“8 Questions with Playfair” ft. Ahti Heinla @ Starship Technologies
This is the seventeenth in our “8 Questions” series — in which we sit down with founders in the Playfair portfolio who share their entrepreneurial journey.
We first invested in Starship in their 2017 seed round. Since then, their autonomous delivery robots have made more than 3.5 million autonomous deliveries, and have travelled over 4 million miles globally. As well as being a familiar site on the streets making deliveries, they have also become a design icon and were featured in an exhibition at the Science Museum in London, prompting a few of us to pay a special visit.
Today, we sit down with co-founder and CTO, Ahti Heinla, to hear his story from the beginnings of Starship. We hope this can help other founders and aspirational entrepreneurs in their own ventures.
1. What inspired you to be an entrepreneur?
I have never had a dream or aspiration to become an entrepreneur, and I started out as an individual contributor software developer. Over time as I gained experience and exposure to several different startups, I started having ideas of my own and started leading teams. I found that it came naturally to me to quickly pull together teams of people and inspire them to go after big goals. That led to me starting several organisations, both as companies and as non-profits. Some of them were short-lived — some didn’t go anywhere, some started growing without me being actively involved anymore. And then one of them became successful as Starship.
2. Can you take us back to the beginnings of Starship?
In 2014 we realised it is possible to automate last mile delivery using technology that either existed already, or could be created without waiting for some massive technological breakthrough to happen. Several large companies were already working on self-driving cars, but these were massive projects that required decades and billions. We realised that it is possible to do this much quicker by developing sidewalk robots instead. We did some market research and found that last mile delivery is actually a huge problem for companies (for economic reasons) and for cities (environmental and congestion reasons). We were uniquely suited to go after this opportunity, and the rest is history.
3. What is the hardest lesson learned since day 1?
My background is engineering, and just creating new technology has never been hard for me.
But as Starship grew to hundreds of people, the way the company was managed needed changing. Many management practices that work with 10 people do not work with 300, and vice versa. This meant changes in how I myself behave as a leader, and also what kind of other leaders we hire into the company. Also this means changes in company values, and practices of everyday work. Mostly everything becomes more systematic. Transitioning a company like that is not easy and needs work every day.
4. What has been your strangest day as a founder?
That must be the experience of seeing the first time how easily people accept robots as part of their neighbourhood. At first we were testing our robots so that they were always accompanied by a person, a “robot handler”. Passers-by were curious and started conversations with handlers. But in 2017 we became the first company in the world to operate autonomous technology in public spaces without human monitoring. Then we finally saw how people reacted to solo robots. The shocking insight was that people really did not react much, even if they saw our robot for the first time. They just immediately accepted the robot as part of their neighbourhood. This was a big positive surprise for us.
5. What have you learned from your investors since you first fundraised?
The most insightful discussions with investors have been about business strategy — who to partner with, what business model would be best in long term, how to analyse long-term business potential.
6. As a founder, what is your proudest achievement to date?
Many robotics companies successfully build a technological prototype and do pilot projects, but fail to gain significant commercial traction — often because the technology is difficult to use or scale. Starship is one of the few companies that have broken through this “barrier” — we have done millions of deliveries, and our customers get a commercial service that they can rely on. It is not a pilot project that operates 5 robots and only in good weather.
This is an achievement and a milestone, however it has not been done by me, but by the fantastic team at Starship.
7. Crystal Ball: What are your plans for the future?
Starship is developing on two fronts — we are scaling up rapidly, and we are building more efficiency into our systems. Last mile delivery has traditionally been a loss-making or low margin industry, where delivery workers are squeezed for money. We are changing that.
8. #1 piece of advice to an aspirational founder?
Your main asset is your willpower and resourcefulness. As long as you have an abundance of these two things, difficulties will not defeat you — you will defeat them.