Interview: Talking AI Robots

An interview with Canvas Technology founders

Note from Mike and Ash: In this interview series, we pull the curtains back on different aspects of the startup ecosystem. Russ Rizzo is our scribe-in-residence, and we’ll dispatch him from time to time to bring you interviews. We hope you enjoy the insights!

We dispatched our scribe-in-residence Russ Rizzo to the Boulder, Colo., offices of Canvas Technologies to talk with founders Jonathan McQueen and Nima Keivan about their journey from seed stage to acquisition with their robotics company. They offered advice for other founders and gave us a sense of what life is like in the fast-moving world of a technology company.

Russ: What does Canvas Technologies do? 

Jonathan: We are a mostly software company creating a system that enables autonomous mobility of vehicles in indoor and outdoor spaces.

Russ: How’s that different from the initial concept?

Jonathan: That was it. It hasn’t changed.

Russ: How did you develop a passion for factory robots?

Jonathan: I was managing a couple of manufacturing sites and had a passion for lean production. With lean, you want to reduce batch sizes flowing through your facility and increase the frequency. It’s a goal every factory has, and it turns out to be really hard to do. I also was interested in creating a safer and more pleasant experience for workers. If you can reduce reliance on conveyor belts and forklifts, good things start happening in a factory.

I turned that company around and sold it. But that problem kept nagging at me. So after a couple of weeks, I began searching for a technical partner to see if a better system was possible. 

Russ: How did you meet?

Jonathan: I was in the department of engineering at CU Boulder and saw a piece of paper on a door that read “Autonomous Robotics and Research Group” and thought, “That’s exactly what I’m looking for.” Nima’s professor introduced us right then, and we had coffee. I explained what I wanted to do. He asked great questions.

Whenever I’m hiring anybody—especially at this level—I’m looking for, number one, integrity; number two, intelligence; and, number three, enthusiasm. I saw all three of those in spades in Nima.

Nima: Jonathan has always been forthcoming that there is a dual purpose in what we’re doing: maximizing efficiency, which he’s always been passionate about, and improving safety, which affected him personally. I saw potential in both; and we could credibly say they were our story.

I’m not a technology purist. Someone once told me nothing is worse than building something nobody wants or uses. I had gotten particularly worried applications of technology with no customer on the other end.

Russ: What helped you become successful?

Jonathan: One thing we’ve done well is constantly adjust as we’ve grown. I think that’s pretty rare. I think a lot of companies keep processes that served them with 10 people when they grow to 30 people, and then keep processes that serve 30 people when they grow to 100.

Nima: It helped to have a focus. The problem with loading and unloading carts has always existed, and we identified it early. There was enough value solving just that, and it was enough of a challenge, that we focused on it. Also, not having to pivot was extremely helpful. We created the product that we intended to build from the beginning, and there was a demand for it all the way through.

Russ: What’s something you learned that you wish you knew before?

Nima: Founders have an outsized effect on the feel, culture, dynamic, and pace of a team to a degree I couldn’t fathom before. Founders’ relationships with each other, their personality quirks, their rough edges—and on the flip side, their virtues and skills—get amplified.

I noticed early that I had the type of personality that would take over a discussion. I naively thought that would lead to a better outcome, but I learned I was sabotaging the team’s autonomy and confidence.

Jonathan: The crunch comes when you try to develop to a real commercial product. Your founding team has been working together long enough that you might be gnawing on each other’s nerves. It becomes a pressure cooker. That’s when things that would otherwise not be a problem start to seem really big.

Nima: Different people ramp up at different times. When there is no business in the beginning, your business people are not going to have the same level of intensity as the technical people who are trying to get a demo out the door. That might flip in the future.

Russ: What did you learn about raising money?

Jonathan: The seed investors wanted us to raise more money—wisely, we would learn—but we were sensitive to dilution, so we negotiated. We said, “Why don’t we raise half of what you want us to raise now and half later once we hit a milestone?” We have no regrets about that strategy.

Our main milestone was demonstrating our product. We wrote on a piece of paper what we would demonstrate to hit the target. It was six or seven goals. We would go through them: check, check, check, check.

Nima: That milestone was an amazing motivator. The lesson is to make sure there’s something in your back pocket to keep your team from getting post-performance blues. Milestones can be self-imposed, but they are more powerful when they’re external.

Russ: What is it like working with venture capitalists?

Jonathan: My experience has been binary: super negative and super positive. Once I experienced the negative, I learned quickly what to look for and avoided those guys like the plague. Ask yourself: “Is this is somebody I want to work with? Is this somebody I even want to have dinner with? Are they really interested in what I’m doing and in my success?” Some investors are more money-driven; others are more relationship-driven.

Russ: What’s it like to work with Morado?

Jonathan: We didn’t know it going in, but Ash came as a reference from someone who we trusted. We got to know Ash leading up to our Series A. He made introductions to customers and other VCs. He’s really helpful and incredibly responsive. You write to Ash, and he responds within minutes. I wrote to him asking if he knew anybody at Home Depot, and I had an intro with the CTO by the end of the day.

Nima: What I learned about Ash is embodied in a conversation we had while deciding which web stack to use for the website front-end. We thought Ash would say, “You should use XYZ technology. It’s the best.” But instead he said, “Use what you can hire for.” 

Jonathan: I love the practicality of that suggestion.

Nima: It diffused the whole situation; it just made sense. 

Ash is a technologist and an engineer, but he is always gentle with advice. I think he was careful not to erode our agency. He just kind of pushes things toward you. 

Morado is down to earth. Little things—like their office configuration and the way people greet you at the door—make a big difference.

Jonathan: There’s no big iron door with gold trimming.

Nima: We’ve been to pitches before where someone’s come into the room as we were talking and yelled out the amount of time remaining.

Russ: What advice do you have for other founders just starting out?

Jonathan: Pick your first employees very, very, very carefully. Don’t worry so much about the product or your customers or your location —it all pales in comparison to the quality of the first members of the team. Number two, a great VC is a partner, another member of the team. It’s like having the wind at your back. Also, if you have kids: Caution!

Nima: A founding team should be approached with at least the same level of decision-making as a marriage. Any time a founding team spends together before committing is time well spent. Travel together; probe each other’s motivations and expectations.

Jonathan: There was a low point in our relationship, and I regretted how I handled it. We had an early offer, and it highlighted that we had never sat down together to discuss expectations. It could have been avoided with an early conversation to be sure we were on the same page.

Nima: Another thing: By its nature, a startup is a fast-moving entity. Roles evolve on a weekly basis. Go in with a mindset where you’re constantly assessing your performance, seeking feedback, and remaining aware of your changing role.

Russ: What memories will you carry with you from this journey so far?

Nima: Our first office was next a bike shop in town. We got it for a good price, and I remember being elated that we had it. We bought computers in Denver and came back to set them up. It was a magical moment, starting in such a scrappy way. There was a lot of camaraderie. I was on a ladder putting up ethernet cables. Jonathan was assembling desks. Those moments stick with me.

Jonathan: I think of being with early customers: factory workers in huge warehouses doing pick waves where they fill grocery bags for delivery throughout Singapore. We could see the waste. We could imagine flipping their carts around and having them come to the workers—and how much more efficient and better and cleaner it would be. On those trips customers would say to us, “Wow. We need this. We want to partner with you.” Those were awesome moments.