Jamie Siminoff, Ring
Big breakouts only happen when people think differently.
In 2013, Jamie Siminoff went on ABC’s “Shark Tank” to pitch his eight-person startup, DoorBot. He invented a video doorbell that allowed people to use their smartphones to see and communicate remotely with the person at their front door.
But facing a cash crunch, the company was running out of money. Siminoff hoped to raise $700,000 in return for a 10% stake in the company. His team dropped everything to build a creative set in the garage that served as DoorBot’s headquarters, while Siminoff spent about a month rehearsing for the show.
All that preparation didn’t matter to the skeptical “Shark Tank” judges, who took a pass on the company. Siminoff left the show empty-handed, feeling “horrible” about walking away with nothing.
But Siminoff’s television appearance wasn’t a total loss. It attracted widespread interest among viewers and generated at least $5 million worth in new sales for the company.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Siminoff had six startups to his credit before DoorBot, now known as Ring. Since its 2012 founding, the company has expanded beyond video doorbells, building out a line of high-tech home security products to combat burglars. Ring now has about one million customers and had estimated sales last year of $155 million. It has also raised more than $200 million in investments from DFJ, Richard Branson, and Goldman Sachs, among others.
We caught up with Siminoff to learn more about his unconventional journey to the technology world — as well as his business philosophy that sees the intrinsic value of, well, doing weird things.
Q: Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Chester, New Jersey, near Morristown. My dad was a partner in a forging factory that made pipes and I actually grew up working at his factory. I started working there in the sixth grade and basically did everything I could to make some money as a kid. I started as the weed whacker guy and worked my way up to being a forklift operator. I always had little businesses on the side. Literally, I would do anything that I could. In high school, I was selling whatever I could. At one time, I had a small T- shirt operation. I also had a business shoveling horse manure.
Q: Did anything in particular tug at you?
Inventing and creating things was my passion. Besides mixing chemicals and explosive materials to blow up stuff in my backyard, I spent an awful lot of time trying to build things. For instance, I souped up remote control (RC) cars and I designed and built model airplanes from scratch.
Q: Were you a gearhead?
I’ve always loved technology, but I attacked it slightly differently from my peers, who were mostly interested in the actual tech itself. I think that’s also the difference between being an entrepreneur, a technologist, and an inventor.
Q: What are the differences?
These are different categories. An entrepreneur is someone who wants to build businesses. A technology person is someone who loves technology. An inventor is someone who loves to create solutions. For me, new technology allows you to create solutions that weren’t there previously. I love technology for what it does, but I’m more interested in the solution. Looking back, when I had these RC cars and was working with electronic speed controllers and hacking modes — that was pretty advanced stuff for a kid — I was doing all that because I wanted the cars to go faster, not because I cared that I was using a certain programming language or something else.
Q: What led you to Silicon Valley?
I started a company that did voicemail detection. Venture capitalists (VCs) loved the product and began contacting me. I really had no idea what to expect. You always hear about Sand Hill Road and I always thought it would look like Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles. I had this mental picture of mansions and butlers. I remember being so disappointed going to my first meeting there.
Anyway, I must have met with about 50 VCs, but never successfully raised any money. Still, that got me into the mix. They started to learn who I was and I learned who they were. And it was the start of my Silicon Valley relationship.
Q: You majored in entrepreneurship at Babson. Do you think VCs were hesitant about backing someone who didn’t have deep technical skills?
I definitely did not fit the classic mold. I wasn’t a Stanford or computer science grad. And I wasn’t necessarily a technology person. In addition, I wasn’t a “made man” in Silicon Valley. I hadn’t worked in another company where I had been the head of product.
Q: What was the impetus for the idea behind DoorBot, as it was first called?
I had my midlife entrepreneurial crisis. I was upset that none of the small businesses that I had started led to anything with scale or was doing anything meaningful. As an inventor, it wasn’t about the money or being rich. I wanted to have a real impact.
So I said, “Screw it. I have 300 ideas written down. I’m going to go into my garage, hire a few people, start building stuff and see what gets traction.” Hopefully, I thought, something would take off. The funny thing is that the doorbell wasn’t any one of those 300 ideas. What happened was that I couldn’t hear the doorbell from the garage, so, I built a Wi-Fi doorbell that I could answer with my phone because nothing was available that would solve my problem.
