It's never too late to learn code

09 September 2016

Leighton Thomas meets CEO and co-founder Alex Klein from Kano Computing, a UK tech company short listed for a UK Private Business award in the Technology Innovation of the Year category. 

Kano supply computers and coding kits to all ages, proving it’s never too late to learn code.

Cofounder

So Alex, what does Kano do?

Kano is a computer making and coding kit for all ages, all over the world.  We’re a new type of computer company, premised on creation rather than consumption.  You build our devices from the inside out, and code them with simple steps. Once you start to get comfortable, you can start sharing your creations with our online community.

We’re not just teaching you with step-by-step tutorials, you’re also learning from others all over the world and from all ages. We’ve been shipping the Kano kits, end-to-end  PCs and screens that you build yourself, for three years now, after a record-breaking Kickstarter in 2013.  We were, at the time, Britain’s most crowd-funded campaign, the most crowd-funded learning invention ever, and our mission is to demystify and democratise computing. 

We’re trying to build a new type of computing brand for the curious.

 How did the idea come about?

I never thought I would be in business. I grew up wanting to be a writer, an actor or at times an artist. I ended up landing as a journalist reporting on business and technology at Newsweek. My thing was always to take topics that at the face of it seemed very complex and mysterious as I like to demystify things because I’m a curious, multi-disciplined master of no trades. 

In 2012, when I was working at Newsweek in New York, the journalism industry was collapsing around us and Newsweek shut its print magazine. I thought, journalism isn’t the place to break things down and really inform in the way I’d like it to be informed.  So instead I did a Master’s degree and became an academic. 

I went to Cambridge and met the inventor of the Raspberry Pi, Eben Upton, and the original intent was that I was going to write a Newsweek story on him.  I was sitting across the table from him, and he was holding up this little chip set, and saying, ‘Hackers are using this, hobbyists, developers.  But what I don’t understand is why more kids aren’t into this?’ 

I’m looking at the thing, and I’m like, ‘Well, it’s missing some pieces, it’s missing some plugs, a battery and some simple software to get you started.’  There was no step-by-step flow to have you build your basic computer and start taking control of it.  I looked online to try and teach myself but the available resources were really dense. The idea was crystallised by a challenge I got from my six-year-old cousin, Micah. When I showed him the Raspberry Pi Micah said, ‘I want to make my own computer, but it has to be as simple and fun as Lego, so no one has to teach me how to do it.’

Those two conditions, simple and fun as Lego, and no one has to teach me, were the design parameters of the project. What I lacked in operations and manufacturing background, I got when I was introduced to my co-founder Yonatan.  A wonderful Israeli guy, who built a stickers-for-sneakers start-up, so he knew a bit about supply chain.

We moved in together in a small north London apartment, we started hand-folding the first boxes, built an assembly line in the living room and had eighteen different off-the-shelf components from China. Linking it all together, this step-by-step story book that I was illustrating with the help of a freelance designer, Tommy from Sweden, and seeing which words worked to make it make sense to him. 

We then started taking this basic kit into north London classrooms and on the back of some of our workshops, we started to think, there may be something here. People look at us as a tech start-up but in many ways we were taking existing tech and explaining how it works by using content to show what was inside it. 

Kit

So how long did it take from your 6 year old cousin Micah’s challenge to having something that was sellable?

We got the challenge from Micah and three weeks later Yonatan, my co-founder, flew to China.  I started writing a book with the Raspberry that I had.  We put some ads up online in February, and found our first employee, a head of software from PlayStation.  By April, we had 200 white boxed, hand-folded, prototype kits. 

The hardware was then sourced from third parties but the experience and the design was ours, and I think building on the shoulders of giants like the Raspberry Pi foundation allowed us to move quickly. We got those first 200 kits out, put up a small Shopify landing page to sell them - we actually sold them, we didn’t give them away, and that provided the initial buzz and the enthusiasm that eventually led to Kickstarter, which was in November. All in all it only took around seven months from conception to the crowdfunding campaign.

So what’s the vision now?  Where do you want to take the business in two, three, five years’ time?

I think what we’ve done well so far is having the most accessible and fun computer coding kit out there, at a good price, and we’ve sold around 100,000 so far. 

From a mission point of view, I think the future of computational creativity extends beyond the screen. It’s about the devices that surround us every day, cameras, speakers, LED panels, sensors, and so on. I think our next quest will be to really build an end-to-end system that lets you programme and interact with the real world. 

