Update – 8:36 p.m.:
Fatdoor recently dropped one of its legal claims against Nextdoor, and the story has been updated to reflect this change.
There are startups, and then there is whatever the heck Fatdoor is.
Raj Abhyanker, Fatdoor’s co-founder and chief executive officer, says his company is a private social network, a mobile app, a drone maker, and a builder of autonomous food delivery robots. Any one of these things could busy a company in and of itself; Silicon Valley has plentiful startups in each category. Fatdoor, though, wants to be the first company to meld them altogether to fulfill Abhyanker’s dream of letting someone order a pizza, fly a drone in formation with other drones, and report crimes in a neighborhood—all from a single smartphone app.
He plans on doing this without any traditional venture capital funding, if need be. “I want to do things that are difficult,” Abhyanker says and then begins quoting from JFK’s “We choose to go to the Moon” speech. Best of all, this really happened.
On Tuesday, Fatdoor unveiled the social network part of its plan for world domination. Its particular brand of social network is almost exactly like that of Nextdoor (for reasons I’ll explain later) and other neighborhood-focused networks. You can look up your name, find your address, and join a network with your neighbors, posting away about friendly plumbers, suspicious looking people, barbeques, and all the other stuff neighbors used to have to talk about in person. Fatdoor is perhaps a bit less creepy than some of its rivals because it hides your address, listing only your street and approximate distance from other people. But it’s still plenty creepy. (And useful.)
Fatdoor’s smartphone app works in conjunction with the neighborhood network. If I’m visiting Palo Alto, for example, and I post a picture of a nice meal at a local restaurant, my photo will go out to people who live in that Palo Alto neighborhood. This lets locals know what people are up to in their neighborhood, and Abhyanker has some adventurous ideas about how this technology could play out. “There might be a street parade going on that people didn’t know about, and now they will learn about it.” Mmm, all right. “Or, suppose, you see a gunman in East Palo Alto. Now you can shoot a video of him, and people will be notified, and they can be the first responders. You get people out of their offices and out of their homes to an event.” That sounds to me like a bad idea on a number of levels, but you can see where he’s going.
Away from the social network is where Fatdoor really hits its stride. The company is oddly made up of a number of robotics and aeronautics experts. One co-founder is Manuel Lopez, who is getting his doctorate in aeronautics and astronautics engineering from Stanford. A second is Jeff Ko, who did robotics work for Mercedes (DAI:GR). Yet another is Jack Tsai, who built an autonomous aircraft while studying at Stanford.
This group of engineers have built the Skyteboard, a type of quadcopter drone, although Abhyanker would prefer you not call it that. “This is not a drone,” he said. “The word ‘drone’ has an inhuman feeling to it. It’s this mindless, numb thing that kills you. This is an aerial vehicle that lets people interact with each other in the neighborhood.”
The Skyteboard looks very cool. It was shaped in conjunction with the high-end design consultancy Ideo and can fold up until it resembles a skateboard for easy transport. Fatdoor plans to launch a Kickstarter campaign this week to fund production of the drone, which it sees it as a valuable piece of its neighborhood offerings. Through the Fatdoor app, people will be able to coordinate their Skyteboards to film their kids’ soccer games from a variety of angles. “You can also fly a banner through the sky to announce a party,” Abhyanker said. “And you can deliver a cupcake through the sky to a neighbor.” This seems like a real opportunity for the best baker in the ‘hood to let everyone know who’s boss.
Fatdoor plans to begin selling the Skyteboard within the year.
The company has also built the Fatdoor Rover. This thing is about four feet high and has a file cabinet-looking top and a four-wheeled base. It’s basically an autonomous vehicle designed to go to restaurants and pick up food and then take the food to nearby houses. People will order the food from their Fatdoor app, and the company plans to build software that will coordinate the arrival of the bots and ways for restaurants and customers to open the delivery drawers. “When the rover gets out front of the restaurant, it will send a message to come load it,” Abhyanker said. “Then you get a code to unlock it, put in the food, and send it on its way.” I saw a beta version of the bot; it, too, looks cool and seems to work.
A magnificent madness lies behind the Fatdoor vision. You don’t even have to squint that hard to see all this stuff coming together. The company appears to have the technical chops to pull off much of this. Its website is very slick, and so are its smartphone app and hardware.
What’s tricky is that the company is attempting to accomplish an awful lot without yet having received any formal funding. Nor is Abhyanker the most favored person in the venture capital community. “I’m looking for someone willing to give me a chance,” he said.
Abhyanker tried years ago to start a neighborhood social network just like Fatdoor. In fact, it was called Fatdoor. It failed.
Abhyanker has had alleged that Nextdoor was originally a name he came up with and that people conspired against him to take it and his ideas. His lawsuit against Nextdoor.com and Benchmark Capital, a venture capital firm, was set to go to trial later this year, although Abhyanker recently dropped the trade secret and trademark case. He still intends to pursue a patent lawsuit. “Nextdoor has always stated that all of Raj’s claims against Nextdoor are completely without merit,” said a Nextdoor spokeswoman.
Abhyanker , an attorney, was “terminated” from the original Fatdoor by its board and investors. The company then changed its name and direction. Abhyanker went on to create a search engine for trademarks called Trademarkia, a law firm (LegalForce RAPC Worldwide), and a video production and animation company (Spiral Moon Media). He’s a busy dude and a vigorous salesman.
The revived Fatdoor is Abhyanker’s attempt to get revenge on Nextdoor by cloning its neighborhood social network and then taking it to the next logical—or perhaps illogical—place. “After I got through the depression and anger, I decided to build something better,” he said. “Robotics don’t usually speak to aerospace, and aerospace doesn’t speak to Web, and Web doesn’t speak to mobile. Well, O.K., they speak. And mobile doesn’t speak to patent attorneys. Their intersection is where it’s at.”