How startup life is different when you’re building stuff, not apps

Walk into the offices of most technology startups, and you’ll see lots of open space, lots of desks and lots of programmers hacking away at code. Walk into the office of a startup that’s creating physical products, and it’s a different experience. Rooms are filled with parts, shipping containers and production equipment, and there’s a definite sense of pride among the employees in being able to prominently display what they’ve created.

I recently visited the headquarters of two Las Vegas startups, Romotive and Walls 360, that are busy making their own stuff. It was eye-opening to see to see how hardware and physical goods are made in an increasingly software-centric world. You can read more about what these companies are up to, or just check out this slideshow of what daily life looks like.


Eat, sleep, build robots

For Romotive, one of the startups that Zappos’ (s amzn) CEO Tony Hsieh has lured to Las Vegas, life is definitely interesting right now. The company, which is less than a year old and just raised $1.5 million from some prominent angel investors (including Hsieh), spent the month of February building around 2,000 mobile-phone-powered robots by hand in two apartment units that serve as both living and working space. When I stopped by, the apartment was packed with parts and shipping boxes, and marketing head Zach Buchanan told me there was more to come. On average, he said, it takes about 20 minutes to build a single robot, although the team assembles them in stages rather than doing one at time from start to finish.

Team Romotive. Credit: Andrew Seid.

The big order was the result of a successful CES outing, where it sold 80 of its $99 robots, which offset the cost of its booth space and generated some positive press. For the Christmas season, Co-Founder and CEO Keller Rinaudo told me a few days earlier, Romotive only had to build about 100 robots. Buchanan said the company was selling about 6 robots a day online before CES, but now is selling about 26 per day.

Romotive plans to move out of its apartment and into a co-working space Hsieh is building in downtown Las Vegas, but I was left wondering if shared space will suffice if the company scales as its investors think it can. Rinaudo suggested that a change in the company’s focus, which is now split about 50-50 between hardware and software, might change its need for space.

“We’re defining this new market of smartphone robotics,” he told me, and as the hardware part becomes commoditized and new form factors spring up to do new things, Romotive could be in the position to serve as the platform powering them. It wants to “bring the app store to robots,” he said, where Romotive apps would serve as the brains for whatever physical robots consumers want to buy.

Where artists and mechanics meet

The decision to come to Las Vegas was a little different for Walls 360, which creates high-resolution, stick-on wall art on special fabric that can be removed and replaced up to 200 times. It didn’t need Tony Hsieh’s money — Guy Kawasaki and a who’s-who of graphic arts already invested in its angel round — but it did need cheap space and lots of expertise in large-format printing. Las Vegas gave it both.

Tavia Campbell, avatar-style

Co-founders Tavia Campbell and John Doffing have actually been at this for a few years, previously working out of San Francisco and then Philadelphia, but when they decided last year to stop outsourcing and start printing their own products, they had to make a new business model and find a new home. Las Vegas has proven to be a great decision, Campbell told me, because the company’s only real costs now are administrative, ink and fabric — rent in the industrial sector (its neighbor is a crankshaft repair shop) is practically a non-factor — and the city actually has a great mix of artists and printing professionals that honed their skills working on projects for casinos and trade shows.

Walls 360’s other co-founder, Yiying Lu, lives in Australia. She’s best known as the graphic artist who designed Twitter’s infamous “fail whale.”

Right now, Walls 360 makes most of its money from partnerships like those with EA (s EA) around its video games, from contract printing jobs for conventions and other events, and from individual sales of its custom prints. However, because individual orders are printed on demand, Campbell said the plan is to let customers upload their own images and have Walls 360 print them. She said Walls 360 is also thinking about leveraging cheap storefront space in downtown Las Vegas to open its own store, possibly doubling as a gallery where artists could display and sell their work as Walls 360 prints.

Life is a little more complex for startups when they have to account for stuff as well as staff, and when delivering a product means the workers — not their servers — have to deliver the goods. But it also creates some unique go-to market opportunities and might make it easier to convince consumers to buy a product. Apps are great, but there’s nothing quite like forking over some cash and having a new something in your hands.