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Starting a robotics company

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Tonci

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Hey Guys,

This is my first post here, and I am really excited that there are so many like-minded people in this group.

Just a quick background of myself: I am 22 years old and have been into self-development for around four years now. This year I will be finishing my Masters degree in mechanical engineering (free education in Europe, which means I have no college debt :D).

Currently I am developing a robot (more exactly a series of robots) for the sports sector, that shall change the way we view the future of sports training. I suspect that the development will take around 4-6 more months in order to complete the first prototype (sections of the protoype have already been tested). I am also intensly studying electrical engineering, programming, and robotics as a whole, in order to make this prototype come to life.

My plan at the moment is to keep my part time job (research & development of electric motors), and finish my degree, until I am able to fully launch the business.

Considering the above, I would like to ask, if any of you guys have any experience in the robotics sector? If not, are there any other sources (books or articles), that will help with the launch of a robotics business?

Any help or feedback would be greatly appreciated, I thank you guys in advance! :D

PS: I would also like to thank MJ for the effort that was put into these amazing books, which have completely changed my perspective about life.
 
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mdot

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Welcome! I graduated university with a mechatronics engineering degree but mostly work in the embedded hardware/software world now and love it.

If your uni has clubs or student robotics/sae racing/engineering teams, JOIN THEM. My biggest regret of my university years is that I never took full advantage of the experience, mentorship and connections that those teams could have given me.
 

Tonci

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Welcome! I graduated university with a mechatronics engineering degree but mostly work in the embedded hardware/software world now and love it.

If your uni has clubs or student robotics/sae racing/engineering teams, JOIN THEM. My biggest regret of my university years is that I never took full advantage of the experience, mentorship and connections that those teams could have given me.
Hey mdot,

Thanks for the suggestion, I definetely agree. These clubs are a great source of experience and connections. I also wish that I had participated in them more.

On the side note: I have been slowly transitioning from Arduino, to ESP32 and now to custom PCBs with the STM32 microcontrollers. Do you have any suggestions for decreasing the learning curve?
Additonally, may I ask what embedded projects are you working on?

Thanks.
 

mdot

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Your path is the one I pretty much took. I started with Arduino boards and the Arduino IDE, then I started making my own custom boards with the ATMega and ESP32. At that point I was using Platform.io to write "real code" but still using the Arduino library. Then I started my job and was thrown headfirst into the world of STM32 haha.

I recommend the book Making Embedded Systems by Elicia White. It's a great resource for how to think about building your application and using design patterns. I also recommend Mastering STM32 by Carmine Novello. It explains the different STM32 peripherals in a more concise way than the data sheets or reference manuals. Finally, the book "Designing Electronics That Work" by Hunter Scott seems awesome but I've only skimmed it so far.

Also regardless of what people say, there's really nothing wrong with using the STM32 HAL library, until there something DOES go wrong. Sometimes there will be bugs in the library or you'll need better performance and you'll need to modify it or write your own functions closer to hardware but in most cases they are OK.
 
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Tonci

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Hey Guys,

I hope you are all doing well.

Just a quick update on my progress:
The prototype is coming along as planned for now, I am really excited and happy about the progess so far.
At the moment I am trying to cross the "desert of desertion", as MJ calls it, which is the period from the initial idea to the first sale. Even though, I am constantly trying to get feedback from different people in order to reinforce the feedback loop, I still find this period rather challenging. But we have to keep going and complete the development. :D

Does anybody else has any experience with the "desert of desertion" period? How have you managed to get objective feedback from people, not just encouraging words from friends and family?

Thanks.
 

Tonci

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Progress update:

The robot is progressing better than expected. I have managed to complete the first prototype and show it to a few people. It is great to reach a point, where you can finally get some feedback.

The robot is performing wonderfully, however, I have also noticed a few problems and limitations of the design. My next goal is to redesign and optimize some components.

This has been a tough but very rewarding process. I am very excited to continue progressing on this project every day. Progress does indeed bring a lot of satisfaction.
 
