The Indie Hackers Podcast #74: How to Build a Complex Hardware Business by Starting Simple with David Rabie of Tovala

  • What is Tovala? We manufacture and sell a physical product. We prepare and sell food. We build the mobile apps that power everything and glue it together. There are a lot of moving pieces that need to work in harmony so the end product is good. The complexity of our business is what makes the product so unique.

  • Don’t look too far ahead: I never looked too far ahead. We really just took it one challenge at a time. . .If you're constantly thinking about what this product looks like at scale that's terrifying. As opposed to what's the next hurdle we have to clear to survive. And if you do that enough and you do that over the course of a year or two, eventually you'll have a business.

  • Accidental Tovala tag line: An idea that's as much technology as it is food.

  • Why did you want to build a food business? I went on this health retreat with my Dad. It's this place in California called the Ashram and you hike for 5 days, you eat all vegetarian food, you do yoga. It completely changed my life. It set me on this path of obsession with healthy eating. If I can help a lot of people eat better I think it can make a huge difference in people's lives.

  • When David started to believe he could build Tovala: We won a business plan competition at my business school and some other well-known companies had won in the past: Braintree, GrubHub, Simple Mills. It gave us some external validation for the idea.

  • What needed to be true at Day 0: We knew our ovens: a) had to work, b) they had to work consistently c) the food had to taste really good. At the beginning, nothing else mattered. 

  • The core value of Tovala: We design these meals. We ship them to your doorstep. The menu changes every week. It's under a minute to prep them. You put it in the [Tovala] oven, scan a code, and the oven cooks it automatically.

  • Why build a technology company in the midwest? We are unique here. Being unique should give us a leg up as we're recruiting the most talented people that have come out of these universities [Northwestern University of Chicago, University of Illinois at DePaul, Columbia College, SAIC, University of Indiana]. . . Another reason is cost. Running a business out here is so much less than it is on the west coast and the bay area. That lower cost affects our runway. 

  • Initial distribution for Tovala: 1) We got our first base of early adopters on Kickstarter. 2) We were maniacal about leveraging all of our own personal networks. The day our Kickstarter campaign went live we were sitting around our kitchen table. All of us were texting almost every single person we knew. We were sending messages on Facebook. We were posting on LinkedIn. 3) Press. We tried to get in front of journalists. We would take our prototype into these meetings and demonstrate the product.

  • David believes hardware will be commoditized: The way to innovate, differentiate, and succeed [at hardware] in the long run is really around customer experience, user experience, user interface. Things that are not pure hardware.

  • Full podcast here.