Tiny Mile Zigs Where Other Delivery Bots Zag
Founder Ignacio Tartavull shares how tragedy and economy inform his startup's decision making
Whereas many in the delivery robotics industry have set their sights on restaurant and grocery delivery, the team at Tiny Mile has taken a different approach: their petite pink robots act as couriers, open to the public at large. Instead of charging consumers or merchants for this service, Tiny Mile offers it a must-try $0 price point, with the service entirely underwritten by advertising. That’s kept the company super-disciplined on keeping costs low, as evinced by the somewhat workman-like design of its robot, aptly named Geoffrey. And despite making headlines for being kicked out of Toronto, company founder Ignacio Tartavull looks to take a cautious approach towards automation, informed by an earlier tragedy when he worked at Uber. Ignacio shares that story, his approach to cost-control, how the company plans to scale, and why he’s optimistic about the industry, below.
Jonah Bliss: Let’s start with some background; what led you to start Tiny Mile, and what were you working on prior to this company?
Ignacio Tartavull: I founded Tiny Mile after profound reflections on autonomous technology's safety aspects, brought about by a tragic incident during my tenure at Uber ATG. [Note: Uber’s Advanced Technologies Group ran the company’s self-driving automotive research.] A pedestrian fatality in Arizona shook us to the core, serving as a wake-up call and a catalyst to reconsider our approach toward autonomy. This experience didn't just resonate with me; it motivated me to rethink and reprioritize safety within the realm of autonomous systems.
Following these reflections, I envisioned a safer, gradual path to autonomy that begins with delivery robots. Due to their low speed and weight, these robots pose virtually no risk of causing harm to individuals, making them an ideal starting point. With Tiny Mile, we're dedicated to scaling up these operations methodically, transitioning from robots to larger vehicles like cargo bikes and single-passenger vehicles, and eventually reaching autonomous trucks. This incremental approach ensures we uphold our commitment to safety while tackling increasingly complex technological challenges.
JB: I think it’s safe to say that where many PDD startups zig, you and Tiny Mile look to zag… what can you say about your differentiated approach?
IT: We will wear that ‘zag badge’ with honor. I would say that we’ve always prioritized the economics over the elegance, and have allowed the math to serve as our north star from day 1; math leads on hardware, software, team building, and business model decisions. There are thousands of decisions to be made when building a business - and by no means would I ever belittle that challenge - but by applying a consistent designated north star, our approach, and the consequent decision-making, has always been relatively clear.
JB: Do you see advertising as being the long-term monetization source for the company? Does having that existing revenue allow you to do things differently than some of your competitors?
IT: We look at advertising as a long-term monetization source, but not necessarily the long-term monetization source. We believe in diversifying revenue streams and leveraging our robot to its fullest earning power, and advertisement is one of the levers we pull. We’ve intentionally hired some folks with advertising backgrounds that understand how to maximize both the offline and online advertising potential of our robots, and we’ve been fortunate enough to work with some great partners that recognize the efficacy, as well.
I personally very much enjoy this side of the business. Working with super smart partners to execute a creative activation has been tons of fun, and our team gets a lift every time a new branded robot photo hits our Slack.
JB: Looking at the Tiny Mile as essentially an eye-catching urban advertisement, I can imagine some other companies that work in OOH might find you as an interesting partner, or acquisition target. On the specialized side there’s Swiftmile, which has some ad-supported hardware that’s perhaps complementary to your robot, and then there are giants like Clear Channel Outdoor; do you see companies like that as potential partners or investors?
IT: I do. But it’s not just because of our shared appreciation for urban advertisement. The current economic landscape is daunting but not insurmountable. I think the companies that are fortunate enough to come out on the other side are those that are agile and embrace evolution. So, it’s just a prediction of sorts, but I think we’ll start to see an acceleration in unexpected partnerships between like-minded companies that elect evolution over extinction.
JB: One other thing you’ve highlighted is a tight focus on controlling costs. For example, you took your robot from four wheels to three, to cut down on construction and maintenance expenses. What are some other ways you look to control costs?
IT: Yeah, rather than ‘controlling costs,’ I think I prefer to look at it as a continuous effort to maximize our organizational efficiencies. Slight difference, but there’s a difference.
So, with the four-wheel to three decision as an example, our hardware team was tasked with the challenge of decreasing robot costs by X%, without sacrificing performance, and ultimately shifting to a three-wheel design was the winning proposal. That’s not to say the shift was universally applauded internally, but we try very hard to foster a culture that promotes “strong opinions loosely held,” and after applying our previously mentioned north star variable, the decision sort of made itself.
The four-wheel to three-wheel shift is representative of the efficiency chasing we do across the org. Hardware, software, talent, marketing and sales, everywhere - we’re always trying to maximize efficiency while maintaining forward momentum. It’s a difficult balance, but by doing so, we protect our unit economics and afford ourselves the luxury of mistake-making. We’re learning every day, and we learn best from our mistakes.
“Every year, 1 million people lose their lives to car accidents, and countless more suffer due to pollution-related issues. Society has strangely become desensitized to these staggering figures, accepting them as the norm.”
JB: The company’s flagship robot is named “Geoffrey” after Geoffrey Hinton, the godfather of AI. He recently made waves for essentially condemning his life’s work, worrying that unchecked AI could be a huge threat to humanity. Obviously you’re not working in the LLM space, but does that give you pause about automation in general?
IT: Geoffrey Hinton's remarks reflect a broad, crucial conversation about the implications of artificial intelligence and its potential impacts on society. While his concerns primarily lie within the realm of Large Language Models (LLMs), they do underline the importance of ethical and responsible development in all facets of AI, including automation.
At Tiny Mile, our focus is on creating autonomous solutions that serve and protect humanity, which includes rigorous safety protocols and ethical guidelines. Although our work in automating delivery services is quite different from LLMs, we recognize and share the overarching responsibility to ensure AI technology is used responsibly and does not threaten people or society at large.
Despite Geoffrey's concerns, his life's work still remains an inspiration for us. His cautious perspective offers an important reminder to constantly evaluate our work's impact and potential risks, driving us to invest further in safety measures, transparency, and ethical practices. The key lies in a balanced approach, fostering AI and automation's benefits while mitigating potential downsides.
JB: We’ve seen different cities take different approaches to regulating sidewalk delivery robots. Do you have any thoughts on how the industry and regulators can work together, or any insights from what happened in Toronto?
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