You know you're doing something right when Apple highlights your start-up at its Worldwide Developers Conference

After a brief introduction from CEO Tim Cook during the keynote address, Anki's Boris Sofman took the stage to unveil Anki Drive, a gaming app that lets people use their iPhones to race toy-sized, sensor-laden robotic cars around a track. The "smart" cars are packed with artificial intelligence, making them aware of their surroundings and the competing cars, which they can literally shoot off the track when they're in "weapons" mode. Everything's controlled from the speed to the braking. The product demo went smoothly, and might go down as one of the most coveted launches in history. 

But the future wasn't always so bright.

"There were a lot of really unglamorous years," said Mark Palatucci, Anki's co-founder and chief product officer, a day after the Apple event. "It took so much work to get to this point." 

In early 2007, Palatucci and his friends Sofman and Hanns Tappeiner--who met in the robotics Ph.D. program at Carnegie Mellon University--spent many nights at home, batting around ideas for a start-up. In early 2007, they finally settled on one they liked: Bring video games to life with the help of edgy robotics. 

The next year was spent juggling coursework with Anki. By late 2011, four years after their original brainstorming session, they had a protype worth showing to investors. 

"The biggest challenges we faced were local challenges--things like sensor noise, motors not working, and connections coming apart," says Tappeiner, Anki's president. "But the idea always stayed the same." In fact, "as we continued to work on it, we got more excited," added Palatucci.

Though both founders admit they missed the mobile revolution in 2007, it took no time to catch up and find willing investors--or get face-time with Apple.

The founders are mum on how exactly that went, but will say they approached Apple, "because mobile devices are so central to what we're doing." For its part, the tech giant loved Anki because "we're using all the public APIs everyone else can use, but doing it in a way that is really unique and novel."

Marc Andreessen of the influential VC firm Andreessen Horowitz instantly jumped on board and contributed to Anki's Series A round in early 2012 and a more recent Series B round along with Two Sigma and Index Ventures. Anki raised a total of $50 million from both rounds. 

"[Andreessen Horowitz] has this mantra, 'Software eats the world,' and that just fit really well with us," said Tappeiner. 

Palatucci says he has always focused on "the core tech" of his product, but he knows that won't be enough to sustain his business. "The great companies are great across all aspects," he says, and "from the beginning we said we want to be a world-class company." 

That meant hiring a "really great set of advisors" and asking the right questions when interviewing candidates. Cultural fit is everything, stresses Tappeiner. 

"We want people that believe in robotics and AI as something that's fundamental. We're programming physical things and making them intelligent, adaptive. That's the thing that's really exciting."