How BB-8—A Rolling Robot in a Galaxy Far, Far Away—Changed Everything for Sphero
Adam Wilson almost didn’t go to LA. Before he was responsible for building the BB-8 toy to accompany Star Wars: The Force Awakens, before his life and company changed forever, Wilson and his team almost declined a chance to be part of a TechStars startup incubator in the fall of 2014. They’d done TechStars before, four years earlier in Boulder, Colorado—that’s really where Wilson and co-founder Ian Bernstein launched their company, then called Orbotix—and didn’t think they needed to do it again. Doing TechStars meant surrendering more equity in the company (now called Sphero), and spending months away from an already successful business. “We were on the fence,” Wilson says, “all the way up until the day of.” But because they couldn’t convince themselves to say no, they finally said yes.
It was the incubator’s partnership with Disney that sold them. They’d been making their most popular product, a sweet little robot ball also named Sphero, for about four years. It had this cute little ghost face (almost like Shy Guy from the Mario universe), which people liked, but they knew it needed more personality. “We almost wanted to get you to call your Sphero a name,” Wilson says, “and feel bad if you lose it. We were like, man, we’re so good at making technology, but we’re not the best story writers in the world.”
The goal was to get in a room with someone who could help shape, and tell, the ball-bot’s story. “Imagine, just imagine,” they told each other, “if we could have somebody who maybe wrote the story for Wall-E or something, come and look at our story … and give us hints. ‘Oh, what would make it incredible is this.‘”
That’s exactly what Sphero got during the 90-day program. “Five times over,” Wilson says. They also got a deal to build the toy of the year, this decade’s must-have Star Wars collectible. Most of all, they got a window into the story-first thinking that makes Disney so powerful—and a chance to learn how to apply it to their own adorable robots. BB-8 is the biggest thing to ever happen to Sphero, but it’s only the beginning.
The High Council
Fast-forward to a few weeks after Sphero said yes to TechStars. Everyone’s in the throes of the incubator, sitting in endless meetings, constantly rehearsing and rewriting the pitch. Wilson and Co. are about to meet with Disney CEO Bob Iger. Each TechStars team got 15 minutes with Iger, and the Orbotix crew didn’t expect much. They’d loved all their meetings, learned a lot about how Disney works and thinks, and expected the same here.
They show Iger two products: the eponymous Sphero, and Ollie, the rubberized, cylindrical all-terrain take on the same idea. As soon as they finish, Iger pulls out his phone and opens his photos app. As it happens, he’d been on the ultra-secret set of the new Star Wars movie a few days before, and Sphero had reminded him of something.
He swipes past pictures of director JJ Abrams (there may have been a selfie in there), and points to a shot of a little robot ball in the desert. “He’s like, ‘Look at this!’” Wilson says. “‘How awesome would it be if you made your product into a toy of this?’”
Now, when the CEO of Disney asks you if you’ll make a Star Wars toy, you say yes. The Sphero team left the room and went immediately to work. Twenty minutes later, they had a design for a crude BB-8—a Sphero with a head. That night, after the place cleared out and they could work without spilling their big secret, they made one with a 3-D printer. And damned if it didn’t work. They shot a quick and dirty video and sent it to Iger.
Iger’s people were nervous. “This is Bob Iger!” Wilson recalls them saying. “The only thing he’s used to seeing are these huge productions by Marvel. And you want to show this to him?” Yes, Wilson said. Show it to him. Iger saw it and went nuts. A few meetings and emails later, Disney made Orbotix an official Lucasfilm licensee and steward of the BB-8 toy. Then it dropped the hammer: Orbotix had 10 months to get BB-8 onto store shelves. Force Friday was September 4, 2015. It had to be ready, or there would be a great disturbance in the Force.
Still, it wasn’t going to be hard. Well, not too hard. Oh sure, they had to figure out the design, improve the Bluetooth, integrate the magnetic head, and make sure it rolled so smoothly even Lucasfilm would love it. But they’d been working on this same thing for four years. At one point, they’d even given Sphero hair, mostly as a joke. “[Bernstein] made a little magnet with some hair on the Sphero,” Wilson says, “that is the exact magnet setup that we have now.” Looking back, he feels a bit dumb that no one ever thought to give Sphero a head.
This Is the Droid You’re Looking For
Sphero didn’t really need Star Wars. Yes, of course, it changed everything—the scale of Sphero’s business changed the moment it signed the Disney deal. Wilson told Bloomberg that a month of BB-8 sales nearly matched all of the company’s sales from 2014, and the company sold more than 2,000 of the adorable droids—at $150 a pop–every hour on Force Friday. The company can’t make them fast enough. “The retailers are pissed at us,” Wilson says.
