Interview: What Product Innovation Gets From Startup Culture
Before joining us on stage at CXI 2018, Suvie CEO Robin Liss talks about her journey through startup and corporate cultures to champion the robotic kitchen
The idea of the connected home is at the forefront of consumer consciousness in 2018—look no further than the rapid proliferation of Amazon Alexas and Google Assistants, not to mention the grand debuts from just about every major player in the space at showcases like CES and SXSW. While it still feels new to the public, people like Robin Liss have been envisioning the IoT revolution for years. Robin is co-founder and CEO of the smart home startup Suvie, a robotic appliance that both refrigerates and cooks meals with Jetson-like convenience for users dining at home on busy weekdays.
Before she joins us for our CXI 2018 conference on May 18, PSFK founder and editor-in-chief Piers Fawkes spoke to Robin about her path to founding a smart home startup, the pitfalls of corporate culture in innovation and some of the insights we can look forward to at her CXI talk.
Piers Fawkes: Robin, you’re going to come and speak on May 18 in New York City at CXI 2018, the PSFK conference. We’ve invited you because of your recent work and the launch of your at-home technology. What are you going to share at that event? What lessons are we going to learn from your talk?
Robin Liss: I don’t know how valuable a lesson this is or not, but for me, my career has been one long thread of finding interesting ideas and then pursuing those, and finding solutions for problems that I see.
When I started my first camcorder review website, 20-some years ago, I just went on this path that took me into areas I found interesting. I think that’s actually really important, because innovation doesn’t happen in a bubble. I don’t think it can happen in a focus group, and I certainly don’t think it can happen without real commitment and passion.
How I’ve been lucky in my career is that every innovation and idea and thing I’ve built has really come out of my own personal life and experiences.
If I go back to when I started my camcorder reviews when I was 13, it was because I liked making movies but I couldn’t find a good camcorder. I built that in college.
I graduated, and I started seeing how, I loved cooking, but there was not much innovation or big developments yet—this is back in 2009 and 2010—in the kitchen. The kitchen was this area where people spent a lot of time, massive amounts of time, but it was ignored by technology companies.
When I then went to sell Reviewed.com, I did so because initially we were just looking for an investment partner in order to go into the home appliance space because, again, this was pre-smart home, but we saw it coming.
I was passionate about the kitchen, I was passionate about cooking, I was passionate about product reviewing, so we did that and sold the company to USA Today, under the idea that we were going to move into smart home.
From that path, it was a really cool category, looking at refrigerators and dishwashers and ovens, well before people had even maybe called it smart home or IoT. It certainly wasn’t as popular as it is today.
Then, while doing that, I sat there and I evaluated products but I noticed that the appliance industry, while very innovative within its categories, was not really thinking outside of its existing frameworks and literally these boxes: the cutout for the dishwasher, the oven and the refrigerator.
That’s when I started to think, “I want to build an appliance that breaks the mold.” After I left Reviewed, I took that personal passion and said, “Hey, let’s build this appliance,” from day one and we built Suvie.
You had the startup experience and then that corporate experience. How did that inform the developments of your new company?
It’s interesting. The first boss I ever had was at Gannett. I’d never really had a real job other than little things here and there, other than building my own companies.
I never understood what people said when they called me an entrepreneur. I’m being completely serious here. I was 23 or 24, and people said, “You’re an entrepreneur.” I was like, “Well, I just build companies. I’m not sure what that means.”
Then I ended up in corporate America, and I started to understand how difficult innovation is in a large corporation because you’re entrusted by shareholders to be the shepherds of their money, and usually that means being very stable.
I think people are almost too hard on corporate America and its challenges with innovation. You have these GMs or SVPs, or whatever division. They need to be concerned with the two to three points of growth, or five points of growth, or 10 points of growth in the category that’s paying the bills.
It’s very, very hard to think about disruption to that category. It’s all cultural. It’s so hard to get the corporate culture to think about that.
It’s funny. There are a lot of studies of M&A, and they say that on a purely cash flow basis, these acquisitions rarely pay off, just if you do a very strict financial analysis. But what I realize and understand is, it’s that culture.
It’s not money or resources that prevent large corporations from coming up with innovative ideas. It’s the culture, and it’s incredibly difficult to change that. I don’t have an answer.
We were owned by Gannett at Reviewed. They gave us a massive amount of independence. I really admire them for how much independence they gave us. They knew they had to stay out of our way, and we grew Reviewed from a dozen people when I sold it to 50 when I left. Under corporate ownership, in a newspaper company, we grew fourfold.
It’s an amazing journey. Obviously in the current environment, it seems that all corporates are worrying that the sky is falling. “We’ve got to innovate. We’ve got to disrupt, otherwise we’re going to be disrupted. We need to transform.”
I think you’re saying that acquisition is also about culture. You’re bringing in the virus as well as bolting on an extra arm.
I think so. It can’t have anything to do with money or resources, or even, dare I say, intelligence. I think our teams are smart, and I’ve hired great people, but I don’t think we’re necessarily smarter than your average tech company or even media company employee.
The only thing special about a startup is a willingness to have risk and an ability to go fast. We’re under resourced; we usually do not have the best ideas. We sometimes don’t even have the best people. Sometimes we do, sometimes we don’t. It’s just culture, and it’s amazing how hard it is to overcome those cultural ways.
Suvie is a really cool idea and we think it’s super innovative. I don’t think we’re the first people to come up with the idea of multi-zone cookers, or even refrigeration and cooking, but we are willing to take the risks to pursue it and put everything we can into it.
That’s terrific. I’m looking forward to hearing your observations and listening to your journey, and gleaning those lessons and insights on May 18.