From the Laundry Room to the Office
An interview with Stefan Landolt on the evolution of his KICKBOX project, thingdust.
For today’s interview, we spoke to Stefan Landolt, founder of thingdust. What started as an idea to solve a problem in his everyday life has since evolved into a B2B solution that made it through all of the KICKBOX phases up to spin out. Read on to find out more about his journey with the KICKBOX program and thingdust!
Hi Stefan, it’s great to speak to you. Your project has come up in quite a few interviews so far. Let’s start by hearing about thingdust in your own words.
thingdust is a system of sensors that companies can use to monitor and analyze their office spaces 24/7. They can then use this data on a day-to-day basis for example, users can check how many workstations are free before heading to the office or find an empty meeting room ad-hoc. These use cases are particularly beneficial in so-called “shared desk” offices, where employees don’t have a fixed cubicle but can sit wherever they like. However, the data is also incredibly useful for optimizing office spaces in the mid and long term. Are certain office solutions being used as much as envisaged? Do employees prefer workstations with one or two monitors? thingsdust allows organizations to bring more structure to these new, very flexible ways of working.
Can you tell us how the idea came about?
When I entered the RedBox phase of the KICKBOX process, I actually had a rather different idea in mind. At the time, I was living in an apartment block where the laundry room was on the top floor. So, I came up with the idea to make a sensor that would send me a notification when my laundry was finished to save trips upstairs, only to find that it was still running. I had other use cases in mind, such as letting me know when I had mail in the/my mailbox or when I had forgotten to close the refrigerator door. As such, the idea was for a multi-functional sensor that could measure several factors – e.g., pressure and air humidity – and send notifications. In fact, thingdust started life as a B2C product.
What brought about the pivot that led to thingdust as it is today? And was it challenging to make the switch?
While moving through the Kickbox journey, I was working in B2B at Swisscom, so I had a lot more contact with B2B partners. I also had two colleagues on my team who were very interested in the project; they quickly got on board and made a prototype. Since they had already worked on a project to analyze meeting room utilization, we started to think more about how this new solution could work in that scenario. Thanks to the validation process and extensive coaching sessions that are part of the KICKBOX methodology, we had also faced certain challenges with the original idea, e.g., network limitations and consumer willingness to pay. And so, we kept moving closer to the B2B solution, and the concept for thingdust as it stands today evolved from that!
Although the original idea had stemmed from a personal pain point, fortunately, I wasn’t too attached to the concept at that time in the process. I was also surrounded by experts from Swisscom (where I work(ed?)) who had a lot of know-how and experience in the area, making me feel more confident in making the switch. We quickly built a proof of concept and realized that this solution would be much easier to scale. Since I was working in B2B already, it wasn’t long before we had a willing customer to test the solution. So, all of these aspects combined resulted in perfect conditions to leave the original idea behind and focus on the new one. And I’d now say that this readiness to let ideas go and make significant changes is an essential part of the innovation process.
The KICKBOX process certainly had a significant impact on your idea! How did the process impact you personally?
One key lesson that I learned from the KICKBOX process was the importance of feedback – whether that’s from the market itself or experts around you. For example, I created a kind of smoke test for thingdust. I made a fake website and ran Google ads to find out if anyone would be interested in a solution like this. This approach also taught me that it’s ok to go ahead even if the idea isn’t 100% matured yet. You can test something that isn’t perfect on a small scale and gain beneficial insights. This experimental mentality gives you much more space to develop rather than always waiting until you think something is complete or perfect before getting off the starting blocks.
thingdust has now been an independent company since 2017. How have things developed since then, and what is your future vision for the product?
Since we first spun out from Swisscom, we’ve grown to a team of six, which means we can now handle most software and hardware aspects in-house. We decided quite early that we didn’t want to work with large-scale external investment, so we all have other jobs alongside thingdust. That was important to us to maintain our independence and secure our income, which is not always easy in a start-up.
Today most of our customers are in the DACH region, and our projects vary in size and duration. Overall, we have approximately 4000 sensors in use at present! Now that we have more experience as a team and our existing product and projects are running smoothly, we’ve been able to focus on coming up with new ideas. We have a new project in the pipeline with an increased focus on sustainability, which is an area we would like to explore further. Otherwise, we want to continue with our current model of combining our work at thingdust with our other jobs. I enjoy being able to work on my passion project while maintaining variety in my working life. For us, this is a sustainable model for the future.