands of these things or just like 2000, it’s like that? And you had to really kind of prove your metal. There was I mean, a lot of really tough engineering decisions though.

09:52 | BC: And I think the thing that I would say about, is you’re going to have, I mean, you’re building a new hardware, you have this kind of, we call it the Renaissance mode. It’s like, you have to play in different camps. You can’t play only in electrical engineering. You can’t only play in mechanical engineering. You got to be able to dance back and forth. And so if you think of your team as siloed, like they’re only electrical engineers and these guys are mechanical and these guys are software. 

10:21 | BC: You’re going to have all sorts of translation issues with your development path. There’s just going to be all these things that need the kind of mix of the two together. And so we learn a lot about, as an engineer, you have to have these multiple skills and be willing to test them all the time and then be willing to learn. But anyway, there’s these little mini sprints we had to go through in building that product. 

10:50 | BC: Fast forward. I’ve been involved with other robots. I was involved with the launch of Jibo. Jibo is a robot for the home and Cynthia Brazil from MIT media lab, who’s very famous because of her work on social robots, she was behind the company and we built this amazing robot. The idea was, and we learned this with Pleo, was when everything moves, when anything moves or robot moves, we had this tendency to be anthropomorphic. 

11:22 | BC: We want to see life in it. We think it’s alive. People like call their vacuum cleaners by name because they look at it as a pet. And so with Jibo we wanted to have the anthropomorphic relationship in a very organic way. So when he moved his head and looked at you with curiosity, you had to have that exact look like if somebody said, Hey, what’s up? 

11:43 | KM: It sounds like there are two main themes here that really helped you design a great product, even though it was complicated. First, you had a very clear vision of what you were looking to do. And that’s what you said, you had specifically seven guiding principles that you needed this to do, that would guide all of the rest of the decisions, whether it was industrial design on the visual side, whether it’s mechanical engineering, whether it was electronic engineering or software, all of these teams were essentially building that model via that vision of those seven principles. 

12:10 | KM: And then second, you have mentioned that test and refine element a few times, where you really were putting the effort into not only push your team, but also push your own insight in terms of how could you develop this thing to be relatively simple, not to feature creep or not to over promise to your eventual customers or to your partners or shareholders or other stakeholders, but really focusing on those seven core principles and then testing and refining it continually until you got a product that you genuinely believed in. 

12:40 | KM: So much as you’re mentioning that it was right up to you’re ready to deliver and it’s at the factory, but there was something that you knew needed to be done based on feedback that you were listening to that made that happen. So I find that’s something that’s so important when you’re designing a new product, is really being focused on what you want to do, keeping it narrow, not feature creeping, and then simultaneously making sure to build and test and refine. 

13:01 | KM: How many prototypes do you figure you went through in designing this and testing the pieces. And over what period of time did this take?

13:08 | BC: Took over two years, two years to build it. So it’s so funny you mentioned this. Kevin, thanks for the question because it reminded me what we would always tell ourselves, is we like, okay, we’re building and breaking, build it and break it, build it and then find out how it breaks. What’s the problem. And it’s like build and break, build and break. And then we had of course milestones we had to hit. 

13:30 | BC: And the biggest milestone that we had to hit was that Pleo had to walk. This is going from a prototype to an actual commercial version. That’s a big leap. Now you’re talking about, your own servers, your own off the shelf servers and things like this, but yeah, those seven principles were so important. In fact, they guided almost everything from packaging. I mean, literally our packaging was designed by that too. 

13:58 | BC: And we had some help. I had some people who came in and worked with us from Lucas films and then Blizzard. There are some interesting cultures that were kind of infused in our culture and they’re like game guys. And they’re talking about like, how do you think about a character from a game perspective? And then how do you build a relationship with it? Just all this kind of interesting perspectives from building it. But it always came down to seven principles. And then I think people don’t realize this. You’re always, always, always building and breaking. I mean, you might have a release and say, this is my public release. This is my product. Great, but it’s not done yet.

14:39 | BC: You got to always continually improve that design and optimize it or go to the next design, but you always have to be building it and challenging it. And I think, I feel like a lot of robot companies just don’t do that. They just kind of build it and they set it and then they kind of just, they optimize it or modified a little bit like that ingenuity part of it gets sidelined. And I feel there’s a lot of missed opportunities with hardware design when you just kind of sit back and think, oh, it’s done. It’s never done.

