An interview with Gideon Richheimer CEO and co-founder of deep tech start-up AutoFill Technologies
How does a startup convince high-profile business leaders to join its board? - this is a question Gideon Richheimer is probably used to hearing after his company secured a number of high-profile business leaders on its board at such an early stage.
AutoFill, founded in 2019, is a deep tech meets hard tech company revolutionising object inspections with an initial focus on the automotive and rail industries. In its short time in business, they have secured huge names on its board, including former Microsoft COO Rick Belluzzo, Ayumi Moore Aoki, Forbes Council member and founder and CEO of Women in Tech, and were most recently backed with over €2.6 million of pre-Series funding.
Former Microsoft COO Rick Belluzzo is known for being selective with the boards he sits on and receives countless offers on a regular basis. So too does Ayumi Moore Aoki, Forbes Council member, founder and CEO of the Global NGO Women in Tech.
So the fact that Gideon has the expertise of someone like Belluzzo on his Advisory Council demonstrates the growth potential of AutoFill.This is particularly impressive given that AutoFill is an early-stage start-up building the name recognition and reputation that more established start-ups have more of, let alone that of giant household names.
After successfully persuading and securing the services of Belluzzo, Richheimer landed other big names to the AutoFill Advisory Council including former CEO of Audi, Bram Schot, Ayumi Moore Aoki, founder and CEO of the Global NGO Women in Tech, and Harm De Vries Co-founder, and general partner at Innovation Industries.
Talking about joining the board, Bram Schot says: “I joined AutoFill’s board of advisors earlier this year because I was so impressed by the experience of the leadership team and the credibility of its solution. My subsequent investment in its future is a testament to that continued confidence, and I look forward to witnessing the results first-hand.”
We caught up with Gideon to discuss his story, and find out more about how he secured such high-profile business leaders on his board - offering his best advice, tips and tricks on how you can do this too.
Firstly, what made you come to the decision that you wanted, and were ready to have high-profile business leaders on your board? And how can other businesses looking to do the same know when it’s the right time to do so?
“This is a great question and it’s something that we actually really cautiously thought about, thinking how to do it, why we wanted to, and when was the best time, and it was really twofold for us. One, we’re solving a big problem and we really wanted to bring in people who’ve been there before, and out of experience have dealt not only on the problem-solving side of things but also on the corporate adoption side - we could really get both angles from that perspective.
“Two, because our solution is really tailor-made for large organisations, the problem compounds - the more locations, the larger your fleet, for instance. So that’s why we really wanted to bring people in that understand more than just the sales cycle at those types of organisations - a lot of times decisions are not made just because you are the best or most interesting product, there’s the right time and the wrong time. I’d say those are the foundations of how we started out.”
Being a startup company, it can be hard to create credibility and trust from clients and customers in the beginning stages, never mind investors or potential board members.
So, how did you ultimately secure such high-profile business leaders to join your board so early on? And what was that process like?
“You need to prove what you’re doing works. In our case, it was from a technical perspective, so proving that our product and service actually worked. It’s not just about having a good story and nice presentations. It’s actually about having something that really does solve a problem.
“We were also able to show our conversion rate, which out of the organisations that visit us, an upper of 90% convert into customers - which is quite rare. So that’s really where it started. We started out with an original idea, looked at a problem, and showed that we have a unique solution. No matter how good your product may or may not be, if you cannot be what we like to call seamlessly integrated into existing operational processes, then you won’t be successful - it’s as simple as that.
“As I said, no matter how good the product is, if you can’t prove it works and is needed, you’re giving too many reasons for a company to say no to you.
“Our advisors have really become personal mentors to me, they helped me, not necessarily cultivate the story, but cultivate the thinking of where we are now, where we need to be, and what to be cautious of. It’s great to get this feedback continuously.”
Were there any significant hurdles you came across in the process, and how did you overcome them?
“People that have vast experience and recognition are also very confident of themselves, and if you put a couple of people like that in a room, then it can sometimes create, let’s call it a very energetic discussion. Because all of them have earned their stripes from different fields.
“Fortunately in the group that we have put together there are no egos - but they are definitely confident in what they do and what we do. There’s a big difference between ego and confidence, and ensuring you get that right on your board is important.
