Marketing in the robotics industry with Erin Bishop


The expert in Marketing and Robotics, Erin Bishop, joined us for this next episode. She is a Technical Marketing Professional with more than 15 years of experience in robotics and industrial automation. She currently helps companies in simulation and computer vision to sell its products to the growing market while being the Senior PMM at NVIDIA.


Elisa Muñoz:
Welcome Erin. Super happy to have you here.

Erin Bishop: My name is Erin Rapacki. But I also got married recently, so I go by Erin Bishop. Yes, I've been talking about robotics for 15 years now. I started off actually in high school being very involved in a program called “First robotics”. And First Robotics is a high school STEM robotics program available to many students around the world. And I certainly encourage the parents who are listening to this podcast or if any kids are, and you want to get involved in robotics to start with that first.  So I was doing that in the early two thousands and got very interested in robotics.

Then I went to Northeastern in Boston, helped with the robotics team, helped start a bench, and then got my Masters in Mechanical Engineering, in a human robot interaction lab. It was really interesting because it combined psychology with technology. How does a person interact with the device or interact with a machine and maybe people who make smartphone apps or software? Think of it as the first HCI like human computer interaction or a UX user experience design, but human robot interaction really takes the effect and the behaviors of the robot to a whole new level.

Cause if a robot looks too real and it's not quite there all the way it gets into the uncanny valley. So that was my master's and then I wanted to move to Silicon valley and do robot startups. It was very intentional. I was nervous. I gave myself three months after grad school. I gave myself a three month window to go, try to find a job at a robot startup and only focused on that and managed to get one. And this was 2010. Robotics was not that abundant. And I ended up at a company called Anybots in Mountain View, California. Coincidentally, the CEO of any box was also a partner at Y Combinator.

And so many startups have heard of Y Combinator. I'm 24, 25 years old moving to Silicon valley for the first time working in the same building as the Y Combinator meetings and really getting a fast dose of Silicon valley startup land.

So that was how I ended up in California. And then the past 10 years I've consistently been working at robotics startups and trying to really figure out what's the truth. What's really happening? What a useful product? What does the market want? And also following the technology curve, which has been very, very interesting to watch the past 10 years because there was a lot less robotics technology 10 years ago, and now it's just flourishing.

Elisa Muñoz: I noticed that you had like, like an expertise in marketing and then you jumped into product management. What was that transition like? Because you were a mechanical Engineer and then you jumped into marketing…

Erin Bishop: I realized that opportunities are becoming a lot more interesting with engineering degrees. Like an engineering degree does not prevent you from having a role in business later. And in fact, an engineering degree teaches people a language. So I can speak with engineers. I can speak with technologists. I can speak with manufacturers, but really the engineering degrees are about the language.

And also somewhere in there, I learned a bunch of math and forgot it, but I can, I can follow what my technical teams are saying, but I didn't know that the word product manager existed until I reached Silicon valley in 2010. I heard the definition and I knew, oh, that's me, the brain between business and engineering. Who's writing the requirements? Who's validating the customer's needs? Who's guiding engineers into what and what to build? And why is that what they're building may meet business goals? So that's what a product manager does is really make sure the market is receiving a product that's actually useful to them.

Elisa Muñoz: Okay. It's really interesting because I was reading an article of yours back in 2011. And you were saying something about how “We need robots to be boring” So how can you explain it?

Erin Bishop: Well, it's funny because I take a keen interest in safety standards and how to shift the safety standards for robotics. So I'm into robots that do meaningful work.

I'm not a toy robot person. I kind of don't really do that. I want big robots that carry things or do construction or dig holes or inspect things. These big robots can really wreak havoc and seriously damage a, you know, a, a room they're in and so boring robots. I wrote that article because I was frustrated that so many reporters were writing, like, “This robot is cool. This robot does this silly thing”. And I actually started a Twitter, my Twitter account robot diva. I started that in 2010, almost too, because I was frustrated. I saw, I saw very few robotics articles of actual substance. And, you know, the general population will think robots are a kitschy, fun, weird thing with some gimmick or they're afraid of Terminator.

And that's not the reality on either side. So I wanted to really surface the articles that I felt had integrity: robot farming robot, helping kid go to school robot, like say like people don't have to break their backs, unloading trucks anymore, robot unloading trucks. So I really wanted to use my Twitter account to say that real robots are tools or pieces of equipment. They're boring. They're not some spectacle. They're just reliably doing their thing all the time in a safe way. And that's, and that's why I wrote that article.

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Elisa Muñoz: Do you think that your perspective regarding this has changed?

Erin Bishop: I'll put it this way. When I'm doing product market fit research for robotics, I almost don't trust anything online. So you either have the robots are cool reporters, or you have sponsored content from different vendors, or you have market research reports that I believe most of them are getting them wrong, getting it wrong.

So it might be 10 doing a tangent from the question. I don't think there's anyone in the movie. Maybe I'm one of few, but there, the general population has the wrong idea of robotics and there's a lot of reasons for that. I don't blame them, but one of the things I want to do, and I'm kind of working on a book to do this is reorient the conversation about robotics. This is why these are the things that are being developed. And this is what they can do. This is what they can't do, because I know a lot of people are afraid about robotics and the future of work.