Q: Given your experience, what advice would you offer someone with a similar background seeking to find investors for their startups?
When people ask, I tell them that it’s OK if they fail, but show them who you are. Then, when you are ready to do your next company, investors might be ready to put money into you.
Obviously, if your company is doing crazy good, the money is going to come. But if you’re a normal company, it could take years to get those relationships going and have investors trust you to the point where they are ready to invest money in you.
Q: Speaking of outside investors, how did you wind up appearing on ABC’s “Shark Tank.”
Luck and maybe some good karma. About 40,000 people applied the same year that I went on. A friend of mine, who knew the producer, said the show was looking for companies like mine — small businesses with five or six people and maybe a million or two in sales. So I sent an email to the producer and he replied, “OMG, I want you on!” The next thing I knew, I was on TV.
Q: What did it do for Ring?
Were it not for “Shark Tank,” we wouldn’t be here as a company. As a hardware company, we needed an investment that was way higher than we could have ever imagined. We were basically running out of money. No investor would come in. It was just too ugly. We didn’t take any investment on “Shark Tank,” but the money that came in after our appearance provided a massive cash infusion. It allowed us to bulk up as a company, get more engineers, and start to develop our next product without needing a new round of investment.
Q: You definitely took an unconventional route to get here. Why do you think it worked out, especially given your unconventional background?
Let me explain it this way, Silicon Valley and venture capital is centered around making breakout returns. They want to see nonlinear breakout returns. To do that, though, you need people who aren’t following the same path that everyone else is following. It used to be that the more technical crowd followed nonlinear paths and were creating nonlinear companies, like Google and Facebook. But I’ve seen Silicon Valley become a lot more homogeneous and similar over the years and that’s resulted in a lot of linear returns. The real breakout companies come from the nonlinear people who are creating these weird companies.
Q: In other words, weird is good. So even for Silicon Valley, there are instances where liberal arts grads might be better prepared intellectually to become entrepreneurs than people with tech-heavy degrees?
Moonshot thinking. That’s what’s going to create big returns. People should always think that what you’re doing today is weird. You might be working on something that is smart and makes sense and you wind up creating an OK business. That’s not necessarily bad, but creating the next great company doesn’t typically result from everyone crowding around the same things. Big breakouts only happen when people think differently.
Q: Does Silicon Valley still embody that approach?
When you look at DFJ’s investment thesis, they’ve always been a little bit of an oddball in the Valley because they’ve been willing to invest in things that initially looked very strange. I remember the stories that came out when they invested in SpaceX and Tesla. Some people thought that was crazy at the time. But those investments don’t look so crazy anymore. I think crazy things create crazy returns and that’s what venture capital is supposed to do. I think that the fraternization of Silicon Valley is probably hurting it more than any other force because it creates groupthink.
Q: Do you have a favorite quote you live by?
It’s something that Warren Buffet said: “In the short term, markets are a voting machine; in the long term, markets are a weighing machine.” That goes back to the linear versus nonlinear dichotomy I was making. In the short term, markets are voting — and probably incorrectly. In the long term, though, you can build a great business. That’s one of the things I try to live by.
Q: What individual do you most admire?
Though I’ve never met him, the person who I probably call my mentor is James Dyson. Think about what he did to the vacuum cleaner and how he built that brand. The depth and soul he gave it is something that is just magic. If Ring could be a tenth as successful as his company, I’d be as proud.
Q: Favorite book?
Neal Gabler’s biography, “Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination.” If you didn’t know that Disney would go on to become this amazing success, you would think that the next page would describe how he wound up homeless. Walt Disney always seemed to be on the brink. He always hated what he was working on and was pushing to do more. But he was able to put it all together and deal with all of the risks — he was really unbelievable.
Q: Favorite movie?
I like so many, but I really like “Big Fish.” It’s a story of a dad who basically told tall tales to his son. Everyone thought he was kind of a BS artist. Looking back when I was younger, I never felt like I was who I was. I always felt that I was someone who could change the world. You look like an idiot or weirdo when you’re a nobody in college saying things like that. But I just think we should all be allowed to dream big.