October 2, 2016


I wanted to share a little bit about where I am headed with Flutter. If you have any questions, please send me an email at: tlalexander@gmail.com.

Since I was 11 years old, I have wanted to run my own robotics company.

At first it just seemed like it would be a good career. Long before I ever liked coffee, I dreamed of living in a house full of custom robots that would bring me coffee (via an in-wall conveyor belt, in that case) and do all manner of other things I required. I imagined I would run a company that designed robots for people to meet their various needs. Businesses mostly, I figured, would want special little robotic gadgets to solve problems they had. I'd have a corner shop where I worked away to make things for these businesses.

Over the years, the rationale for running my own robotics company has become more specific and my goals have become more grandiose. I've realized that as an engineer and entrepreneur I have great power to make a positive impact on the world. We're at an interesting place in history. This thing called humanity has never happened before the way it is happening now. We don't strictly know what we're doing and we're making a lot of mistakes. We're throwing our own lives away to make the world worse for the generations that follow us. We're pursuing growth when growth isn't what we need. We're polluting the Earth's atmosphere, oceans, and land with all the machinations of the most powerful industrial civilization the Earth has ever seen. We're converting this rich oasis of life into a sterile dead landscape under the mistaken impression that a better life requires more stuff. Our lives are so devoted to working to make that happen that most people alive today will scarcely know what they are missing.

I believe it is possible for life on Earth to be much more comfortable, pleasant, and fun for all of the creatures that live here.

I believe it is possible to sustain a vibrant economy with everyone typically working just 6 months out of the year.

I believe that a reduction in hours worked will be a key step towards reducing our impact on the environment.

I think life is more interesting when we don't spend it all working. I think caring for others makes us all richer in a variety of material and immaterial ways.

So I'm trying to figure out how to make an impact. One thing is clear to me now: somehow a corporation will be involved. It seems like the only way to get anything done these days.

I'm trying to figure out how to run a profitable business. So far it's going well. Not so much on the profit thing, but on the learning front. I've learned not to make too many promises, to understand my budget, to keep my mental health under control, and to be very, very patient.

So right now I have a little electronics company. We've had almost 10,000 circuit boards manufactured in China, with about 20% of those having been delivered and the rest sort of being frantically packed right now. Some phenomenal people have helped me along the way, many of whom saved me from collapse when I thought I could not go on. I've also done a huge amount of the work myself, which is good because I'm certain of what I can do. I'll need to learn to collaborate more in the future, but without profits employees haven't been a big concern as of yet.

But I think I can get the hang of running an electronics company. I feel like I'm over the hump of the most painful part. It's pretty routine now. I work full time at my normal job and then work on evenings and weekends to move the company forward. It's slow but sustainable. As long as I can maintain my mental health, I can do this indefinitely. I'm working towards profitability, which I think I can achieve in the next two years. I've been doing it for three and a half years and it seems like it takes a lot of companies about 5 years to get somewhere stable, which feels right based on my trajectory.

So then the next question is: where do we go from here?

I've got lots of ideas. I'm pretty clear on the idea that I want to make as positive an impact on humanity as I can while still maintaining a happy life. I also want that impact to be as widely distributed as possible. I want my work to benefit the people in the world living on, say, less than $1 a day. For practical purposes I will also target much wealthier people as a means to fund the operation, but the ultimate goal is to make an impact on the masses of the human population of Earth in the 21st century. Say, the 3.5 billion poorest people of the Earth. Even getting the richest people in the world to work less will give the poorest a break, since working rich people consume more than rich people in leisure. But to be extremely clear: helping the rich, while it may be a worthwhile stepping stone, is not my end goal.

For now I'm trying to make my electronics company sustainable. From there I will be expanding our product offering into other electronics for robotics, all of which are open source and allow commercial re-use. People can use our electronics to design a new robot, and then go manufacture them themselves when they go in to production. By providing a complete suite of high quality electronics for robotics that can be used in production products, we will be helping speed the spread of automation in the world. I'll need to explain elsewhere, but I'm very clear that automation as a tool is an extremely good thing in general, and when the power to produce automation is widely distributed I think the wealth of the future will be widely distributed too.

So I'm designing some new electronics to make an open source robotics construction kit. I'm also developing some new concepts for using 3D printers to make a whole zoo of different robots, to show people how easy it is to build robots with modern tools. We've got a couple of key products, the Basic and the Pro, that I think we can get shipping from stock in the next year. Once that is happening, we will start releasing a few new products related to robotics. That will be some or all of the following: a motor controller board that allows high quality motion control of low cost brushless motors, a 6 cell lithium charger/balancer board that can safely manage a good sized battery system, and a high quality IMU board made to work with the whole system.

Then I've got a good 12 or more designs for different robotic vehicles that use this technology, and we'll open a section of our website that details these designs and lets people remix and share their own versions. There will be no requirement that the designs use our electronics.

Once we've made it easy for regular people to build a bunch of different robots, I think it would be interesting to turn people's attention to micro factories. The idea behind micro factories is that small businesses will want to automate to keep up with all the big companies. I think small businesses are great because they are agile and better reflect the needs of the communities they serve. The competition between small businesses and the big corporations will be what provides the push-pull advancement that we need to make the world a better place for all. There will be big corporations like Samsung and LG that produce expensive robots for big corporations, and I want Flutter to be a balancing force providing low cost automation solutions to the broad base of businesses that can't afford a $2,000 robotic arm. If you are familiar with the 3D printer landscape in 2009, I want Flutter to be to robotics what Makerbot and Reprap were to the 3D printing giants like Stratasys and 3D Systems. In the mid 2000's normal 3D printers were $30,000. Then a bunch of scrappy nerds came together and made 3D printers that cost under $1000 to build. It took a lot of love and time to make one, but slowly the whole community came together to improve the systems and today you can buy a rock solid 3D printer for $329.

I was at an event in San Francisco recently. A group called Silicon Valley Robotics put together a panel of local robotics CEO's and investors and had a great discussion about the future of robotics. One panelist from the industry said "If you can make a good robotic arm for under $10k, you'd have a lot of customers." Okay, sure, but I think we need $100 robotic arms to serve the world's poorest. We're not going to get there using the thinking that got us $30,000 arms. Ten years ago a good 3D printer was $30,000. Today they're $329. To help the world's population, we need to do that same thing with robotics.

So that's what I'm trying to do with Flutter.