The cavnessHR podcast – A talk with Mary Ellen Sparrow, Co-founder and CEO at NextShift Robotics
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Social Media links for Mary Ellen Below!!
NextShift Robotics FB: https://www.facebook.com/nextshiftrobotics/
NextShift Robotics Twitter: https://twitter.com/NextShiftRobots
NextShift Robotics Website: www.nextshiftrobotics.com
Mary Ellen’s Book Recommendation!!!
“Five temptations of a CEO” by Patrick Lencione.
Link to purchase these books is below.
Jason: Hello and welcome to the cavnessHR Podcast. I am your host Jason Cavness. Our guest today is Mary Ellen Sparrow. Mary Ellen are you ready to be great today?
Mary Ellen: Sure.
Jason: Mary Ellen is a co-founder and CEO of NextShift Robotics. Mary Ellen first began creating material handling robotic systems for the Semiconductor Industry Automation. Mary Ellen focus on all layers of software and her teams were responsible for deploying thirty plus systems and fabrication plants across the world for Intel, IBM, and Motorola. She has held software management positions at Brooks Automation and Symbolic. She was a member of the company's strategic planning boards and company representative for several semiconductor standards committees. In 2015 she joined harvest automation to create an eRetail warehouse material handling system using collaborative mobile autonomous robots. When Harvest decided to sell the warehouse robots so they could focus on their original market which was agricultural. Mary Ellen and Stephen Toebes https://www.linkedin.com/in/stephen-toebes-864a078/ started NextShift Robotics, buying the technology from Harvest Automation. Mary Ellen took the helm at NextShift which has completed a product Beta test.
Mary Ellen: Thanks Jason. So basically our company has actually passed the seed funding round and we're now starting our series A. What we noticed and why we created NextShift was in 2017. U.S. consumers spent .four hundred fifty three billion on online orders and that's growing at a 16 percent rate every year. What happened with this particular dynamic is that warehouses and manufacturing facilities are having a hard time keeping up with this demand. It's creating smaller orders with fewer items and they want next day delivery. People expect to get their stuff quickly and warehouses who are 45 percent using manual processes couldn't keep up. We designed NextShift to help warehouses be more productive, use a collaborative method that was more scalable. In doing so what happened was that we have seen basically these systems help the facility get over their hump and move forward.
Jason: What have your challenges been with a NextShift Robotics?
Mary Ellen: The challenges that we've seen with NextShift Robotics is basically getting people educated about how the robot works and how it's going to work collaboratively with humans. So it's no longer a robot behind a fence. But it's actually a robot that has a lot of smarts that has a lot of AI. It can drive around a person. Matter of fact, when it does drive around a person it goes at a slow speed just to make everybody comfortable. This is kind of a new way of doing automation. Where it doesn't take a year to put a system in, but it takes six, eight weeks, sometimes 20 minutes depending on what you're doing.
Jason: Now a lot of people out there think AI is a new new technology. But it is not really brand new, brand new is it? AI has been around for a little while hasn't it?
Mary Ellen: Yeah AI has been around for a long time actually. It's just starting to get more notice now because we're actually seeing a lot of applications that are being able to take advantage of that. Also it's getting more commonplace just like online ordering is more commonplace.
Jason: There are people out there who will say, the robots are taking my jobs, they're taking our jobs. Robots are a bad thing, AI is a bad thing. What would you tell those people to calm them down. Because I say this is actually a good thing.
Mary Ellen: Yeah this is actually a good thing, because what the robots are doing is making their job better. Basically, right now you have people lifting 40 pound totes and pushing carts that have 200 pounds on them. What the robots are doing is taking over these types of manual tasks, so that they can focus on their job and do better tasks and make more money. There's also a labor shortage. A lot of warehouses a manufacturing facilities are having a hard time finding workers to do these jobs.
Jason: Yeah this a very true fact. When a company brings on your robots are they actually buying your robots are they just leasing them from you?
Mary Ellen: Either one, we are happy to do either.
Jason: Which one have you found most customers want to do?
