In this installment of our 5 Questions With… series, we sat down with Billy Otteman, director of marketing at autonomous electric mower manufacturer Scythe Robotics. Otteman breaks down the history of the company, what innovation it brings to the industry and why it chose its leasing-only equipment distribution model.

Scythe Robotics announced Jan. 26 it had raised $42 million in Series B financing, which included an investment from Amazon’s Alexa Fund.

Can you give us rundown on the history of the company and what you do?

Billy Otteman: We are a firm based out of Longmont, Colo., and we’re making fully autonomous outdoor power equipment. Our first product is M.52, which is an all-electric, fully autonomous commercial mower. The company was founded in 2018, and our three founders — Jack Morrison, Davis Foster and Isaac Roberts — all had history with each other and expertise in different arenas.

Jack Morrison, our CEO, is a computer vision engineer by trade. He was mowing his lawn and trying to figure out ways to use the new technology that he was developing, thinking of how it could be used most meaningfully. He was mowing his property — a job that he admittedly does not enjoy — and one day had that light-bulb moment: “I think robots could do this.”

He talked to Davis Foster, who is one of the electrical engineers he was working with at the time and is kind of a hardware guru. The two of them looped in Isaac Roberts, our COO, who has an entrepreneurial background and expertise in sales and grew up in the landscape industry building golf courses with his family business.

When they realized it was technologically feasible, the next step was really to identify the business potential and determine if this is a product that could actually benefit contractors. And after a couple months of research, they saw the huge potential. The labor crisis that is dominating is old news for the landscape industry. Even before the pandemic, they saw the potential to multiply what crews could do and multiply the productivity of landscaping companies with autonomous technology. And so in 2018, they started on this journey built under the radar and worked with some early pilot partner landscape companies to get input on what the product should look like, how it should function and the implications of implementation and deployment.

They launched the brand in July 2021. Over those years, there have been several generations of the machine. We’ve just launched the 5th generation this past mowing season in 2022.

Is there any background in manufacturing at Scythe Robotics?

Otteman: We have a couple different points of expertise on the team. Our co-founder Davis Foster — he’s kind of an all-around hardware expert in terms of production and design of the electrical system, the motors, all of these components. Then we brought other expertise on, as well. We have industrial designers that have been in the industry for years.

One of our industrial designers spent a decade with Wright Mowers before joining the team here and was really integral to building and designing machines. And then we recently brought on our head of manufacturing from SpaceX. He worked on Dragon and Falcon and a couple other components of the rocket ships. And then he joined and led the scale up of Starlink, the satellite program. He scaled that from the ground to an operation that manufactures 5,000-10,000 units a week.

Now at Scythe, we’re building the machine that’s going to build the machines, in terms of the actual manufacturing.

You aren’t using a dealer network, so what kind of distribution model will you implement?

Otteman: We call it our “pay-as-you-go” pricing model. It’s not quite a lease, but it’s a usage-based rental. Contractors pay per acre is really what it breaks down to. Based on how much a landscape contractor is using the machine, that’s how much the contractor has to pay.

So it’s totally different. It’s an innovative business model that the industry hasn't really seen, and we’re trying to figure out exactly how to communicate this —what’s the most effective way to translate this to the way that contractors are structuring their financial models and their businesses. How do we bridge that gap from what’s typically man hours and profitability per job site? 

Overall, what we’re trying to do is build a model that aligns with their incentives — build a machine with maximum uptime that can mow as fast and productively as possible and align our incentives with theirs so that when their business grows, our business grows, and we can make sure that we are working together in that regard.

There are 2 other things that are really great about this business model for contractors. One is being that it’s a more easily accessible way into electric equipment and autonomous equipment. Because there’s not a huge upfront cost, it’s a cash-flow-friendly way to get into this type of equipment.

Electric mowers are 3-4 times more expensive than gas-powered mowers today. And so rather than having to buy that up, having the ability to use that usage-based rental is a big benefit in the eyes of many of our customers. 

And then the second piece of that is we aren’t planning for obsolescence in the way that a lot of the technology companies do today. We’re not selling you the iPhone 14 with iPhone 15 coming out in a year. With this model, instead of contractors having to buy new equipment, as the technology updates and advances, they’ll always have the most up-to-date version, especially from the software side. All of that’s happening remotely. It’s a totally different approach, but so far the reception has been very positive.

Who will provide the repairs and parts?

Otteman: So in the short- to medium-term, delivering those services that ourselves. We already have outposts in Austin, Texas, and Vero Beach, Fla., where we’ve expanded our operations. We’re based in Colorado. We can’t mow grass here year round. So we quickly went south after founding the business and really started to figure out how to build a machine that performs in these markets, in these regions that are some of the biggest and most active landscaping companies or landscape markets.

We already have regional hubs established in both of those states. And we’ll expand regionally from there. Then as we regionally expand, we will build our own service hubs throughout the country.

So we have our — not stores necessarily, but our support centers. And that’s everything from customer support, customer relations and account managers.

The great thing is, being an electric machine and being so connected, we have great in-depth diagnostics to the machines remotely, so we can understand what needs to be fixed, what’s wrong with the machine.

We’ll often be able to identify any issues before contractors see them and feel them. So for example, the electric motors, we know exactly how fast they’re spinning. If the one on the left is spinning slower, it’s either clogged, maybe the blade’s not sharp enough. We can flag those issues and bring them up.

Because they’re electric machines, they require way less maintenance as well. Current contractors on the day-to-day are just sharpening blades, filling tires, keeping the battery charged. Other bigger issues, we’ll have our support teams on hand to be able to staff those issues.

I would not define these as company-owned dealerships. Especially in the short- to medium-term, I think Tesla’s a better analogy, building their own storefronts and support systems.

But who knows what’s going to happen and, not to close any doors, we’re open to solutions that are going to help us scale quickly in the future. That [using dealers] might be an option, but in the short-term, we really see a lot of value in having that collaboration directly with customers.

Because a lot of what we’re doing goes beyond maintenance and repairs and selling more equipment. It’s integrating this technology into operations. It’s updating facilities so that we can make sure there’s enough electrical infrastructure in those shops and depots. The same with internet bandwidth.

There’s a lot that we have to collaborate closely with our contractors on, and having that direct contact and control is the most efficient and effective way for us to service our customers.

What do you see as the biggest hurdle in convincing users to use this new tech?

Otteman: The biggest hurdle is “the way it’s always been done.” Landscape contractor businesses are efficient. There are processes in place. There is a system that has been tested, tried and true, and they’re able to execute that with great margin to great detail.

We’re identifying customers — or they’ve self-identified — and working with their teams to identify the crews and the operators who are going to have that capacity to try that innovation and who have that willingness to try and fail and deal with a product that doesn’t work like they think it should or work like it always has with their other products.

We’re finding it’s more a mentality, more a shift of, “This is the way I’ve always done it,” to “Maybe we can try something else, because doing it a different way might be better than the way that we’ve established.”

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