A Founder's Journey: Building a Product-Centric Tech Startup

With a product career that includes Adobe, Facebook and Microsoft, Florian Pestoni is a Product Manager turned Founder and CEO.

Heidi Ram, our Head of Product Practice, sat down with Florian to discuss his CEO journey, from learning to let go of his "product baby" to building a "product-centric company" and overcoming common roadblocks Founders encounter when building a business.



Video Transcript

Heidi Ram
Well, what a pleasure it is to be sitting here virtually with my friend Florian Pestoni. Florian has a very rich set of experiences. I'm going to let him introduce himself, but I’m excited to be chatting with him today, talking a lot today about the journey of a Founder, a Founder of a tech company. So, Florian, why, don't you tell us who you are and what you're solving for these days? Tell us about your business.

Florian Pestoni
Oh, absolutely, Heidi, thank you for having me and I think maybe by way of intro I would say I’m a recovering Engineer. So, I started out doing research, working on obscure topics like cryptography and image processing, and so on. Then made the transition to product management. 

I think that's where kind of in some way I found my tribe and in the world. I love being this kind of like bridge between business and technology, between the real world and the code, understanding customer needs. And I think this was a great foundation for me to become a startup Founder because all those things are things that you need to do times one hundred when starting a company. 

I worked at some of the well-known companies out there in the Valley like Adobe, Microsoft, and Facebook at the time, now Meta but also with startups of varying degrees of success. Now I'm working on a company called InOrbit. We're a data platform for robot operations.

Heidi Ram
A data platform for robot operations. Tell us a bit more about that. Tell us about a use case, and how that works.

Florian Pestoni
Sure. So, the first thing I’ll say is we don’t make the robots, we make the robots run better. We're talking about this new generation of robots that maybe not everyone is aware of but old-school robots working a production line where they're following a pre-programmed motion. Newer robots are based on computer vision, based on sensors, so they can understand the world, reason about it and make choices. All of this driven by artificial intelligence, of course.

For example, I was travelling quite a bit recently in Asia, it's quite common to see a robot waiter. You are in a restaurant, instead of a person bringing a tray with food, there's a cart that's essentially a robot because it can drive itself. It can navigate between the tables and the chairs, and all the madness that is running a restaurant and then bringing the food.

So people's ideas of robots are probably shaped by science fiction. These are real robots in the real world today, doing kind of mundane tasks.

Heidi Ram
Very interesting. So your software makes sure that if there's a fleet of robots… talk through kind of how does your product deliver value to the company who is buying it?

Florian Pestoni
Sure. We work in two different ways. We work with the Robot Developers. So people who are making robots and what we find is a lot of them are really brilliant at making a robot, but they don't necessarily have the experience of scaling something, because that's not something that you get or you learn in robotics school.

I come from the cloud world where scaling is the name of the game. So we use a lot of the lessons from scaling cloud operations or a data center if you will. As an aside, I call a fleet of robots a data center from hell because it's kind of like the worst possible data center that you can imagine. They're distributed all over the place. They run on battery. They have iffy network connections but they still need to do their job. 

So we bring some of the best practices of GabOps to robotics, and we call that RobOps, so Robot Operations.

Heidi Ram
I love that. 

One of the interesting things about you is that you are a product person turned Founder/CEO. And I loved a quote that you shared with me the last time we spoke about how you aspire to build a product-centric company. What does that mean to you? What is a product-centric company look like?

Florian Pestoni
I think I would say this is partly based on my own experience, working at different types of companies. I've worked in engineering-centric companies where it's really about the love of making things elegant and scalable. I've worked at sales-driven companies where it's like, whatever it takes to close that next million dollar deal. 

And I think they're all valid approaches, but ours is, how do we create value at scale, which is how I think about product.

You hear people talk about customer-centric, but we want to be customer-centric at scale, which is what to me means being product-centric. So you’re not satisfying each customer at a time, you're trying to satisfy thousands, potentially hundreds of thousands of customers. So the trade-offs that you make are not about one deal, or they're not about one feature, they're about value at scale. 

What we try to do is we try to make everyone at the company be product aware. So what I call this is, I call it the Product Quotient. So you know about IQ, we know now about EQ - Emotional Quotient. I think PQ is what I like to talk about, and we want to elevate everyone's PQ at the company.

Heidi Ram
What a great description. I love that. 

Now I’m curious, the journey for many Founders gets really complicated when it comes time in the business to make a selection of a special hire that hire who’s going to take the baton from you and step into the shoes of a… call it a Head of Product or a VP of Product. someone who is taking that baton from you and your baby.