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Tonci

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Hey everyone,
A quick progress update:

Haven't been active on this forum lately, as my main focus was continuing the development of my prototype. I can say that have made quite a lot of progress in the last few months. The robot recieved new electronics, and an improved hardware design.

Creating the prototype is constantly pushing me out of my comfort zone, as I notice that there are always new and better ways to do certain things. All of this wouldn't be possible without a day-to-day commitment to the ultimate goal: to produce a Fastlane bussiness system that is based on innovation.

There were (and still are) many troubles and difficulties along the road, though. For instance: I have noticed that my programming skills will not be adequate in order to develop my desired robot, so I am intensly focused on improving that. Additionally, I do not know enough about bussiness and economics, so I started reading about start-ups.

I am planning to do first public tests in May, where I will finally show the robot to a bigger audience of people. I really look forward to seeing what this year will bring.
 

Tonci

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I am happy to announce that I have finally completed my first Minimum Viable Product (MVP) after one and a half years! I am going to introduce the robot to as many people as I can in the upcoming months. Even though the prototype is not yet ready for commercial distribution, I will be able to obtain valuable feedback and proceed accordingly.

I am really proud of the progress that I have made throughout the last few years. Don't get me wrong, there were a lot of difficult times too, but always managed to overcome it.
I am excited to see what the upcoming months bring, and all the lessons that will be learned throughout the process. I hope to share them with you, the reader.

Thank you for reading and I wish you all the best.
 

Tonci

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Progress update:

So, there were unfortunately some setbacks in the last week that prevented the first tests in public, as a key component broke. The component was now replaced, and if everything goes as planned, I will be reporting to you guys next week about first impressions.

While waiting for the component, I created a basic website, and started developing a custom mobile app, which will be used to interact with the robot. After realizing, that this is no easy task and that there are only 24 hours in a day, I visited UpWork for the first time, and hired a freelancer, a humble Indian programmer, which offered to build the app for very, very cheap. He seems like a great guy, and will be happy to pay him more than what he asked for, when he completes work.

After talking to fellow fastlaners, I have realized that my inner engineer created a few business weaknesses. After studying Ready. Fire. Aim. book by Masterson and Traction book by Weinberg, I realized that most companies fail due to lack of distribution channels. They have the "perfect" product but no customers. They argue, that the channels need to be developed IN PARALLEL to product development, something which I clearly haven't done or thought about enough. "Build it and they will come" will not work.

While I have been talking a lot to potenital customers, and probed very indirectly about their interest regarding the idea, I still have yet to confirm whether the product is marketable on a bigger scale. I followed the principles from The Mom Test book and never mentioned that I am building a product. I thought about their answers as objectively as possible, and believe that I will be able to acquire first early adopters.

My next steps are:
1) Do public tests next week, gather and analyze reactions. Be objective, and do not fall in love in your idea/plan.
2) Focus 80% of your time on learning marketing, sales, and business. Make a plan how to acquire customers. Differentiate between product wants and product needs, and try to utilize the tool of freelancing.
3) Spread the word about the product, initially by word-of-mouth.

Do you guys see any potential problems with this plan or have any recommendations? Thank you.
 
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JayTheMaker

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Glad to hear you are making progress!

For sales/pitching I highly recommend "The 3 Minute Rule" after you can pass the mom test, really helps cut out the fluff.

Re 1:
On the difference between Customer interviews vs usability tests - I like to think of it as testing your hypothesis in the general vs specific case.

Do you think you can convert any of the interviewees to first customers? If not, do the interviews truly prove the value prop or is it confirmation bias?

Re 2+3:
These are really the same step. This guy is super cheesy but is a serial founder - Shows quick, free gtm/validation for a couple of ideas using social media in this video.

You've already got a lot more done on the product side than most hardware companies at this stage, all about finding beachead customers now.
 

Eudaimonium

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Interesting project and a lot of persistence shown thus far. That is a good indicator. Am not a mechanical engineer myself but this makes me more fascinated by it.
 

Tonci

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Progress update:

Well, I've made the leap. And it was GREAT.

