29 minutes | Nov 7th 2020

Ware: Ian Smith

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Ian Smith, CEO of Ware, shares the story of his career and how he ended up in the business of employing drones for supply chain inventory tracking. Danny: Hey, thank you for joining me today on today’s IndustrialSage Executive Series. I am joined by Ian Smith who is the CEO at Ware. Ian, thank you so much for joining me today. Ian: Pleasure to be here virtually. Thank you for having me. Danny: I’m excited to talk more and learn more about you. Thanks for coming on. So for those who are not familiar, we’ll start with this. Ware, what do you guys do? Ian: Yeah, so at Ware, the easy way to explain it is we deploy self-flying drones inside of warehouses to automate the tracking of our customers’ inventory. So all the stuff on the pallets in the warehouses that the lay-people, you and I as consumers never see or even think about when we click Add to Cart, Checkout, and it shows up at our door, there’s an entire, obviously, massive industry that manages all of our stuff. So we at Ware tell them where their stuff is. Danny: I like it. I think I see where you’re going with this. This is cool. Well, I’m excited to jump into that and get into the back story on everything. But before we do that, I really want to get to know a little bit more about you, about Ian. So take me back. How did you get into this space in this industry? Ian: Well, it’s a saga. So I grew up in Houston, Texas. My dad is an engineer at NASA, and so I grew up always fiddling around with machinery, cars, and building things and just working in his shop with him. Eventually, we settled on building a model aircraft. So if anyone’s built model aircraft before, today you can buy a fully-assembled one. It’s really easy. But there used to be the hard way of doing it, which is the way we did. It was thin balsa wood. It was glue that you have to set overnight. I was 10, 12 years old. Danny: Wow, so we’re not talking an RV-10 or an 8 or anything like that. We’re talking Ficaro. Ian: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So these– well, small, radio-controlled model aircraft. Danny: Okay, okay. Ian: So you had the heat shrink. You had to use heat shrink and a heat gun. And it was really, it was really difficult. And it was a huge test of patience, but that was my first taste of aviation. And, of course, in between that I would be going into the space shuttle mock-ups where the astronauts trained. So I was really lucky to be able to do that since my dad ran that building at JSC in Houston. And eventually I became a helicopter pilot. That was my first profession, commercial helicopter pilot, flight instructor. I was a new flight instructor in 2008 which, as everybody knows, was a pretty bad economic recession. I used to hold, I guess, the honor of having that on my list of experiences, and it was the worst time to be a new flight instructor. But unfortunately with Covid-19, I’m pouring one out, proverbially, for all the new flight instructors now because it’s got to be pretty tough for those folks. Danny: Oh, yeah. Ian: So in 2008, I pivoted. I spent a lot of time in aviation brokering jet fuel to corporate flight departments, the Gulf Streams and the Hawkers and all those things that the big companies fly. And I just remember, very vividly, in 2013 I was going to the grocery store. I parked my car. I was listening to NPR. I heard this story about drones and how they were a thing and that there were people out there using small drones that they built to make money. But unfortunately, it was illegal. And so that piqued my interest, and I didn’t realize that the model aircraft I was building that were so basic and used little, tiny gas engines and all the heat shrink in the wood were now plastic with PCBs in them and flight controllers and auto-pilots and all that stuff thrown in there, GPS. And they could fly themselves. And so I made a very, in that moment, I made it my goal to be in the drone industry as a career. Since then, I’ve worked at multiple drone start-ups on the software side, the hardware side, in the US, in Europe. I have a podcast about drones called Commercial Drones FM. And now, I’m the CEO and cofounder of a company that deploys drones, flying robots, inside of warehouses for inventory tracking. So it’s been a journey through many different types of aviation and aerospace, but there’s always been that element of something flying has always captured my interest. Danny: Oh, that’s awesome. That’s super exciting. You’re speaking my language. I’m a pilot, but I’m not a– I’m a private pilot, so not an instructor or anything like that, or commercial. But love all things aviation, so your whole story, completely resonating with me. I’m not going to lie; I’m a little jealous that… you said your dad ran the JCS building, and you got to go on all the– so I’m up to here with jealousy. Ian: That part was crazy. Yeah, that’s the one thing that I think is the coolest thing because you can’t just do that as a guest, going in. I would be playing around on all the equipment the astronauts use to train. There’s these zero-gravity– I probably shouldn’t even be saying this. But there’s these things you could use, and I would look up, and the normal visitors to JSC to visit would be watching this glass chamber. Then, there’s this little 6-year-old