Pierce Schiller is the founder and CEO of TarDisk, a plug-and-play hybrid storage drive for MacBooks. His company has gone through the i-lab’s VIP, and is now working out of the alumni Launch Lab.
How did you get started at the i-lab and then end up at the Launch Lab?
I started hanging around the i-lab and found it was a great place to meet with like-minded folks. After chatting with the staff, I decided to put an application into the Venture Incubation Program.
At first I was hesitant to join, as I had previously worked on a number of startups in the past and feared that the program wouldn’t be helpful to me. Oh my, was I wrong!
I was officially accepted into the VIP during my final semester at HBS in 2015, and was able to use the i-lab as a staging ground for our quite successful crowdfunding campaign. From there, we took advantage of the three month post-graduation runway afforded to some VIP teams, and then we transitioned to the Launch Lab across the street. The “pay-per-table” growth model is scalable and allowed us to transition smoothly from a small bootstrapped team to where we are today.
Which resource have you used most at the Harvard Innovation Labs? Why was it so useful?
3-D printers! Onsite prototyping reduced the time of our design cycle from weeks to days.
This was crucial for us and should be attractive to any other startup who can’t afford the three-week turn-around time that is standard for mail-away prototyping services! Having access to a fully-stocked workshop at Harvard was a pleasant surprise that made all the difference for us.
How have other founders or companies helped you during your time in the Launch Lab?
Cross-pollination amongst the teams is a regular occurrence here and has been an integral part of my experience. Developing and pitching ideas, testing them against entrepreneurial-minded peers, and getting feedback from the staff and in-house experts in real time is invaluable.
One story that exemplifies this comes from the period when we were developing the GUI for the installer package around TarDisk Pear.
When we first launched our beta, we couldn’t understand some of the problems our customers were experiencing. Within minutes of reviewing the product with Antera, another VIP team, we discovered that we had created a button that was not at all intuitive to use. Having looked at the same screen for weeks, we had become blind to the non-intuitive nature of what we had designed! With the other team’s help, we were able to identify the problem and roll out an update.
Is it a challenge being a hardware startup at the Harvard Innovation Labs?
One question I am always asked is about how much money we had to raise to build TarDisk.
When we tell people we didn’t have to raise any funding, it always leads to a conversation about the i-lab.
What people don’t often understand is what a secret weapon the i-lab is.
We prototyped in the da Vinci Room. We had access to desk space throughout the academic year and into the summer. And, most importantly, all of the startup workshops and community events based out of the i-lab allowed me to attract rockstar interns and engineers, many of whom wanted to work with us to gain access to the vibrant i-lab community.
Is it challenging building a hardware startup? Yes.
Is it doable? Totally…especially with the resources at the i-lab, which make all the difference.
What’s next for you and your venture?
Up until now we have experienced tremendous success selling hardware directly to consumers as a B2C company. We are in the midst of ramping up distribution agreements that will guarantee a number of sales to online and brick-and-mortar resellers worldwide.
We are also excited to continue to develop our software platform to shift from having a hardware-only focus to more software capabilities. We think it’s a good idea in an increasingly digital world to pivot to a heavily digital product.
If you had to give another student one piece of advice to get the most out of the i-lab or Launch Lab, what would it be?
Talk to, meet, learn from, and share ideas with as many people as you can in this powerful ecosystem.
Anything else, feel free to wax poetic here.
If you are embarking on a startup venture, make sure you step back for a moment and understand what you are working to build.
Do you want to bootstrap and maintain control, or does your opportunity require outside dollars and the challenges that come along with that money? Is a social mission driving your motivation, or are you in it to get rich? Will customers give you money for what you are building?
Answer these questions truthfully, and you are off to a great start!
And, don’t forget to have fun!