And I see different trends, macro trends that, you know, some people will say, I'm saying this just because I'm a roboticist, but labor shortage is here. The whole globe wants more goods and services. And we can't have a human society where small people who want to consume a lot of goods and services are supported by a bunch of low wage manual workers.

And in fact, what's good is people don't want those jobs anymore. They're terrible jobs. And so my approach is that robots are productivity tools that help increase productivity and also do the physical side of the labor. That being said, these robots need to be watched. They need to be handled. They need to be managed. There will be workers in the room with the robots because the robots will fail. Maybe two to 5% of the time. And a worker will need to intervene to get the thing out of the way or push it into place or redo it reboot. It's A hundred percent necessary.

Elisa Muñoz: And that's why we have these podcasts for, I mean, great people inside the industry experts talking about what's, what's going on in today's world. Right? So thank you.

And now I wanted to ask you, like, what are you doing right now? I know that you're doing consulting for startups and investors. How is that market in today's world?

Erin Bishop: So I switched between full-time roles and consulting. I started Machine Inbound in 2017, because if you look at my resume, you'll notice there's a lot of roles on there. And what was going on is I would join an early stage robot startup to help with product market fit research, maybe fundraise. Maybe I go validate some information. Maybe there's one customer, who's our first customer, but then the engineering team needs to go build it. And that takes a year or two. And I was actually getting laid off and I got discouraged. And maybe the more important story is I have the career I have right now because I was very intentional and very much fighting to get it. Honestly, my first five years of my career was fighting just to get the word robot on my resume as much as possible.

And my biggest skill now is I know how to fight, but, I like to encourage anyone listening to this, and tell them: “If you choose a place you want to go or want to be in life, and if you're always taking small steps towards that, you will get there”

It might take a while, but diverging from your north star means you don't get there. You'll get there slower. But if you keep trying to crawl back in claw, back in, get that job on your resume, just take what you can, it can build up. And I'm enjoying that. Now. It looks like it all makes sense looking back. But honestly, I was in the moment and very intentional and fighting for it every step of the way. So anyway, I noticed I kept getting laid off and I realized that perhaps this kind of work is better done as a consultant. And I was kind of eager to start my own business. I was also a little eager to travel.

Elisa Muñoz: Now, talking about simulation, what do you think will be the best way in order to start solving this problem in the industry?

Erin Bishop: Honestly, what simulation does is it, it's a video, it's a video game design problem. So, and there are tools you can, I think first robotics is universal robots. If you look up, I think unity and unreal have little packages and video has little packages. I don't know how young, but it's, I think a young person could certainly go build up a game environment and, and have, and there are packages out there for them to run a robot. Some of the earlier simulation tools called a gazebo or actually turtle bot, I think is a Ross based educational robot. That's, that's all, that's a good start.

And the more they're modeling inside game engines and the more sophisticated stuff is connecting code to models and then code to models. And then putting, having that model and the game engine pick up and drop an object a hundred thousand or a million times to learn grasp positions. Then, you know, you can actually in theory, port that same code, that the model figured out back into the robot. So I think it's going to be easier for kids in the future to become roboticists. And in fact, if it becomes too easy, I hope the kids still like take time to build robots, get into the weeds of how it works, because I've noticed this with people who have worked on computers, it's very easy to build a website these days, but the folks who have been around a while and really understand the embedded code behind the internet or computers, programming, all of that, the more, the deeper that they understand what's behind the front end simplicity, that those people are still very valuable.

So a simulation for robotics adds a lot of simplicity on the front end, but there's a lot in the backend that's happening. That's very sophisticated.

Elisa Muñoz: Any last advice that you can give to all of the engineers or young people listening to us right now?

Erin Bishop: Oh, I have tons of advice, Actually, I'm going through a full-time job hunt right now. And I received my first offer a half hour before this meeting. So yeah, It could be very exciting, but I'm gonna, you know, see everything that, you know, comes through from all my interviews at this point in my career, I'm noticing I'm in my mid late thirties, what really drives a career forward is choosing to care about something.

Elisa Muñoz:  And I think that's the key, you know? I mean, I've been talking with a lot of experts recently and all of you guys have told me the same. You have to care in order to solve. And I think that's one of the most interesting parts of manufacturing, robotics, these kinds of jobs.

Erin Bishop: And being a leader, I think you can generate that within your company by caring and, and that's what leadership is.  I'm going to walk into a room and say, “I care about successful implementation of robotics and simulation”. And all of a sudden I can have a whole company behind that mission or really get my colleagues excited or get a feature together. That's super interesting to customers. So, it's both: Enjoying work and finding purpose in it, but also generating the future is super exciting.

Elisa Muñoz: Well, thank you so much, Erin, congratulations on this new path and for being here today. Hopefully we will get to hear from you soon.

Erin Bishop: Thank you.

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