In our efforts to educate up-and-coming hardware startups to the ever-changing retail environment, we looked inward and conducted an interview with a Retailbound client – Smashtoast – getting direct insights from their Founder, Barnabas Helmy.
As a hardware startup founded in early 2014 based in Springfield, IL – Smashtoast created a compact universal remote for your entire collection of smart home devices. You can find their product – Puck – at Walmart, Amazon, and Wellbots to name a few.
Benjamin: How would you describe a one-minute history of SmashToast and your journey as a hardware founder?
Barnabas: In one word it’s been enlightening at the very least because I had done a software startup and an internet-based startup before, but I’ve never done hardware before except for my own purposes just tinkering around. It’s a lot more difficult to do hardware than it is software so, you know, that’s it in a nutshell.
One of the best stories I got early on was from a mentor telling me that he had gotten this amazing job, and there was so much to do that he just got stuck and it ended up being a catastrophic end to a great job.
His advice was basically – as long as you make an accomplishment every single day, it’ll build upon itself. And that’s really been how we’ve gotten to the point where we are today. In those early stages when you never see the light at the end of the tunnel, you just have to believe in the end vision and if you’re making an accomplishment every single day, they do build upon each other.
We’ve started in the Midwest and we’ve kept it in the Midwest. I’ve traveled to the West Coast and spent a lot of time out there to learn and understand, but being from the Midwest has been an incredible experience and I’m so glad that we’ve stuck around here to work with our partners.
For example, there were a lot of hardware accelerators I talked to in San Francisco when I spent my month out there and, I can’t even remember the names of them now, but they were always asking, “would you move here?” And I would say, if I moved here with the amount of money you guys give, there’s no way that I could make this work. Like, it doesn’t make sense. And they’d go, “well that’s the wrong answer.”
Well, it is the right answer because every bit of capital that they were willing to invest would be going towards living expenses and nothing would be going towards the product whereas in St. Louis, we won a $50,000 grant from Arch Grants and cost of living here is so much less when you’re spending $600 a month on rent for a home. That money goes a long way and that’s kind of really helped us get to market. Just being diligent and wise with our funding.
Benjamin: Having gotten to the point of selling your product in retail, how did you go about finding the right strategy, resources, and team?
Barnabas: Having qualified mentors and advisers has been really helpful. Making sure that I have those folks and team members that cover all the bases, not just retail or finance or legal. Someone in manufacturing. Having someone you can call on and ask questions and not be afraid to ask has been absolutely crucial.
A lot of the advice they give has been premature to me at the time, I don’t know what the hell they’re saying, but it stays with me. When whatever they’re talking about does become relevant, I’m prepared for it because I finally understand what that advice meant. It finally clicks in a lot of ways.
Also, tools like LinkedIn have been great, obviously, that’s how I found Retailbound and there’s a couple other tools I think have been really useful. When I was in San Francisco there was one called Conspire. You can just put in someone’s name that you want to meet with and it’ll scrub your email and look for a link so that’s kind of a cool tool. Another one is Reddit, the startup sub-Reddit helped me early on. I don’t know if it’s still alive and well, but that was a crucial tool.
Benjamin: At what point did you decide that it was the right time to bring on Retailbound as a retail partner, and how did you decide among so many options?
Barnabas: To be quite honest, when you came up to me at CES last year or last season I had been reading your articles for quite a while and I’m assuming that you befriended me at some point or we had connected at some point. I had read your articles so I honestly thought we knew each other when you called and said hello and introduced yourself so that was a really great introduction and it kind of helped.
Trust is everything with me. Everything. I’m methodical about making decisions with new partners. So, that helped me quite a bit to just understand your voice and I felt like I knew who you were already so it added to that trust that you knew what you were talking about.
We do get slammed by thousands and thousands of emails and calls all the time. And you know, the time was right for us after CES we had been getting hit by Walmart and other retailers and I needed somebody to help us navigate that because it’s not my forte.
There’s so many times you have to take a leap of faith and it’s so easy to get frozen by the fear. Even founding a startup is a gamble. So if you’re risk averse it’s not the game for you. It’s a constant game of just putting all the chips on the table and you have to be 100% behind the decisions you make, so I definitely feel like it was the right one.
Benjamin: Are there any specific traps or challenges to point out for a hardware startup that’s approaching the retail stage?
Barnabas: For a hardware startup approaching retail, I would say it’s very important to have someone on the team like Retailbound that understands the retail space because it’s not easy, it’s very expensive, and you’re not guaranteed sales whenever you enter into a retail space. So, you know, having someone on your team that can make sure that the retailer that you choose to work with has the customers that actually want to buy your product is a huge, huge, huge thing and can save you a lot of headaches. Because if you put 10,000 units in a store with the wrong target audience, you’re screwed.
I didn’t realize how clueless about retail I was until we jumped into it head first. There is so much to learn among distributor sales reps and the actual retail distributor establishments that it helps so much to have someone take that off your plate that understands what they’re doing.
Benjamin: What excites you the most regarding the future of SmashToast?
Barnabas: After three years. When I first started this company, I was told that “smart home” and “IoT” were the buzzwords, believe it or not. And I was told you wanna try and “ride the wave”. And I was like, I am. This is happening. This is going to be a big thing.
Now, especially after the last Consumer Electronics Show, we got a lot of recognition. We had zero budget. This year we’re gonna go back and we’re being highlighted in the smart home section. We have some incredible opportunities at CES to pitch some big investors and it’s like everything we’ve been working for is finally coming to fruition.
We also got accepted or invited to Upfront. They don’t publicize it or anything, but they pick eight startups out of Eureka Park to pitch to 80-90 investors and distributors and stuff. And I was like, “holy cow.” So we’ve been chosen to kind of represent the smart home section for that. So we’ve been doing something right the last year.
We’re selling product. We’re working on the next generation. We’ve got some really exciting improvements to our product coming out, so all of the hard work is really just showing itself. It’s a great feeling. It’s still risky. It’s still scary. It always will be, I think, but I think I’ve just become a little calloused to the stress which is nice.
So, any other founder that might read this should know that you do become calloused to the stress. Right now, it’s definitely exciting that we’ve finally managed to get it to retail and see product moving.
Benjamin: Thanks Barnabas for your time, and best of luck at CES!
Barnabas: Of course, anytime! Feel free to stop by and say “hello”.
- You can find SmashToast at CES 2018 in Las Vegas in Hall G (Eureka Park) Booth #52125
- You can schedule a time to meet Retailbound at CES by emailing – firstname.lastname@example.org