#3 Mostafa El Sayed of Automata on Revolutionising Robotics
By Nasos Papadopoulos, EF Head of Content
Mostafa El Sayed is the Co-Founder of Automata, which is working to make robotics affordable and accessible by installing it in the workplace.
Mostafa and his co-founder Suryansh were on EF4 and their first product, Eva is a bench top robot arm that can be set up in minutes, costs a fraction of other industrial arms, and can be used in a range of industries including metals, pharmaceuticals and electronics manufacturing.
Mostafa didn’t have a have a history in robotics before starting Automata and trained as an architect, working for Zaha Hadid, the designer of the London Olympics Aquatics Centre, before pivoting onto the startup path.
In this conversation we dive into Mostafa’s personal story, everything he’s learned about finding product market fit, hiring and funding in the process of building Automata and what he’s learned about himself along the way.
How To Avoid Making Something People Don't Want
Why You Should Structure Your Hiring Process
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Why I Joined EF
Nasos: 01:26 Mostafa, welcome to the show.
Mostafa: 01:58 Thanks, Nasos. Excited to be here.
Nasos: 02:03 Very excited to have you on for this episode of Scaling Ambition, and looking forward to diving into a bunch of topics from your experience finding a co-founder, hiring and all the issues around that-
Mostafa: 02:14 Yeah.
Nasos: 02:14 Which you were discussing before, you've had some potential issues within a lot of learnings from. And the fundraising process as well which is also very relevant to you at the moment. But to start off with, tell me a little bit about how you dived into entrepreneurship. What was the path that led you to building your own company?
Mostafa: 02:29 Sure, so my path to entrepreneurship is very strongly linked to my relationship with my co-founder Suryansh. We used to work together for five years, we attended the same school as well, and a lot of it related to conversations we were having together at the last few years at our previous job where the conversations focused on our frustration with being able to do what we thought was relevant, and what we thought was something we could really contribute to and have a voice in. There are not many ways to feel ... to get that satisfaction from work. We had a really satisfying career for five years, but then that five year itch comes along and we both had this moment to decide where we both got PhD offers, and we're like, "Are we going to do this and go back into academics are five more years?"
Mostafa: 03:23 But there's this other thing on the table, startups or whatever you want to call it, where we can do our own thing and see where it goes. It was very strongly linked to this idea that we wanted to have a voice and a creative outlet, and feel that we were doing something worth our time that we strongly believed in. At that time, and I still believe the same, the startup route or the entrepreneurship route felt like the way to go, that this would be the right thing to do to achieve that feeling.
Nasos: 03:56 Tell me a little bit about your relationship with your co-founder, Suryansh. You mentioned it was sort of a longer-time co-founder relationship, which is not usually common for EF, so talk to me about how you guys knew each other from before, and the story about how you kind of applied to EF.
Mostafa: 04:12 Sure, so I knew Suryansh through we used to work together at a practice called Zaha Hadid Architects here in London. It's, for the lack of a better term, a cutting-edge architectural practice known for very non-standard geometries in architecture. So if you've been to the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park or the Aquatic Stadium in London for the Olympics, those were projects that were put out from the office. We worked in the research division in that company, so a fairly small team in a fairly large office. A very close-knit team, we shared ideals, we shared motivations, we shared what we thought was interesting.
Mostafa: 04:53 That was the driving force of five years of, I believe, great work in that team, and through that experience all of us got quite close and we have a lot of conversations, and more and more these days in architecture, cutting-edge architecture, the conversation more often than not switches over to technology. What is the role of technology in design? We had a clear opinion back then that technology is the kind of dominant force in society these days, and if we wanted to engage on that level, you have to kind of engage with technology.
Nasos: 05:29 So talk to me about this piece of building a business around the idea and the expertise that you guys had. What was the biggest challenge you had starting out with?
Mostafa: 05:36 The biggest challenge that we had was non-technically. We had a bunch of technical issues, how to build the robot, how to feasibly 3-D print a realistic and robust robot, in this case an industrial arm. But the question that EF came with pretty quickly and to this day is an interesting question to us, it's like, "Who is this for?" Who wants this product? Who's going to buy this product? How does this turn into an actual business? And once you know who this is for, your product will improve. That was probably conversation number two with EF, and I would say we still have that conversation internal to the company today, week in and week out. Back then we didn't know this terminology, about product market fit or however you want to refer to it, was essentially the core of that question.
