It is almost impossible to always have the right amount of office space as you grow; so much more gets done with everyone close enough to snack and get coffee together.
As part of my series about “Bleeding edge” technological breakthroughs that seem copied from science fiction, I had the pleasure of interviewing Andy Hodge, CEO of Owl Cam. Andy helped drive the first generation iPhone and 20+ generations of iPod as a product development leader at Apple. He then led development of the augmented reality headset as GM of Hololens at Microsoft. He was then VP of Hardware Engineering & Strategy at Dropcam until its acquisition by Nest/Google. Andy founded Owl in his Palo Alto garage in late 2016.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
I was on the secret team that built the iPod. We never expected to sell more than 10 or 20 thousand products; but we were an ambitious team that wanted to build something illogically great and illogically fast. The team juggled, argued and figured out everything from how light reflected on aluminum versus stainless steel to how we could squeeze in more milliwatts to extend battery life… and did it all in just a few months. Even with no guarantee of success, our enthusiastic team put in all the care, craft and sweat we could. Looking back of course it was all worth it, and it made iPhone possible a few years later.
Can you tell us about the “Bleeding edge” technological breakthroughs that you are working on? How do you think that will help people?
Our breakthrough was in seeing how smart cameras could automatically recognize events and send the important video instantly to phones with an LTE service from anywhere. People have always wanted smart high resolution cameras that can go everywhere they go. Today’s dumb cameras can’t go mobile since it would cost a fortune if they streamed over LTE the way home security cameras do over broadband. Our AI identifies security events like crashes and break-ins and the LTE network routes the video alerts to the user. This Owl tech means that the speed or cost of upload no longer needs to strictly limit the resolution or location of security cameras. Owl AI cams and LTE network send video clips automatically to phones so you can show it to the officer right after a crash. The same tech sends video of break-ins immediately to your phone, catching thieves red-handed. This December we’re adding one more thing that no other camera does: crash assistance, so a crash can trigger a call to make sure you are OK or send emergency assistance.
How do you think this might change the world?
Everyone deserves to have a self-protecting car. Way too many people are hurt around cars, pay for things that aren’t their fault, or find their car was broken into or dented while they’re away from the car. We’re here to give people tools to be more aware, encourage better driving, save lives & money, stop fraud, make insurance claims faster…. and, along the way, help people catch and share the fun moments that happens in or around their cars.
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
Owl is a new kind of security so we think deeply about how to never distract drivers and how to protect privacy too. When we started Owl we committed to putting the driver/owner of the camera in charge — period. We knew if we got this right more people would adopt it and be helped sooner. To avoid distraction we designed the Owl car cam interface to never ask for input while driving. To ensure privacy, the inside cam can be turned off and all video is the property of the camera owner/driver — not Owl.
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this breakthrough? Can you tell us that story?
We had two “tipping points” — one with our founders, and one with our very first customers. The first came just after we’d thought of the original big idea of networked AI cameras. We knew it could be great technically but what really pushed us to start with cars and trucks was realizing that each of the founders had been affected by crashes, dents, traffic stops and break-ins … and that Nathan (our CTO) had been hit by all four things in just the last year. This really brought the statistics to life. The second happened on the first day we shipped cameras last March. James, an EMT from NJ, called and said “Owl paid for itself in the first day.” He’d gotten one of the first 100 Owl car cams that morning and installed it in his truck. Then he and his dogs went for a drive in the snow, and he stopped to help someone who had gotten stuck. He got back into his truck and BOOM another truck hits his. Because James had the video of the accident right away — the other guy’s insurance company accepted blame the next day saving James thousands of dollars. Helping a Good Samaritan on the very first day one was huge validation.
What do you need to lead this technology to widespread adoption?
We launched in March and already Owls are widespread. Owls are in every state and major city, across all income brackets in all types of cars and trucks. The appeal is broad since nearly everyone that drivers or rides in cars or trucks gets hit by crashes, dent, traffic stops and break-ins sooner or later. 90% of people want the video proof next time. These events do $100 billion in harm every year and hit 1 in 5 families just in the United States. We do need to help more people know that Owl exists. The marketing we do through social media, nation TV ads and our site attracts super broad demographics.
What have you been doing to publicize this idea? Have you been using any innovative marketing strategies?
A bit like GoPro the videos our users capture go viral and are fantastic at getting attention and showing what we do. Our users post their Owl videos to social media showing others exactly how Owl Car Cams help in real crashes, dents and break-ins. You can see plenty of great videos at Owlcam.com
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Wow there are so many, at so many places: Purdue, IDEO, Apple, Microsoft, dropcam and now at Owl too. When I think back I really can’t pick just one name without feeling like I’m leaving out too many. Thinking about who helps you along the way reminds me how little I knew when I started. Everyone anyone of us meets has something to teach, it’s just that so often we are in a hurry and can miss the chance to really listen or ask just one more question.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I love how design brings new, better things to people, lets businesses grow and can create great places to work. We founded Owl to do those good things and also because we believe that people and video working together will make our cars, roads and neighborhoods safer.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.).
Here are a couple general ones and a few on Owl too.
1. Before you commit to a startup make sure it’s exciting enough to attract really great people. Guaranteed it will turn out to be harder than you expect. The team you build will be what pulls you through.
2. There are a lot of really good smart people out there called customers: listen to them. Listen to them because you will get some things wrong. Anything really new and different will have vocal fans and haters too. What’s valuable is hearing what you can do to make it better fast.
3. Remember just about everyone on the team has a family that help make their hard work possible. So look for ways at events or with policies to acknowledge the partners and kids along with the team.
4. The number of bad drivers, car thieves and harm around the car is a mind boggling . There are more bad drivers out there than you can imagine, and they drive like no one is watching or can be hurt (67,000 crashes a day in USA). And car thieves are merciless; they’ll smash a window for useless junk, and they act like they’ll never get caught (7,000 every day in USA). Far too many people pay for crashes that aren’t their fault, often exactly the people who least deserve to be penalized (23 million pay over $2,000 every year in USA).
5. It’s far better to pack the team together in a smaller office space than split them up. It is almost impossible to always have the right amount of office space as you grow; so much more gets done with everyone close enough to snack and get coffee together.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Cameras and people working together have the power to make the world a safer and more civil place. Video is an amazing tool to see things literally from someone else’s point of view. Journalists and artists use photography and video to help us is a part of the larger history of cameras to help us literally see things from another perspective. Our users, amazing people like James in NY, Jennifer in NJ, Scott in CA and Esteban in TX, inspire us. People who don’t just use video for themselves but are also eager to help others, get thieves and robbers off streets and remind everyone to just plain old slow down take it easy so we all get home safe. It is pretty easy to get fired up when you see the cool things people use Owls for — share a laugh or push back against bad drivers and thieves. Then we get back to work making Owl software and cameras better.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I’d stick with the classic Gretzky quote “Skate to where the puck is going to be”. Some say it’s overused but it works. Over and over again I find we’re about to take a shortcut in either hardware or software and once we think harder about where we want to be in a year it’s the wrong thing to do.
If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?
Video everywhere is coming. Owl is building the AI services needed so high resolution cameras can work together and be affordable everywhere. Owl is putting data and video to work so everyone benefits. Starting with cars, drivers, insurers, and fleets this year; Owl now has a 40 million mile head start.