Dropcam quadruples its workforce but can it continue helicopter rides for new hires?

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on July 12, 2013

From The News Desk

Dropcam CEO Greg Duffy has a special way of welcoming new employees to his startup, which manufactures live-streaming cameras: he takes them for a ride in his helicopter. Duffy is a licensed pilot and he's found that offering new hires an aerial ride around the Bay gives him a chance to get to know his staff outside the structured work environment. Soon though, Duffy's not sure whether he'll be able to keep up the tradition. Dropcam is expanding its workforce, and at the fast clip they intend to do it Duffy would need to spend all day every weekend on his helicopter with new employees.

By the end of 2013, Dropcam, which sells a high-definition Wi-fi camera with remote viewing and two-way sound, aims to almost quadruple its staff from 35 to 100. And by July next year, Duffy hopes to have a team of 120 to 160. The startup raised $12 million in a Series B round led by Menlo Ventures last June (disclosure: Menlo Ventures invests in PandoDaily), and after using funds to produce their HD camera system it is now beefing up their lean staff and honing their technology. It just moved into a huge office space in SF, kitty corner to their old, crowded one. It has that fresh paint, new car smell, and at the moment it's practically empty, awaiting the trickle (flood) of new hires (see picture).

Dropcam started out in the home surveillance camera industry in 2009. The company streams footage onto mobile (and iPad) apps, so that people can monitor their security streams when they aren't home. The footage is stored online, so if a burglar steals the camera itself, users could access the recording is still available. By 2012, Dropcam launched its HD cameras, small user-friendly black balls with night vision. They allowed users to share their live feed publicly if they wanted, and soon learned that customers had more creative ways to use the cheap streaming cameras than just home security.

People set up cameras in the corner of their living rooms so they could watch their kids (or their kittens) while they were at work. They positioned cameras on their balconies so they could enjoy their beautiful view while away and at their businesses so potential customers could check them out online, or at rescue shelters so people can watch the animals playing. They use it for elder-care so that people can keep an eye on older members of the family who aren't in prime physical health. They catch their child's first steps, sit on a tortoise's back, or record bridges collapsing unexpectedly.

From the beginning, Duffy and his co-founder saw themselves not in the hardware business - even though they produced hardware - or in the software business - even though they produced software. He says Dropcam is in the services business, and their goal was always to make video streaming/monitoring as user friendly as possible.

In that vein, the company is investing in improving user experience. It's hiring specialized staff ("the kind of people who have PhDs in Computer Vision"), as well as software engineers, programmers, and people who have worked at video companies in the past (they already hired Doug Chan to run operations, who previously oversaw manufacturing for Flip Video). The company plans to grow software, customer service, and "things that make the product amazing."

That means a few things: creating more versatile accessories to complement their cameras (like tripods, holding cases, ways to give the camera mobility) and learning how to improve their video encoding over poor internet connections ("rigorous computer science type work"). Through the Dropcam network, the company has collected extensive data on the performance of different wireless providers (particularly their streaming abilities), and says it's considering releasing the information publicly to help users make smarter choices about their internet providers. Lastly, Duffy says new employees will be helping current engineers on "things you didn't even know were possible" in the realm of event detection.

It's a bold statement, but he elaborated. Dropcam already allows its users to record their streams, and the software splices the stream into "actionable events." In plain English, whenever there's significant movement, the camera picks that up and flags that section for the user so they don't have to scroll through hours of footage to watch stuff the happened. Duffy says Dropcam is developing algorithms that teaches a machine how to learn what the "important" movement is, so you don't have to watch any clips where there was movement - you only have to watch events that matter. He is staying mum on what exactly that means, aside from the fact that his "computer vision" team is working on the technology.

Dropcam is not the only competitor out there in the versatile, consumer friendly home surveillance field. Stem's IZON is a smaller, more subtle camera that also records to the Cloud, but its picture quality isn't as good according to some reviewers. Netgear's VueZone costs more and doesn't do audio, but it can run on batteries (without the hassle of Dropcam's plug-in cord).

Those who reviewed the Dropcam HD product when it first came out complained about image pixelation. But when I monitored a handful of random feeds (on the Dropcam "featured" page) from regular consumers who have made their streams public, I was impressed with their picture quality – enough so to wonder why more companies weren't using Dropcam to livestream events. Current price points from Dropcam: $150 for streaming only, $248 for streaming and a 1-year package of 7-day DVR service (i.e. throughout the year you'll have access to the most recent seven days of recorded footage).

It's possible Dropcam has recovered from its initial image quality problems that stemmed from bad production in their first Shanghai factory. Either way, for Dropcam to get an edge on other cameras, and tap into the mainstream "livestream whatever you like" market, they'll need an excellent picture quality with the flexibility of long-running batteries (USB battery packs can charge the Dropcam, but they're not 'officially supported' by the company, and run times vary). Dropcam's soon-to-be expanded staff will be able to put their collective minds towards tackling these issues. 

Before now, the core 25 staff members have worked hard and lean, and Duffy's been proud of their accomplishments. But he's looking forward to allowing his experts - ranging on everything from iOS apps to camera firmware - to grow their teams so they can accomplish more. To go from 25 workers to 160 in a little over a year is a daunting task, and Duffy admits he's nervous.

"I'm trying to make sure the structure is in place to grow into a bigger company, without all the problems that come with being a bigger company," Duffy says.

He's spent a lot of time thinking about how to ensure Dropcam's current culture maintains itself as the startup grows. He says that he values work-life balance, clear management, and inclusivity (parents with kids and non-beer drinkers welcome!). Duffy shoves employees out the door at 6 pm, because he wants people to work hard during daylight hours and then go home to their friends and families.

"If you respect people's work-life balance, you'll get more loyalty," Duffy says. "They'll stay longer."

Like many startups he provides breakfast and lunch to staff, but draws the line at dinner. "They have to go home to eat dinner. That gets them out of here," Duffy says.  So far, not a single employee has quit.

The startup recently had its first ever "orientation" with three new hires, inculcating them in the Dropcam ways. Despite the fast expansion plans, Duffy hopes he'll get to meet every new hire and know them by name.

As for the helicopter rides? He's not ready to let go of the tradition that quickly, brainstorming ways to give newbies private lifts around the Bay. He may have to find a helicopter pad closer to the city, and shorten the flights to 30 minutes. Whatever happens, he says he'll keep up the helicopter welcome for at least the next hundred employees.

After that? Well...he's not ready to think quite that far ahead yet.