Let me explain. I took the robot out to the courts yesterday, to see how it operates in the real environment. After starting it up, and trying out some features, one kid (who trains the sport and which I previously had not known) approached me, and asked if he can try the robot out. I kindly offered him the remote, and after a few minutes of trying it out, two more kids came running, asking if they can try it too. They were super enthusiatic, so I created a small practice session of around 15 minutes for them, testing the robot fully and allowing the kids a fun experience.

Parents were of course nearby, watching all of this unfold. After I left, one said: ah, (name of the company's name on the robot), thanks for the entertainment. Not the best response to be honest, but even though the main demographic for the robot are not kids, I think the first 30 minutes on the court were quite successful. I find it positive that he said the company's name alongside the word entertainment. It's definetely helpful that people make that unconcious connection in my opinion.

For the short-term goals, it's now just a matter of repetition, getting the robot out there, testing it with more advanced players, at different courts, and get people to try it out and talk about it.

I'll make a few tweaks to the robot's dynamics, and then take the leap of charging money for it in the upcoming weeks. I have decided, that it will firstly be hourly fees for rental, before I build a more compact, robust and professional product, which can be reliably sold on the market.

Any suggestions or comments would be much appreciated.

Do you think you can convert any of the interviewees to first customers? If not, do the interviews truly prove the value prop or is it confirmation bias?
Yes, I believe so. Not necessarly selling the whole product, as it is still an MVP, but renting it is possible. Once I can get more market confirmation and this initial cash flow in, I will be able to take development and marketing to the next level.
 
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Jav

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Hey Guys,

This is my first post here, and I am really excited that there are so many like-minded people in this group.

Just a quick background of myself: I am 22 years old and have been into self-development for around four years now. This year I will be finishing my Masters degree in mechanical engineering (free education in Europe, which means I have no college debt :D).

Currently I am developing a robot (more exactly a series of robots) for the sports sector, that shall change the way we view the future of sports training. I suspect that the development will take around 4-6 more months in order to complete the first prototype (sections of the protoype have already been tested). I am also intensly studying electrical engineering, programming, and robotics as a whole, in order to make this prototype come to life.

My plan at the moment is to keep my part time job (research & development of electric motors), and finish my degree, until I am able to fully launch the business.

Considering the above, I would like to ask, if any of you guys have any experience in the robotics sector? If not, are there any other sources (books or articles), that will help with the launch of a robotics business?

Any help or feedback would be greatly appreciated, I thank you guys in advance! :D

PS: I would also like to thank MJ for the effort that was put into these amazing books, which have completely changed my perspective about life.
Hey Tonci

This is incredible! I'm an Architectural Engineering so have studied a lot of mechanical/electrical systems but these are systems in buildings so will be different. If anything I can assist with I try my best! This is a great business to start!
 

Giallo

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Hi Tonci, welcome!

Big fan of the approach that you're taking here with testing your robot early with users. The learnings you'll get this way will be extremely valuable to develop a desirable product!

Me and my team have worked on tele-operated / hybrid AI robots in the past - B2C and B2B. While that work is highly confidential and cannot be shared, I'm happy to jump on a casual chat if I can help in any other way.
 

JayTheMaker

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I find it positive that he said the company's name alongside the word entertainment. It's definetely helpful that people make that unconcious connection in my opinion.

Maybe an alternative way to rent... Are you familiar with the company "Top Golf"? See also batting cages, bowling alleys, etc. I know your original demo was for althetes/pros/sports clubs to train with, but the novelty factor might better satisfy the emotional needs along the "sports entertainment venue" type product. You might be able to secure a B2B Letter of Intent for a pilot program with one of these companies just using what you have built so far and a slick pitch deck/video.

Glad that you are being open minded when testing, just be sure to write down your hypothesis beforehand. It's hard to prove something true/false if it isn't clearly stated. False positives are worse than a true negative, business pergatory (just well enough to keep at it, not enough to grow) is worse than hell.

Batting cages usually charge by the hour, golf ranges by the bucket. A good hypothesis along the lines of a sports entertainment project would be "My customer is very happy to pay X for X minutes of play time with the machine, but they will not pay more than X." Alternatively, "I can charge X per sleeve of tennis balls to use with the machine"

Nice work so far (the video was awesome)! Good luck on your tests, keep at it!
 
