Founder Friday

Sean Arietta of DotDashPay

Welcome to Founder Friday, where we’ll learn a little about the people behind some of the companies doing their thing at Highway1.

Today’s founder is Sean Arietta of DotDashPay.

Who are you?
I’m Sean Arietta, CEO of DotDashPay.

What’s your product do?
We build a chip, and the software that runs on that chip makes it very quick and easy to connect machines to payments, so you can pay, for instance, a vending machine with a credit card and never have to touch cash.

 

Tell us a little bit about your background.
I like to start with my undergrad degree, which was in physics before I switched to computer science. While I was working on my PhD at UC Berkeley, I did some research in distributed computer vision, some of which I implemented at Google and became part of Google Image Search. I’ve also been an entrepreneur for a while; I started my first company in grad school.

Where did the idea for this business come from?
For the last few years of my PhD, I’d been getting really involved in the maker and Internet of Things movements; I became an assistant lab manager at Berkeley’s IoT space, the Invention Lab. My constant drive to build things was leading me to search for a side project related to those movements, and Joey Mucha, one of my co-founders, happened to be running an arcade rental business. I asked him: was there anything in his business that he wanted some help with, specifically on the hardware side?

“Yeah,” he said. “All these machines take cash, and I want to go completely cashless; cash is super cumbersome for me and my consumers, cause nobody has it on them.”

Cool, I said, I’ll build you a solution to stick on these skeeball machines so people can pay with plastic and play games. So as I was building this thing for him, I had an insight: this idea of converting all these machines over to credit cards could be a business, maybe.

This was while I was still in my PhD program and Colorado Reed, our third co-founder, was in my lab. I told him about this side project and how I thought it’d be great if we had some analytics, so we could see all the transactions going through. He’s a friend of mine with a pretty deep background in machine learning, and so the three of us started a business, which is slightly different from what we do now.

How’d you get this company started in its current form?
The business was up and running; we were getting a lot of inbound requests to make other types of machines — we built a photobooth in 48 hours and a self-service ticket kiosk in 36. After a little while, we really started thinking about the business model.

That was when it occurred to us that the thing we’d made that was really innovative and useful wasn’t the machines. The reason we could crank them out so fast was that we’d created this little core module that allowed us to basically adapt any machine very quickly, and we realized that was the big idea.

How did you find out about Highway1?
Through a really interesting series of connections. While I was at Berkeley, I also became president of the Computer Science Graduate Entrepreneurs; this was a very new group designed to foster entrepreneurship in the graduate department. One of the people I got connected to was a guy by the name of Evan Cooke, CTO of Twilio, and we became close colleagues.

Evan put us in contact with Sean Byrnes of Flurry, and he gave me a lot of what Evan called “no-bullshit” advice. He actually also said almost the same thing Evan did about what we were doing, but also said we should talk to Highway1. He put us in touch with Kaethe, and the rest is history.

What’s your biggest surprise or key learning been thus far?
I think what we’ve learned here is the beast that is manufacturing. We’re learning about all the different people involved in manufacturing, from the consultants to the designers to the developers to the contract manufacturers — it’s a rat’s nest, frankly, and I don’t think we understood that at all before we got here. Now, we have a much better understanding of it; it’s one of those things we didn’t know we didn’t know, and now we know some of what we don’t know, which has been critical for us.

Any advice for people looking to start out in hardware?
I come from a software background, but I now have a lot of experience in hardware. People are always saying “Don’t build it unless you have to” and “Fail fast” — all of these soundbites. I think something that’s really dangerous in hardware is the amount of time it takes to fail fast; you don’t really get to fail as fast in hardware. There are so many libraries and tools for software that you can write a minimum viable product quickly; that’s still very hard to do in hardware — you have to get all kinds of parts together, and you don’t quite have the tools to do it.

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