Ex-Google Robotics Team Creates a WeWork That’s Not ‘Too Cool’
Randy Stowell used to control huge, hulking robots. His startup Bot & Dolly rigged 7-foot-tall industrial machines with swiveling arms and cameras to film commercials and movies. The robots helped make Sandra Bullock appear to float in space in the film Gravity. In 2013, Google bought Bot & Dolly and another startup Stowell co-founded as part of a robotics shopping spree, an effort that has since begun to fizzle. Since then, Stowell and about a half-dozen colleagues have left to try their hand at something a bit less futuristic: co-working spaces with in-house meditation and a bevy of snack options, including chia pudding and beet dip.
Their startup Mod, which Randy runs with his brother Brian Stowell, has been quietly testing an office of the near-future in Phoenix. It plans to open a second location in San Francisco on Monday. The company hopes to elbow its way into the much-hyped co-working industry, dominated by the $16 billion startup WeWork Cos., by catering to a professional who wants the finer touches in a shared office space: design-forward furniture, daily guided meditation, curated healthful nibbles, and on-site concierge services.
The new space in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood is a warehouse full of snake plants, unvarnished wood furniture, and soft lighting. Mod staff are held to a high standard. “If someone didn’t offer you something right when you walked in the door, we have to fire that person,” Randy said after greeting a reporter. In fact, I’d been handed a snack before even putting down my coat: an oat-and-cacao ball and a lemon-ginger-turmeric juice, which was designed by Mod’s in-house food team to mimic the exact shade of yellow in the company logo. No one was fired.
Before becoming a snack taskmaster, Randy helped start what became a major force in robotics. He co-founded design and robotics business Autofuss in 2008 with Jeff Linnell, and they formed a sister company, Bot & Dolly, two years later. The startups made an impression on Google after they worked together on advertising campaigns for Nexus phones. Google acquired both startups, herding them along with a half-dozen or so other robotics companies the search giant purchased around the same time. Android co-founder Andy Rubin assembled them into a robotics division known within the company as Replicant, named for the terrifyingly humanlike robots in Blade Runner.
Randy and the Autofuss team, who know robots but also have storytelling chops, were tasked at Google with shaping the robotics division’s story, both internally and for the public. For starters, they tried to come up with a less foreboding name than Replicant. But it soon became clear that the division didn’t yet have a story to tell, Randy said. Google’s robot army hasn’t quite fallen into lockstep, especially since Rubin left in 2014. Bloomberg reported last month that Google has been in talks to sell Boston Dynamics, its marquee robotics acquisition. Google declined to comment. “It’s hard for any company to take eight or nine companies and make them work toward a single focus,” Randy said.
So he and some of the other design-focused colleagues from Autofuss transferred to Google’s retail division, where they were tasked with imagining the future of shopping. The company was interested in “moonshot” concepts of a Google store, which could track each customer’s location inside a space or incorporate robots into the buying experience. The team hacked together retail concepts inside a Mountain View, Calif., warehouse. They also helped design pop-up installations, including Google’s 2014 Winter Wonderlab, where holiday shoppers could step inside a tent near New York City’s Bryant Park skating rink to find a huge snow globe surrounded by Nexus tablets and Chromecast sticks. “If Google were a space, what would it feel like?” Randy said. “That’s the question, philosophically, we were wrestling with.”
Meanwhile, Randy’s older brother Brian was building a space of his own. He’d slowly moved away from his law practice toward real estate development and found that as he moved around among properties, he kept wishing he had an office that moved with him. He found an affordable spot in Phoenix to experiment with what would become Mod’s first co-working space. In August, Brian persuaded his brother to join him as chief experience officer, and over the next few months, other Google robotics employees followed suit.
Brian, who is Mod’s 53-year-old chief executive officer, felt that the current shared-office options, especially WeWork, lacked something for midcareer professionals. Randy, 48, agreed. “It wasn’t for me, culturally,” Randy said. He said the crowd is young and tech-heavy, and the space is cluttered. Brian said there’s “a vast, underserved market” of his peers, who “wouldn’t go to WeWork because it might be perceived to be too hip and too cool, who think it’s for coders or the entrepreneur solo person.” WeWork declined to comment.
Randy compares Mod with Neuehouse, a hand-picked co-working community that targets creative professionals who want to work in a few chic shared spaces for up to $1,500 a month. Mod is asking $9 per hour, $45 per day, or $395 per month. A desk at a WeWork starts at $325 a month.
Mod wants to be more than a place to work. Everything in the office—whether it’s a bookshelf, backpack, or chair—is for sale. This makes it both a work space and a street-level store. The team has designed its own software that can handle check-ins, food requests, retail purchases, and analytics.
The operation has been funded by investments from friends and family so far, though Mod declines to say how much. The company hopes to raise more to pay for future leases. It’s still small, but they’re convinced there’s a place outside the shadow of WeWork. “There has not been an environment yet that’s meant for the professional,” Randy said. “I want to walk into a space and have someone take care of me.”
(A previous version corrected when the Mod team left Google in the first paragraph and the neighborhood where the San Francisco space is located in the third paragraph.)
—With Jack Clark