Product idea #2: Technology Will Save Us
The wife and husband team discuss staying close to your product, global expansion and why someone else’s rubbish became their business treasure
Founders: Bethany Koby and Daniel Hirschmann
Location: Hackney, East London
Date launched: January 2012
The product: DIY Gadget kits
There’s no denying technology is everywhere now, but with consumers displaying an increasing penchant for ‘the next best thing’, tech products often date almost instantly – with older models becoming redundant as soon as their more recent counterpart is released.
So what happens to the outdated kit?
Not a lot, in most cases, other than the rubbish heap – but innovative start-up Technology Will Save Us has ambitious plans to change that.
After finding a working laptop in their communal rubbish bin, founders Bethany Koby and Daniel Hirschmann decided to bring both of their expertise – Hirschmann in interactive tech and teaching, and Koby’s in design and entrepreneurialism – together to launch a company that would help people look at tech differently.
With a mission to provide everyone with new opportunities to learn and create using technology, the start-up enables users to merge their own hardware and software with Technology Will Save Us kits to create handheld devices in their unique design.
Koby and Hirschmann emphasise that all of the products – which are inspired from everyday passions like music, gardening and gaming – are vehicles for education that encourage everyone to create, play, code and invent with technology.
The duo aim to create a generation of people who have an understanding of how software works, so ultimately more people will look at mending and improving faulty or old technology rather than automatically discarding it.
And the business’ mission appears to be succeeding. In the last two years the firm has grown from a bootstrapped start-up, hosting workshops to fund and promote the business; to an angel invested firm, partnering with iconic institutes like the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and selling over 28,000 kits globally.
Here the gadget start-up’s team talk creating a marketplace that didn’t exist and tackling issues of design, waste and education through innovative and creative tech fun…
Can you both briefly describe your background?
Daniel: I am a South African-born artist, working mainly in physical computing and electronics. My background is in building large scale interactive installations, objects and spaces for companies from Google Creative Labs to Nike and in art spaces form the Whitney Museum of Art in New York City to the V&A in London. I have also been a teacher and lecturer in the physical computing field for over 10 years.
Bethany: I am a designer and entrepreneur interested in creating brands, businesses and experiences that help to imagine a more positive and collaborative future. Previously, I was a design and social impact director at the international branding and innovation company Wolff Olins.
Where did the idea for Technology Will Save Us come from?
Technology Will Save Us was founded in response to several experiences:
- The trashed laptop: We found a laptop in our communal refuse area and thought it outrageous that someone would just throw this away rather than recycling it or donating it to a charity! To our further surprise, after we brought it home and turned it on – we discovered that the computer was in perfect working condition. We gave it a little bit of love and attention, and delivered it to Daniel's sister's charity in South Africa – who was (and is) in need of computers. This began our conversation about the role that technology plays in our lives and how we know so little about what to do with it when we don't want it and how to be more creative with it.
- Design for obsolescence: Working with consumer technology businesses using strategy and design thinking, we began to realise how much the devices being created are designed for obsolescence. Tech gadgets all have short-term life spans because as soon as the latest and greatest device comes out – with more speed and functionality – desire is mistaken for need. We want to believe in a world where individuals have the skills to design and imagine devices that are more bespoke and more meaningful because they made them with their hands.
- The crisis of education: As of September 2014 the computer science curriculum changed so that coding must be taught in schools. Often, science, maths and programming are presented to young people as abstract topics devoid of personalised, real-world connections. Software and hardware are often not used or understood as interconnected tools for imaginative outputs. However, our DIY gadget kits leverage young people's innate creativity by using technology and programming as tools for invention and problem solving – in preparation for a world where technology is ubiquitous.
Describe how your gadgets are disrupting the marketplace?
Our business is not disrupting any marketplace, it’s creating one that didn’t previously exist. We’re standing on the shoulders of the giants of the maker movement and constructivism to bring Ed Tech products to a UK market and beyond, which is nascent.
Everything we’re doing to make technology more accessible to families and teachers is growing and developing that blossoming market. The same goes for other emerging brands in this space.
What market research did you conduct to learn more about your potential sector or industry?
Our entire ethos is user-centric and so our market research took place in schools and public workshops. Our kits are based on everyday life themes like gardening, cycling and gaming. These were based on insights gathered from innovation charity NESTA funded research, where we set out to investigate what young people are learning in school, what they are making and what they like doing in their lives.
We also looked at and continue to look at the hobbyist market, toys and consumer electronics – but as we said this is a new, growing market.
What have you done to protect the IP of your gadgets?
All of our products are designed as open source hardware devices under CC BY-NC-ND, Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs. This license allows others to download our files and share them with others as long as they credit TWSU, but they can’t change them in any way or use them commercially.
We also have some IP related to a process we have developed helping to make programming hardware, even more accessible and ubiquitous.
How did you finance Technology Will Save Us?
We sold products and hosted workshops, bootstrapping until we were profitable enough for Koby to work full time, since then the business has grown from four to 20 people in the last year.
We are also delighted to say that we have just successfully closed our first round of angel/seed investment.
Describe your business journey to date, from having the idea for your educational gadgets to bringing them to market.
We started out in Hackney packing kits on a kitchen table and now our design, manufacture and assembly all happens from our mini-factory in East London.
Kits are now available online and in shops including the MoMA design store, Maplins, the Science Museum Shop and Exploratorium. We have created education boxes for schools, after-school clubs and maker-spaces that support young people in learning the new computer science curriculum. Over 28,000 kits have been sold globally.
Do you manufacture the gadget pieces yourselves and if so how did you source suppliers?
Yes, the mini-factory in Hackney, East London is where we do all of our R&D and assembly of kits.
We source the electronic components for the kits from around 30 suppliers. Our supplier base has evolved over the last two years into large scale electronics suppliers based across the globe.
We have a set of selection criteria, including quality, cost, reliability and supply lead times to support the supplier selection process.
How do you distribute the product – is it exclusively online or is it currently stocked elsewhere?
We sell online, through shops and to educators. We have over 30 resellers across the UK and USA, and have sold kits to countries on every continent.
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs considering launching their own product business?
Hardware is hard. Stay close to your product from design to user experience; from manufacturing to margins. Find people to support you and who can grow with you, advisers, employees and mentors. And finally ask for help and help others!
What are Technology Will Save Us’ future plans?
We are in the process of developing an app to solidify the digital and physical ecosystem of our DIY gadgets and online experiences. We see this as a huge opportunity to create an even better user experience and help more people see making with technology as the new normal.
We are working hard on formalising our production model and creating a unique and flexible process that allows us to continue to use local skill and labour while serving increasing global demand.
Beyond the classroom is a big space we are growing in and see huge opportunity to continue to support clubs, maker spaces, libraries, STEM organisations and professional development.
We see a long tail of iconic gadget kits in the future and even more ways to create bespoke and meaningful technology, for everyone.