What was “grokking”? He had been using the word for a week – and he didn’t grok it. ―Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land
“To grok means to understand something thoroughly, you ‘get’ it’”, explains Carrie Requist, co-founder and CEO of the Colorado-based startup U Grok It. “We felt that the term captures the essence of our product, which helps you ‘get’ your stuff, whether that means to locate it, to identify it, or to inventory it”.
U Grok It‘s goal is to bring the power of RFID (radio-frequency identification) to more organizations, thanks to an affordable smartphone-based solution. The company was founded in 2011 by husband-and-wife team Carrie and Tony Requist. Besides angel funding in 2012 and a $600K round in April 2014 led by The Foundry Group, U Grok It is entirely sales funded.
What’s your elevator pitch?
U Grok It brings the power of RAIN (UHF) RFID technology to small- and medium-sized businesses, and expands what larger enterprises can do with it. Our technology enables organizations to use the smartphones they already have to locate, track and inventory RFID-tagged items.
What problem does U Grok It solve and how does it work?
RFID is a fantastic technology, but traditional solutions are too expensive and difficult to use if you aren’t a large enterprise.
The RFID system we offer, which includes our RFID reader that we call the Grokker, is much simpler and more affordable than traditional equipment. It plugs into the audio port of iOS, Android and Windows devices, and connects to existing or custom apps which provide the interface to work with your data.
Our development platform is open, and comes with high-level APIs that abstract the RFID functionality, so that you don’t need RFID expertise to integrate U Grok It into your native app. We encourage VARs and developers to build products with our platform, and we have quite an interesting mix of markets and audiences.
For example, a company called Below Dex has built a solution which helps yacht owners quickly scan their boats to locate all the safety equipment that’s required by local marine laws. We also have a number of partners in the cannabis industry: Many states require plants to have RFID tags on them. With the Grokker and custom apps, the growers can manage and pre-check their inventory beforehand.
Describe the journey from initial idea to product launch.
My husband and I had both been working the tech industry for 25 years. We wanted to build something together, and were looking for a problem to solve. Now, we live in a ski resort town and we have three kids, so the amount of skis, sticks, helmets and other sports equipment we have is just incredible. We must own at least a hundred black gloves, but somehow it’s always difficult to find a pair, so we set out to create a solution for keeping track of our kids’ stuff.
There are already solutions like Tile and TrackR for high-value items, such as wallets and keys, that you want to be able to find from a certain distance. But for those small everyday objects, RFID seemed like a better fit. You can’t put a Bluetooth tag on every ski glove in your house, but RFID tags are sufficiently light and cheap, and they are also battery-less.
We built our first prototype with a block of wood and a snow pole, which we used to confirm that the RFID range would work for finding things in a normal-sized room.
The next prototype was a laptop with a big RFID board and a giant antenna duct taped to the back. We started tagging our children’s stuff, and a week later one of our daughters told us she had left one of her gloves at the ski hill. When we went looking for it, laptop in hand, we found ourselves in the middle of a local school ski day, with kids and their stuff all over the place. As we headed towards the Lost & Found, the prototype started beeping. We turned around and followed the beeps, which led us to a huge pile of coats and backpacks. And there, in the middle of the pile, was her glove. We would never have found it without the RFID tag, and we knew we were onto something!
The pivot to a business solution came after we had pre-announced and started to talk about our plans. It turns out that traditional RFID solutions are too hard to use for most small organizations. You can’t just pick up the equipment and use it occasionally; it requires training and using it must be a substantial part of someone’s job, which just isn’t realistic in many SMBs. So we pivoted to an SMB solution.
Do you have direct competitors? If so, what do you offer that others don’t?
When we introduced the first Grokker in September 2014, we were the only ones using smartphones. We now have a handful of competitors, but they primarily focus on industrial uses, not the SMB market.
Our goal is to make RFID technology simple and affordable, making digital asset management and inventory available to all companies regardless of size.
What was your most challenging moment so far?
After developing the Grokker, we were looking for a manufacturer. We didn’t have a lot of funding at the time, and needed to find someone who was willing to work with us. We had been discussing with a potential partner for a while, and I really believed we had an agreement – but then they backed out and we had nothing to sell.
Fortunately, another potential partner had come into the picture a little earlier. I really thought we had everything wrapped up already, but decided to talk to this other manufacturer just in case. That was a very good thing! They ended up becoming an excellent partner for us, and we are still working with them today.
And the most exciting?
Taking the first Grokker out of the box and seeing it work. My cofounder-CTO was very nervous that something would be wrong, but he’s a great engineer and of course it worked beautifully. That was a great moment!
What would be your No.1 advice for other aspiring entrepreneurs?
Expect and understand that it will not be smooth, and that there is always some serendipity involved. Many of us are planners, myself included, but not everything can be planned. Make your plans and try to make them happen, but open yourself to the universe as well — at least a little bit!
What do you think U Grok It will look like in a year?
We are definitely growing, and moving towards more complete SMB solutions. The RFID industry tends to move slowly, and many of our enterprise customers are still in the proof-of-concept phase. With our easy-to-use SDKs, we expect to see solutions coming from our over 300 registered developers within the next year or two.
What are your values in terms of work culture?
We value intelligent, creative people and want them to feel empowered. We are a distributed company, our employees can choose from where they work. I don’t think managing a remote workforce is neither easier nor more difficult than having everyone in an office, it’s just a different management task. I believe the ability to decide from where to work, and the trust we place in people, garners respect and commitment to the company. People enjoy being treated as responsible adults, and abuse has never been a problem.
Being a husband-and-wife team comes with certain challenges, but so does every other co-founder relationship, and building this company has overall strengthened our bond. I think very highly of my husband as an engineer, he thinks very highly of me as a product manager and CEO, and after 30 years of marriage and raising three kids, there’s nothing you can throw at us business-wise that we can’t figure out together!
Finally, I know it sounds a bit cliché, but we really are a very customer-focused company. I haven’t worked in many companies with such commitment to customers and technical support as we have here.
Is there an app you can’t live without?
The calendar. With three active kids and everything that’s going on at work, if something isn’t in the calendar, it isn’t happening.
Tell us something about yourself.
My philosophy of life is very much about different phases. Many of life’s phases can’t be controlled, but you can be proactive when it’s time for a change. So I believe it’s important to always enjoy the phase you are in, but also to accept the fact that it will change and to embrace what’s to come.