“Another piece of advice I would give, from experience is if you cannot deal with rejection, you’re in the wrong space because you will get rejected a lot. Whether it be from sales opportunities, or you may come up with a great idea that advisors say is stupid, or investors won’t like it, or whatever that case may be. So I think that’s something that you really have to realise early on - all of the companies that go sky-high all of a sudden are very, very rare and what we call edge cases, so don’t be defeated after the first rejection.
“Whenever we hear a no for whatever reason it may be, we look to understand why and that helps you become better for the next time. And you probably will still get another 15 nos, but that’s okay.
“If you have any type of motion sickness this is not the right space for you because it is a completely crazy rollercoaster ride.”
Now you have a number of high-profile business people on your board, it would be interesting to know how this has benefited your business, and what part do they play in the success or the decisions you make?
“We’ve asked our advisors to join us based on the fact that everyone has their own field of expertise, and there is some overlap in skills sometimes, because of course they’ve all been so successful. But, for example, Mr Belluzzo, who is the former chief operating officer of Microsoft knows extremely well how to sell software and how to remain focused on building software that sells - and those are two different things.
“You have to make sure that your team is brought into that idea of remaining focused on not just building a great product, but building everything else around it, because what is a great product? It truly depends on who you’re asking. So it’s important to keep those lines very, very clear.
“Mr Belluzzo has helped us do that, and has been instrumental in helping us with our sales strategy, helping us identify, how do we price the product? And how do you actually start testing and validating that into the market? So he continues to be a really good voice of reason from that perspective.
“Then if we look at Ayumi Moore Aoki, she is extremely skilled in understanding how a product can become a story. So that’s something that I leant on her for a lot - but also she helped with increasing the diversification of our company - and that shouldn’t be a marketing effort, it should be a cultural effort.”
You mentioned the importance of having a story alongside your product. So for someone who is going out for investment, or pitching to potential board members, how important is it for them to get their story across?
“I think the story is everything, specifically the story of the vision. So, sometimes if you are in the very early stages, you may not have the story, yet, but you will have an idea and a vision - and your advisors can then help you create the story and make sure that the story is something which is actually relevant. So I think that that is absolutely key.
“I think also for investors, it depends on if you are an early-stage company or a young company, then the reason why they invest in you is that they believe in the story. They believe in the opportunity, which is part of the story, and they believe in your ability to execute that story.
“The moment you are further along as a company and you are actually making revenue, investors will look at it a little bit differently. The story is still important, but the story’s already been proven because there’s a lot of revenue. So, now it’s key to show you can grow that revenue to the next levels. So it’s all dependent on what phase you’re at when talking to investors.”
So, how did you initially get in contact with the high calibre of advisors that you have, was that through your personal network, or was it through another process? - so that others looking to do the same can do the same.
“Basically it all went through my own network and that doesn’t mean I just called someone and made the introduction, and sold my idea to them - because I know they get approached so much. So it took a lot of cultivation and making sure that the timing was right, the questions to them were right, and that they were actually the right fit.
“So, for instance, I met Mr Belluzzo years ago through a contact in London. We had a few initial conversations with him, and it immediately clicked. He opened the door to us and said he liked the idea we had and that if we ever needed anything, he was open to it. Some people just say that but he’s one of those kind people who actually meant it, and he has always made time for us.
“Similarly with Bram Schot, I met him through his personal trainer. As a personal contact, he had to be very careful with offering introductions, because understandably it is something you don’t want to abuse, but he felt comfortable making the introduction because he believed it would be beneficial and knew we would click.
“It all depends on the situation, but when I see companies that have lists and lists of advisors, it creates a little bit of doubt in my mind - because I believe it’s about the quality and the diversification, not the quantity.”
Lastly, if you had one piece of advice to give to other startups looking to add high-profile people to their boards what would it be?
“The main advice I would give would be to stay calm and always be transparent. Don’t create a story for the sake of creating a story, be transparent about your journey, and any hurdles you’ve overcome. Asking for help isn’t a bad thing, so be open about that.
“In regards to getting advisors, I would say the biggest advice is don’t go logo hunting or name hunting because they will understand that and see right through that. So, when you add someone or look for people to bring on board, make sure your business is relevant to them, and they’re relevant to you. Relevance could be based on their experience or interests, or something that they can help you with passionately.
“If I look at one of our advisors, Bram Schot, the former chairman of Audi - he is insanely busy and is on other supervisory boards like Shell, which is a very different type and size business than we are. But he still will make time for us because what we do is close to his heart and he believes in what we’re doing - and that is what you need on your board. Transparency and relevance are the keys.”