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“I’ve been attracted to YC’s values for a very long time. They’re building not just an accelerator program, but an entire entrepreneurial ecosystem. They’ve done an incredible amount for the startup ecosystem as a whole, and for entrepreneurs all over the world.”
When people think of self-driving cars, their minds often run straight to Elon Musk. For founder Guilhem Herail, however, his mind went somewhere different.
Fresh off graduation from Y Combinator’s Winter 2021 cohort, Guilhem and his team at Hermes Robotics are using self-driving technology to disrupt a unique (and, in retrospect, surprisingly obvious) corner of the automotive industry: Street cleaning. With self-driving sweepers buzzing all over parking lots in the Bay Area, Guilhem’s grand vision is to beautify every city in the world, one dirty road at a time.
We sat down with Guilhem to discuss his accelerator journey so far. Along the way, he shared some excellent wisdom about his approach to entrepreneurship, the advantages of attending Y Combinator, and his view of what the future of self-driving technology looks like.
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First off, Guilhem, congrats on the nomination!
Thank you so much! This is very cool.
For those of us who don’t know, can you tell us what you and your team do at Hermes?
Sure. At Hermes Robotics, we do autonomous street and parking lot sweeping. We provide this as a service by retro-fitting vehicles.
I’ve lived in San Francisco for about five years now. One morning, I left my building and noticed there was a lot of debris on the streets. I couldn’t stop thinking about this problem — I asked myself, “This street is often dirty, so what can be done to improve it? How can we improve the overall cleanliness of our cities?”
“There’s so much debate around the idea of, ‘Robots are going to take our jobs.’ But the discussion should instead be around, ‘What can robots do to make our lives healthier and happier?’”
I had this hypothesis that if we’re going to have cleaner streets, then we need to increase the frequency of street cleanings by 2-3x. This thought became connected with the idea that if we could automate the street cleaning process, we could double the frequency of cleanings without increasing the cost. In a perfect world, who knows, we might even be able to reduce the cost.
After doing a good deal of research, I was happy to learn my thesis was correct. Through automation, you could not only increase the frequency of street cleanings, but clean even more streets for less money. This is great news, because cities can’t simply decide to adjust their budget and increase their street-cleaning frequency overnight. It’s a very long and complex process to adjust these things. With automation, we can give cities the opportunity to have cleaner streets for the same cost, or potentially a lower cost than they’re already spending.
“Through automation, you could not only increase the frequency of street cleanings, but clean even more streets for less money. This is great news, because cities can’t simply decide to adjust their budget and increase their street-cleaning frequency overnight.”
Kind of like a Roomba for the streets of the world.
In the world of self-driving technology, the biggest challenge is deploying it. This is because the environment in which you deploy self-driving technology is inherently risky. People can get very hurt if you do it wrong. We view street sweeping, and parking lot sweeping, as a perfect application for deploying this technology today; the speeds are only 5-7 miles per hour, and the environment in which you deploy it comes with less risk of casualties. In my opinion, it’s a great use case in part because it’s extremely deployable.
Why did you choose to attend an accelerator? Did you set out to attend Y-Combinator specifically?
This is my second company, and I know from experience that building a startup is an enormous task. Accelerator programs provide two things we felt were incredibly valuable as we built Hermes: Community and mentorship.
For that reason, I’ve always looked at YC very closely. They’ve done an incredible amount for the startup ecosystem as a whole, and for entrepreneurs all over the world. I’ve been attracted to YC’s values for a very long time. They’re building not just an accelerator program, but an entire entrepreneurial ecosystem.
“The people who attend YC are really living by those values of “giving back.” Even if they’ve raised 50 million dollars, you can still call them for advice, and they’ll be so generous with their time. It’s absolutely incredible.”
Put it this way: There are a lot of people and programs in the startup world that want to give advice.
My opinion, however, is that the best advice is given by people who have done it themselves — people who have raised funds, built businesses, et cetera. I like that YC promotes the idea of “giving back,” that founders should give back to other entrepreneurs who are trying to start businesses of their own.
Has the program met those expectations?
Absolutely — to be honest, it’s exceeded them by every measure. Now that I’m in it myself, I can confirm that the people who attend YC are really living by those values of “giving back.” Even if they’ve raised 50 million dollars, you can still call them for advice, and they’ll be so generous with their time. It’s absolutely incredible; being part of a community like that was something extremely meaningful and desirable for me.
For example: One of the visiting group partners at YC has literally sold a unicorn. For her to be there, and tell you, “At this stage, here’s exactly what I did,” is incredibly motivating and inspiring. She gives invaluable advice, and for me personally, those office hours are priceless.
“It’s not necessarily that the application is hard; it’s more about building your business to the point where you know you’re actually ready to apply.”
Y Combinator is a prestigious program. What tips would you give to other founders who are thinking about applying?
Well…in our case, it wasn’t so much about the actual application. I think this is a common misconception, that the application itself is difficult in some way. If your business is interesting and innovative, and you have some traction, then the way you write your application actually won’t make too much of a difference.
