Founder Friday

Founder Friday: Cue's Cam Urban

Welcome to Founder Friday, where we learn about the people behind the Highway1 startups.

Today we talk to Cue co-founder and CEO Cam Urban.

HWY1: Tell us a little about your background.
CU: I’ve been an entrepreneur for the last eight years. In college I co-founded Jellyfish Art, developing a live pet jellyfish tank; that was my first company. Jellyfish Art was eventually acquired, and it gave me a taste of what it’s like to build a hardware company, getting involved with manufacturing, industrial design, warehousing, and logistics, which has been helpful to bring into Cue. After that, I worked on a variety of different projects, consulting on customer lifetime value for e-commerce companies and other kinds of data analysis, before co-founding my second company working on a cloud IDE for building web apps in your browser. Microsoft eventually came knocking, and our team ended up joining their cloud computing platform; that brought me from San Francisco to Seattle.

How did you get the company started?
I met my co-founders Michael Shao and Grace Huang at a coworking space in Seattle after we’d quit our respective jobs — mine at Microsoft, theirs at Amazon. We were working on different projects: I was playing around with an idea in the gesture recognition space, they were working on a speech recognition project, and we found each others’ advice valuable. It started out as a pretty informal relationship where we were advising and helping each other out for a while, but it grew into a friendship where we gained a better understanding of how we could support each other. When we decided we wanted to move on from the projects we’d been working on, we landed on the idea for Cue, realized our skillsets were complementary, and went ahead with it.

Having done hardware before, what’s the most interesting part of this whole experience for you?
Product development is something that needs to be carefully planned with hardware, and it’s much more resource intensive; you have to be thoughtful about how you spend those resources. That was a very important learning curve. Thankfully, I think we approached it the right way with Jellyfish Art, where we started out retrofitting existing aquariums and did everything in the cheapest way possible. It could’ve gone the other way, though; if we didn’t test the market or spend time learning from our customers, we probably would’ve built the wrong thing.

How did you find out about Highway1?
There are only a handful of hardware accelerators out there, and we knew we didn’t want just any accelerator — we needed hardware help. We knew we wanted to be close to our pilot customers and that we needed specific dedicated resources around mechanical and electrical engineering as well as industrial design. We vetted Highway1 with a number of other companies that had gone through the program already and all spoke very positively about their experiences. We did that with a lot of accelerators, and Highway1 matched our criteria most closely. We’re a software-heavy team with some hardware experience, and Highway1 has the resources that would really allow us to move forward much quicker.

What are your goals while you’re at Highway1?
We’re going from a super rough prototype to a scalable and intuitive works-like/looks-like prototype. Beyond Highway1, we’ll be looking to start manufacturing. Highway1’s given us a lot of insight into how to vet manufacturers and work with them, so we’re equipped with the tools and knowledge we need to move forward in that direction.

What’s your biggest surprise or key learning been thus far at Highway1?
This shouldn’t be a surprise, but just how slow hardware development is. Even though Highway1 has made it so much quicker, you’re always going to underestimate the amount of time it takes to get to manufacturing. Manufacturing shouldn’t be a goal in and of itself, either: it’s just part of the process. There are so many other things to consider throughout the process related to design, customer development, and business development — you have to be thoughtful about how to approach those things before manufacturing, and not just rush to that step.

What do you think is the biggest challenge in hardware?
I think hardware is becoming easier, which creates a paradox in that it’s less defensible. You may have a leg up in building hardware now, but it can also be cloned more easily. That’s why software remains super important. In my mind, hardware is best leveraged when it enables really amazing software.

Another challenge is that if you’re a first-time founder doing hardware and you’re coming from the software world, it’s a different beast to take on. You need to be cautious and aware of the fact that everything gets locked in for manufacturing. You can still have an iterative product development cycle before that, but if you think the whole process is going to be as flexible as software throughout, you’re wrong. That’s something to watch out for.

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Highway1, a division of PCH, is the premier hardware startup accelerator, located in San Francisco. We look for great hardware startups, with an exciting business idea and a compelling prototype. We help you design products that deliver real value to customers, that are delightful to use and that can be manufactured at scale.
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