Robots are expensive. They don’t necessarily have to be, but doing it with the fewest compromises possible will make it expensive. Our rule has always been to keep doing this so long as it’s fun. So far it continues to be more fun than it is unfun, but that's not to say there aren’t plenty of unfun aspects. I’ll go into detail later, but finding sponsors is the least fun part of the process. Working with on-contract sponsors can actually be really fun. For example, we had a blast making the videos for our Xometry Instagram Takeover last week. We’re also in talks with both Xometry and SolidWorks to do conventions or live seminars. Doing social media content ranges from slightly worse than neutral to sincerely exciting, generally a net positive when time/effort ratios get factored in. We’ve started using a lot of automation tools with our social media so we can schedule posts, thus spreading our content out through the week with minimal active work. The only reason I wouldn’t rank taxes as worse than sponsor hunting is I only have to do taxes for one brutal weekend a year.
This first chart shows our expenses for the year. I’m leaving exact values out of this blog because we aren’t comfortable sharing our exact sponsorship value publicly. Some builders probably have enough information to rough out the whole thing and we’d ask that they keep that information behind the curtain. The robot expenses are broken out in the next table. We don’t actively try to keep it at 50% of the budget, but we do make sure the robot is going to be fully funded before we start getting creative with the rest of our capital.
[Sorting Jackets for Shipping]
The other half of our annual budget is dominated by the Cost of Goods Sold (COGS). Selling merch in small quantities through on-demand fulfillment is not particularly cost-effective. Where it starts to tip the balance in our favor is in sheer quantity. Turns out people love our brand. Thank you! Our total merch income has been supplemented by so-called “megamerch” items like the Season 4 jackets and the neon signs.
[Season 5 hardware cabinet packed for shipping]
I’ve broken out McMaster in the chart because it plays a key role in almost every team’s budget and build. This year was the least we’ve spent at McMaster in several years because we were able to reuse a lot of the hardware from Season 5. We’ve tried to reduce our dependence on hardware to hold the robot together by integrating subassemblies and building in alignment and retention features.
Marketing comes in two main flavors for us: swag and advertising. Swag includes all the stickers and poker chips we hand out at the event. Fans have come to expect stickers, and poker chips became the new hotness this year. We hadn’t originally planned to do poker chips, but the demand was high enough for us to rush order them. Advertising is literal, we buy ads on Facebook and Instagram, turns out it works. Things like team shirts would also fall under marketing, but we distribute that cost to each member. We’d like to buy shirts for everyone like we did in previous years, but with 10 people that adds up fast. We also ask each team member to cover the cost of their travel. While it doesn’t cost anything but too much time, this blog is also marketing. It accounts for one or two of our weekly posts as well as helps with SEO (search engine optimization). SEO is a halfway sneaky process of populating a website with content that search engines pick up on, improving the chances the site shows up high in the search results. Blogging is a form of “inbound marketing.” It’s meant to be an innocuous lure to get people onto your commercial website. Surprise! You’re currently being advertised to. I’m sorry if you feel somewhat misled. I do what I can to make these interesting and engaging, but I also hope it leads to you buying something.
So how do we pay for all this? Well, sponsors cover about half. That has been more or less consistent for a few years. We’d always like to get more sponsorship, either from our existing sponsors or by adding new ones. BattleBots is a tricky sell to anyone who isn’t already trying to market their products or services to engineers and fabricators. Our three primary sponsors are SendCutSend (manufacturing service), SolidWorks (engineering software), and Xometry (engineering and manufacturing service). Each of these companies has a specific interest in marketing to the kinds of people that engage with robot fighting content even a little bit beyond just what is on TV. SendCutSend and Xometry offer instant, online quoting and full-service logistics for the design-to-product pipeline. They’re exactly the kind of services that cater to robot builders at any scale. SolidWorks has been a titan of the CAD software industry for decades. Their support is also critical to our process since we wouldn’t be able to design a robot without their software. We’re also partnered with OnlineMetals.com and Royster’s Machine Shop. Online Metals sells metals, online, direct to consumers, but also to businesses. RMS is one of the two family-owned machine shops run by the Royster family in Henderson, KY. Collin Royster has made incredible parts for HyperShock since joining the team in Season 5. They provide a wide variety of fabrication services to automotive, aerospace, and the oil & gas industries.
