Five of our alumni stayed up late for many nights at Olin, and became intimately familiar with coffee. This sparked many conversations and the beginnings of product ideation....
How did your idea for the business begin?
When we first started dabbling in coffee, our goal was simple, solve the chemistry behind flavor and make the perfect cup for everyone's palate. We got to know the field and, after we finished laughing at ourselves, we realized how much, especially at the time, of specialty coffee was about meticulous care and finessing equipment. We decided to design our own brewing equipment and got thoroughly sucked down the rabbit hole of specialty coffee along the way. However, we found that our first designs were not very manufacturable and that we would need to overcome some challenges around certification of a novel component; both of these would take a larger financial investment than we had been planning on.
So, we started consulting. We had been doing a lot of networking, attending conferences, and meeting people. Three years ago, while we were in Houston at a trade show, we met with some people working with a high-end commercial espresso machine company called La Marzocco, based in Italy (www.lamarzocco.com). We talked to them about doing some consulting, speifically developing electronics for their equipment. They had heard about us and wanted to learn more about us and what we had to offer.
For the past 2 ½ years our team has been developing electronics that would go into their espresso machines. Since La Marzocco is of one of the top manufacturers of espresso machines in the world, it allowed for one of our team members, George Harris, to leave his 'day job' and become our first full time employee (the rest of us are a mix - some do it on the side, and others do it as their full time job). We took that project - the electronics - through the manufacturing process, and it has been shipping for 9 months.
Does your company have funding?
We are self-funded, and this was a conscious decision. We wanted to be able to build niche coffee products, things that make plenty for a team of founders, but are too small to make a good outside investment. These smaller run types of products are really interesting to us and being self funded gives us the freedom to pursue them.
We were interested in coffee, and for now, our team wants to stay working on coffee-related products. Someday, we might work on something else as a group if we found the right thing. We want to remain self-funded because it's important to all of us to retain ownership and control.
What does your consulting firm have to offer?
As you know, we all graduated with engineering degrees from Olin. We are in the electronic and software space, and also work on the firmware that goes with electronics. We see now that some of the skills we learned at Olin were pretty advanced, I'd argue better than the coffee industry was used to. In Principles of Engineering class, for example, it was common for people to build USB-connected devices, yet in the coffee industry that is not so common. We've been playing in that software/firmware/electronics space during and after Olin, and that is really our forte, and where our experience shines through (as opposed to Manufacturing or Mechanical Design). The company we're working with now has a manufacturer, suppliers and quality control. When we approach problems, we look at them from a systems level. We are playing between low level electronics (transistors) all the way through assessing user impact, and everything in between.
We learned how to do that at Olin. We learned how to acquire a broad understanding of the context of a problem. We often propose (to our clients) that if we build system in this or that way, they'll be better off because they can use the same technology across several systems, making the technology more modular and expandable for future concepts or iterations. It's design thinking.
What classes helped you all learn to think this way?
User Oriented Collaborative Design, Distributed engineering design, systems (provide links to curriculum page), and overall just the project-based nature of the curriculum. At Olin, our whole community was speaking the same language. When we were on a team, people were looking at a problem the same way, yet each bringing their own perspectives. Every student at Olin gets that foundation.
Tell us about the Luminaire Team.
As I mentioned, we all met at Olin, and graduated between 2008 and 2011. We find we know each other so well that we finish each other's sentences. Yet we bring different strengths:
Andrew Coats '08 is a Mechanical Engineer and has a full time job in the medical device industry, yet not much of the work he does for us is Mechanical Engineering. He tends to think about the business side, as well as commercialization and manufacturability in our designs. Chester Macklin '10 is also an ME, but he does firmware and circuit design as well - he used to work for Microsoft, but is now here full time. I graduated in 2010, do software and firmware, and my 'day job' is with Involution Studios. George Harris '10 does circuit design and firmware - he's also here full time. Andrew Price '09 and Carl Tappan '11 also help us out in different ways.
Advice to others thinking about starting a company?
The approach we have taken was to identify a market, and get to know it intimately. Then we figured out what we could do within it. We 'get' the coffee industry. The biggest advice I have for others is to talk about what you're doing - you can't be afraid to talk about your ideas, or have someone 'grab' them and call them their own. All of our ideas come from sharing what we know and our stories, talking with others, forming relationships, we did this early on and continue to do it all the time. This has served us well as we've shifted from a product development company to a consulting firm. Execution is the tough part. We have found sometimes it's more important to just make something, get it out there, get feedback, then it is to wait and wait, trying to get it right the first time.
Where are you heading with all this?
Eventually, we would like to build our own products. There's something very satisfying about going from concept to final product. We've put a lot of our concepts on our website - and we still have many more concept ideas that we'd like to dig in and develop.
Are you having fun?
Oh yeah. The company we're working with is a great client, we really appreciate the fact that they listen to us, and respect our opinions. And we go to Italy 3-4x a year. Not too bad!