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Tonci

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You might be able to secure a B2B Letter of Intent for a pilot program with one of these companies just using what you have built so far and a slick pitch deck/video.
Great idea, I've given this some thought today. A video showing the main features should be created in the upcoming months.

Glad that you are being open minded when testing, just be sure to write down your hypothesis beforehand. It's hard to prove something true/false if it isn't clearly stated. False positives are worse than a true negative, business pergatory (just well enough to keep at it, not enough to grow) is worse than hell.
Good spot, I took this advice to heart. Today, I have rewritten the growth and value hypotheses, in order to focus my mind on them. Need to continuosly remind myself that learning about the customers and their needs is the number one priority at this stage, not the amount of product features I can output, even though it feels less productive.



One more thing I am curious about. At this stage (getting inital customer feedback, confirming market need), should I focus more on learning/improving in sales or in marketing?
Should I try to create deeper relationship with early adopters, or try to run inexpensive ad campaigns, (like blog advertising, search engine marketing, email marketing etc) to see if the idea is scalable? Like mentioned before, I would create a short video, showing the vision and product's features, similair to pre-launch videos. Am I rushing things here?

Thanks!
 

JayTheMaker

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A video showing the main features should be created in the upcoming months.
why not this week? pitch deck in ppt + record voiceover + video you already captured. A pitch deck isn't just for you to use when selling the idea to a pilot customer, it's also a refinement of your ability to clearly communicate the idea. This is how you can iterate, iterate, iterate on your vision while attempting close a B2B LOI deal.

Good spot, I took this advice to heart. Today, I have rewritten the growth and value hypotheses, in order to focus my mind on them. Need to continuosly remind myself that learning about the customers and their needs is the number one priority at this stage, not the amount of product features I can output, even though it feels less productive.
outstanding. it's an experiment, just like in science and engineering. Don't let your passion cloud your reason. Business value is built by decreasing risk and increasing certainty. In theory a $1M a deal with 10% chance has more value than a $10k deal with 97% chance of close. In reality, if your bootstrapping as a Fastlaner, the $10k deal pays your rent TODAY and helps you get to the table with a better bargaining position to close the $1M deal with the case studies/testimonials you've already built up.

One more thing I am curious about. At this stage (getting inital customer feedback, confirming market need), should I focus more on learning/improving in sales or in marketing?
Quick answer: Sales

Teach a man to fish answer:

Sales is the fulcrum from which all else is built. I see a completed sale as the middle of the our dollar printing machine and work outwards depending on the problem I'm seeing. Marketing helps sales generate revenue by increasing awareness + perceived value of your product/service (paid advertising is just one small component of good marketing). Sales helps make sure your deals capture enough value for operations to stay busy delivering a quality product/service. Operations works with finance/accounting make sure cash flow is sufficient to keep the firm moving.

Of course when it's just you, you have to focus on fixing what you efficiently can Learn DIY and outsource for everything you can't do or would take to long (give yourself hard limits, eg it should take a hours to get that first video done DIY, not months).

Not getting sales with the customers in front of you? Improve your sales collateral/close rate. Not enough leads for sales to stay busy? Improve your marketing. Going in the other direction (post sales), cash flow low? Improve margins? Consistent sales with good margins but still having poor cash flow? Look at your collection rate, timing of your bills and assess if you need additional cash for float (proper question here is "is my business sufficiently capitalized?")

Should I try to create deeper relationship with early adopters,
Yes. Make case studies. Take notes. See what went well and what sucked. Iterate, iterate, iterate. Those deep relationships are how you will build testimonials / marketing materials / sales collateral and win later deals. Solve their Job To Be Done (Functional, Emotional, Social) and think beyond the surface level (tennis throwing machine vs luxury status symbol).
or try to run inexpensive ad campaigns, (like blog advertising, search engine marketing, email marketing etc) to see if the idea is scalable? Like mentioned before, I would create a short video, showing the vision and product's features, similair to pre-launch videos. Am I rushing things here?
Yes, I think you are rushing things here.

