The “Five Whys” is a technique for solving problems that was popularized by auto manufacturer Toyota as a tool to boost quality. The goal is to find the root causes of defects by asking a series of questions. For example, if a machine at one of their factories broke, they’d approach the problem like this:
The motor on this machine is dead. Why?
The motor drew too much power. Why?
The gears were were sticking. Why?
The gears were not oiled. Why?
The recommended service schedule was not followed. Why?
If you only asked the first “why” you might start looking for a higher-power motor. If you stopped at the third “why” you’d be re-engineering the gear box, but by going to the fifth why you realize that the problem has nothing to do with the product and is the result of poor human resource planning. Instead of starting an expensive program to retool your plant you might just hire an additional worker for the maintenance team.
This principle of lean manufacturing is equally applicable to startups, but is employed with less frequency. It would be especially useful when evaluating startup ideas.
Why Do People Equate the IoT with Dongles and Dashboards?
Over the last few years I’ve seen dozens of pitches where founders have developed the “FitBit for X,” shorthand for a low-energy sensor and an app that compiles the data into a variety of trend lines and scatter plots. They look at FitBit’s success and try to replicate the “dongles and dashboards” approach without truly understanding the needs of the customers.
This is especially true in in B2B applications. Founders copy the surface level of FitBit’s success, and build competent, often beautiful products, without solving their customer’s needs.
That’s why we’re so excited to announce our investment in Sentenai. The company moves beyond the superficial aspects of the IoT to deliver substantial value through software by, paraphrasing our co-investor Jeff Bussgang, “creating data infrastructure and a database schema using automated intelligent systems.” Those tools, paired with behavioral and historical data help companies make better informed decisions.
The Sentenai co-founders asked the right questions and learned that the hardware level of the Internet of Things is on the way to rapid commoditization. They also learned that there are very few software solutions that make use of the non-stop data exhaust that our smart thermostats, cars, and other connected sensors create on a second-by-second basis.
We believe Rohit Gupta–who studied at MIT, worked as an operator at startups as well as a VC, has an unfair knowledge of the problems IoT companies face — and Brendan Kohler — a Georgia Tech alum who worked at many startups, as a researcher at Yale, and was an early thought leader in the Haskell ecosystem — are the pair that will finally make sense of this deluge of data.