It’s an age-old, or at least decades-old, story. A startup company, based on exciting technology and full of enthusiasm, comes roaring out of the gate ready to set the world on fire. They garner tons of media attention, recruit some of the top people in the industry, attract healthy amounts of venture capital, and proceed full speed ahead. Then at some point, often three or four years into their evolution, they are forced by the realities of product and market development to “select and focus”. They realise that they can’t develop a viable, sustainable business trying to do too many things at once.
Rethink Robotics, one of the most exciting and innovative robotics companies to appear over the past six years, apparently reached that stage this week and has announced significant layoffs amounting to almost a quarter of their estimated headcount.
According to a report on Boston.com, Rethink Robotics CEO Scott Eckert said that -
"...the layoffs are the result of Rethink deciding to focus on the market segments that have been most receptive to Baxter since its launch, including plastics manufacturing, consumer goods, and warehousing and logistics. Rethink has also been selling Baxter to academic and corporate research labs in the U.S. and overseas."
A restructuring of this magnitude, while certainly a concern, isn’t that unusual for high tech startups during this phase of their development. In fact, if managed properly, it can be quite healthy and could put the company in a much stronger position in the long term.
At the same time there is a significant risk that some customers may have a degree of trepidation about committing to the Rethink Robotics design approach, especially for robot implementations that are mission critical for their companies. Robotics, unlike software applications or consumer electronics, are used in critical parts of their customers manufacturing and supply chains.
Rethink represents a dramatic shift in the way that companies think about and implement robotics, and can potentially yield significant benefits. But before companies adopt the Rethink approach they have to be extremely confident that Rethink as a company will be around to support them.
In many ways it’s a chicken/egg problem, and one that we hope and expect will play out well for Rethink. Restructuring and refocusing is absolutely the right move at this point. They have the right technology at the right time in the right market. The opportunity is their’s to win, or to lose.