To my knowledge, there are only two reasons to worry about scale/mass marketing before you have strong recurring revenue/nailed unit economics (meaning you aren't selling $100 bills for $50 each):

1) you have a strong network effect product (eg facebook, airbnb, etc.) where you get some multiple of customers (eg 7x new customers) for each customer you earn. This extremely rare for hardware, requires significant financial backing, and almost certainly not the case for your project (though if your customers show you otherwise all the power to you).

2) huge capex projects that require multimillion dollar partnerships/credit lines just to make the first dollar but have well understood market demand (eg infrastructure scale projects like gaslines, telecom, etc)

At this point you need to focus on funding. Those kids in the video looked like they were having a blast. Is this something you could setup at a weekend farmers market or a local tennis tournament on an unused court and charge people for time on the machine? What's to stop you from trying that out this weekend? Can you setup a webcam and let people trigger the tennis balls over a twitch stream when they donate $5? Think small and do things manually to figure out your margins before worrying about scale.

In parallel, outreach to industry to get the info you need. If you are able to secure LOI's from potential customers and quotes for manufacturing, you now have a picture of Revenue and Expenses, it answers the questions "Can I do this?" and "Is it worth it?" This is what you need to see for yourself if you plan to keep investing time/money into this. It's also the things investors and banks need to see before handing you bags of money should you decide to use debt/equity financing.

From our zoom meeting I can tell you are an inventor with a genuine sense of curiosity. People in industry love to connect with people who are driving innovation. Be authentic and reach out to the people you need to succeed. Have a list of questions that can help you make progress into understanding what is their biggest pain points, how you can solve them, and who in their organization has the authority to sign an LOI. Target should be to do enough of these interviews (think 25-100) until all the answers start to sound the same and you have a very clear idea of who the user and who signs the checks (not always the same person, especially in B2B). Make sure when you have these discussions you are making it worth their time and bringing value to the table.

A little push to get you started:

"Hi, I'm a university student at [redacted] and I want to interview you about your work at X. I'm working on a technology project and would greatly appreciate your input!"

A cold lead for technology enable sport entertainment hypothesis
Ed Gillis - Director of Sales at Topgolf

A cold lead for general training equipment hypothesis
Lauren Irurzun - Director of Studio Systems & Platforms at Orangetheory Fitness

A cold lead for luxury market/private tennis courses hypothesis (supplier of tennis court equipment)
Lucia Michalikova - International Sales Partner For Europe at SportMaster Sport Surfaces

When looking for manufacturing quotes, you want "quick turn prototyping" and "low volume ok".

Give yourself hard time limits. Push the schedule. You got this.
 

Tonci

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Firstly, Jay, thanks so much for providing this invaluable information on the forum. It is much appreciated!

why not this week? pitch deck in ppt + record voiceover + video you already captured. A pitch deck isn't just for you to use when selling the idea to a pilot customer, it's also a refinement of your ability to clearly communicate the idea. This is how you can iterate, iterate, iterate on your vision while attempting close a B2B LOI deal.
Great mindset. I actually already arranged a simple product shoot with one of the coaches that tested the machine last week. He offered his help in promoting the robot, as he previously worked in media and product marketing. I will be doing the shoot this week!

Yes. Make case studies. Take notes. See what went well and what sucked. Iterate, iterate, iterate. Those deep relationships are how you will build testimonials / marketing materials / sales collateral and win later deals. Solve their Job To Be Done (Functional, Emotional, Social) and think beyond the surface level (tennis throwing machine vs luxury status symbol).
Awesome, noted!

At this point you need to focus on funding. Those kids in the video looked like they were having a blast. Is this something you could setup at a weekend farmers market or a local tennis tournament on an unused court and charge people for time on the machine?
That is exactly my short term plan. Given that the product is still an MVP, it is only appropriate for kids and begginer players. I have reached out to around 20 people (friends - mostly beginner players), inviting them to try it out. The mayority agreed, so I'll be having quite some exposure at the courts in the upcoming week(s). I also schedule these practices strategically, at times when the courts are busiest.

Can you setup a webcam and let people trigger the tennis balls over a twitch stream when they donate $5?
That's amazing, great idea. Will have to look into this some more!