playing with all this stuff. Danny: That’s awesome. That’s cool. So obviously, from a young age, you were highly impressionable with that, with your father– I’m guessing, is he a rocket scientist? I would just say, yes, he’s a rocket scientist. Ian: Just a mechanical engineer. He’s really good, though. Danny: Obviously, that shaped you. That helped influence you. Has there been any other areas or somebody that– maybe it’s your dad– throughout that have really had a big impact on your career, helped maybe shape that trajectory or just really inspired you? Ian: The thing that comes to mind when shaping it is, when I was trying to determine, I think I was in high school, still. We had some family friends who actually worked in aviation, and I was considering becoming a pilot. I went over to meet some of them at their hangar. They had a big– it’s a big, public company, so they had beautiful corporate jets. I came in there just to get some advice, talk to all these old-salt pilots. They’re the guys that are flying around the executives of this company. I said I was interested in helicopters, and they all told me not to do it. So I did it. I was like, you know what? No. Helicopters are way cooler than airplanes. And so, yeah, in terms of that, I wouldn’t call it, I wouldn’t really say a specific person. I think I’ve always been intrinsically motivated. This probably stems from my dad who was always down in the shop tinkering around. I always have to be tinkering on something, building something, feeling like I’m doing something and keeping myself busy with my hands or my mind. And so I think it’s that kind of stuff that really drove me towards this and always wanting a challenge. And yeah, aviation is challenging. It’s risky. Danny: Yeah, just a little bit. That’s awesome. So do you still fly? Ian: I don’t, no. No, it’s really expensive, prohibitively expensive to fly a helicopter which is a bummer. Some people ask me sometimes, “Hey, I want to become a… get a private pilot rating in a helicopter.” I’m like, “Okay, well be advised that you can’t just get it and, then, fly at your leisure.” You literally have to keep flying in increments. If you stop flying, you can lose your license, and you have to go through the whole thing over again. So it’s really expensive to have it as just a hobby. $250 or more per flight hour, that’s after you’ve got 40, 50, 60 hours to get your license. So fortunately, I do have my commercial rating which is good for life, which is some weird loophole that for some reason, I don’t have to keep up with my flying. I can just get in any time. But unfortunately, no, I don’t fly still. Danny: Well, I’m assuming you still have to do, I don’t know, some sort of biennial flight review or something for that. I don’t know, for the commercial rating, for efficiency— Ian: No. Danny: No, really, interesting. Ian: If I wanted to fly, the only scenario is if I wanted to fly a passenger and get in the aircraft with me, I would have to undergo I think– it’s been a while. Danny: Yeah, yeah. Ian: I’d have to undergo something, and so I know that for a fact. I would probably feel okay getting in the cockpit with just myself, but I would still be nervous to take any passengers. So I’d definitely want to get a few hours of instruction and get all signed off again just to brush up on things. Danny: Yeah, no, I hear you. No, I think that’s super cool. That’s exciting. So, well, let’s jump in a little bit more. I got a little bit of background in how you started. Tell me, what made you want to start a company? What was that thought, or was there a moment that you said, “Hey, you know what? I see this opportunity. Let’s go.” Ian: I think I’ve always wanted– I’ve always been, didn’t know what I wanted to do. So before, I told you my glorified version of my career. Of course, you don’t talk about the things that were tough and difficult. In college, I didn’t know what the heck I wanted to study. You’re supposed to pick your degree, and you have no work experience. Danny: What did you study? What did you end up doing? Ian: At first, it was architecture. Danny: Okay. Ian: Which actually… I kick myself today because I just love architecture. I think it’s amazing in being creative and designing things and seeing it come to life. And people using it… it’s just so cool. Then, I pivoted to art, and I hated art because it was just, who painted this? Who painted this? What style is it? And, then, I just wasn’t into it. This is in college. Then, I left college to go back home because I wasn’t feeling it. Then, my buddy was like, “Hey, do you want to fly helicopters?” I was like, “Yeah, let’s do that.” So I did that, and I was thinking about doing cooking school, culinary school, getting a degree there. So I’ve always wanted to build stuff and create things. Flying helicopters just seemed really cool at the time. So that, combining my curiosity to build things and fascination with technology, it really motivated me, I think, to try to join– I wanted to be where all the technology was. So right now I’m saying this today, but because of all the Covid-19 and this exodus, a lot of folks are leaving San Francisco and the Bay Area. But still, it’s Silicon Valley here. So this is where tech is. So this dream of mine, ever since I lived in Houston, was to work at a company in San Francisco. So finding the niche with drones