Fathom is about providing a new experience for people, allowing them to explore a world that was previously off-limits. Fathom is about enabling people to easily discover, record, and share an underwater world.
Location: Grand Rapids, Michigan
Product / Service Offering: Underwater drones
Co-founder Interviewed: Danny Vessells
Other Key Management Team Members: John Boss, Matt Gira
This article is part of our Business Startup Spotlight series featuring entrepreneurs and their companies. We hope that these founders’ interviews will inspire and motivate you as you undertake your own entrepreneurial journey.
Tell us a little about yourself with a focus on what motivates you.
I have always enjoyed experimenting and creating. I used to take apart something that was being thrown away to see what was happening on the inside, then try to put it back together again. Fast-forward to college and that translated into a degree in engineering, combined with a general interest in art. Most of what motivates me is creating unique and interesting new projects.
When did you establish your company and where did the idea originate?
Fathom was established back while we were still in college around the middle of 2014. I grew up spending summers on a lake in Northern Michigan. I always heard stories about how back in the 1800’s horse-drawn carriages would carry logs across the frozen water and sometimes fall through and get stuck at the bottom, 150 feet beneath the surface. So I brought this idea to my co-founding team and asked the question, “What if we tapped into the interest in aerial drones, and took it underwater?”
What need or needs does your company seek to fill for its customers?
At its core, Fathom is about providing a new experience for people, allowing them to explore a world that was previously off-limits. For a multitude of reasons, money, physical ability, or mental anxiety, many people are unable to go underwater. Fathom is about enabling people to easily discover, record, and share an underwater world.
What is the one thing that sets your company apart from its competitors?
We are doing a lot of exciting things at Fathom, but one that really stands out is the modularity. Each thruster on the Fathom One is removable for easy transport and service. In fact, it makes the Fathom One the smallest underwater drone in the world. While configured for travel, the drone body fits on a half sheet of paper, meaning that unlike other underwater drones, you can easily slip it into a backpack and take it with you.
This same modularity also allows users to attach their own external camera, such as a GoPro, to the bottom of the drone to capture incredibly high-quality video content. We are actually talking to some huge media partners about using the Fathom One to help capture their underwater video.
What was the biggest challenge you faced while getting your company up and running, and how did you overcome it?
One of our biggest challenges also became one of our biggest assets. In creating the Fathom One from scratch, our team had to learn everything about underwater robotics. While this was a huge challenge at the time, it also meant that we approached the industry from the outside, enabling us to innovate with brand new ideas and techniques not typically seen in the underwater remote operated vehicle (ROV) industry. Quite honestly, overcoming this type of challenge is about applying yourself. Our team spent countless hours testing, talking with experienced professionals, and implementing new models. All along the way, there is the inevitable failure, but it is the failure and the associated determination that allows you to eventually create something awesome.
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Are there resources you have utilized that other founders might find compelling or useful?
As new founders in the startup scene, there have been plenty of resources of which we have been able to take advantage. Many times it is using resources provided by the state. Michigan has multiple programs that help entrepreneurs in areas they are lacking. We have probably been a part of most of them. We were also part of the Techstars Mobility class of summer 2017, which connected us to an incredible network of founders.
What steps have you taken to secure funding for your company and what, if anything, would you do differently if you had to start over?
Funding is an interesting game. It is something that you really do not know how to do until you have done it. As of December 2017, we are still working on raising funding. One suggestion I would have is to truly understand to whom you are pitching. Individual Angels have different motivations and criteria than Angel funds, which have different motivations and criteria than Venture funds.
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Have there been any questions you have had as an entrepreneur of a fledgling startup that you had a particularly hard time finding the answers to?
The truly challenging questions are the ones that you have to figure out on your own. It has been hugely beneficial for us to be connected to the Techstars network. We are able to network with thousands of other founders around the world who have gone through similar problems.
As often as you can listen to the method with which someone else used to succeed. There comes a point where you need to answer the questions for yourself. Usually, it comes down to different go-to-market strategies and gaining a good understanding of your customer, as well as their needs.
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What challenges, if any, are you grappling with?
Personal life and work balance is always a challenge when you are working on your own company. I think finding a good balance of your time is paramount to your satisfaction and even the amount of meaningful effort you can put into while you are working. You have to find a way to divide your time. A friend once referred to it as ‘starting and ending your day by doing something for yourself’.
What is the most helpful tip or “hack” you’ve ever learned, stumbled across, or been given?
If you are the smartest person in the room, you are either ignorant or in the wrong room. At Fathom, we make a conscious and continual effort to surround ourselves with mentors and advisers that know more than we do. No matter what stage of life you are in, there is someone from whom you could be learning something new.
Is there anything else you would like to share about your company?
If you have ever been interested in what is going on beneath the waves, now is your chance to explore! If you are a boater looking for something new to use on the water or a new tool to inspect your boat, a scuba diver searching for a recon tool, or a fisherman or woman that wants a fish-finder on steroids, check out the Fathom One. Use your smartphone or tablet to get a live video feed from the drone while you control it underwater.
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