The Story Behind Splay, a Revolutionary 2-in-1 Monitor and Projector That Folds Up Like an Umbrella Arovia CEO and co-founder Alexander Wesley discusses how his company developed this groundbreaking tech.
- Wesley says that startup success relies on founders intimately knowing their customers and the problems they're solving.
- He advises that being part of a community (e.g. alumni, startup, etc.) is a great way to find your first investors.
In this ongoing series, we are sharing advice, tips and insights from real entrepreneurs who are out there doing business battle on a daily basis. (Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.)
Who are you and what's your business?
My name is Alex Wesley. My business is Arovia, you can find us at arovia.com. We make Splay, a groundbreaking, patent-granted, 2-in-1 display and projector solution, designed for users seeking portability without compromising on screen size. You can visualize Splay as a screen that is about 3-times bigger than a laptop screen that folds like an umbrella to fit inside a Bose headphone case.
Its three key innovations are (1) a nanomaterial-based rear projection screen that can fold to a small size without deforming (recently awarded an R&D 100 award), (2) durable retractable arms that expand the screen so it is flat, and (3) the most portable ultra-short-throw projector (projects a very large image, very close to the wall). See how it works below and check out this tutorial to learn how to use it.
What inspired you to create this business? What was your "aha moment"?
Prior to starting Arovia, I was an optical engineer and product manager in high-end semiconductor equipment. If you ever worked on a large desktop monitor, you feel very inhibited and frustrated when working on small screens. If you ever had to give a presentation on a laptop or tablet, you know it's a very trying experience. From my experience as a product manager, I knew there was a gap waiting to be filled: large screens without sacrificing portability.
What has been your biggest challenge and how did you pivot to overcome it?
To date, manufacturing has been the biggest challenge. Inventing a new technology is one thing, figuring out how to mass manufacture is an extremely involved process. For example, the company that makes iPhones for Apple told us that our product had too many new components for them to consider making. We had to develop the supply chain from scratch, which involved years of predominantly living overseas (our key manufacturers are in Taiwan and mainland China). Along the way, we dealt with many issues like key components stopped being made, manufacturers over-promising and under-delivering, manufacturers suddenly drastically increasing prices, as well as many other supply chain issues related to the pandemic (including getting stuck in China for a good portion of the pandemic). We had to stop making our first product due to a variety of manufacturing obstacles including the projector suddenly stopped being produced. We are very excited that we have overcome these obstacles and are producing Splay in mass production!
What advice would you give entrepreneurs looking for funding?
Your network is much more important than anything else and just like most things in life, the first investor is much more difficult than subsequent investors. If you are part of a community (e.g. alumni, startup, etc.) these can be great places to find your first investors. Also, accelerator programs can be a great resource while also providing funding. We did two programs that came with funding when we started out: OwlSpark (Rice University's tech accelerator) and the National Science Foundation's i-Corp program. We also did top-tier hardware accelerators, including Luminate (for optics-focused startups) and SOSV's Hax program. I've made it a habit of not "hard-selling" on investment because if you are not totally comfortable with the risks of investing in our company and/or technology startups in general, it is better that you do not. Tech startups provide a lot of upside though are not trivial endeavors.
What does the word "entrepreneur" mean to you?
It means solving a problem that provides enough value such that you ultimately turn a profit and/or provide significant value to the world.
What is something many aspiring business owners think they need that they really don't?
When I started my first company, I focused on window dressing: patent filings, the website, and naming the company. These are extremely minor compared to intimately knowing your customers and the problem you're solving. Once you know the problem you're solving is worth solving, it's important to get to paying customers as fast as possible because you only really know if people are going to pay once they pay. We launched our first Kickstarter campaign as soon as we could, and those paying customers instilled a lot of confidence in us and our investors. Subsequent post-Kickstarter deals have further cemented that confidence.
Is there a particular quote or saying that you use as personal motivation?
Don't make decisions out of fear, shame, and/or guilt. This was an extremely important lesson for me to learn. It's much better to have hope drive your actions!