and having that come up at the same time my career was starting, being able to pivot to that was fantastic. Then, being around start-ups, being around entrepreneurs and highly motivated people rubbed off on me as well. And one of my goals was, okay, start a venture-funded start-up in San Francisco. Raise over a million dollars. Say that you’ve done it and experienced that. You learn so much. So being a part of start-ups and helping build them was amazing. But also, with my podcast that I started, it’s also a business. It generates revenue. I’ve had public company sponsors. That scratched my itch. But, then, finally now with where I’ve got my co-founder of a venture-funded start-up, we’ve raised over a million bucks at this point, so that’s cool. Danny: That’s awesome. When did the venture start? Ian: We started Ware, technically, the company was started in January, 2019. But we’ve been working on this problem in earnest for over a year and a half, so 20 months or so, give or take, not that it matters, those four months. But in our relatively young life of the company, I think, yeah, every month does matter. Danny: Absolutely. Did you start off– obviously, to go to the material handling space, supply chain, inventory management, did you start off that way, or was it something that you, through discovery, found your way there? What did that look like? Ian: So one super cool thing that I’ve always loved about working in the drone industry is that– I wouldn’t even call it the drone industry anymore because it’s an industry that exists to help other industries solve problems. So there’s no drone industry unless you’re making parts and pieces and components of drones to build the drone. There’s drone services and things like that, but you’re always applying these flying robots and the software, the data, and the results that they can provide to an industry. So it was fascinating to learn, in my early days with drones, about agriculture, about construction, oil and gas, utilities, linear infrastructure, mining, everything. All those industries can benefit from the power that drones bring. And that was so fun for me, the variety of learning of those industries and finding and connecting the dots from the drone to the data to the industry and, then, figuring out what deliverables they needed to call it a success as a customer. So my fascination and my motivation with drones is that they’re applicable in so many scenarios and industries. So with supply chain, logistics, warehousing, I had basically no experience with that. I did have a stint for a year as the general manager of an ecommerce company that focused on smart home technology. It was a company called Tink in Germany, and I was the general manager in the US for the expansion. That was my first taste of understanding drop shipping and of understanding logistics and fulfillment and the distribution centers. And that was the last thing, or the thing I did right before starting Ware. So it was understanding and knowing of this industry, understanding the need that they need better cycle counting. They need more automation. The need to– cycle counting and tracking inventory in warehouses has not changed for hundreds of years, materially, maybe even thousands. It’s still the same thing. The world’s biggest companies are having humans strap themselves into a piece of machinery, go up 30 feet and, then, use their fingers to count their products, just like this: one, two, three, four, five. Then, they count the bottom row. Then, you do the multiplication. Then, you know– it’s shocking. I’ve watched one of the world’s largest companies have their inventory counted like that. It’s slow; it’s error-prone. These people who do it probably don’t like doing the same thing monotonous all day. So applying drones to it is a no-brainer. So to answer your question, I had almost no experience in it. But I love to learn about these new industries and finding out the ways to help solve their problems. And build the product and the service to meet the needs is one of the most exhilarating parts of this. Learning and talking to the people that work in those warehouses has been awesome. Danny: Yeah, I think it’s super interesting, and it’s exciting. Call it manufacturing, supply chain, warehousing is really going through a huge disruption right now. It was going through it before Covid. Obviously, now, I think we’re accelerated by five years, if not more. But the need for that disruption has been happening. You’re seeing all kinds of really cool innovations and things that are happening. And I remember, when I first started hearing about the ability of deploying drones, UAVs, whatever you want to call them, to do inventory management and tracking, I thought it was awesome. I think it was really amazing. What are some of the challenges that you see in the industry relative to inventory and even Covid, maybe stuff coming out that you think that are going to be pretty relevant? Ian: Yeah, so humans have become this liability in a post-Covid world or a mid-Covid world. They’ve always been, let’s face it, a liability. What if a human, one of your human workforce, your employees, falls and hurts themselves? Nobody wants that. Plus, when you tag onto the cost of that, then there’s the insurance to mitigate the risk and all that, workers comp, et cetera. So they’ve always been a