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Meet an InOrbiter – Chris Yao

By Team InOrbit

At InOrbit, most of our time is spent thinking about robots and how to make them perform better. But part of that vision includes robots and humans working together – without the human factor, robots are just a collection of metal and plastic parts. Here is another in a series of posts highlighting some of the outstanding humans on the InOrbit team, also known as InOrbiters. The posts aim to share details on some members of the team, what drove them to work here, and what they find most interesting about robotics and the development of the InOrbit platform.

Today we sat down with Christopher Yao. Chris is a Sales Development Representative at InOrbit and works closely with sales, marketing, and the customer success teams. He lives in Mountain View, California, and has been with InOrbit for just over two years.

Let’s start with how you got into robotics in the first place.

Sure. I’d been in the restaurant industry for a long time, as both owner/operator of my own boba shop and as a consultant for other boba and coffee shops in San Jose. I learned that one of the biggest costs in this segment is labor, usually around 30-40% for many independent businesses. So I was always looking into ways to maximize labor efficiency while also making sure my employees were happy and taken care of. I always agreed with the adage “if your staff is happy, your customers will be happy”. I wanted decently paid and skilled employees that would be around for long periods of time, not lots of untrained workers that we’re likely to leave. This is what led me to automation. I thought it was something that could really help me.

So I started to look into how I could automate some of my restaurant processes and mentioned it to a friend, InOrbit CEO Florian Pestoni. Cut to several years later as I was exiting the foodservice industry, Florian knew how interested I was in integrating robotics into real-world applications, and eventually, that led to me joining forces permanently with InOrbit.

What does your day-to-day look like at InOrbit? Paint a picture of how marketing, sales, and customer success fit together for you.

My days are pretty busy. On the sales and marketing side, I chat with the team to help map out strategy. At a start-up, there's a lot of fine-tuning to reach your potential customers. Since InOrbit and RobOps are useful for different kinds of automation we’ve taken different approaches when talking with customers, for example in AgTech versus customers in Logistics. I also spend a lot of time hunting down information about companies to help tailor our messaging. It really helps to know who we’re talking with when it comes to explaining the value of InOrbit.

Map out the lifecycle of an idea at InOrbit.

There’s no lack of ideas here, if anything we have trouble actioning on all of our ideas and intentions just from a bandwidth perspective. Whether it comes from me, or someone else I’m one of the people who help move our plans through the pipeline. I’m often in the middle of ideas, and customer discussions. So I really help move the strategy or idea along but am not always the one to finalize or bring it to market. I still feel very clearly like my input is valued and my voice is heard. I’m a part of a strong collaborative process and really help direct the flow of ideas and conversations.

Why do you think so much of our work revolves around education and nurturing our customer relationships?

There are a few things to note with that. On the product side, our platform is so broadly applicable that when we talk with potential customers, especially robot manufacturers, there are a lot of discussions that have to happen for us to understand where they are in their development lifecycle. We have amazing features but depending on where they are with their robot projects they may only need one small part of what we can offer, or maybe they won’t need anything for another 6 months. Part of our strategy has to be around education about what InOrbit can do, with an understanding that it may not be relevant to them immediately. 

You said you do a lot of research, hunting down information about companies we’re engaging with, but how can you know where a company is at with their internal robot development? 

It's true, it can be difficult to find all of the details and understand where a company is struggling without talking with them. Some of the preliminary work we do has to be nebulous. But we also have seen the same development challenges face our customers again and again. Truly effective robot operations are critical to any robot project being deployed and even more so as those projects scale. We know what we can offer is valuable, it's just sometimes not immediately apparent to potential customers. 

In practice, I read press releases, talk with people, sometimes comb through LinkedIn, look at job boards, and use educated guesswork to understand where a potential customer might be at in their dev cycle, but once we have that first sit down we can really understand their needs. 

When you manage that direct outreach how do you balance the necessary marketing messaging with authenticity? And ensure we’re not spamming anyone.

Everyone in sales and marketing will tell you that is a real challenge sometimes. There’s a lot of nuance to communications. Understanding the roles people play is vital. We always try to be considerate and clear, understanding that people are busy. Even if we can help them, they have to want our help.

What are the common pain points and perspectives you hear from InOrbit customers?

So this is interesting. From our perspective, one of the biggest problems people face trying to integrate robots into their business is scaling. At some point, home-grown solutions for fleet management, data collection, data analysis, security, and more just don’t track when projects grow and disperse. From our customer side, however, most are exploring our capabilities and trying to understand our value proposition when they may only have two working robots barely out of a prototype stage, or one small pilot project with an end-user. It's our job to educate our customers on how to prepare for their future and free them up to work on developing whatever it is that makes them unique. The selling point for their robots will be what only they can bring to the table, robot operations are just expected to work. With InOrbit they are assured that they will. 

You’ve been with InOrbit for over 2 years now. How has the company changed in that time?

InOrbit has changed immensely. Even visually our website, our product, everything is so much more functional and visually appealing thanks to people like Ryu. Our company has grown, doubling in size at least. And our customer base is much larger. We’ve really matured quite a bit in the last two years, even though we’re still a start-up.

The space is quickly evolving, and we’re positioned well. We’ve really been exploring RobOps as a category, especially when talking with non-manufacturing partners, but the end-users. Clearly defining and helping companies understand the message that RobOps is truly critical is a priority for us now.

You’re looking at so many companies, across the entire robotics space, how has the robotics field evolved over the last few years?

Everything is actually still pretty nascent. We’re still super early on most fronts. It’s interesting to me, to see Walmart switching back from some robots to humans during the pandemic. The biggest challenge is still the capital investment it takes to move into robotics in a big way. Robot orchestration at scale is still difficult. That's of course why InOrbit is here. Changes are happening incrementally, but until the challenges of scale are overcome it just might not be worth it for companies to move fully into robots at a large scale.

I think the next logical area, aside from the e-commerce space and warehouse deployments, that will see major robot growth is in retail. And hopefully, the added interaction with the general public will show the true value automation can bring. I’m really interested to see how it evolves.

You have a background in foodservice as a restauranteur, how do you see that field changing with the integration of automation?

I think there’s this dystopian view that restaurants will replace their entire labor force with robots and guests will never interact with humans again, but I reject that concept. When I was trying to implement automation into my restaurant, my goal was to avoid having 10 employees who made minimum wage and didn’t enjoy their job. Instead, I would rather have 2 employees who make a good salary and love their jobs working alongside robots. 

If automation can help people avoid really tedious, and dirty tasks that will be helpful. No one really wants to scrub the floor. But at least for now I still want a human to make my food. So automation is coming but more deliberately. 

(* editorial note - if you want to dig deeper into automation for Foodservices please join us for our upcoming free webinar on Feb 2, 2022.) 

Thanks to Chris for taking the time to chat. It’s great to get some insights into the InOrbit mindset. Connect with Chris, and the InOrbit team right here.

InOrbit is always looking for new InOrbiters. If you’d like to join our team, check out the latest job openings at InOrbit.

* Please note, this interview has been edited for length and clarity.