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Spotta founder: Don’t leave it too late to sell your startup’s product

Spotta founder Robert Fryers

Robert Fryers is the CEO and founder of Spotta, a startup that has developed sensors to detect pests for the agriculture and hospitality sectors.

Founded in 2018, Spotta’s sensors use machine learning to continuously monitor for infestations. Spotta says its AI sensors can detect when, where and what type of insects are active to make early interventions.

One application is identifying red palm weevils. Spotta’s internet-activated dry traps attract the pets and send a wireless notification to farm managers’ phones or laptops. The Cambridge-based company says this limits the use of pesticides.

The startup’s technology has also been used to monitor for bed bugs, which became a concern for Londoners last year after an outbreak in Paris.

In December last year, Spotta secured £3m in funding from The Yield Lab, STIHL Ventures and ACF Investors.

In this week’s Founder in Five Q&A, Fryers shares his unbreakable lines for preventing burnout, reveals how the startup is using company shares to motivate the team, and why today’s AI “can’t generate genuinely innovative content”.

1. What advice would you give to a first-time founder?

Robert Fryers: Founders have to be resilient enough to survive the rollercoaster that comes with startup life. You have to have an unbelievably high level of self-belief and confidence that it will all work and that your business will defy the odds!

That self-belief means it’s easy to fall into the trap of not being self-aware enough to see where your capabilities run out. Only when you look those squarely in the eye can you then aggressively tackle them by upskilling yourself or bringing on other team members to plug the gaps.

2. How do you motivate your team?

RF: Making sure everyone is aligned with Spotta’s vision: changing the world of insect management from blanket spraying of chemicals to a more sustainable, targeted approach, guided by our technology.

We’re also very open with the team about our financial goals. Everyone in the team gets shares in the company and these only vest at exit. This is different to most startups (where they vest after a few years and leavers take their shares with them). At Spotta our share scheme means we all win or lose together and we’re all in it to the end. This builds a ‘one for all and all for one’ culture.”

3. How do you prevent burnout?

RF: Being a startup founder is a long road. You need to set a pace you can sustain for years. I decided on day one that I was not going to miss my son growing up, so I drew lines around certain things like birthdays and family holidays.

I then committed to never, ever, ever breaking those lines, no matter how urgent the work demands might seem. As well as making sure I’m being a good dad it means I always have some dates scheduled where I know I can relieve the pressure for a bit, which is good for me too.

4. What’s the most misunderstood technology?

RF: AI chatbots make us feel like talking to a human but we aren’t. Because they feel familiar in conversation, we project humanity onto them. They are great at spotting and repeating patterns, for example handling FAQs as a customer service bot.

It also means that AI is very powerful at detecting things like insects, which is what we do at Spotta. But large language models don’t ‘understand’ what they output. Today’s AI can’t generate genuinely innovative content, except by random chance: they are digital monkeys with typewriters (for now at least!).

5. What’s a common mistake that you see founders make?

RF: Not enough commercial focus early on in the journey and leaving it much too late to start trying to sell. Tech-led businesses often think that technology is the hard part of what they do. Of the businesses I’ve seen, that’s rarely the case. Proving the market is harder.

Is there enough customer pain? Can you convince them that your solution is the solution to this? Will they pay for what you’re offering? How deep is the market? These are all bigger risks for most startups than whether you will be able to get your technology to work.

Founder in Five – a UKTN Q&A series with the entrepreneurs behind the UK’s innovative tech startups, scaleups and unicorns – is published every Friday.