liability, whether– every employee, as an employer, knows that themselves. With Covid-19, we’ve talked to some of our earliest users and customers of our product. There were scenarios– normally in a warehouse, it’s full of people. People are walking around. They’ve got lunch areas and break rooms. They’ve got all these– they’re all over the place. It’s not just stuff on shelves. In these big warehouses, there’s people everywhere. They were in close proximity, like normal, like any office, probably a little less close proximity than a normal sit-down office. There were scenarios where I’m talking to a company that, anyone listening to this would know if I named them, they have stores all over the United States, everywhere, thousands of them. And they had a breakout of Covid-19 in one of their facilities. So they had to shut down the whole facility. And it was not a breakout, actually; it was probably two people that tested positive, but you’ve got to take all the precautions. Shut down the full facility. Sanitize everything everywhere. A few days later, they’re back up and running. That probably cost them millions of dollars in lost everything, lost revenue, everything. So the fact that humans can carry viruses that can shut down business is difficult. So that is a challenge that the industry faces that, I think, our technology helps a lot with. Keeping humans from doing all these manual tasks– humans are so much better at thinking with our brains and making decisions and deducing. And there’s so many other more– operating the machinery to physically move things, not just counting things and observing and looking at stuff. Counting, really? We’re so much more capable than that. So those same humans are being reallocated to different jobs in the facility. So, in some cases, it requires less humans to do that same job, but they can do other things. Now, I’m not even going to get into the fact that, of course, there’s automation coming for everyone’s job in the warehouse. That’s a tough pill to swallow. We’re not the arbiters of truth on that. We are not trendsetting on that or anything. We’re merely fulfilling the needs for the customers and what they’re asking for. So you might be, just listening to this, surprised that the vast majority of the customers we do talk to, their number one goal is not to reduce headcount, even though that is part of the liability concern with viruses that can spread so quickly now. But it is, actually, increasing accuracy, increasing frequency. The robots are faster, et cetera and so on. So the big challenges related to Covid and with robots, it’s so deep and vast I could go and snake around in any of these areas here. But those, I think, are the big ones that are easiest to talk about and understand right now. Danny: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s interesting, you mentioned, too, that a lot of people that are not necessarily saying, hey, it’s a primary motivator or it’s the number one reason why we’re looking to implement more technology solutions because we want to reduce headcount. I think that, especially, if anything that Covid-19 has taught us, especially with supply chain and all the issues, is really that resiliency piece. So if it wasn’t better, faster, cheaper before– I mean, it was– now it’s even more so. So how can we add things into the supply chain that are going to increase that resiliency by increasing the efficiency? So certainly I imagine that running inventory the old school way would be done once a month, once a week, whatever. Now, I imagine you can just run that out on a, consistently kind of thing. Ian: Exactly, yeah. Just to touch on another one of the big benefits, because it is interesting, is that the pace at which humans, and a team of humans– okay, so taking a few steps back– is that, if you think about ecommerce growth, warehouses have grown to these giga-structures, one million plus square feet, two million square feet in some cases, these gigantic structures that are a mile long. It takes you 10 minutes to walk from one side to the next. People drive golf carts and stuff like that in the warehouses. They’re massive. So imagine your job is to cover and count everything in that warehouse manually. Well, the only way to also achieve, how do you do it faster? You hire more humans, and you throw more humans at the problem. And it’s just really inefficient. So the speed at which robots, in this case, flying drones, can fly around and take pictures, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, up and down the racking, looking at everything and just be really quick about it is 20 plus times faster than humans can do it. So it gives, in terms of resiliency, it gives the customer unprecedented access, visual audit log history of their inventory, images of every piece of inventory in their facility, something they’ve never had before, at a pace and a rate and a frequency of which they never thought fiscally possible. So it’s changing the way that they can view understanding their inventory when it’s in a warehouse or a distribution center. Danny: That’s interesting. I was curious; I was going to ask about what the pick-up on efficiency was, and you said it was 20 plus X, which is, that’s a good improvement, saying that facetiously. You mentioned that the way and the how that you’re doing it, in terms of imaging technology