Search “robot lawn mower fails” on YouTube and you’ll quickly wind up both chuckling, and with the assurance that, if you want a cleanly-trimmed lawn, you’ll be sticking it out in the hot sun for a few years yet. Experts consistently say that, though robotic vacuums have fulfilled the promise of eliminating that piece of tedious house labor, automated lawn mowers just aren’t there yet.
Much of that is because the lawn is a totally different world than that of the indoor vacuum. Lawn mowers have to contend with flower beds and unpredictable weather, and don’t have walls for guidance. Instead, most automatic lawn mowers require owners to set up a wire boundary around their property, which can take a lot of time.
“They’re built by these old-school hardware providers who don’t think like a software company,” Charles Brian Quinn tells Hypepotamus.
Quinn, on the other hand, lives in the software world. With an engineering and development background, Quinn worked as a software consultant until founding his own development agency. In 2012, he merged with Atlanta-based agency Big Nerd Ranch and took over as CEO of the combined company.
Big Nerd Ranch continued to grow (they’re now just under 100 strong), but after a few years Quinn stepped back to pursue other projects. He helped some friends at startups and invested in a few others, including Lawn.com, a subscription lawn care company.
The lawn care space is a big opportunity — the market for landscaping services in the U.S. has grown by 5.8 percent annually to reach over $90 billion in 2018. It’s also one of those manual labor-heavy industries where technology stands to make a big impact in terms of labor costs, efficiency, time reduction and more.
It was the combination of Quinn’s involvement in Lawn.com and his software-driven background that convinced David Cummings, serial entrepreneur and investor at Atlanta Ventures, that Quinn was the right leader for a company Cummings was itching to help start.
“I came in and pitched him on this amazing idea,” says Quinn about his first meeting with Cummings. “He said, ‘that’s a great idea, but I have the perfect startup for you.’”
“He said, ‘outdoor robotics’.”
Cummings himself owned one of those finicky automated lawn mowers — and had become increasingly-dissatisfied with its performance. He was convinced that the problem could be solved with a software solution.
Greenzie, a lawn care robotics company, is the first startup to come out of Atlanta Ventures Studio, an internal incubation program. Cummings’ firm provided the seed capital for the startup (Quinn invested personally as well) and provides the team with shared resources across marketing, finance, sales, technology and everything else a young company needs.
The first product, which is already undergoing some early initial testing, is marketed solely towards the B2B market — in this industry, large lawn care companies. It’s designed as a retrofit kit that sits on top of manual commercial lawn mowers and plugs into its controls.
Once the kit is properly installed, the cloud-based software gives the machine autopilot functionality, essentially turning it into a robot. The software allows it to do perfect striping — the mowing across a lawn that forms those nice, neat rows of clipped grass — wholly on its own.
Quinn explains that in its first version, the lawn care professional will drive the mower around the border. The mower learns the boundaries, and the worker can then step off to let the machine complete the job. Meanwhile, he can shorten time on the job by doing other work like pruning, weeding, etc.
“The first version will be supervised,” says Quinn, “because we’re being ultra-careful about safety.” The team has built in additional safety features like warning lights, a freeze if the mower senses anything abnormal, and an e-stop feature that lets the worker stop the machine in a second from a wristband.
The first prototypes of this commercial version will be available as soon as Q1 of 2019, according to Quinn. They’ll test it with lawn care companies to continue to refine the product.
But, that’s only part one of the plan. Quinn shares that Greenzie, like Tesla, has a three-part strategy to dominate the market for automatic lawn care. They’re planning a consumer product down the line and then looking to expand beyond mowers.
The eventual ambition, according to Quinn? To “free humans from all repetitive outdoor labor.”