Mary Ellen: I haven't really found customers having preference. Basically it's probably 60 percent buy and maybe 30 to 40 percent they want to do robots as a service.
Jason: Is there any benefit between leasing or buying from you.
Mary Ellen: We don't see that there's a benefit either way because we're supporting our system no matter what. It really depends on the customers bottom line and what makes them comfortable and we're happy to do either.
Jason: So talking about customer support. How do you provide customer support to the people that bring on your robots? What all is involved in that for you.
Mary Ellen: We were pretty much doing two in a box where our folks will go to the site and train the person at the same time and make the warehouse and the facilities folks comfortable with what we have.
Jason: So how long does it take to build a robot.
Mary Ellen: There is a process to it. It probably takes about a few weeks to assemble a robot. We have it pretty much down to a science at this point and it takes a few months to get all the parts in.
Jason: Is your company mainly taking orders in the United States or across the world right now?
Mary Ellen: We're really focused on the U.S. and Canada. We do have a patents internationalized across the world and we do hope to spread out internationally. But right now we're focused on North America.
Jason: So change to the subject. As a female in STEM, how do we get more females into STEM?
Mary Ellen: I think it's basically through support and I think it's also through different groups that have been trying to promote having females in STEM. A lot of times throughout my career I've been like the only female in strategic planning. I've been the only female and in that type of space and what I'm starting to see is that more women are starting to enter. We're excited about the prospect, because the more diversity we have the better products.
Jason: Yes. I remember seeing a stat somewhere and I don't know if it true. But I remember seeing that of all the girls in elementary school interested in STEM by the time they get to high school it is down to 10 20 percent. How do we fix this? I mean I'm sure it has to with society. But it has some way to fix that?
Mary Ellen: There's actually a lot of programs that are just popping up that try to get women and girls. I hate to say girls, but high school girls more interested in science and they actually bring folks like myself and my cohorts into high school programs to show them that STEM is cool. You know it's basically trying to say engineering is not nerdy. But it's fun and whatever you're passionate about is really what you should explore.
Jason: So when you go to a company trying to sell your product what has been the push back for you? What are the reasons they say well we don't want to take on your robots?
Mary Ellen: Basically, the technology's new. So of course we're doing a lot of education. What has been really Fundamentally successful is bringing a robot into their facility. Having their 40 or 50 people surround the robot as we do a demo. They can see that it's not scary.
Jason: I remember your pitch at the New York Venture Summit. That was a great video you had of how your robots actually operate and how that they are very safe and actually slow down around humans. So that was very interesting.
Mary Ellen: That's actually one of the big things we learned early on is that when we went around a person or an object. We reduced the speed to half and that made everybody much more comfortable. The other thing we've done is kind of personalize the robots. We allow you to give them names. It's funny because after people have been used to them they start to pet them almost like dogs.
Jason: I bet that's hilarious. I would like to see that. Next talk about a time you were successful in the past what you learned from this and we can learn from this.
Mary Ellen: Actually, I think one of the most successful things that happened to us in this company has been when we got our first Patent. It was a very exciting moment for the company to actually see a lot of people come together with all their hard work and move it to fruition. So that we had a patent with this company. What it shows is really hard work and community and pushing all those pieces together really pay off.
Jason: How did you go about getting your team? Because obviously, you have to have some pretty smart people. How do you do find or a recruit or how do you do that?
Mary Ellen: Basically I've been in the industry quite a long time. So I know a lot of folks. A lot of times I have people actually asking me when we're ready to hire. But other than that there have been a lot of Intern Programs with for example WPI UMass Lowell a lot of the robotics communities nearby. We'll bring an intern on and actually show them how it works and a lot of times they want to stay.
Jason: Marry Ellen, next talk about a time you failed and what you learned and what we can learn.
Mary Ellen: The first time I ever pitched this company was at tech sandbox and the audio video failed. I got very nervous and just shut down and the whole audience went keep talking and I did and I got through it. So I think what I learned was just to keep moving and keep talking and keep pushing and you can get it done.
Jason: Next can you talk about someone who has helped you in the past and how they helped you?