Mostafa: 06:27 Like who is this for? Who are you designing it ... are you designing it for people like yourselves? So makers and hobbyists who were frustrated with the state of the robotics field and want to improve, or is this for people who use robotics day in and day out to produce value in their businesses? There was this really exciting period of time around the end of EF when there was a lot of churn in our minds regarding are we going to go to Kickstarter, and just push this out to the maker community and see who bites? Or are we going to take some more time and go out to the market and see who really wants it, and start to collect user information?
Mostafa: 07:05 We ended up going the second route, and in two months ... I lived in the UK at that point for seven years and in those two months I saw more of the UK than I did in my whole life because we just went out to tons of industrial towns, tons of factories, taking this robot and just putting it in front of people who make things for a living and like, "What do you think? Do you want this?" Slowly through that kind of outreach, some serendipity which is us getting published on a few websites, we had this explosion of interest and we put up a survey on our website, and that survey is now around eight, nine thousand people have filled out that survey over the last year and a half, two years. It clearly showed us who wants this product, and we were quite surprised that there was a ton of interest from the fields of manufacturing, that really wanted the concept of a flexible and affordable robotics solution. To a big extent, a lot of that discussion boiled down to, in one way or another, to that conversation, which was who is this for?
Nasos: 08:13 For sure, as we were walking up the stairs just now you were telling me you're in the process of finishing up a funding round.
Mostafa: 08:19 Mmm (affirmative).
Nasos: 08:20 And it's your second one. So tell me to start off with, what's the number one mistake that you think most founders make in the fundraising process? What would you advise people not to do?
Mostafa: 08:34 I think there is the common wisdom of never raise when you need to raise. I would say that's definitely in our experience true, but again in the context of coming out of EF, you need to raise. Especially back in those days there wasn't the convertible note coming out of EF, so it was sink or swim. So a lot of your efforts and your co-founder's efforts go into the fundraising process. I would say specifically a mistake we made, or something that we might have tweaked a bit if we had to go back, was a lot of our efforts in that first round were focused on only the fundraising. So the company progressed, we were going out a lot on these site visits, et cetera, but I would say there could have been a more streamlined process between fundraising and company building. Again, some people just don't have that luxury because if you're at rock bottom you need funds to launch.
Nasos: 09:39 So do you think most founders, because they're in such a rush to get funded, and as you say, they may be at rock bottom. They need to move quickly, they need to grow. And they sometimes approach those relationships in a bit more of a short-term instrumental way. Actually taking more of a long-term approach to cultivating the relationship as it sounds like you did with your investors, the ones that you built relationships with, is more the way to go.
Mostafa: 10:05 I would wholeheartedly endorse the second, go with people who you believe ... Suryansh used to put it like, "I can go to the public." Actually some of our earliest investors, Wendy and Joe White, after every funding round, whether they were involved or not, we go out for a dinner to celebrate. They're the kind of relationships where you know you can call on when things are going well, or when things are not going well. That's really, for us, there was these key moments in the company and I think all companies have them, where some of those key moments were major milestones that you've achieved and it's a pat on the back moment.
Mostafa: 10:49 But there are those moments where it's sink or swim, and we've had both at Automata and we've turned to certain relationships in the investor community at both moments, and we've gotten, I think, valuable feedback at both moments. In the sink or swim ones, I would say support as well, which is like, "You're going to get through this. This is what you should watch out for. If not, this is how we're going to handle it." For people like me and Suryansh who were first-time founders, that was invaluable because to a big extent, it put your mind relatively at ease and you can just go back and face that problem in its own context, rather than having to worry about the constellation of things that come because of the ramifications of that problem.
Nasos: 11:37 Sure, so talk to me about one of those sink or swim moments. What was one of the ones that you guys really struggled with, and what did you learn from it, and how did you get out of it, out of the problem?
