More Than a Robot
Growing up, Sidharth and Rohit learned computer science and robotics despite having limited access to knowledgeable teachers and appropriate course materials. As young adults, they had the chance to work with a nonprofit and travel around the world teaching at camps that focused on computer science and robotics. Unfortunately, they faced many of the same limitations they had experienced as children. “We found it was very difficult to find engaging tools that kids liked that were useful so that they could learn computer science or robotics or learn technical skills, as well as learn creativity and problem solving, in a way that was cost-effective, easy, fun, and intuitive,” Rohit says.
The Srinivasans decided to solve this problem by starting Trashbots, a company that aims to make coding and robotics accessible to the masses. It provides schools with a comprehensive, relatively low-cost robotics platform, complete with robotics kits that children from kindergarten through high school can use, a mobile app to program their creations, and a comprehensive coding and robotics curriculum that is relatively inexpensive and easy for schools to implement.
The key to Trashbots’ success thus far is that the company’s product is basically a platform for creative problem solving that can challenge kids of any age. The platform includes hardware – things like motors, speakers, decoders, and compasses – that children can interact with to complete real-world tasks like sweeping up debris or rolling over obstacles.
There’s also a mobile app that uses block programming – essentially, blocks of code that children can arrange in the app to get their robot to perform certain tasks. That approach allows students to start with the basics and progress to learning relatively sophisticated programming concepts over time.
Finally, Trashbots has created about 80 hours of coding and robotics curriculum materials for K through 12 to go along with their hardware. “This makes it really easy to introduce Trashbots into the classroom and start learning STEM and coding concepts right away,” Sidharth says. The materials are frequently updated with video and printed content to keep them fresh and current.
Moreover, the company’s integrated approach saves schools both time and money. “One issue schools had was they were having to buy different [robotics and coding] tools and products for different age ranges,” Rohit says. This meant, for example, that what a school would buy for third-grade students didn’t work for fifth grade. As a result, schools had to train multiple teachers to use multiple different platforms, which was difficult, expensive, and inhibited the learning process. “But at the end of the day, the building blocks that coding and robotics are built on are all the same,” Rohit says. “That's how we decided that we could make one platform to just fit the entire K through 12 spectrum.”
Today, Trashbots kits are used by 45 to 50 schools in about 12 school districts around the US. They had about $200,000 in sales in 2020 and are on track to beat that figure this year. Among other recent successes, they just signed on with the largest charter school network in the US. Their long-term goal is to develop a nationwide community of educators and students who use their product and are passionate about teaching students coding, creativity, problem-solving, and critical thinking. “I think we're at a very, very exciting spot right now where growth is happening rapidly,” Sidharth says. “Every single time we see a student play with it, the positive feedback that we get, it gives you so much satisfaction and gratification for creating a platform like this.”
While building their company, the Srinivasans learned several important things that all entrepreneurs should take to heart. One of them is building a product with staying power. “You want to focus on making the stickiness of your platform really, really high,” Sidharth says. “You want people to come back. How you do that is by ensuring that your product can have a long-term value.” For example, Trashbots produces new resources for educators every week, webinars every two weeks, and a regular newsletter.
Another important lesson is to “know what you don’t know,” Rohit says. “We still constantly spend time talking to mentors and getting feedback.” Both of them regularly seek out advice on issues like company structure, which schools to market to, sales targets, and product design. “Each of those things we obviously have strong opinions on, but it's really great to get perspectives of those who have been around the block a few times and definitely have a few more gray hairs on their head,” he says.
It’s also critical to listen to customers so that you don’t get started on the wrong track, especially early in the process of developing a product or service. “The customer always comes first in startups more than anything, so just constantly get advice from your customers,” Rohit says. For example, the first product they created wasn’t a full-featured platform that included robot design, coding, and a curriculum to go along with them. Instead, it was basically just a kit that let you build a robot. “The feedback we got was less positive because there was not a whole lot you could do with it,” he says. “That's when we really started focusing on building out a curriculum and other software features and things like that because that's what schools and parents and teachers really want.” He adds that you shouldn’t get feedback from just anyone. Instead, get it from people who will be honest about the usefulness of your product or service – including where it needs improvement – without worrying about hurting your feelings.
Patience Is a Virtue
Those thinking about starting a business in the edtech industry need to be patient, the Srinivasans say, because educators, other school personnel, and school boards can be slow to embrace change. “Edtech traditionally is one of the last industries that is super, super old school,” Rohit says. “The entire idea of [customer relationship management systems] and cold emailing doesn't really exist, and a lot of sales are still done through traditional sales guys who drive around in cars and go meet and shake people's hands.”
On the plus side, patience can be rewarded handsomely in a rapidly expanding market if you have the right product or service. “The edtech industry has been booming,” he says. “Last year [there was a] large amount of venture money raised or invested in edtech companies, and we're already on track to beat that number. I think the fact that it is changing now is super exciting, and we're really excited to ride this wave [of] tremendous growth.”