An exclusive Tech Tribune Q&A with Nader Elm, the co-founder and CEO of Exyn Technologies, which was honored in our:
- 2021 Best Tech Startups in Philadelphia
- 2020 Best Tech Startups in Philadelphia
- 2019 Best Tech Startups in Philadelphia
Tell us the origin story of Exyn Technologies – what problem were you trying to solve and why?
We started in 2014, initially with the purely technical objective of building a fully autonomous aerial robot that could navigate itself through complex GPS-denied environments, and like many new startups, we learned to quickly focus on a customer and an application.
The problem we set out to solve was quite broad: Though seemingly mundane, the act of data collection is critical to a business’ success. However, we noticed several industries where the data collection activity itself was a hazardous job requiring people to go into dangerous environments and sometimes risking injury and possibly death. We had a unique solution to make these jobs safer, easier, and richer than ever. The question we now faced was “Where do we start?”.
We saw that there was a universe of potential opportunities for the technology and proposition, but because we were still small, we had to find focus. We researched various applications in different industries and narrowed them down to the few we believed we would succeed in. The journey that followed, however, taught us many things about the customers and industries we were targeting: their requirements, their readiness for advanced technology solutions, their price sensitivities, as well as the limits of the technology solution and its ability to meet the customer requirements. These discussions and learnings caused us to pivot early and often.
During one of these pivots, we were showcasing the high-fidelity maps generated by our robots as they flew down aisles in a warehouse at the AUVSI (Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International) Xponential show when some attendees from the mining community passed by our booth remarking, That’s exactly what we need in underground mining”. We had not even considered the mining industry up until then, so those discussions led to our appearance at PDAC (a major global mining conference), which in turn led to our first successful customer interactions.
What was the biggest hurdle you encountered in your journey?
Like a lot of startups, the biggest hurdle early on is knowing which leads are real and worth continuing to chase, and which to drop. On the one hand, it is really hard to kill what might be perfectly good opportunities, but you also have to recognize that you don’t want to deplete your runway testing every cool idea someone throws your way. You have to know the limits of what your product/technology is capable of delivering in the short term and where it can have the most impact. And while you are exploring these opportunities looking for product-market-fit and pivoting, it’s also important to keep up team morale. Too many pivots can be frustrating and deflating, impacting employee morale.
Luckily, we had a highly talented team that was excited and driven by the potential of our technology, so we were able to stay motivated through our first few pivots. We made our bet in mining and fortunately it paid off. We’ve established ourselves in that market and now we’re exploring other adjacent markets where we’re starting to see further successes.
What does the future hold for Exyn Technologies?
We were fortunate to complete a very successful Series A round in 2019 which powered our growing momentum through early 2020. Then we were clobbered by COVID. Thankfully, the industries we’ve targeted haven’t been seriously impacted by the downturn as much as others, so we’ve got enduring confidence about the company’s growth plan and we’re continuing to hire despite the pandemic (as we saw the opportunity to onboard great talent).
Subsequent to the initial shock of COVID and as things resume to a new normal, we’ve seen our business begin to pick up speed again as we’ve adapted our sales processes and leveraged virtual demos. These developments are helping us achieve key milestones as we look ahead to our next round of investment.
What are your thoughts on the local tech startup scene in Philadelphia?
When we started, it made sense to stay in Philadelphia because we were hiring great talent straight out of the University of Pennsylvania’s GRASP Labs and some of our first employees were locals. However, during our first funding round, we did explore the possibility of moving the company to the Bay Area to be closer to investors, but we saw a greater opportunity to continue to acquire and retain great talent here in Philly.
We also saw a burgeoning tech scene in Philadelphia and a growing number of companies focused in robotics, so we wanted to be a part of the hub that was developing here. Early on, it was harder to convince folks to move here, but fast forward to today when the tech startup scene in the city is rising rapidly. There’s many more tech startups with much more support from local governments and partners. And with the influx of general population, the city has really bloomed with more arts, culture, entertainment, and dining, making it much easier to attract top talent to move into the area. And since the advent of COVID, we have hired a lot of remote talent as well, so now we get the best of all worlds!
What’s your best advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
In the early days, you are hungry for customers and until you have proved product-market-fit, there is seemingly an endless universe of opportunities – this is both a blessing and a curse. This usually means it’s hard to say “no” to opportunities as they appear. The first piece of advice: know when to say “no” and try to stay focused. Otherwise, you are going to burn out the team chasing divergent opportunities and distractions. Start by knowing the limits of what your proposition can do and fight the urge to say “yes” to things that require you to stretch beyond what you know you are comfortable delivering on.
Find good people, as employees and advisors. Recognize and acknowledge that there’s a lot of stuff you won’t know, but you can find people that can fill in those gaps. Find people who are not only smart and can deliver on the scope of what you need them to do, but are also good at creative improvisation and adapting to change when unexpected challenges strike.
The last thing is to get comfortable with making decisions with little data. Don’t get paralyzed by the decisions and choices ahead of you. Make a decision with the best information you have at the time and trust your intuition. Even if it’s not 100% correct, it is often better to make a decision that is 80% right rather than waiting to make a decision that is perfect.