or taking snapshots and different things. So I would imagine, I’m just thinking out loud here, other benefits would be, too, if you’ve got inventory shrink issues or you’ve got damage, maybe there’s a shipment issue or something and everyone’s trying to pin it on, we all know it was the shipper, it was whatever. No, here it is in our facility, and it was not damaged before– I don’t know. I could see all kinds of use cases and stuff like that. It’s very interesting. Ian: Absolutely. Some might think, oh, just slap a barcode scanner on a drone and fly it around. But we don’t believe that. There’s the old saying, a picture is worth a thousand words. So we want to take pictures and images. And we can tell so much from imagery. There’s so many ways to process an image. There’s very cool ways where you can generate depth from 2D images. So you can start seeing in 3D around what would normally be 2D. So when you look at that and compare, okay, just scan a barcode and tell me where it is, that’s– you’re delivering the status quo. While it still would be faster and, likely, cheaper as a solution, we take it multiple steps further. So now, like I mentioned, visual audit history, looking at inventory on a given date, understanding where it was, not having to rely on someone, maybe thumbing the wrong button when they type it on the scanner when they do the cycle count. Maybe they swapped the 5 with the 9 or whatever, the button below it. Then, all of a sudden, you’ve got an incorrect count, and you can’t verify it. So now, you have a visual audit history. So many different things you could do with images, and it’s much more of a rich data source than just scanning these barcodes that’s out there. So that’s what we really, really focus on. We talked a lot about drones and stuff, and that’s cool, but drones don’t excite me. They’re a means to an end. They’re a tool in the toolbox. They might as well be as exciting as a hammer. If you go in any one of our— Danny: They’re a little bit more exciting, but yeah, I hear you. Ian: A little bit, yeah, a few more moving parts. But if you go into any one of our deployments, day one, day two, folks working on the warehouse floor, and everyone’s just looking at the drone. Cell phones come out, taking videos. This is pretty cool stuff. It’s exciting, right? Week two, no one is looking at that drone. It is merely an appliance inside the warehouse doing its job and getting it done. So the big thing just to drive home, the point here is, the data is what matters. The drone’s not what we’re selling here. We’re selling the service, and the service involves inventory reports, accurate, timely, better than you’ve ever had them before. Danny: That’s awesome. That is fantastic. So, Ian, I think I could probably go on and on and on about the aviation and inventory and drones and the whole nine yards. But for those who would like to learn more about you guys because it sounds like you guys have some pretty cool solutions, what’s the best way for them to get to learn more about you? Ian: Yeah, just pop up on a web browser, getware.com, G-E-T-W-A-R-E dot com. We’re building products at the intersection of machine learning, AI, and robotics in this trillion-dollar supply chain industry. So, of course, we’re hiring. We’re growing; there’s interest. So if you’re an engineer on the software or robotics side, definitely look that up. But if maybe you’re an end-user, customer, or partner, also get on there. There’s ways to contact us, learn about the technology, check out some case studies, and just see if it would be a good fit to move forward. Danny: Awesome. Well, Ian, I really appreciate the time. Thank you so much for spending some time with us here over at IndustrialSage. Ian: My pleasure. Thank you so much for having me. It’s been a nice little break from my normal duties. So really nice setup you guys got, and happy to have been a guest. Danny: Great, well thanks so much. Ian: Thank you. Danny: Alright, well there you go. That wraps up today’s IndustrialSage Executive Series interview with Ian Smith who is the CEO of Ware. Pretty cool technology they’ve got. So go to getware.com. Hopefully I got that right. It’ll be in the show notes. If you’re listening on our podcast, all of the information will be down there. Hey, listen, we’d love a review. If you are not on our email list, you need to go to IndustrialSage.com, and you need to subscribe. Why? Because you’re missing out. You’re missing out on all kinds of great content like this interview that we had here with Ian. We have manufacturing news. We’ve got more series where we talk to CEOs of innovative companies large and small, all across the US and globally so you can stay abreast of what is happening in the industry especially as things are just constantly changing. So anyways, that’s all I got for you today. Thank you so much for watching or listening. I’m Danny Gonzales, and I’ll be back next week with another episode on IndustrialSage.   hbspt.cta.load(192657, 'ee6f69de-cfd0-4b78-8310-8bdf983bdcc9', {});   Thanks for reading. Don’t forget to subscribe to our weekly newsletter to get every new episode, blog article, and content offer sent directly to your inbox. You can also subscribe wherever you download podcasts so you can listen on the go! Sponsored by Optimum Productions
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