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Reinventing the stroller (and the bouncy seat, playard, and more): 4moms

Posted on October 9, 2012 at 9:00 am

You can’t talk about robotics and entrepreneurship without including a few stars like 4moms and co-founders, Henry Thorne and Rob Daley. Like other robotics companies posted about in NewVenturist, 4moms was never about the robots. It was always about solutions. But robotics turned out to provide the most cost-effective and best solutions. To real problems. In a big market.

Rob Daley, 4momsOrigins.  Rob and Henry like to say that they found each other. Rob came from a finance and business background. Henry came from the robotics world. They founded 4moms to bring to market products that would be easy to use, transportable, and practical for parents. Anybody who has been a parent knows the hassles of getting strollers in and out of cars, unfolding “portable” playpens and baby beds, and the difficulties of other “necessary” objects for our offspring.

The core idea for 4moms came from Henry and Rob observing a couple of trends. Rob articulates what they noticed:

“Electronic components were getting cheaper. We saw that 10s of dollars were poised to become 10s of dimes and then of cents. That march of dollars to dimes meant real power. We recognized that this movement could transform industries.”

Henry interjects:Henry Thorne, 4moms

“We saw the declining price of electronics, which applies to iPhones, tvs, and anything with a chip. But there was another thing specific to Pittsburgh. I call it ‘my law’ – the rapidly declining price of motors and sensors. We now use motors that cost $.60. When I made my first robot, motors were $39. Today, we can put motors in stuff without a price penalty. That means that we can build real physical things, things that move.”

Henry and Rob also did a huge amount of market research before committing to a technology or product. This meant talking to customers, a lot of them. They knew they wanted to build consumer products so they took a booth at the Pittsburgh home show. The premise was to demo a prototype digital shower temperature control. Henry tells me, “Every temperature thing in the world is controlled electronically except plumbing.” During the show they talked to about 2200 folks. They didn’t get a lot of interest from the young men they thought were their target market, but they got much interest from moms who talked about trying to control temperature for baby baths. By the end of the show, Rob had new ideas for the company and their future products. Henry relates the story:

Baby bath temperature control, 4moms“We were at the bottom of the escalator on the way out of the convention center and Rob stopped me to lay out his vision for a product. It was because of talking to all the moms and listening to their problems over the two days of the show. They had problems with water temperature and keeping the water clean (because of what the cute little baby might do when in the bath), not to mention problems with all of the baby equipment and paraphernalia.”

Both Henry and Rob were and are parents. Their role as fathers did not cause them to create 4moms, but they certainly understood the problems that they heard at the home show. The pair knew that they could solve these problems with robotics. They knew that there was need, that they could build products to meet that need, and that their approach using robotics would provide competitive advantages – a perfect storm of opportunity.

Rob describes his vision:

“Robot arms and legs in homes solve $20 problems. Robots can go fetch your newspaper, those kinds of tasks. I don’t care about those activities, I am not willing to pay to have that done, and I don’t think others are either. But I would pay for special-purpose applications. There is real value in robots solving specific problems that can’t be solved using other technologies or techniques. We knew that we could build a business around the opportunity we saw in the juvenile market.”

Challenges.  They knew from prior startup experience that building a business around hardware wouldn’t be easy. Henry recounts his views:

Origami stroller, 4moms“The term robotics doesn’t take you anywhere. No consumer needs a robot. They have problems and they want solutions. They want an infant seat that better replicates the motion of parents. They want their children to be entertained and soothed. Whether that’s magnets or holograms or robots, you have to solve their problems. Our products are totally robots. But customers don’t know that. Look at the mamaRoo: it’s a 2D robotics platform that replicates the motion of parents. The Origami is a stroller that folds and unfolds at the touch of a button. The Breeze is a child travel bed that easily opens and closes. They are all robots!”mamaRoo bouncy seat, 4moms

4Moms is attempting something similar to what Apple has done but in a different industry. Apple created special purpose computers for vertical markets – the iPod is a dedicated computer; so is the iPhone. The strategy of making narrowly focused apps that are transformational can build value in a company. 4moms products have the same effect. But, Rob admits, “We play in the shallow end of the pool. Our competitors are Fisher-Price and Graco, which are not the same as Microsoft and Samsung.”

4moms today.  4moms was founded in 2005. Today, the company is 56 FTEs. 4moms closed on $20M from Bain Capital Ventures this summer. Prior to that, the company had raised about $24M. Rob tells me, “We didn’t even need the Bain money. But Bain said, ‘You should do this,’ and they made us an offer we couldn’t refuse. We realized that we could do some really exciting things with that capital.”

4moms sells directly to over 500 retailers in the US and Canada. Online sales range from Nordstrom to Target. The company sells through distributors in 24 other countries. Manufacturing is done in Asia and Erie, PA.

What’s next?  When asked about the future, the pair can’t narrow it down to one challenge. Rob tells me, “In this entrepreneurial cycle, we are trying to get to critical mass, and we are getting close. We have the capital to make it happen.” Henry tells me about the past challenges, “We had to keep the business capitalized in the meltdown. We lost our biggest customer and investor in a one-month period, so we are cognizant of our resources and how to leverage them.”

Rob puts the growth challenges into business terms:

“The biggest challenge for 4moms is growing the enterprise at an appropriate level in front of significant growth in the income statement. We are growing at 300 % this year and probably next year. We need to add staff and infrastructure. And we want to maintain our culture and not grow too quickly. We are in a strategic planning place now.”

4moms has good problems: they have realized 300 % increased production on the mamaRoos since the product launched. 4moms will sell 85K units of that product this year. But they face supply issues with only 47 units in inventory. The containers arrive multiple times per week, but Henry and Rob are not sure if that will be enough to meet the demand.

4moms teamMagic sauce.  You could conclude that the magic in 4moms is the robotic underpinnings of the products. That’s part of it. 4moms has innovative robotics solutions applied to a different industry. But I see the magic in the relationship between the founders. Too often, the chemistry between founders doesn’t work. But when it does, it can really help a company soar. Such is the case with 4moms. Rob listens; Henry builds. The pair are competitive but not with each other. They are competitive about their business: “There is always someone out in front that makes us jealous, but we are fortunate that there are people behind us too.”

Henry uses his technical skills that he honed at CMU as an undergrad in mechanical engineering and was one of the first students funded by the brand new Robotics Institute. Henry had always wanted to build stuff: “Factories,” he tells me. “I wanted to build machines. Robots are the ultimate machine.”

Yep, Henry, they are. And readers, remember to get your 4moms products when you have kids!