‘Cheers!’ Five lessons we can learn from the Flowbot Bars startup
Entrepreneurial PhD student Marc de Vos has invested himself in an exciting startup journey this past year as he helped convert a promising business concept into an impressive reality. Flowbot Bars provides compact, mobile, automated and cashless bars to events across the country. In an exclusive blog for futureworlds.com, Marc takes us through the company’s inventive past and shares the key lessons he has learned during the project.
This post has to start with a confession. Flowbot Bars isn’t really called Flowbot Bars. The company is actually registered as Smooth Hoperator Ltd and still makes me wince every time I have to explain to a supplier that it’s like ‘Smooth Operator’, with an ‘h’ at the start.
The company was started by a friend of mine, Jordan Emery, and one of his close friends Robin Moss. The idea was that bars at festivals and large events often had long queues, and that when you eventually did get your pint it was often warm and flat. They thought that a self-service system with many dispense points would solve this. The idea progressed to become a self-service system integrated into a shipping container, to add easy transportation and stock storage to the product.
Jordan approached me in May 2015 as he knew I was studying for a PhD in Electronic and Electrical Engineering at the University of Southampton. He explained the idea to me and I immediately loved the concept, however there hadn’t been much work done from an engineering perspective. When I agreed to join Flowbot I was presented with a basic image as a summary of what was needed.
I spent five months working with Jordan and Robin and developed the idea into a working prototype. We also thought that we had something potentially unique, so began a conversation with a patent attorney firm where a former Electronics and Computer Science (ECS) student works. They agreed that our idea was patentable and so together we drafted and submitted an application that would cover our idea and anything similar.
We had to break the design down into individual segments that focused on the flow monitoring/ control, payments and central communication hub/data store. The flow monitoring/ control section integrated my experience with micro-controllers learnt in my third year project, while the payments section involved a lot more web server coding that was learnt during my PhD. We ended up with a prototype (right), which was not pretty – but it worked!
We hosted a number of ‘test parties’ in Jordan and Robin’s flat before we realised that we might need some form of certification before we let the public use our self-serve beer machine. I looked into this and found that there were some licensing requirements, however these were overshadowed by the major hurdle of approval by the National Measurement and Regulation Office (NMRO). This organisation checks that when our machine serves a pint, it is actually a full pint. The requirement is that we must serve 10 pints of lager with four stops during each pint, and all 10 pints must be within 0.5% of an average of the values. This is incredibly difficult to achieve when there are a number of different beers, all with different levels of carbonation.
The scale of the challenge became apparent when we saw that only seven certificates had been issued ever, with some dating back 20 years. We quickly registered to start the certification process with the NMRO.
In the meantime, we progressed with the overall design and build of the container. To help with the conversion process and a lot of the metalwork we hired a container conversion company to start work on our designs. We put together a laser cut steel face-plate to be the customer facing side of our beer machine. We also got the container conversion company to start work on some of the bigger metal work challenges, like cutting holes in the side of the shipping container.
Shipping containers are great as they’re tough, easily transportable, and cheap. A 10ft container (1/4 size) costs around £1,800 delivered. The bad bits about shipping containers are that they’re built cheaply, so all vary in size by up to three or four cm in length, width and height. They’re also really heavy so are quite expensive to move around.
Converting our self-serve prototype into something suitable for a shipping container was a significant challenge. We planned to have eight taps spread along the two walls of the shipping container. Each tap would have its own touchscreen and payment terminal accepting chip and pin, and contactless. The container also needed to manage touchscreen, a reliable internet connection (mobile and satellite), uninterruptable power supply and a central server – so there was a lot to do!
We continued building our shipping container (including me spending two days in a giant tent in Newquay adding electronics), and the container shell with a rough electric system was delivered six weeks after work began. It was near Christmas time 2015 and we were keen to get the container finished before the event ‘high season’ in the summer.
I worked on the container in some form almost every day for four weeks over and after Christmas. Numerous problems such as holes being cut the wrong size, spill trays not working as expected, and unusual size components all slowed the process down but the container was complete and ready for testing by February 2016.
We went for a really high quality look and I think this comes across in the finished photographs:
Now that the container was finished we now had to get it to some events to make money. The events and drinks industry is a very small community of people that make all the difference. Luckily through the build process and meeting suppliers we had gained some useful contacts and began looking for bookings. We were quickly approached about having the container at Cheltenham Racecourse festival in March 2016. The event was actually before our planned launch date, but we decided to say yes and work overtime to get the project finished. We were successful and the container was at Cheltenham for four days with 70,000 people attending each day.
Moving forwards with the company we are now looking at expanding our product range and further booking for the 2016/17 season.
Some of the key lessons I have learned during the project are:
1) Get a prototype or proof of concept working. When approaching investors with a new innovation they are immediately sceptical as to whether you can do what you say you can do. By building a proof of concept and showing an investor you not only increase the chances of getting investment, you increase the value of the company by taking away the technical risk.
2) Consider compliance from the start, but don’t let it stand in the way. The task of making our system NMRO approved seemed insurmountable at the start, but we continued with the idea anyway and over time developed the product. If we had stopped the project until we were NMRO approved then we would be four months behind where we are now.
3) Pick a team whose skills complement each other, not repeat each other. Our team was clearly defined, I managed the engineering and technical side, Jordan managed the sales, marketing and commercial side of the business, and Robin managed the day to day running and a lot of the investment side of the business.
4) Choose your suppliers carefully. We’ve had some really good and really bad suppliers during the project. If we’d spent a bit more time at the start clearly specifying in writing/ contracts our requirements then we may have avoided some of the bad ones.
5) Protect your idea. If it’s patentable, then file a patent before you tell anyone. We always get asked the question whenever we are speaking to potential investors and they are always pleased to hear that we had the foresight to file a patent for the idea.