Still, he’d like you to know the company was doing just fine before BB-8, thank you very much. People like Sphero and Ollie, and everyone at Sphero had been thinking about the next product, which Wilson declines to describe beyond saying “it’s a home robot…it’s a smarter robot. It’s the next version of what we’d do anyway.” They’d even closed another round of investing. Saying “We’re building BB-8” goes over well with investors. “They were like, ‘holy crap!’” Wilson says. “You get to close the round and then build that. And that will obviously build enough revenue and profit to build whatever the other product was.”
Sphero’s more than doubled in size in the last year or so, to about 100 people. It’s learning to operate at an entirely new scale. “Sphero was not at that level yet of ordering millions of parts,” Wilson says. “That was more money than we’d ever seen, just to order the parts.” When they started Orbotix, Wilson walked through their Chinese factory—they shared it with Furby, or something like that, he can’t remember now—and said, One day we’ll have this whole thing. “But it was like, nah. I don’t know about that. It was huge! Like a thousand people worked in there.” Now he looks at the factory floor and it’s BB-8 all the way down.
Going forward, Sphero can work on more than one product at a time, and to start to really think about its future. “Before,” Wilson says, “we were almost in startup mode forever. Make something, sell it. Make it better, sell more.” Now, with Star Wars and BB-8 on their side, and all the design, refinement, and production work mostly set, they get to breathe for a minute. “We’re in development of other things, and research of other things, and actually have a full visioned-out plan for the next five to seven years.”
They’re proud of the work they did on BB-8, especially under the circumstances: 10 months to do it, and facing the Walt Disney Secrecy Machine every step of the way. “At the very beginning,” Wilson says, “before we had everything good to go, they wouldn’t send us our own pictures of it.” They had to sit in the room and sketch their own versions. “We were like, well, does it have a hologram thing like R2-D2? At some point, they didn’t even know. It took like three days, because they had to ask for permission to have somebody else come and tell us if it had a hologram.”
The little toy is loaded with personality. It bleeps and bloops as it moves, its little eyes always swiveling (sometimes comically so) to face you. You can send it on missions and play games. It rolls perfectly smoothly, too—banishing the jerks and jitters took a lot of work, and followed a lot of back-and-forth with Lucasfilm. “Lucas is also one of the strictest licensees that you can have,” Wilson says. “They’re super strict—it has to be just right.”
The companion app is where Sphero tells a lot of BB-8’s story—and how it can keep it fresh for buyers even years from now. “You look at BB-8 through the phone,” Wilson explains, “the camera picks up the BB-8, and displays little holograms it’s portraying outside of itself. We’re able to really easily update all that content, and Disney’s been really cool about letting us give story teasers every time something comes out.” They’re building games for BB-8, all sorts of ways for you to tap into its character and the Star Wars galaxy.
Whatever’s next—that home robot, maybe—will be even more ambitious. “We’re not proud enough if it’s somebody else’s character,” Wilson says. “We’ve gotten this, and now we want to make our own.” Everything about BB-8 was up to someone else. Disney and Lucasfilm told Sphero what it does, how it sounds, what its story was. Everything started there—the technology came next. They loved the story, but Sphero wanted to go further. The BB-8 story, he says, “limits some of our ability to get as crazy as we think you could with getting attached to a robot.”
He’s come to appreciate that story, though, and those constraints. Even given everything at TechStars, Wilson still seems most struck by something Jay Rasulo, Disney’s CFO at the time, told him the day after the Iger meeting. “He was just like, ‘I talked to Bob about this Star Wars thing, and what you guys are doing is going to change the planet. The new storytelling is robotics. It’s not just a TV. It’s a thing that comes alive.’”
That’s exactly what Wilson always wanted for Sphero. Now he knows the path forward doesn’t start with engineering. Before, he says, “we started with technology instead of a story. That’s the opposite of Disney. They start with a story, and then whatever you have to do to make a story come alive, you do that.” Sphero is molding itself in that image, changing product plans to make it easier for designers and artists to play. Now artists control the physical movement and characteristics of the ball-bots, not the engineers. And they’re taking the time to get stories right before they ever build a thing. “You have to have a sense of urgency,” he says, “but you have to have a sense of, let’s build the right thing, and then let’s build it right.”
That’s the Disney magic. It’s how we got C-3P0 and R2-D2, and it’s why tiny BB-8s are rolling into households the world over, each with a tiny Sphero logo just behind its head.