Mostafa: 11:47 There is this moment that kind of defined a whole year of the company for us, and it's a bit idiosyncratic so I'll just give you a bit of context. What we're trying to do is design an affordable robot, and the crux of that is designing a new gearbox. Because the main performative component for a robot is its gearbox, and the main line item in terms of its price is that gearbox. So going into the business, this was a kind of nexus of naivety, serendipity and happy accidents. We decided to design our own, and that would be a key differentiator for us. I think going back I would still make that decision, we would still make that decision to design our own gearbox, but it was rough. We had to hire great mechanical engineers, we couldn't have done it without that talented team, and the ethos me and Suryansh pushed within the company, coming from a design background, was, "Make fast, break fast."
Mostafa: 12:53 The whole business was based on consumer 3-D printing. Like this is what we can do because we have 3-D printers in the office. We don't have to operate at these normal prototyping timelines. Engineers come from a different spectrum, test, test, test, simulate, simulate, simulate. I think we've reached the great happy medium as a company where we simulate and prototype, and I think that's why we move pretty fast as a company. But around March, April, there was this crisis, I would say, which was we've exhausted a ton of our ideas, we have one or two that we believe are going to work, and the prototypes were on the testing rig. So we decided to wrap this exercise up with what's called the "lifetime test" which is we're not going to go with blind faith, there's too much risk. Which is something we had to learn to do, which is when to hedge your bets and when to take the risk. There's too much risk here, we need to take a pause and test this component, and even with accelerated testing, et cetera, there was 30 days of that gearbox on that test rig.
Mostafa: 14:01 If that gearbox broke any time before 30 days, we would have a major issue on our hands, which is we technologically cannot move forward and therefore everything we've been doing ... We had at that point built a great software team. At that point we had started to get a lot of market traction in terms of interest, and we just needed the proper hardware to move forward. In itself, that's a major challenge, managing the cadence of a full stack software team and managing the cadence of a hardware team. That was already a big challenge that we were dealing with, it was like telling the software, "Wait, wait, wait. You're way ahead of the hardware team, we need to balance this out." But in the same time there was this hard stop, either pass or fail, and basically that was one of those moments where we sat down, me and Suryansh, many times. Just the two of us and some of those investors we spoke about, those relationships, as it's like, "If it passes this is what we're going to do. If it fails, this is what we're going to need to do."
Mostafa: 15:07 There was no sugar coating alternative, if it failed certain things would have to change. The cadence of the business would have to change, the scaling process would have to change. At least I haven't faced a singular moment like that since. We might have one again, but it was a moment where it literally came down to a single thing working, and it wasn't a gradient of possibilities. It was pass or fail, and so there was no ambiguity. It was just up to us as founders to decide how to handle that lack of ambiguity. If that happened, do this. If that happens, do this. There's no way around this.
Mostafa: 15:50 At that point we had done a lot of other things, which was parallelize multiple research streams into the gearbox, and we had basically through survival of the fittest, narrowed it down to these few options. Thankfully it passed. I very clearly remember the moment I woke up that day. Gearbox would report to us over Slack, and waking up that morning looking at my Slack and saying, "Okay, did it fail? Jesus Christ, this is going to work." Looking back on that, I think again, just to say what we would have done differently in our past, that moment should have been celebrated a lot more, because it was a big win for us. I think at that time me and Suryansh were so mentally exhausted by it that we didn't celebrate it as much as we could, because it was such a terrifying moment for us.
Nasos: 16:42 Talk to me about the hiring process. You have now grown to a company of, I believe, 20 people.
Mostafa:16:47 Mmm (affirmative).
Nasos:16:48 So you've obviously hired some great people and hired some not so great people. What's the one thing you've learned about hiring?
Mostafa: 16:54 I think what took us quite long to figure out was put some structure in place in your hiring process. It's going to help you a ton. In the early days it was just me and Suryansh hiring for positions we've never experienced. How does an architect hire an electronics engineer? How does an architect hire a full stack developer? So that was a very interesting learning experience and at that point, what really helped us was that gut feeling, and we hired for personalities we felt would fit the company. Of course who exhibited a high level of technological competence and were clearly good at what they did, but we biased a lot more then than I think we do today ... maybe today it's 50-50 ... but because of our lack of knowledge in their specific expertise, we biased a lot to, "This is a person I could spend 12 hours a day with in a small room."