And from a commercial perspective, we try to be all over the world.  We’ve shipped to 86 countries and translated our content into ten languages but our community has also translated our content into 40 more languages, which makes the Kano content readily available to a huge number of people

In Freetown, Sierra Leone, one of our fans, a teenage inventor named Kelvin Doe, set up an innovation lab around the Kano computer kit.  Our software is also powering the biggest DIY computer project in Turkey and we have other projects happening all over the world, in places like Senegal or Rwanda. We’ve been introduced to these amazing maker communities that share the same spirit of curiosity, regardless of where they exist.

This examples are a good example of a greater need, as the maker movement allows you to solve problems at a lower price point and allows you to be more direct and local in your thinking. 

I think for the company’s next step, because we’re already established in China, and because Chinese parents spend a third of their income on their kids’ education, my dream would be to bring this mainstream making brand, this new type of computing approach simultaneously to the US and China next year.  So we can truly deliver on making the Kano brand an all ages, all over the world promise.

Computer

You’re educating and creating more open access for people, but you are also seeking to be a successful, profitable business at the same time.  How do you marry those two goals together?

We make a physical product, we sell it for more than it costs us to produce it, and we ship it all over the world.  We’re an end-to-end computer company and we make physical pieces as well and software bits and bytes. But we also build a narrative, a guide with content, stories and steps, so you can make music, arts, make Minecraft, an adventure game, and we do all of this on our own platform.

All of these different elements lend themselves to the essential challenge of the business, which ultimately is to make it as simple for anyone to create with computing as it is to consume it. That’s the goal, the vision and the mission. 

I think you can look at Kano as an education company, a low-cost computing company, a make-a-movement company, but we really think of it as a combination of these concepts, which is creation with computing in an age which is far too premised on consumption. 

Have you got your eye on the next challenge?

One thing we debated was, is the business about creative computing, or is it about creative technology in the broad sense of the term?  I think for us the next frontier is connected devices, the ever-present embedded computing that has emerged from the fact that we’ve been miniaturising these components for smartphones. That’s one, but I think data is another area, we’ve just started to bring in live data streams.

I think in the future programming will be less about moving a little character along the screen and more about understanding, manipulating and making use of this enormous explosion of data which is freely available and that most people just don’t really have access to or even know it is there.. 

You’ve been on an amazing journey and achieved a lot in a short space of time, but what challenges have you faced to date and what advice would give to a potential founder of the future? 

When we did the Kickstarter campaign, we set out to raise $100,000.  We actually raised $1.5 million, so we had to do fifteen times as much manufacturing and fulfilment as we expected which really stretched us.  We ended up shipping six months late, which is better than not shipping at all, but it took a lot of my best communication skills to talk to a community of 15,000 excited backers and explain things out. Thankfully our community was incredibly supportive. 

I think another challenge is that there are new ways of doing business. There are new ways of making products, and some of them are three or four years old and work really well. When you’re a first time founder or a first time CEO, you want to surround yourself with people who have some scars and sometimes it’s a challenge is to find the veterans who still have the beginner’s mind and fortunately I think we have them now. 

The third challenge I would say is that some CEOs are more focussed on fundraising, deal-making, commercials, the P&L.  I focus on all of those things by bringing in great people to support me, but my natural interests lie in product, messaging and design. So bending my brain to that has been an exciting challenge, because at the root of it, this is a very complex business, because the more you succeed, the more difficult it is. 

Workshop

If a parent is reading this, why should they go out today and buy your product?

You should buy Kano because you can give your kid a chance to build their own computer, and you won’t even have to help them. They’ll follow a simple story book, have this magical experience of feeling the chip warm up underneath their fingers. They will hear a sound ring out when they wire up a speaker, and then if you want to join in you can. You can work together to make music with code, art with code, games with code and share great fun during that process.

These devices are great for young people to have because they’re part of the fabric of society now, but they’re primarily being used as TV screens for consumption. Get your kid a simple, playful computer coding kit at an early age, so when they grow up they won’t look at technology as something just to be used or bought, but something they can make, something they can manipulate.  It’s about thinking exponentially, and it’s a heck of a lot of fun. 

Leighton Thomas: Thank you very much for your time Alex, it’s much appreciated.

The winners of the Private Business Awards 2016 will be announced at a dinner to be held at The Brewery, London, EC1 on Thursday 15 September 2016.

 

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