Max Makeev on Entrepreneurship, Remote Work, Startups and More

Max Makeev is the Co-Founder of Owl Labs, creator of the smart 360 ° video conferencing camera the Meeting Owl, and thought leader on innovative office technology. Max spent the previous ten years at iRobot, where he drove strategic initiatives to minimize costs and maximize talent use, and later served as a Product Manager— helping to launch the Roomba worldwide.

Business Today (Quang Trinh): Just to get it out of the way, of all the animals and figures, why did you choose the Owl as the symbol and signature feature of your product? 

Max Makeev: If you think [about] what an owl is, it’s a bird that can hear really well, has great vision, and is personified to be wise and smart. We thought it represented our products for all of these reasons.

BT: After your work at iRobot, what motivated you to co-found Owl Labs?

MM: When I was in college, I started out with the goal of becoming an engineer, but I actually didn’t really know what an engineer did. The only things that I knew were that school was expensive, that I had to pay for it myself, and that I was reasonably good with math. At that point, engineering was attractive to me because it felt like a career that could pay my bills when I finished school. I spent much of my time studying physics, and eventually began to search for work in a University lab. I found a role in a lab which studied how microbots can use sensors to control systems, and I was fascinated. It was at this point that I realized I wanted to work in robotics. However, I encountered a challenge upon my graduation in 2004 -- there were not many practical consumer robotic applications except for iRobot corporations. At this time, iRobot was building Roomba, and I was eager to get involved with the project. So, I packed my bags and moved to Massachusetts to start my career working there.

At iRobot, I learned about proper design, how to scale manufacturing, and that engineering could be fun.  I also realized that I really wanted to more deeply understand business, so I shifted my career towards management. My first focus on this new trajectory was People Management. I then moved into product management, where I learned how to launch products worldwide and how to work with sales and key business stakeholders. I felt like I was on a good trajectory.

During my time at iRobot I also met my co-founder, Mark Schnittman, who is a brilliant roboticist. In 2014, he told me about a problem that he had as a remote employee at a startup. Mark was based in Boston, and the startup was based in Las Vegas. Mark was not going to move to Las Vegas, so he joined them as a remote employee. What Mark realized was that one-on-one conversations were easy to have—you just pop open your laptop and open up Google Hangouts, and you’re having a chat-- but group meetings created a huge problem. He was the senior roboticist in this company, and he was supposed to help the company find suitable solutions. Yet, he couldn’t even participate in group calls because he struggled to see or hear people.  Of course,  if you can’t hear and can’t see, you won’t understand and therefore you cannot be an engaged participant in these sorts of calls.

During this period of my time working at iRobot, I was losing excitement about my projects, and I felt that there were many people who could do what I was doing. On top of that,  in 2014 we were living in a Kickstarter world where it seemed like tons of ideas were getting funded. Surely, I thought, with Mark and mine combined backgrounds and experiences, we would be able to secure funding for what I believed was a very solid product concept.  At that point, I quit my job to start Owl Labs.

When I see the Meeting Owl today, I don’t see a camera in the room—I see a little robot, even though it doesn’t have a single motor or moving parts. What the Owl does have is a lot of artificial intelligence built into it, including the ability to automatically recognize an individual speaking in a group, understand where they are speaking from, and focus on them reliably for the benefit of remote participants who aren’t in the room. It wasn’t that hard of a decision for me to switch my career in order to start Owl Labs, because I really believed in the product. It has been quite a cool ride; and I’m thrilled to say that we have thousands and thousands of customers around the world at this point. I truly believe that we are working on great technology here which is poised for success.

BT: Because Owl Labs creates in the competitive IoT space, there must be constant pressure to innovate and renew your product. How do you approach such pressure?

MM: We do put a lot of pressure on ourselves. Our Board of Directors also puts a lot of pressure on us. The thing that IoT devices bring to the table that hardware could never do is the connectivity. When we launched the Meeting Owl, we knew that every bug wouldn’t be fixed, every feature we wanted wouldn’t be included, nor every issue resolved. But, by building Wifi connectivity into the Owl, we allowed ourselves an easy way to form an ongoing relationship with our customers to constantly improve the product. As we learn more about their needs, we innovate, develop, and fix bugs, and are able to push software updates directly out to customers to improve their experience.

We’ve gone from a world where you sold widgets and where it took two years to solve one set of problems, to living in a world where connectivity allows us to solve problems along a continuum between products. At the same time, you can only do so much with the connectivity in your products—it’s like when we first sent robots to Mars. They were great for the specific applications that they were designed for, but the first incarnations weren’t designed to do things like drill deep into the planet or fly from one point to another. Inevitably, the continuum will come to a point  where you will launch another piece of technology that has enough new tech to deliver marginally greater value, although it  is still continuing to grow.  This process ensures that your customers stay happy and your products stay fresh—and you have a consistent new release of hardware.

BT: Owl Labs faces a rather fierce field of competition with companies such as Aver, Vaddio, Logitech ConferenceCam, to name a few. What gives Owl Labs an edge?  

