High-tech entrepreneur Brett Adcock on Figure, Archer, and early success
Brett Adcock has co-founded two companies on the bleeding edges of innovation in emerging markets: Archer Aviation, in the world of eVTOL aircraft, and Figure, in humanoid robots. We look into his background, and the startup that launched it all.
Born April 6, 1986, Adcock was raised on a corn and soybean farm outside the tiny town of Moweaqua, Illinois. By the time he graduated valedictorian of his high school class at Central A&M, it was fairly clear he was cut out for business – he'd been working on building and starting up web companies since the age of 16.
"I started working on startups when I was in school and college," Adcock tells us over a video call. "I just felt like I wanted to do tech. I was building all this software stuff by myself, one-person companies, solopreneur-style. I started a website selling outdoor electronics. I started a content site called Street of Walls, that's actually still up today, helping people with job interviews in areas like finance. I started a mobile job application site, called Working App. I started a video interviewing website ... I was making money on some of them, others were just not working. This was me tinkering with the internet, I guess."
"I loved the software days," he continues. "It's fun to work on these projects! There was nothing to lose, right out of school; I had no money, I was dead broke."
In early 2012, at the age of 25 and now living in New York City, he woke up with the idea for the online business that'd eventually strike gold and fund his later, more esoteric and interesting projects. Vettery, started up with co-founder Adam Goldstein, was an employment marketplace website. It started out as a software platform for third-party recruitment companies, and initially, it didn't look like it'd have much of a future.
"Business wasn't easy to find," says Adcock. "It was growing, but it wasn't growing that fast. So we pivoted several times. The last was quite a desperate pivot. We decided 'let's just dump all the recruiters, put the job seekers and companies into one marketplace, and try to make matches through software and machine learning.' As soon as we launched that, I knew it would work within a week. Every week, the users were compounding, we were doubling week over week for quite a while."
By 2017, Vettery had scaled up to 300 people, with about 20,000 customers, and somewhere around 30,000 interviews per month were running across the system. It was enough to gain the attention of the world's largest recruiting company, the Adecco Group, which bought Vettery for US$110 million in 2018, setting Adcock and Goldstein up with quite a war chest for a pair of 30-somethings as they moved west to Palo Alto, setting their sights on Silicon Valley opportunities.
"I thought, okay, now I have a personal balance sheet to go after some harder problems," says Adcock. "And rather than just throwing ideas around like I did in my 20s, I wanted to be very thoughtful about what I worked on next. I looked top-down and said, 'what industry do I want to work in? What's the problem set? How much capital does it need? What does the team look like? What does success look like?'"
"I decided I wanted to work in hardware and sustainability," he continues. "At that point, I felt sustainable transport was super important, and solving traffic is important too – like, nobody's worked on reducing traffic in 100 years. We've only worked on putting more traffic on the roads. I felt very clearly that the way to help solve transport was to move into 3D airspace."
Electric VTOL aircraft seemed a natural fit. These oversized, souped-up electric passenger multicopters were already under development by several groups around the world. Adcock and Goldstein spotted an opportunity to grab a head start when two major players dropped the ball.
"Airbus had told their Vahana team they were moving everything across to France, so I came in and hired basically the whole team" says Adcock. "And the folks at Kitty Hawk were upset because of the Boeing acquisition – nobody there made any money, because Larry Page had all the equity in the company, and Boeing was doing cost cutting and removing snacks from the kitchen ... Nobody really wanted to be there any more, and they were all right there in the Bay Area. I came in there and snatched the whole team too. So we instantly had a great team."
With all that experience on board, the newly founded company Archer Aviation hit the ground at a hundred miles an hour. Three years later, in 2021, Adcock and the team had debuted and flown a full-scale, two-seat autonomous prototype of its Maker aircraft, partnered up with Fiat Chrysler on supply chain, advanced composites and engineering, design and production, taken more than a billion dollars in provisional orders from United Airlines, and gone public on the NYSE at a valuation around US$2.7 billion. "It just went crazy," says Adcock.
By November 2022, the world got its first look at the gorgeous five-seat Midnight aircraft that'll be Archer's first air taxi product, once it's type-certified by the FAA – and six months later, a flight-ready prototype was ready to start test flights. Archer might've been late to the party, but it hit the market hard, and quickly rose to become one of the leading contenders in the emerging eVTOL industry, led only by Joby Aviation, Beta Technologies and Volocopter in the view of SMG Consulting's Advanced Air Mobility Reality Index.
But Adcock was ready to move on. "I left Archer in April of last year," he tells us. "Still a major shareholder, but I felt like there was a misalignment between me and the board, given we were in the public markets. The things I wanted to do were just different from what the group wanted to do, and it's a little bit of a pain going public. And I really needed to get focused on this new AI/robotics revolution."
And that's how he ended up starting his latest venture, Figure, focusing on creating autonomous humanoid robot workers. Starting out in 2022, Adcock took a similar approach to the way he founded Archer, quickly assembling a 60-person team grabbed from established operators like Boston Dynamics, Tesla, Google Deepmind and Apple's secret self-driving car program.
With some $70 million in funding, Figure has got a bipedal humanoid robot prototype up and walking around its test labs, with a public debut coming within weeks. The company is working toward having these bots out in the real world, doing useful jobs in warehousing and logistics, by the end of 2024, after which they'll gradually expand their capabilities until, in theory, they can do more or less any physical task a human can do.
From here, check out what's currently going on at Figure, as well as Adcock's thoughts on what a humanoid robot labor revolution might lead to, in the two interview pieces we published last week.
Thanks to Brett Adcock and Crystal Bentley for their assistance with this story.