This post is part of a series in partnership with MakerCon, which takes place September 24th in New York. MakerCon connects the individuals at the forefront of the maker movement and taps into the best thinking on how to make things and get them to market, from new technologies to manufacturing models to funding methods.
We had a chance to catch up with Bethany Koby, one half of the founding team behind Technology Will Save Us, a startup that is on a mission to provide everyone – of all ages, backgrounds and interests – new opportunities to learn and create using technology.
Bethany and partner Daniel Hirschmann founded Technology Will Save Us in 2012 in East London. The company designs DIY technology kits and hardware along with all the resources required to start making. Their kits include a handheld games console, electronic synthesiser and conductive dough. They aim to inspire a new generation that see technology as a tool for solving problems and making things. Using their products will provide the skills – soldering, electronics, programming, design, design thinking and confidence – that are essential for today’s world.
You’re speaking at MakerCon about self-funding and bootstrapping a company. What were some of the lessons you learned around this during the process of founding Technology Will Save Us?
We started Technology Will Save Us in my living room, so we know all about starting small. One of our biggest lessons was: listen to your audience. It was really important to us that as we grew we listened to our users and we continue to do so! Starting off as a workshop company really helped us get to know our audience, and learn what their needs, fears and behaviours were around technology. It is important to us that we are appealing to the emotional and practical sides of why learning hands on with technology is important to parents and inspiring for kids. We have a user centred approach to design and development of all of our kits and experiences which is now very much at the heart of our business. Our users inform a huge part of what we do.
One final lesson is to surround yourself with advisors, mentors and a team that you feel aligned with from a values perspective. During this journey, we have met a lot of incredible people that are very talented, but beyond being an expert and knowledgeable about specific areas that are helpful to us as we grow the business, knowing that we share common values and passions around young people, learning and purpose driven businesses become increasingly important to help us stay true to the kind of business we want to create.
How do you think being based in Hackney, East London has influenced the trajectory of your company?
Being based in London we have access to an incredible growing collection of businesses, charities and government organizations / individuals focused on digital skills and the importance of this for young people. From our East London neighbours such as Sugru, Roli and Bare Conductive to clubs and organisations supporting young people like, Code Club, Apps for Good, Young Rewired State. There is also a wonderful serendipity that there are many new hardware businesses in East London – which has given us access to support, skills and resources to help guide our journey. Whether it is opportunities like our customer service team spending some time with the more experienced team at Moo.com, sharing best practice manufacturing with the Sugru team, or finding the best fulfillment centers shared by our fellow product businesses. Having this closeness and sincere camaraderie not only helps all of our businesses grow but feels really similar to what I have experienced in San Francisco, of course in our own East London sort of way over artisanal coffee and red buses zooming by.
What drives your mission to create a world where more people are producers rather than consumers of technology – why do you feel this needs happen?
We started Technology Will Save Us in response to a couple of different things. We found a laptop in our bin and thought it was crazy that someone would throw a working piece of technology away. It really highlighted the role that tech has in our everyday lives and our relationship with it. We don’t really understand it, yet it pervades everything. Both myself and my co-founder Daniel were teaching at the time and were keenly aware of how long it takes for education to catch up with the pace of technology. The maker movement was growing and the world of creative tech tools was on the rise, we felt there was a need for a business that would empower the creator generation and empower parents while inspiring kids to make and be productive with tech in a fun and hands on way.
How do you think the accessibility of technology, and the ability to learn to create with it will shape our future?
In the modern world technology is pretty much everywhere, what isn’t quite there yet is the ability for everyone to make and get hands-on with tech. The ability to create with it will not just shape our future, it IS our future. Cathy Davidson, a scholar of learning technology, concluded that 65% of children entering grade school this year will end up working in careers that haven’t even been invented yet.
We think kids will invent future jobs based on playing with Minecraft, making thirsty plant detectors in their kitchens and designing their own games controlled by their micro:bits.
This is why Tech Will Save Us is focusing on sparking the creative imagination of young people using hands-on technology.
How do you decide which projects you turn into kits? What process must each kit go through before being released to the public.
We use everyday life as inspiration for our kits as they tap into the hobbies and passions that we love. We believe meeting everyday needs makes learning and inventing so much more fun, especially when makers can then use their invention day to day. We believe that understanding and inspiration comes from hands-on experiences where people can unlock the magic of technology for themselves.
Are there any examples of people, having been empowered by the skills learned while building their kit, who begin hacking your kits to be something you never imagined?
One of my favourite parts of Technology Will Save Us is watching children learning new skills and having the permission to do something like soldering or making their own games. We held one workshop in South London with hard to reach young girls, and by showing them what they could create and how fun it was, we turned their attitudes from “this shit is boring” to “this shit is sick!”. That for me was validation.
In the age of online courses – why do you think “making in community” (i.e. through workshops) is important? (for both the participants and for your company)
I think there is a balance – working with others is great and allows you to ask for support when you need it. We believe that community doesn’t just have to be in physical workshops. It can be built online, allowing people to work and build confidence on their own, and then share their achievements or ask for help if they need it. Look at DIY.org and Instructables, they do an awesome job of supporting young makers online, and we do similarly through our online resources.
Can you tell us more about the BBC micro:bit collaboration?
The micro:bit is easily the most ambitious and collaborative kit we’ve ever launched and and the most ambitious education project that BBC has embarked on in 30 years. It is a tech tool designed to inspire a generation to learn programming through creating objects in the physical world. It will be given to 1 million young people in the UK in the fall of 2015.
Our role in the project was to represent the 12 year old in the design and engineering process. We took the ambitions and interest of young people and placed them at the center of the process of designing the micro:bitwith the engineering partners. This allowed us to make difficult decisions around the functionality and the look of this little tool, like making the front of the device the “project” side, looking and feeling more friendly – while the back of the device is the “technology” side and is more didactic and descriptive. This meant that we designed the technology for the end user—not focusing on every possibility but on the core elements that could become the building blocks of great learning experiences. So the micro:bit is a platform designed for young people not a platform designed for engineers. Most importantly it gave this partnership the framework to continually keep the 12 year old at the heart of the project.
It was incredible to be working alongside 28 other partners to deliver such an important platform, we were really pleased that even as one of the smaller partners we were able to make such a huge impact on the device.
What does the future look like for Technology Will Save Us? How are you measuring success over the next few years?
The future is very bright for Tech Will Save Us. We are going through a really exciting phase at the moment, we are growing our team and getting geared up for the holiday season. Success for us is empowering young people and parents to get hands on with technology – we measure this by the growing number of young digital makers in the world. Every time we hear from a customers about working with their tools, customising, hacking, modifying their kits, programming something that makes their lives better, or making mistakes and growing from them – we know we’re achieving something special. One of the big things we want to measure over time is around young people making more informed choices in school and choosing technology related subjects. If they have had good experiences making and have built confidence being creative with technology, we hope this will help them and their parents choose subjects around tech not because they think they should, but because they want to.
Learn more about Bethany and Technology will Save Us through their website, and follow them on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. In addition to her talk at MakerCon Bethany will be speaking on her experiences with the Micro:bit project at Maker Faire in New York this week.
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