From my experience, if you’re hoping to get into YC, then what you really need to assess is whether or not you’re ready to attend the program with the business you already have. It’s not necessarily that the application is hard; it’s more about building your business to the point where you know you’re actually ready to apply. Have you improved your technology? Have you discovered some measure of product-market fit? Is your business attractive to investors? All in all, is it a real business?
“Having concrete milestones to hit makes you work extremely hard to move forward. That’s a very good dynamic. It’s also very intense to go through.”
By looking at other companies that went to YC in the past, we were able to look at our own company and gauge pretty well whether or not we were ready to apply. For a long time, we weren’t. For us, the threshold was two-fold: We needed to be generating reliable revenue, and we needed a great demo video. If we could accomplish both of those markers, then we knew we’d be ready for a successful run in the program.
What have you learned at YC that’s helped you grow Hermes?
What haven’t I learned? (Laughs)
I was expecting the program to be intense. Everyone – from your group, to your advisors – is accountable for keeping you aligned with the goals that you set for yourself. Having concrete milestones to hit makes you work extremely hard to move forward. That’s a very good dynamic. It’s also very intense to go through.
“If I can say one thing I’ve learned along the way, it would be to avoid introducing bias when you pitch your idea to people.”
The most valuable thing about this kind of environment, though, is that it leads to so many “lightbulb” moments along the way.
For example, for months we had been struggling to determine the right business model for Hermes. It was a real problem for us. There were so many different ways we could take it, and it was very hard to figure out what the correct path was. We felt paralyzed, to a degree.
Then, we had office hours with the president of YC. He led us through a long discussion about the business model of our company…and sure enough, he gave us a completely different perspective that we’d never even considered before. He inspired us to look at the problem, and the business as a whole, in a way that was completely unique and different. At the end of that meeting, I knew exactly how I was going to model the business, without a single doubt.
Moments like this, especially early in your journey, when your decisions have large ripples in the future of your business, this kind of mentorship is really priceless.
“The purpose of engineering is to make our existence as human beings easier, safer, and more passionate. Robots shouldn’t exist to take people’s jobs, they should exist to make their jobs less tedious, so that they can be freed up to devote themselves to their intellectual passions.”
If you could time-travel back to your early days as an entrepreneur, what would you do differently? Any mistakes you’ve made along the way?
Well, I don’t personally look at anything as a mistake. Every bump in the road has been an important part of my experience, and has brought me right to where I am today.
With that said, if I can say one thing I’ve learned along the way, it would be to avoid introducing bias when you pitch your idea to people.
In all cases, you have to approach what you’re doing in a way that allows people to make an unbiased assessment. This means they cannot worry about offending you. I’ve learned it’s best to encourage people to criticize what I’m doing. I want people to tell me the hard stuff – the stuff I won’t necessarily want to hear – because that feedback is exactly what I’m going to use to improve my product.
For a lot of entrepreneurs, when you experience that first rejection, it can feel extremely personal. But it’s not personal at all — it’s just that your product and your concept aren’t working right now. You need to develop those muscles to absorb feedback unemotionally, and use it to test, and iterate, and build something that people will truly find useful. The last thing you want is to build something that people don’t find useful.
So yes, rejection is a good thing, even if sometimes it’s tough. It builds your character, and it helps you understand what people do and don’t want.
“Put it this way: There are a lot of people and programs in the startup world that want to give advice. My opinion, however, is that the best advice is given by people who have done it themselves — people who have raised funds and built businesses.”
There’s a lot of uncertainty about how robotics might change the workforce. How do you think about the role of automation, and how it will affect our world in the future?
I love talking about it. It’s a huge passion of mine. A lot of people are afraid that robots are going to take their jobs, and feel afraid that they’ll be useless in a “new world” where robots do everything for them. Personally, I don’t think that’s true.
If I could give any message to the world, I’d want people to understand that for those of us who work in robotics, our biggest passion is making the world a better and safer place for everyone to live.
We think of what we’re building at Hermes like a dishwasher; today, who would want to wash their dishes manually? The purpose of engineering is to make our existence as human beings easier, safer, and more passionate. Robots shouldn’t exist to take people’s jobs, they should exist to make their jobs less tedious, so that they can be freed up to devote themselves to their intellectual passions.
This is why, for me, I think we should introduce robotics in those use-cases where people are at risk with their health and mental well-being when they do this kind of job. Street cleaning is truly one of those professions. People work very grueling “graveyard shifts” for years, and it takes a physical and mental toll on them. Most quit after a short time because they simply can’t do it anymore. We hope Hermes can help make this job easier and safer for them.
We should see robots as useful to humanity, and not see them as a risk. There’s so much debate around the idea of, “Robots are going to take our jobs.” But the discussion should instead be around, “What can robots do to make our lives healthier and happier?”
It’s been a pleasure, Guilhem. Congrats again on all your success!
Thank you! I had a great time.
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