Mostafa: 17:45 Luckily that got us 85% of the way there in terms of our hires, really great people joining the team. Another thing in those early days of hiring that helped us a lot was just seeing a lot of people. I think we saw at that point like, for a certain position, 50 candidates, and I know not everyone has that ability. We were lucky in certain roles because there was not a lot of interest in hardware necessarily back then going on in London. So when a job like that opens up in central London, a lot of people apply, and that helped us figure out who we wanted and what kind of profile we wanted, because we saw just a ton of applicants and we took as many phone calls and face-to-face interviews as we could to just like start to build our knowledge of, "Okay, this is what we want our mechanical engineer to look like."
Mostafa: 18:34 Now, when we have a team in place, the hiring process is significantly, I would say, different than in the days when it was me and Suryansh putting out job ads and trying to figure out what we wanted. Now this is why I say put some structure in place, because the team knows what they want to a big extent, and they need to have a voice in the hiring process. If you leveraged your team correctly, you can shorten that process quite a lot. You can cull down your candidates quite a lot, and it's something we learned to do over time and I think we're still not there on that, but we're getting better at it, like leveraging your team. And then the last part is no matter what, sit down with that candidate.
Mostafa: 19:19 I think we made a mistake a couple of times ... we haven't hired that many people ... where that didn't happen, and the learning process there was just sit down with that person. Your team says, "This is who we want technically. We feel we could work with this person, they're great," and then you sit down with him or her, and again it goes back to those early days where you're biasing for your ... your team has a big recommendation that covers forty, fifty percent of your decision, and then that last forty, fifty percent is like, "Do I feel this person is going to fit the culture correctly? Do I get a good read-off of this person? Does he or she respond well when I push her?" That's definitely helped us hire.
Nasos: 20:05 Obviously in this interview, you've been speaking a lot about what you've learned as a company.
Mostafa: 20:09 Yeah.
Nasos:20:10 You and Suryansh together. What have you most learned about yourself in this process of becoming an entrepreneur and building Automata?
Mostafa: 20:17 Quite a lot, I would say. In my adult life I would say there was two or three relationships that made me learn the most about myself. One is my relationship with Automata in all that it is, Suryansh, my co-founding relationship, my relationship with my team, and my relationship with my wife being the second one. Those are both key opportunities for introspection. But focusing on this one a bit more, on Automata, yeah, you have to learn a lot about how you handle things. In the early days, it's self-doubt, there's a lot of that. I wasn't ... EF helped with this, regarding this question of who this is for.
Mostafa: 21:09 A lot of that was also about who we were as people, because you inherently look inwards or I think ... I don't know what it is, it could be related to your educational background, but sometimes you just don't believe very strongly in what you do all the time, and then someone helping you through that, and that relationship between you and your co-founder or you and this ecosystem of EF helps you push through that quite strongly. Like, "Actually, yeah, I am doing meaningful significant work." I had someone explain it to me as tall weed syndrome, which is the weed grows tall, it gets whacked. It's similar, like, "Who are you? Put you head down."
Mostafa: 21:51 That was definitely something that I've had to learn about myself, and something I'm still learning to do better. The other one, a very open moment, is that I know for a fact that in the past, and I'm improving on this, is I tend to avoid things like conflict, and that quickly gets pushed to the fore when you have a team. Don't get me wrong, conflict is not fisticuffs, but it's just, "I want to do this, I want to do that," or "My opinion is X, my opinion is Y." Having to handle that requires you to put yourself out there and say, "I believe in this," but in the same time at least I strongly believe in the approach where you have to get both guys on board, both team members on board. It's not, "I'm choosing her, sorry you're not going to go ahead." It's trying to bring those two together but in the same time also knowing that you're going to have to at some point just vocalize your preference.
Nasos: 22:58 Awesome. I think those are some great lessons to end on. Mostafa, thank you so much for coming on, it was a real pleasure chatting to you.
Mostafa: 23:04 Sure, it was great. Yeah, it was very interesting. I didn't think it would go in these avenues, but it was a really interesting conversation.