[SCS parts for our modified VESC 75/300s]
Sponsorship comes in a handful of forms and most teams will have sponsors providing value in each of them. The most sought-after, and most difficult to acquire, is cash. It’s the most flexible, but also requires the best direct value to the sponsor. The most common sponsorships are discounts. Some are extremely generous, but even the largest discounts are only helpful if you have the capital to make use of them. Some sponsors will offer their services. Depending on what that service is, the actual value to a team can be challenging to maximize. For both services and discounts, teams need to make design considerations that make the best use of the sponsorship value available. When we picked up SendCutSend in Season 5, we changed a lot of our design to use bent sheet metal for things we would have previously made out of billet. We’ve received many questions about how we work sponsor logos into our aesthetics. Simple. We don’t. We know their logos are going to be on the robot and we know that means there should be some large, mostly flat pieces to stick those, but we don’t go out of our way to shift the design. It works out that we like the look of the flat louvers for the top armor because we don’t have a lot of flat surfaces. Since Season 4, we’ve attached our biggest wedge for the official robot picture specifically because it has a lot of usable real estate for sponsor logos. The game we have to play with the logos since we have three sponsors providing roughly equal value, is they all need to have about the same amount of robot surface dedicated to them. In Season 5 this worked out nicely with the triplicate pairs of louvers. For this season, we ended up with one more flat-panel than we had sponsors for. We considered just throwing a decal on there, but we decided to put our website on the fourth panel. This worked out wonderfully since we were sharing CAD with Hexbug and the large logos and decals would make it on the toy. This is a huge boon for our lovely sponsors too.
Sponsors are buying tangible advertising space from us on the robot, team shirts, pit banner, and the on-screen marquee during episodes. We also plug our sponsors in nearly all of our social media content. The intangibles we provide them with are potentially even more valuable. We’re bringing their brand to the attention of several hundred other builders, most of whom are in engineering or fabrication roles in their day jobs. Every other builder in the pits is a potential lead for all of the sponsors at the event. BattleBots is similar to a trade show in that respect, but without the well-dressed, perfect-hair marketing people; it's all the people who use the goods and services that are interacting. We’re also associating our brands, which can help make a corporation more appealing to individuals.
[A page from our sponsor deck]
One of the most common questions we field is “How do I get sponsors?” We can’t tell you what the best way is, we can only tell you what we’ve done and what has worked well. The best thing to do as a new team or a team with only a mild amount of sponsorship is to send hundreds of emails. We typically send about 200 emails out. We’ll receive 20-30 responses, of which maybe 10 turn into conversations. We’ve spent hours researching and writing to a single lead many times. It has a pretty alright response rate, but it has yet to pan out into a single sponsorship. Every so often a sponsor comes to us on their own (Unicorns). These are often the least stressful to deal with, but they’re rare. Xometry was a big get for us. We met them at IMTS 2018; Will and I had gone with the express purpose of trying to find a sponsor, fully decked out in our jumpsuits from Season 3. It took until 2020 for them to say yes. We became the first major anything they had sponsored. They’ve now picked up a second BattleBots team and started running ads on Discovery and Science channels. Typically teams are explicitly barred from talking to sponsors who advertise nationally. In the case of Xometry, they were our sponsor before they started buying TV ads, so we’ve been allowed to keep the relationship thus far. One difficult element in all this is handling other teams’ requests to talk to our sponsors. In some cases, like SendCutSend, they came onto the scene sponsoring many teams, so nobody has any exclusive claim to them. When a sponsor only has one or maybe two teams, other teams trying to pick up that sponsor are diluting the value that sponsor could be providing to the teams they’re already working with. To the sponsor, it's all coming out of the same marketing budget, so unless a team has nurtured the relationship, the sponsor has no reason to refuse new contact. The single fastest way to upset other builders is to interfere with their sponsors. Bringing in new sponsors is difficult. It’s by far the least fun part of the process, regardless of how wonderful the people you’re working with are. If you ask Will what part of BattleBots is the hardest, it’s getting and nurturing sponsorships.