Jason: Actually our first seed funder Golden Seeds has been a real inspiration to us. They pushed us to do better and to create a company that we can expand upon and we can build upon. My investors have just been wonderful. I didn't realize how influential investors would be and how much they actually wanted to help you build the business.
Jason: So for a company that is just getting started, they have a product, but they have not released a MVP yet, no market validation. What advice would have you have for them?
Mary Ellen: I would say that market validation is really essential, it's crucial that's what you want to do. So whether you go out and sell door to door. Whether you get a great salesperson which is what I recommend and actually work through the process with different customers have them understand your value position. Have you really understand what they're looking for. You have to be responsive to their needs.
Jason: So say as a company, they have a pretty good traction. They are ready to start raising funds. What advice do you have for these people.
Mary Ellen: They should really try to get market validation as soon as possible. Because a company is really built on its revenue.
Jason: Next, tell us something about yourself that most people don't know. Your close friends and family know this about you. But people that deal with you day to day don't know this about yourself.
Mary Ellen: I started off as a geologist. I spent four years working as a geologist in Denver, Colorado and had a great time. Unfortunately the market kind of crashed for geology and I decided to switch. But what I learned from that is that there's going to be many paths you're going to take in your life and it's crazy the paths and the way life changes.
Jason: I understand you have a book to recommend for our listeners.
Jason: It's a very short small book. It's called Five temptations of a CEO. It's by Patrick Lencione. Basically it's kind of like a Christmas story. It's a very short fable. What it has is passengers on a subway who give him lesson. It's short because I don't have time for anything long. I hope your listeners will enjoy it.
Jason: Mary Ellen, as a CEO, I don't think a lot of people realize how busy CEO is. Let's suppose their is a person who is saying, I want to be a CEO of my company. What would you tell this person who is just starting out to be a CEO Founder.
Mary Ellen: They're going to be very busy doing a lot of things they did not expect. Because as a CEO and a founder not only are you doing your product. But you're also doing all the business in the background. You're doing insurance, you're doing finance, you're doing everything. The sooner you can start to delegate some of those responsibilities, the easier it will be on everyone. So that you can laser focus on the needs of your company as a CEO.
Jason: So as far as your marketing do you have an actual marketing plan or is just word of mouth? How are you going about that?
Mary Ellen: Oh no of course we have marketing. We have a whole social media campaign. We have blogs. We have actually a Web cast. We've been showing expositions in shows.
Jason: Mary Ellen, can your provide your social media links for you and your company so people can reach out to you.
Mary Ellen: Sure. Facebook is NextShift Robotics. Twitter is NextSift Robots and our Web site is www.nextshiftrobotids.com and there's a Web page on there if they want to send us a message. We always love to hear from you guys.
Jason: For our listeners our listeners, we will have the links to her social media and her book recommendation on our show notes. You can find the show notes at www.cavnessHRblog.com. Mary Ellen, what's the long term vision for your company.
Mary Ellen: We really want to make our customers successful. That's our long term vision. We want to do whatever we can so that they can keep up with their next day deliveries on their orders. What they're trying to get through. We want to be a flexible, scalable and easy to put in as possible.
Jason: Are your plants in the Boston area or other places?
Mary Ellen: No we have one company which is in the Boston area. But our customers are all across the country.
Jason: Mary Ellen, we are coming to the end of our talk. Can you provide us any last minute advice or wisdom on any subject.
Mary Ellen: Well I'm going to give you a quote. This is a quote by a gentleman named Tom Preston Warner from GrubHub and what he said is when I'm old and dying and I'm going to try to not paraphase it too bad. I plan to look on my life and say wow that was an adventure. Not wow I sure felt safe. I hope that folks understand life is an adventure and things are going to change and that's OK.
Jason: Yes, a great quote thank you for that. Mary Ellen thank you for your time really appreciate it. I know as a founder and a CEO you've got a lot of stuff going on. We appreciate your time today.
Jason: Thanks Jason and thank you for the opportunity we appreciate it.
Jason: For our listeners, thank you for your time as well and remember to be great every day.