Last month, Rethink Robotics shuttered its doors. The company that was founded in 2008 and at which I worked for five years was closed.
A pioneer in the new category of collaborative robots, Rethink changed the way companies think about factory automation. As the maker of robots with people-friendly names like Baxter and Sawyer, Rethink’s robots were extraordinarily easy to use, could be used safely side-by-side with people, and were able to economically perform tasks that hadn’t previously been automatable. And with advances in machine learning, collaborative robots were rapidly benefiting from the fusion of physical automation and cognitive automation.
Over just a few short years, I witnessed collaborative robots transition from an intellectual curiosity on behalf of manufacturers to a competitive necessity. I believe today as I did five years ago – collaborative robots will revolutionize the way businesses manufacture products and will change the very nature of work.
All of our best efforts at Rethink, however, did not prevent the final outcome. Various business and technical media captured the news, speculated on what went wrong, and prognosticated about the impact on the future of robots. History will judge Rethink’s achievements and failures. I will not dwell on them here. In the end, we just didn’t get it quite right.
When colleagues, friends, and family heard the news, I received inquiries from around the globe. “I just heard what happened. Are you okay?” In these moments, I too often gravitate to, “Thanks for asking,” “This isn’t what we had hoped for,” and “I’m fine.”
Others offered a more transcendent view, “You guys really changed the world.” I’m not sure we changed the world, but for sure, we did change the face of robotics. The ideas and inventions of the many talented men and women of Rethink Robotics will live on in robots of all shapes and sizes for many years to come. I’m happy to say that many of the people of Rethink have found new gigs and are passionately contributing to new ventures.
Recently I had the opportunity to be back in the former Rethink offices. The walls had been painted for a new tenant. The artwork of local artists that had adorned the walls had been removed. The familiar sounds of robots at work were gone. The experience was surreal.
Standing with a couple of former Rethinkers in an open area we once used for all-company gatherings, I felt a profound sense of loss. Like a punch in the stomach when I wasn’t looking. In the final days of Rethink Robotics, I felt anger, disappointment, and ultimately acceptance. But in this moment, standing side-by-side with my peers in silence, we were grieving what we once had known. A home without a family is just a house. Rethink Robotics without our colleagues is just another office space.
Much has been written about the power of culture. I’ve written a few pieces on the topic myself over the years. “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” Peter Drucker once said. He was right of course.
I have been privileged to work with amazing teams over the years. I have learned so much from so many wonderful people. But Rethink Robotics was truly a special place. With a strong sense of collaboration, people at Rethink were on a mission. Passionate about creating value for our customers, Rethinkers worked through the challenges every entrepreneurial start-up faces with relentless fervor. This living being which was so much more than any of the individuals was gone. I struggle to find the words.
I believe culture is everyone’s responsibility. And the team at Rethink took the responsibility seriously. But the real architect and steward of Rethink’s culture was its co-founder and vice president of people and culture, Ann Whittaker. More than anyone, Ann had a vision of the kind company that she wanted to build; a company that’s kind, where people are engaged in their work and encouraged by their teammates. I’ve heard a lot of definitions of corporate culture in my working career, but I like Ann’s best, “Culture is reflected in how your work and your colleagues make you feel.”
At Rethink, we felt like – together – we were changing the world.
One of my favorite quotations of Dr. Seuss is, “Don’t cry because it is over. Smile because it happened.” I am thankful and grateful to have been a part of Rethink Robotics. I have felt this way once before Rethink Robotics. I hope to feel this way again.
Life Moves On
As the saying goes, “Look for the good in each day. You’ll find it.” The day Rethink closed its doors I shared the news with my children. On the way home from school, my daughter, who gets a $14 allowance each week, asked me to turn off her allowance. Her only source of funds, her allowance she wanted to contribute to our family’s expenses. I found the good in this difficult day.