Jeremy O’Sullivan and Melissa Nelson are two entrepreneurs in Southern Virginia. Nelson is a self proclaimed (well actually co-founder proclaimed) frozen yogurt fanatic. O’Sullivan is a CPA by trade but decided to jump out of the corporate world and into the startup world when the two of them launched FroBot.
Nowadays there’s a vending machine for everything. If you venture over to Asia there’s a wider variety of vending machines than even here in the states. But go to any major city in the U.S. and most airports and you’ll find a Best Buy in a machine, an Ice Cream machine, crazy new soda machines and even the Dippin Dots machine.
Nelson and O’Sullivan have created a new kind of vending machine called FroBot. FroBot is the smallest single unit frozen yogurt retailer and is as simple (or perhaps simpler) to use than even RedBox.
What about the quality of frozen yogurt in a machine?
Nelson tells nibletz.com: After extensive research we’ve found the best frozen yogurt comes from… freezing real organic yogurt, flavored with organic ingredients…not that cheap frozen chemical water junk that too many shops are serving. We’ll never serve a product that has ingredients using 10+ syllable words only a chemist understands.
Check out the rest of our interview with FroBot below
What is frobot?
frobot is the redbox of frozen yogurt. It’s the smallest frozen yogurt shop on the planet
In layman’s terms, how does it work? (In other words how would you explain it to your grandmother)
It’s an entire frozen yogurt store experience inside a vending machine. Like an ATM, frobot guides the customer through 3 easy steps:
1) Place a cup down on the serving area
2) Select your size and flavor from the touchscreen.
3) Swipe your card and out comes a completely customized frozen yogurt treat in 15 seconds.
Who are the founders and what are their backgrounds?
We’re all young professionals who were dissatisfied with the lack of innovation and “same old” vending products in the market. So we decided to create something that we would actually want to use every day.
Jeremy O’Sullivan, Chief Executive Officer, holds a bachelor’s degree in economics from Bucknell University and is a Certified Public Accountant. Jeremy was working as a big 4 accounting firm when he decided to lead frobot.
Melissa Nelson, Chief Development Officer, is a frozen yogurt fanatic. She received a bachelor’s degree with honors in accounting from Bucknell University. After college, Melissa spent two years as an auditor for Deloitte & Touche. She is currently pursuing her JD at the University of Maryland School of Law.
We have also had two strong supporters from the very beginning, Matt Perry and Ben Etherton.
Matt Perry has been friends with Jeremy since their days at Fork Union Military Academy.
He received a bachelor’s degree in management from Georgia Tech and currently resides in Arizona and works as an account executive at Yelp. Ben Etherton is a graduate of Salisbury University, and the founder of Out Dare Adventures.
Where are you based?
We’re based in Southern Virginia.
What’s the startup scene/culture like where you’re based
This place isn’t Silicon Valley, but there is unmatched industrial talent: a great community of passionate craftsman who love to build new things. There was also tremendous excitement about our product in the local community. Everyone who uses frobot always has the same reaction: “OMG. I would use this every day.”
How did you come up with the idea for frobot?
The idea was the easy part. frobot was born from a collection of “wouldn’t that be cool” moments.
Jeremy and I both went to college in a small town in Pennsylvania, which we loved, but like any small towns it had limited options. We would make the mile and a half hike to this place called “the freez” to get something good. This got us talking about the possibilities.
Years later, we we’re still complaining about the same thing: a good place to go that was convenient and didn’t close by the time we got off work. We also knew we weren’t alone in our discontent, hearing frequent complaints from coworkers that they were tired of the same crap in the vending machines.
After doing some research, we realized that not only was yogurt expensive for the customer but the price tag of opening up a franchise was outrageous. Build up fees and franchise costs typically run about $300,000. It’s no wonder why these stores need to charge $6-12 dollars for some yogurt. We decided this had to change. We wanted to create a way to lower costs for both the consumer and the franchisee, while providing the same great product. The next step for us was obvious and frobot was born.
How did you come up with the name?
This was actually one of the most difficult aspects. Like any solid brand, we wanted something quick that captured the essence of our product. What better name for frozen yogurt robot than frobot?
What problem does frobot solve?
Healthy, delicious, on-the-go food in the $1 – $3 range is non-existent. Regardless of whether you look at vending machines or on-the-go food places, it’s either super unhealthy (chips/donuts/candy), or prohibitively expensive to use daily.
Vending machine food is cheap, but it’s boring and disgusting. I’m sure everyone shares the same feeling of disgust at the same old chips and candy in a vending machine; or they just avoid it altogether. Some vending machines are now serving healthier items such as cliff bars and trail mix, but it’s all prepackaged and sold for a premium.
On-the-go food places, including frozen yogurt shops, can be great but are typically very expensive. Spending $12/meal is easy and not practical for most folks.
We encountered this dilemma as budget constrained college students and again in the work place.
As we started building frobot, we would often joke that a big corporation was going to debut a healthy and fresh food vending machine. But it never came. While we’re very proud of what we’ve accomplished, it’s sad that there isn’t more innovation in this industry. While frozen yogurt isn’t going to solve the obesity epidemic, we hope it’s a small step in the right direction. We’re committed to a better tomorrow.
Are you bootstrapped or funded?
Lean innovation has always been at our core. If Sequoia Capital sent us $25 million tomorrow, we wouldn’t even order business cards. We found a great deal of our development hardware on Ebay and craigslist, paying 10% of the retail price. It’s easy to throw money at problem that can be solved for free with relentless creativity and a willingness to call up a stranger and ask for advice.
What are some milestones you’ve achieved?
Most importantly, we were very fortunate to discover two amazing engineers early on who worked with us on a daily basis to achieve what we never thought possible.
Secondly, Jeremy and I aren’t big fans of compromise. We had an idea for frobot – primarily in the design look and feel – and we stayed true to that vision even when things seemed impossible. The last thing we wanted was a prototype with knobs and buttons that resembled a 1980’s sci-fi movie. We just kept at it and figured out a way.
What’s your next milestone?
On the development chart, our next milestone is beta testing out in the field. We’re talking with a number of potential partners who all are very excited at the prospect of hosting the debut of the first frobot.
What’s one challenge you’ve overcome in the startup process?
Initially, frobot was a weekend and evenings project. But it wasn’t long before real progress demanded innumerable daily emails, phone calls, trips to the shop and an unprecedented level of creativity to solve the current problem and move on to the next. What emerged was an overwhelming sense of passion that neither of us ever expected when we first got started. All of the sudden, it became the only thing we wanted to do. The challenge was balancing this with all of the other commitments and expectations of the real world.
Who are some of your mentors and business role models?
Of course Steve Jobs is an icon, but we really admire anyone who just says “screw it I’m going to follow my passion regardless of the consequences.” It doesn’t have to be Jim Morrison or Adam Corolla, really any artist who embraces the life of the narrow path is our hero.
What’s next for FroBot?
Jeremy and I think of new ideas for frobot almost every day. If we had it our way, we would freeze time for a year just to add in all the available technology that’s on the market today – relatively simple innovations such as a smart phone app that sends customers coupons to a specific frobot right before it’s restocked to minimize product waste.
But in the immediate future we’re working on toppings. And not just any toppings like granola and M&M’s, fresh fruit toppings. This involves a great deal of investment, but we have no ambition to serve anything that you’ve already seen before. When’s the last time you bought fresh fruit from a vending machine? We’re working with our engineers to make this happen.
Where can people find out more and what is your Twitter username?