[Parts for ebay]
The second-largest slice of our income pie comes from merchandise sales and battle-damaged parts on eBay. Selling parts on eBay is just about the simplest and easiest way for a team to get funding. Of course, it scales with the popularity of a given team and the perceived value of the parts. We’ve found that parts with our logo on them will far surpass parts without the logo on eBay. I can’t recommend tire stickers enough, they absolutely pay for themselves. For merch, we use Shopify and a variety of print-on-demand vendors. We’re constantly working to improve our team website and store as well as looking for the best value for quality vendors. We’ve done some merch operations ourselves and while the margins are substantially better, the time and effort required take some of the value out of it. Stocking merch is annoying, but we have a pretty large shop. Packing and shipping merch ranges from minorly inconvenient to wildly unreasonable. It all started with the jackets during Season 4. We priced them at $200 thinking that would dissuade a lot of people and keep things manageable. We were hopeful that there were a dozen fans that would be interested. Boy, were we wrong. The first pass was “send us an email.” After a couple-dozen emails came in, many without an address, we sent back a google form and posted that on social media. We had over 100 responses. Once again we were completely overwhelmed, so much so that we considered canceling the project. Fortunately, a close friend of ours was starting a career in digital marketing and was willing to set us up on Shopify for $1000 and a jacket. With how many orders we had, that was a great idea. We launched our webstore and the orders poured in. Interestingly, when we cross-referenced the actual paid orders with the google form orders, only about half had come from the same people. We ordered about a third more jackets and patches than we had orders from in anticipation of future interest. It took almost 2 years for us to sell all of the jackets, and we ended up discounting the last couple as we ran out of sizes just so we could clear the inventory. The jackets made up about half of the merch income we made that year. We funded HyperShock Approved sponsorships pretty much entirely with merch profits. If you bought a jacket, your money ended up supporting Hijinx, ICEWave, Nelly, and Spirit of TAGA. Unfortunately, the pandemic has prevented Nelly and TAGA from coming back to BattleBots.
The last chunk of HyperShock’s income is directly from the show itself. BattleBots provides a small stipend to help put a dent in travel costs. They almost pay a meager royalty out to returning teams which mostly comes from international sales of the series. Finally, teams will use any winnings or appearance fees from the previous season to fund the next one or pay themselves back for things they covered out of their own pockets in that season. Every year since Season 3, the prize pool has shrunk as teams have asked for more base funding for showing up. The exact format has shifted a little each season, but we essentially get a nominal payment per fight with a slight bonus for winning. There’s an increasing fee for each round of the tournament and appearance fees for post-season events like Bounty Hunters. Winning Bounty Hunters tournaments is arguably more financially lucrative than winning the Giant Nut just due to the amount of damage a team is likely to incur along that path. I’m not putting this out there to take a shot at BattleBots. I want to drive the point home that teams are not on the show to make money. This is exclusively a money-spending operation. Teams are extremely lucky to break even or get through a season without spending their own money. On top of everything else, two consecutive weeks off from work is about all the vacation most people can take for the year, especially all at once.
[Robot Costs Chart]
All the really valuable stuff out of the way, here’s what the cost breakdown of a HyperShock looks like. This can vary a little bit between configs. Some have more titanium than others. The wedge costs about twice what the forks do, but overall not that much anyway. Reasonably, the double disk weapon costs about twice as much as the single-disk/ham sandwich (it’ll make sense later, I promise). Our most expensive armor configuration costs four times as much as the least expensive. We’re also much more likely to take a bunch of damage to that expensive config as compared to the least expensive. Printed parts are listed at 0% because they make up less than 1% of the cost of a single HyperShock. Electronics have the highest cost-density of any component type in the robot. Machined parts aren’t far behind despite having much more visual and volumetric representation.