Samay Kohli from GreyOrange on making hardware work

From starting a premier robotics college club in India to a $300M+ funded company.

What Samay Kohli from BITS did back in 2010 is remarkable. When startups weren’t cool. There were no Flipkart or Ola stories to inspire. Robotics was uncool too - who would have thought to automate logistics back then?

Sharing the untold story, from starting a robotics club in BITS with grants to making a massive company around it. We cover a conversation with him in a transcript + podcast format.

His story of GreyOrange is authentic, nostalgic, rejections, and about making robots work somehow.

We talked about

  • How starting a robotics club in college was the start of his startup. It’s THE premier robotics club in India.
  • His startup wouldn’t have existed without BITS alums (Silicon Valley chapter). They wired money when the team didn’t even know they wanted to start a company.
  • Building momentum through winning competitions - really moving for them (my interpretation is that for deep-tech it’s even more important because revenue goals are so long in the future).
  • They didn’t intellectualise robotics and “deep-tech”. Made the robot that worked before arriving at an intellectually right solution.

Samay: Students have more first principle thinking obviously. That’s why It's a high risk and high reward. How much of like you know like first principle thinkings versus how much can they learn with a balance like you want to be disruptive but how much can you also learn and all of this will make way more sense once you if you also read this book by a guy called Moore he wrote in 80s (crossing the chasm) for product and marketing. I'm not giving you something like a special hidden book. It's once you figure out things by yourself and then read this book and you will wonder how come you never read about this. It was written 25 years ago and it’s definitely top 10 marketing books all time you know like it's a very it's like it's almost like people have forgotten that how old it is but that's how true it is still because as long as humans are the ones buying it doesn't change right like whatever products, services humans are buying.

Abhishek: What’s the story of AcYut? The robotics club you started in BITS.

Samay: This is going to sound pretty strange now, but Pilani actually used to not take part in any competitions outside. Even in the four years we were there, I think it evolved a lot. AcYut has been a coveted robotics club on campus that release humanoid robots like AcYut 1, 2, 3 and so on. But we started by winning competitions.

We ended up coming first in all BITS competitions. It was a great moment. We were first year and we didn't believe it. So we went to more competitions. We went to IIT Madras, IIT Bombay and kept building competition momentum. These competitions were a rarirty and we felt on Cloud-nine. We had momentum. But grades went obviously down. We had full of Cs & Ds.

After competition spree, we said, either we are born geniuses or there's something really wrong with competition. And I say this, even till today, I don't think we were doing engineering or deep product work. We were doing jugaad. We were putting it together. The most important thing was it would run. That was what I thought was our competitive edge. Most people in engineering get carried away by is this getting intellectual satisfaction. We would practice, practice, practice to make our robot work.

We then went to the biggest competition: Robo Olympics that came up. You have about 30 countries that come about 50 different games competitions. We participated in humanoid kung-fu. We didn't know the h of humanoid.

This is 2007 or so. We needed anywhere between $40,000 - $50,000 to just get started on it. We wouldn't exist if it was not for the BITSAA Silicon Valley chapter.

It's the first time Pilani alumni actually engaged in anything non philanthropic and it was quite controversial for them also, because I know people said, oh, we're just investing behind five people, six people.

Isn't it better we should give this money to the college? But for some people, and two of them were Raju Reddy and Viggy Mokkarala. They gave us money. We also put an airline logo on our robot to get flight tickets.

Abhishek: When you were raising money for this $15,000, at that time, were you talking about starting a company inAnd it was an open competition and there people the future? Or was it pure sponsorship?

Samay: We didn't even think about the story on why we started up. At that time there was no plan to start a company. We wanted to actually go do a job after this. It was for fun. And our alums gave money for fun robotics projects.

In Hindi, I would call ourselves Krantikaris. People said we are spoiling our careers. When we started a club they said we are spoiling careers of other people too.

But at that time, Professor Mittal, of course, was the main person who was supporting us. There was Professor Ravi Prakash, and Sharma, and all three of them are not there. There were blessings and they were believers. Big believers.

And I would say for them also, they turned believers. They're like, we'll go to this competition, we'll do it. They first thought we were just kids and then realised how serious this is becoming.

I call AcYut my first startup. Before we formalised a club we just put posters in messes that we are recruiting for building a robot. 400 / 800 people applied. We took 6. Insane. Getting into AcYut was hardest to get into. We took blind tests, mathematical tests, interviews. It stayed from 2010 to 2020, and intially it was alum sponsorships the corporates then finally government funding us. AcYut lasted and had more longevity than companies.

Now coming to how we thought of making it into a company. You have to know there was no Flipkart, and it was not cool to startup. We didn't want to start up initially. But the biggest thing was we were very homesick.

So we gave two interviews in our hometowns. And they kind of spooked us.

He said it'll actually take 5 years & hardwork to do stuff comparable to what I did with AcYut. Well, we did hardwork, that's never the problem. But having a hierarchy, ceiling, and inability to do real stuff spooked us.

So hard work was never the problem, but just the fact there was almost like the hierarchy driven ceiling of learning. So we started greyorange because we didn't want to get behind in technology and deal with ceiling by hierarchy.

Abhishek: I can sense you always punched above your weight. If it was someone else, they think, hey, we need to learn all the courses in mechanical or electronics before we even start thinking of building something. Maybe get a master's or a PhD. So how did that get into your DNA?

Samay: In 10th class, I chickened out before a presentation and did not do it. Later the teacher told me if I had presented - I would have won. That really hit hard. Because I thought I wasn't good enough. Then in 11th standard there was a robotics competition, and now I didn't shy away. We built a roomba robot. That was my first.

My biggest lesson is once you get punched by something, never externalise it. That usne yeh kiya isiliye yeh hua and just blaming others. You need to acknowledge that you can't change others, the only thing you can change is how you react.

And we built actually, we didn't know roomba existed. We built a vacuum cleaning robot with my school friend built a vacuum cleaning robot in 11th, right? And when I built that in 11th, and we ended up winning India number one, right? And we went to Thailand, but it was a small thing. But at Court School in Delhi and all that fun stuff.

And in college there was actually a senior who pushed me for competitions too - so in the end I punched above weight because someone around believed that. And it would be unfair to credit myself for the success. I am just grateful for that.

This was really great. Thank you so much for making me remember all this. This was so much fun. I really, really appreciate you doing this.

6 Apr, 2023