15:14 | KM: Well. Something that you mentioned, part of the guiding principles, you’ve got your seven principles, but then on top of that, it seems like you were listening to various stakeholders a lot to then come back to build and break and improve your next version. Listening is a huge piece of the development process, both to your internal team, but also to external stakeholders as you did throughout that process. You mentioned, you’re bringing in film companies and game crews. That’s amazing before you’ve even launched a market. 

15:45 | KM: You’re bringing in this incredible insight especially probably further on in the development process. So you’ve got your core technology built. Now you’re improving and refining it. So you’ve got enough meat on the bones to make people excited about your product, external stakeholders. There is a manufacturer that you kind of deal with or whether these big companies like Blizzard and Lucas films, those people you are listening to and collecting their feedback, applying it to your seven principles. Aligning it with those principles and then making your product better as a result. 

16:15 | BC: That’s exactly right. It’s having the appetite to go there. I mean, it takes some guts. It takes courage because you’re going to be put yourself out there and taking on risk. You don’t know what you don’t know, but that’s okay. And that’s part of the fun. I mean if you’re building hardware, make it fun. That’s going to be infused in your product and if it’s laborious, you got to, I would say step back and rethink about what you’re doing. 

16:45 | BC: Create your own principles, create your own 3, 4, 5, 7, whatever principles you think. And then we’re saying, for example, Pleo, I think we had three life form. We had laws of life forms. So we call it Pleo a life form, not a robot. So three laws of life forms. It must evolve over time. It must be autonomous and it must be aware of its environment. So it has to know that it’s at the edge of the table because it can’t be contextually unaware. 

17:11 | BC: Tha would break the illusion of Pleao. And then it has to evolve. All Pleos were built so that their personalities would evolve over time based upon the interactions you had with the robot. So some of the robots were kind of shy and not so interacted because their owners didn’t really interact with them too much. They were kind of lonely. Other ones are very social. Other ones are kind of mischievous and kind of causing problems because they would do things. They would knock things off tables. 

17:45 | BC: I mean Pleo can be a little mischievous. What’s fun about it, we were inspired by Apple. Early on when, when Steve launched the Mac, they created these user groups around the country about Mac, people using the Mac and coming together and sharing notes and stuff. And we did the same thing with Pleo. We did Pleo groups around the country. So people got the robots together and they have these experiences, but it was like magic, things you didn’t expect. 

18:12 | BC: And that’s what Caleb would say, is like you always have to create these Easter eggs that people don’t expect with your robot or your product. Because that’s the part that delights people. They discovered something with your product that wasn’t published. It’s not on the box, but something you discovered. And that what the Furby effect kind of was. People didn’t know what Furby was going to do until they had a Furby. 

18:36 | BC: So kind of same thing with Pleo. They didn’t know what Pleo was going to do until it actually became alive and was on your desktop. But again, that’s part of the seven laws that we were working against.

18:45 | KM: I know you have a hard stop coming up and I absolutely love the way that you concluded all of this with the journey is part of the fun. And that’s really. All the things we talked about today as you are a hardware development firm going through your own journey right now, just remember that yeah, there are trials and tribulations. There are things, you are purposely breaking stuff. You’re going to run into delays and roadblocks and other complications. You’re going to have a variety of stakeholder. You’re going to have conflicts. All of that’s part of the journey of making a magical product at the end of the day. Bob, I really appreciate all your words of wisdom today. Thanks again for joining us on the show.

19:20 | BC: Thanks Kevin. Really great to talk to you.

19:23 | Voice-over: Thanks for tuning in to this episode of the Product Startup podcast. The show that teaches you what it really takes to bring your product to market and turn it into a big success. This podcast series is brought to you by MAKO Design + Invent, the original and leading firm in North America to provide global caliber end-to-end physical consumer product development to startups, inventors, and small product business clients. If you’re looking for product development help on your invention, head over to makodesign.com. That’s M-A-K-O design.com, for a free consultation from one of MAKO Design’s, four design studios from coast to coast. Thanks for listening and see you next time.


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