by Mariel Sokolov
A long-term outlook is good karma. Hardware is ripe for innovation, and now is the time to create platforms for the next generation. Be restless; pleased but never satisfied.
These are the tenets of 2002 WashU alum Shaun Arora’s hardware accelerator, Make in LA. Shaun sat down with Fuse to talk about how his wildly varied life experiences inform his entrepreneurship and led him to create Make in LA.
What inspired you to create Make in LA?
After a decade helping multinational clients scale their manufacturing, I had a desire to be more in tune with emerging technologies and methodologies coming out of the startup scene. I also have a thing for a good underdog story. I decided to invest time independently advising and investing in hardware startups. After doing so for 3 years, I met Noramay Cadena, Make in LA’s co-founder on AngelList. We shared a vision of an ecosystem that would give great entrepreneurs with brilliant ideas the kind of accelerator program and the funds to foster and grow hardware innovation.
By June 2015, one month after we met, we began accepting applications for our freshman class, which kicked off in September and graduated in January. After seeing so many companies waste time, money, and talent bringing products to market, I knew there could be a more resource-efficient method for success. Hardware companies face unique barriers to design, manufacturing, distribution, and retail. The process can be cumbersome and costly if you don’t have the right people, information and resources to guide you. Make in LA’s program is focused on rapid learning, the scientific method, resource efficiency, and network effects. Today, we are at the beginning of a boom as hardware and software converge to create objects that are intuitive. Conditions are ripe for investment in hardware due to drastically reduced costs of production, shifting consumer demand, and the growing desire for data insights.
After WashU, I went to work as a cultural anthropologist for consumer packaged goods companies, focusing on the beer and liquor industry. I concurrently discovered my passion through a handful of mentor-based non-profits while moving around the country two work in both sectors. In 2005, I joined the family electronics manufacturing plant and attempted to make my mark there. The business took off and started to double, and then double again. I helped set up the team and infrastructure to scale, and we are now 40x bigger after 10 years.
After working in so many roles across departments, it was hard to describe what I wanted my ideal career to be. I loved being an entrepreneur and growing businesses, but I also wanted to have a meaningful life and give back to my community. In staff meetings, I tend to be the most orthogonal thinker, and that has pushed my teams towards intelligent and uncomfortable ideas. The name “instigator” seemed to stick, and the more I play that role, the more it seems to suit me. As the next generation of leaders begin to emerge at my family company, NEO Tech, I am able to step away from operations and lean into innovation through our spinoff, Make in LA. It also gives me a chance to experiment with building scale and networks, put to use my manufacturing+mentor+anthropology+science+entrepreneur+financial+business experience, and to fight for my favorite underdogs.
When not working with businesses, I enjoy surfing, endurance bicycling, motorcycle riding, and hot sauce sampling with friends and family. My first child arrived in 2013 and my second arrived in 2015, keeping my hands full and my body well-caffeinated. Having purposeful work is important, but having a work-life balance and a community of non-work friends helps to tame my inner workaholic and ground me.
What separates Make in LA from other entrepreneurial programs?
First off, we are an accelerator. Incubators often charge fees for their services, and we feel that that is a disservice to early-stage startups where cash is usually tight. There are numerous things that set us apart from other accelerators, including location and the fact that we are 100% focused on hardware. Because of its incredibly creative community, strong talent pool, supportive startup environment, and deep manufacturing roots, Los Angeles is a prime location for technology-enabled hardware. The city is entrepreneur-friendly and has some of the world’s best ports and rail systems.
Our founding team is extremely hands-on and passionate about developing good people and leaders, while pushing forward innovation in hardware. We come from a background in mentoring and hardware, and we have selected only partners who are aligned with long-term goals instead of short-term compensation.
Small class sizes enable us to provide individual, personalized instruction and to focus our resources. We are able to get to know each of the founders on an intimate level and understand what drives them and motivates their decisions. Our partners appreciate that we screen for quality over quantity.
We have a full-scale production facility with prototyping equipment, the HexLab MakerSpace, warehousing, logistics and office space. The space is 20,000 square feet, one of the largest accelerators in the world, to support a diverse variety of hardware verticals.
Finally, we have found a unique model that both entrepreneurs and investors are excited about. Our investments and our programs benefit everyone involved.
Who is your target demographic?
We are looking for a diverse group of individuals from across the globe that are passionate about learning, growing and creating. We want people who are willing and able to put in the time and effort and who share in our mission of building ethical companies that celebrate integrity, respect and courage. Make in LA entrepreneurs should be building businesses that solve real problems by leveraging hardware as part of that solution, have a proof of concept or a prototype, and posses the desire for their business to be successful over the next 10-20 years.
What is the best advice anyone ever gave you?
When I was a teenager, my father told me “it’s okay to learn from your mistakes, but you don’t have to make all the mistakes yourself.” Today, it is very easy to learn from others’ mistakes. People are willing and eager to share their war stories. By seeking out veterans both in-person and through books and blogs before making critical decisions, I have saved millions of dollars, got back years of my life, and avoided numerous headaches. I’ve utilized this advice at Make in LA by using Slack and meet-up events to share mistakes and advice across our network.
Learn more about Make in LA on their website.
Learn more about Make in LA on The Fuse.