This week, Zappar CEO and Co-Founder, Caspar Thykier, is joined by Alex Klein the CEO and co-founder of Kano Computing, a company enabling kids, and indeed anyone to master technology rather than be mastered by it.
In this session, they cover:
1. The journey to Kano Computing
2. Key learnings from the journey so far
3. The creative potential of AR & VR
4. Facing bigger industry brands
How it all started...
First of all we wanted to know how it all began, and Alex told us that he “started the company almost on a whim, it was like I got pulled into a whole bunch of threads that started to interweave in ways I couldn't have ever dreamed of. I was a journalist prior to starting Kano, I never expected to start my own business or anything like that.”
We found out that due to a move away from print journalism Alex decided to go back to academia and went to Cambridge to do his masters, where he met the inventor of a little circuit board and open source brain, the Raspberry Pi.
“My cousin, Saul, has been involved in London tech and I started getting excited about the Raspberry Pi with him. We showed it to his son, my little cousin Mika, who was six. We tried to get him excited about building worlds, building games, building servers, building, you know, hot air balloons that could photograph the Earth, autonomous submarines that could go below the ocean. But his challenge, speaking of making the complex simple, was way simpler, he said he wanted to make his own computer, but it had to be as simple and fun as Lego.”
“So we thought there must be a product like this, a computer that people build like Lego, really simple, you know, it teaches you to code. But there was nothing. So we threw together a kit with some incredible people.”
After this, they managed to secure funding from both the PlayStation 4 and Nintendo teams as well as the renowned Steve Wozniak and since then they have “shipped over a million devices all over the world.” And are working to introduce technology to people in a way that is simple and fun and gives them that mastery at an early age and opens up a new world to them.
Transformational transparency moments
After such an incredible journey to Kano we asked Alex if there were any stand out transformational moments or insights he’d gathered along the way. And he gave us this nugget of wisdom:
“When you feel like you have nothing really to lose, you often do your best work, because I had no idea that this would be successful. I met my co-founder. He was an Israeli ex-special forces guy named Yonatan.”
Alex also noted that their open approach to development and company decisions has been key for him,
“The market response being really open in our development process, we'd drop the original campaign every week. We took people inside, how we were building the plastic pieces, how we were building the software, how we were cobbling together the componentry on the line in China or getting off of a plane with an orange suitcase full of kits in Sierra Leone and visiting, 16-year-old radio entrepreneur named Kelvin Done and making a radio station, which is just like opening up the process to people and letting them see it.”
He even told us that they actually put the original colour scheme to the community for a vote, leading to the iconic design they have today.
“It's the classic co-founder dispute between me and Yontan, he likes transparent tops, I like transparent sides, eventually like we can't decide. So we asked the community, A and B, and they actually chose C, completely transparent. And to this day, it's like all of our products have this complete transparency, which is what people want.”
The potential of AR & VR...
Alex told us in terms of what's going on in AR and VR he is very “excited about the potential for VR and AR in creative work, in people's ability to shape forms that ultimately, come into existence in the real world.”
He even revealed that they have a new product coming out that has been completely moulded in VR. “So it has this asymmetry to it. And it's this handmade feel that you might not be able to achieve in more conventional, more traditional design tools. Which is super exciting.”
Speaking of more unconventional design tools, we were also really interested to hear about one of Kano’s very magical products, the Harry Potter wand.
“We became quite well-known for this Harry Potter coding wand and that was our first foray into AR. You get a Harry Potter wand, we did it with Warner Bros, and you wave the wand and machine learning in the wand and in the app detects the spell gesture and then traces that spell on the screen and then makes something appear.”
And what makes these products so groundbreaking...
“Opportunities to bring storytelling into the real world and let people have the theme park be Main Street or the adventure, the novel, the movie, be all around them. I think that stuff is really cool.”
Facing big brands...
We were keen to know if Alex ever felt a little daunted going up against bigger brands in the technology and education space and he had the perfect response.
One thing we say in the studio is like, you know, we're the rebel alliance, you know, and that's the empire.
“And it is the case. These big technology platforms, as much as we depend on them and rely on them, increasingly we are aware that they have certain incentive structures, certain design tropes that may not be the best for a super democratic, super creative, super mentally healthy society overall.”
“I think both of our companies, we've been growing over some time. It's never an overnight thing. You just keep building and fighting the good fight.”
“I guess if it wasn't challenging, why would it be worth doing at all? You know, if you're lucky enough to be alive and to have the ability to do these things, may as well, put it into something difficult and challenging because, you know, otherwise you'd go crazy I guess.”