MM: I think that our edge actually comes from the fact that my co-founder and I did not have any prior experience with video-conferencing hardware. For example, the Meeting Owl is not designed to sit on top of a television set or at the front of your room, where conferencing cameras typically would. There’s a lot of existing dogma around where these technologies are expected to live in a meeting space. So, while big companies have a lot of inertia built around the things they are doing, we at Owl Labs get to see the problem from a wholly different perspective—which is from a robotic perspective rather from a traditional video-conferencing perspective. That’s our best edge. We are free to think about this problem differently than  the traditional ways that larger companies approach it .

Our second competitive advantage is that Owl Labs actually embraces the future of work which our technology enables. We are moving towards more and more distributed workplaces around the world. You and I are having this conversation while you are in a different part of the world and in a different timezone, and technology helps us connect.Owl Labs is a distributed company, so we have employees all over the US, and I have two employees in China. So, we are experiencing first hand the challenges  which remote teams can face. We understand what it’s like to be distributed, and the beautiful thing is that as we solve our own problems, there is this halo effect in solving our customers’ problems too. That is just the cycle that we are on.

So,  there are two parts to the answer of Owl Labs’ competitive edge The first  is that we have a unique lens to look through as a startup based in robotics, and the second is that we look like the companies that we are trying to help. So, when we solve our own internal problems, we are also solving the problems of customers.

BT: In late July, Owl Labs launched the first “Work From Home Week” initiative. How do you see the impact of such an initiative on the way businesses view remote work?

MM: I struggle with this one. For sure, companies having distributed offices, having multiple locations where they house people is the common experience. The idea that people are working from home is new. When you have distributed offices, the approach is to basically copy your org chart at some scale at the remote site. But, when you have employees that work from home, there is a wholly different challenge to solve. On the one hand, it’s great for people because they have greater flexibility, but there are things that are hard. And it’s not because technology isn’t there; it’s because this setup requires a different way of managing people. I can give you an example: when we have a meeting at headquarters, we have remote employees calling in from California. When the meeting ends, those people don’t have the benefit of being a part of the conversation that carries on afterward. So if the remote employee brought up some controversial topics or challenges during the course of the meeting, that remote person may not have insight into how they were perceived or if people were unhappy with them based on chatter post-meeting. Also, there are subtle things to notice that might feel trivial sometimes, like whether the meetings start on time -- remote people have no way of knowing if the meeting is canceled so they sit wondering and waiting until someone does show up, late, to start the meeting. The “Work From Home Week” initiative was a good starting point for conversation, but we are a long way away from having a total solution to make sure remote workers are engaged and feel happy, satisfied, and productive.

From my experience over the past four years, I can tell you that remote workers tend to work harder than the local people, and I think that might come from the anxiety of how they are perceived by the local office. Again, this is a management/human resources problem. We are still early in the conversation, and the work from home trend is new, so management practices have yet to catch up with what the best approaches should be. In the long run, there will be more and more technologies that come along to reduce friction in how people meet virtually and help them have conversations that feel more real-time. But I think that virtual conferencing tech can only go so far without actual teleportation. The second piece of the puzzle is better management practices that really help engage remote employees, and make them feel productive, helpful, and valued. I think that this part is what we really need to figure out.

BT: I feel like Owl Labs has a very international outlook, which would appeal to global customers. How do you envision the growth of Owl Labs in the future?

MM: We are very popular in many parts of Europe, specifically selling through Amazon. When we launched the Owl, it didn’t take very long for it to end up in Europe and in Asia. When I was meeting some of our first customers, they would explain how they would buy an Owl, put it in their duffel bag, and travel to a remote site to install it. I think that this was a very strong indicator of the success and strength of our initial concept. That was one of our proudest moments early on.

There are over 40 million small conference rooms out there in the world, and my view is that this is a huge market for us to go after. I want the Meeting Owl to be the only device on the table. I want both people in the office and remote participants, when they see the Meeting Owl on the table or join a Meeting Owl call, to feel more and more engaged. It’s a huge opportunity, and there will be a lot of interesting lessons along the way both in terms of how the technology can be deployed and how our customers consume it. But I really believe that there is a large market out there for the Owl.  

BT: What’s your opinion on the startup ecosystem in the United States? What do you think is the greatest barrier to the growth for startups here?

MM: As mentioned before, I have an engineering background.  Engineers are trained to go straight into solving a problem. But, really good engineers understand that they might not know what solution is necessary at first; that there might not even be one that currently exists. So, they try to build the product to best solve a given problem, and therefore to best fit the needs of their customers. If you build a product that has market-fit, the barriers are surmountable. If you understand your customers and how to bring relevant products to them, and you’ve accounted for challenges, then you’ll be able to ensure growth that secures investors’ capital in order to continue growing your business. The biggest barrier is whether you can validate your idea and prove that the market is big enough. If you are able to do that, then it really comes down to execution.

BT: To close, for our readers who are aspiring entrepreneurs, what advice would you give them when they are first starting out?  

MM: I’d say to gather advice from as many people as you can. Go out there and talk to people-- entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, or customers.

Just get out there and meet with experienced folks in your field, because the more active you are, the larger your network will grow and the more opportunities may come your way. If you can’t do that, then you will struggle to get your idea off the ground.
— Max Makeev