What happens when two guys from two different parts of the U.S. cross paths halfway? The start a tech company, and it's off to the races. And what a race it is. Although it's still too early to tell who came in first, it's safe to say that both are winners.
Franz Garsombke and Chris Klein are the co-founders of an irrigation company called Rachio that they started in 2012. They were both in their thirties when they started the company, and although young in years and with virtually no experience in the irrigation business, they are making a name for themselves by being ahead of the curve.
Don’t get me wrong, entering our space was no easy task; however, what they lacked in experience they made up for in enthusiasm, passion and drive.
Chris Klein hails from Toledo, Ohio, and graduated from Ohio State University, where he received his degree in construction systems management. He then moved to Denver, Colorado, and worked for a construction company while earning an MBA at the University of Denver.
Franz Garsombke attended the University of California, Santa Barbara, receiving an undergraduate degree in economics. He went on to Colorado State University and received a master’s in computer information systems.
Klein and Garsombke met when Garsombke was CTO of another startup tech company. One of the founders of that company was teaching at the University of Denver and had Klein in his class. Garsombke needed some development work done, and through the cofounder, met Klein. The two had Klein do some consulting work for them, and then hired him for a fulltime position.
In 2012, Colorado was in its third year of drought. “Posters and billboards were all over Denver with the slogan: ‘Use Only What You Need’,” said Klein. These billboards guided their thinking about the irrigation systems being used in people’s homes. “It started to make sense that we’re large wasters of water,” said Klein. “That piqued my interest. I felt that it was something I could get behind.” Both founders are married and live in private homes, so when problems arose due to the drought, they were very aware of them.
Always looking for new opportunities, Klein discussed with Garsombke the possibility of developing a product that would save water. “As we looked at the products that were out there, and at our technical capabilities, along with the technologies that were becoming available to software engineers like ourselves, we built a prototype and began testing it,” said Garsombke. “We learned and started to gain confidence, and the rest is kinda history.”
The irrigation controller business is very competitive and you wonder, do we need another controller? Klein comments, “When we started, there were only a handful of controllers that connected to the Internet. However, they weren’t really leveraging the capabilities of the Cloud and modern protocols that make solutions extremely scalable and extensible.”
“Here was a huge opportunity to make these controllers smart by leveraging data services for things like real-time weather forecasts, and making them accessible by putting the control in the palm of your hand. This type of solution didn’t seem to be on the market,” said Klein.
In addition, WiFi is becoming ubiquitous, and consumers are getting more comfortable with Internet-connected technology in their homes. Both Garsombke and Klein did a lot of research with consumers, and found that they weren’t too happy with what they were seeing in the market at the time.
Where did the name Rachio come from? Garsombke said, “It’s not a great story. It’s a Latin medical term to mean backbone or spine. We thought the term fit, because we really wanted to build backbone technology for water.”
How do you start up a business from scratch? Think tanks around the country lent support, and organizations like Kickstarter helped fund the project. That made things a little easier. “Still, you have very little money and no credibility to sell through distribution channels or the big-box stores.”
So how did they do it? After field testing the prototypes, both men felt that they were ready to go to market. They raised some money from friends and family, and did a pre-order campaign (where you sell the product online prior to it being manufactured).
As you sell more, you become more confident, which in turn will get you more funding. You keep pounding away, and slowly but surely, you begin to bring in retail stores and then distribution.
Technology is changing at a very rapid pace, and Klein and Garsombke realize that in order for their company to grow, they have to stay a step ahead of the competition. “We’re out listening to customers and we’re getting a lot of feedback,” said Garsombke.
“We’ve listened to all the feature requests, and we’re rebuilding our platform to accommodate all of them. We want to do more integration with different platforms, so we can give homeowners the most control out there for the smart home.
We’re also building in some exciting new features for the contractor that will really start to tie our solutions together.”
It wasn’t too long ago that I wondered, how much more technology do we need in irrigation controllers? These days, I’m excited.
When I see all the new stuff being developed, and all these young entrepreneurs coming into our arena, I know, “the best is yet to come.”