Talk a little bit about sort of what your journey has been, thinking about hiring a Head of Product, and what that has meant to how you, as a Founder/CEO have to adapt and adopt to a new way of operating.

Florian Pestoni
I love that you use the word journey because it is very much a journey of personal growth, to be honest when you start. So I started InOrbit with my co-Founder, Julian and Julian is a brilliant Engineer. So if the roles were clear, he was the Engineer. I was everything else – everything else that needed done. 

And then, as we started to grow the team we brought more people with specialized skills. A lot of it initially was on the engineering side and I kept playing Product Manager, which is something I love to do but I was also the Designer. I've worked with a lot of really great Designers, but I’m not trained as one, and if you see my photoshop skills, you'd be devastated. But we did what had to be done, and then we were able to start bringing new roles.

For example, we have a fantastic Designer from RISD, which is one of the best design schools in the world. His name is Ryu Sakai. He also loves to share his learnings with aspiring Designers, so he's fantastic. But the product role was who I am, so finding someone for that wasn't… we actually didn't go out looking for it. We just kind of like met, and it developed into that. 

So our Head of Product is John Simmons, and the first time we met he was a customer. He was working on one of these robotics companies and was using InOrbit to scale their fleet, they went from fifty to over five hundred in a matter of about twelve months, which is hard to do anywhere, in any space, but with robots where each machine is very complex, it is really hard. So, we work hand in hand at the time.

The story of startups is never a straight line. So that company was doing great until it wasn't and then it had to let go of most of its staff. So, for me it was like I love working with you, John, come and join us. We'll figure something out. And then from there, it evolved to this, Head of Product role.

The company's needs are always shifting, and I’m still kind of like I’ll do what needs to be done. But having someone that I could trust because we built that trust over time, someone I can work with, we knew we were going to work well together… I'm not gonna say I have it all figured out. I'm still a little clingy when it comes to product, it's still very much my baby, as you said, but I guess baby goes to school now, so I don't need to hold them in my arms all day. 

I don't know, that's a weird analogy. But you brought it up and I ran with it. 

Heidi Ram
There's something so captivating about a leader who can communicate as a storyteller, and the examples and the story that you weave into your narrative is just something that we can all appreciate and understand. And yeah, baby goes to school one day, and mama, daddy has to let go. But never stops.   kind of always holding the hand or in the business or in the life of. 

Wow, beautiful! 

Florian Pestoni
And I think that will continue to change as the company continues to evolve. I'm still kind of like as a Founder. My role is always, where can I help the most? And that means I do a lot of multitasking. 

Some things as CEO, I'm the one responsible for, like fundraising, clearly a CEO role. So, I wouldn't ask somebody else to step into that but as the company grows we can bring experts like John, like Ryu, like other people and complement what Julian and I can do or where our strengths are initially.

Heidi Ram
One of the things that I've come to realize over many years of recruiting with Founders and CEOs who are trying to do something like what you're doing, something very disruptive where you're launching a category of solution that is really not broadly out there. Maybe people haven't even heard of a product or solution solving for what you're solving for, and so many times, the easy or the natural hire is someone who has done it before, worked for a competitor, or already understands the category that you're in. 

But talk a little bit about kind of how hiring impacts you, if there aren't a lot of people in the industry doing what you need them to be doing for you. Like, how do you think of hiring if there isn't a lot of talent in your category?

Florian Pestoni
I think the talent is there, they maybe just don't know it yet that they're a fit for the category. 

To share about this idea of building a category first. So, our category is something we call RobOps, as I mentioned, and it brings me insane pleasure when people outside the company that we may not have met, use the term RobOps. That means, okay, it's catching on. It takes a lot of work as a community, not just as an individual company. 

One of the things that I did was I started something called the Robot Operations Group, which is not associated with InOrbit directly, it's kind of a labour of love. And I started with someone who had scaled robots to over ten thousand, and there's very few people in the world. So, Joe is my partner in crime there, and we were able, just this past week to do something called RobOps Con, which is the first conference out there for robot operations, not for robot building, because there are some great conferences for that, but for running operations at scale.

And I think a lot of it is about finding your crew, finding your team. Other people that are going through the same thing across the industry, across companies, and sharing knowledge and learning together from each other. So, there's the ‘build a community’ – that’s one aspect. 

Then there's the ‘build a team’ within the company. We’re not starting from scratch, we're taking, for example, principles from DevOps and trying to apply them to a new area. Somebody that has strong DevOps background, we can teach them the robotics part. Likewise, you need to know a thing or two about robots if you're going to be working at that level. So we bring people from the robotics world and we add the operational aspects to it. 