In parallel, outreach to industry to get the info you need. If you are able to secure LOI's from potential customers and quotes for manufacturing, you now have a picture of Revenue and Expenses, it answers the questions "Can I do this?" and "Is it worth it?" This is what you need to see for yourself if you plan to keep investing time/money into this. It's also the things investors and banks need to see before handing you bags of money should you decide to use debt/equity financing.
I have actually been playing with the idea of submitting the robot to our national's startup accelerator, which is a show that is broadcasted on TV. It supports young entrepreneurs and can provide non-refundable assets, if your idea is accepted by their judges. This would be a huge reality check in my opinion, and if it is successful, could get national level exposure. Low risk, high reward scenario.

Target should be to do enough of these interviews (think 25-100) until all the answers start to sound the same and you have a very clear idea of who the user and who signs the checks (not always the same person, especially in B2B). Make sure when you have these discussions you are making it worth their time and bringing value to the table.
Straight from The Mom Test, I love it. Also need to acknowledge the 3-Minute Rule framework for concise and straight to the point pitches.

A little push to get you started:

"Hi, I'm a university student at [redacted] and I want to interview you about your work at X. I'm working on a technology project and would greatly appreciate your input!"

A cold lead for technology enable sport entertainment hypothesis
Ed Gillis - Director of Sales at Topgolf
https://www.linkedin.com/in/edgillis/
A cold lead for general training equipment hypothesis
Lauren Irurzun - Director of Studio Systems & Platforms at Orangetheory Fitness
https://www.linkedin.com/in/laurenirurzun/
A cold lead for luxury market/private tennis courses hypothesis (supplier of tennis court equipment)
Lucia Michalikova - International Sales Partner For Europe at SportMaster Sport Surfaces
https://www.linkedin.com/in/lucia-michalikova-48b5a223/
When looking for manufacturing quotes, you want "quick turn prototyping" and "low volume ok".
Messages sent to these three people and 11 more. I selected among enetrepreneurs, tennis and engineering enthusiats. Not gonna lie, it was a bit scary at first, but managed to overcome the fear.

Thanks once again for this additional push into action!

Edit: Already managed to set up a call with one of the LinkedIn contacts. Will be reporting back soon.
 
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Tonci

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Progress update:

1) The most powerful step I made was reaching out to experts in the field. It is amazing to see how open some people are to helping you.
I have presented the robot to the CEO that works in the sports data analytics sector. He agreed to spread the word around and create oppurtunities for me to showcase the product to larger audiences. Will follow up regarding this next week.

2) I have made quite a lot of progress with the programming. The robot can now provide fully autonomous practice sessions, all controlled within the custom app. The lack of this feature up until now made me postpone the video shoot to next Thursday.

3) With the video ready in approximately two weeks time, I will prepare a small pitch of no more than 10 slides, which I can then study, and present the idea to others more effectively. Until now, the prototype was a true MVP as it was manually controlled, and did not showcase any massive value skews. Now, with the autonomous feature, I am much more confident about the robot's value.

4) I have completed a short questionaire, which gave me insights of how people think of the currently existing products on the market. While the sample is small - 20 people, it still gave me a clearer vision into the customer's thought process.

5) I have narrowed down who my target users are. I will focus on one demographic and then either pivot or persevere.

My goal now is to expand the awareness of the product as much as I can. I will do this by:
1) Visiting sports clubs in other cities, offering them to rent the robot for their practices.
2) Reaching out to more people on LinkedIn, who share the same interests. Note their observations, suggestions. Make new contacts. Get out of your comfort zone.
3) Use the robot myself and train other people with it - expand by word-of-mouth.

I will also be iterating on the product in parallel, mostly software. Working with a freelancer has been a very enjoyable and productive venture so far, and the existing prototype allows me to include many features which shall further increase the value skews.

After much thought, I have also decided to fund my own development, and not seek outside investors for now. I plan to run the development mostly by myself this summer / autumn, even if it can get overwhelming at times.

Finally, I would like to thank @Giallo and @JayTheMaker for their support off-forum. I am lucky to be surrounded by such awesome people.
 
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