So I think it's really about how you build a team that together has the skills versus one person that comes ready out of the oven with all the check marks that you want. But I think, because of that, one of the things that's really critical is hiring people with the right attitude, not just skills.

One of our values… we don't have seventeen values like I think Amazon has, we only have five, but one of them – my favorite is the one we call ‘Zero to One’. So 0-1 means we want people who are excited to work on something that doesn't exist and get it to something that is a ‘thing’. 

So we try to optimize for people who are motivated by that, because there are other people, and I have huge respect for them who can take something that's a billion dollars and make it ten billion dollars. I'm not that person. So, by the time the company gets there, I’ll probably be hiring a CEO so we can have another interview when we're there. But that kind of like 0-1 is something that I’m really passionate about and there's a lot of people out there – so don't hire someone who's really good at scaling and existing business, once it's very well established, hire people who are, at least interested in that kind of early stage.

Heidi Ram
I think that insight that you just shared, thinking about the 0-1 persona of individual will be so helpful to other Founders who are listening and trying to think about the teams that they're building because it's a real shift in thinking. From kind of thinking about and looking only at a person or at a candidate through skills, experiences, whatever we would naturally go to, to really looking at the qualities of that person and whether they are likely to be someone who is a builder and who embodies all of the qualities necessary to be a builder and a 0-1 person. I'm sure, namely, of which would be curiosity and really tenacity.

Florian Pestoni
Yeah. Again, I think, I like when I find somebody who hasn't had just a straight line, where you’re in one company and then went from one role to the bigger role to the bigger role but had like zigzag. 

It's like, okay, I tried this, I went this way. I was in engineering. I was at a startup. I then did sales. So people who have this kind of mix of experiences or who are eager to get that mix of experiences if they're just getting started… I think that really useful.

Heidi Ram
Florian, you are an Advisor to other Founders and I'm curious to know if you've observed, if you’ve noticed common roadblocks that get in the way of Founders when they're building their businesses. And what do you sort of see, and what is your advice to Founders who are on that journey to building their business?

Florian Pestoni
Yeah, I love working especially with first-time Founders. I do that through UC Berkeley, through people that I happen to know on my network. I know a couple of Professors who will reach out and say, “I have this brilliant student who’s trying to build a company, I don't know anything about that. I teach them machine learning. Can you help?” and I’m always happy to have those conversations, and I usually come at it with… obviously, I won't know anything about their space. They're the experts. But where I think I can help is the thinking process for how you build a product-centric company. If that's what they're trying to do.

I think what I found after talking to lots of Founders is, there are Founders that we have a technology that they love, and they want to find a way to work on that technology. So, their motivation is really the tech and how they apply it is like, we'll figure it out. And I think it's valid when you have a truly differentiated technology but if it's more like personal interest, I think a lot of Founders that start from that place are going to struggle to find that product market fit that everyone wants to get to in the early stages. 

I've seen other Founders who are like here's a problem. I know it really. It's massive. How do I make it better? I think those tend to be… they’re a couple of steps ahead, I would say. I think both are very reasonable places to start from, but the latter will get you there faster. 

So if I can share some of my past mistakes, and I've made quite a few, and that a company, a Founder that I’m advising get there a little bit faster. That's I think, where I can add a little bit of value.

Heidi Ram 
Well done, well done. Last question. Inspire us. Dream with us. Where are you hoping InOrbit is going to be three years from now?

Florian Pestoni
So let me start without the time constraint… there's this notion of a BHAG, a Big, Hairy, and Audacious Goal. Remove all the execution details, what does insane success look like for you? 

For us, we landed on this very early on, which is, we want to help a million robots positively impact the lives of a billion people. It's easy to remember, you know, a million a billion, and it's based on the fact that robots have this multiplier effect. 

We work with companies that have robots in agriculture that allow you to grow food with one-tenth use of water and maybe zero use of herbicides. We have robots that will augment what nurses can do in a hospital by taking some of the repetitive tasks off their hands, so they can better look after people. I know there are a lot of mixed emotions about robots in the world, and it varies from country to country but in general, I think of robots as positive impact at scale. If we can scale the robots, and each robot can scale a person, then we have something pretty magical.

Heidi Ram
I want that for you. A million robots adding value to a billion people.

Thank you. Thank you for your time today, Florian. 

If you want to connect with Florian. We're going to add his LinkedIn here and we look forward to seeing what happens with your business and having you back to chat again. Thank you so much for your time today.

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