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Entrepreneurs uncovered: Alex Klein

How a quest to demystify technology led to a build-your-own computer

The creator of the Kano computer kit talks about his fascination with what makes technology tick – and about how to explain it to others.

In 2013, the Kano DIY computer was the fastest-ever UK crowd-funded project and the culmination of creator Alex Klein’s desire to make a computer anyone could build. Here he talks about his inspiration, his interest in helping people understand that there’s more to technology than meets the eye and the power of storytelling as a means to demystify the world.

What is Kano?

Kano is a computer kit for all ages, all over the world. It lets you make devices, tell stories, programme art and music and games, and share them.

How did Kano start?

I came across one of the early single-board computers and started to get obsessed with it; reading up on it and trying to hack it. I showed one of the computers to my little cousin, who was six at the time. I tried to get him excited about all the crazy things we could build with it.
He looked at it and said, “Hey Alex, can we make a computer with this?”
I said, “Yes, I guess we could make a computer. What would that be like?”
He said, “It would be simple and fun, so no one has to teach me.”
So, that was basically the simplest, the most beautiful and clear product brief I could possibly have. To make a computer anyone can build – first for my cousin and then for hundreds of thousands of people like him.

What did you do before you founded Kano?

I was a journalist, trying to explain complex topics with good stories and a sense of humour. Not too dissimilar to what we do now at Kano. ­

Do you think there are similarities between tech journalism and what you’re doing now?

Yes. Both are about trying to tell a story, to get to the truth and hopefully help people. I think we live in a world that needs demystifying and that’s what I love to do.

When did your interest in computers begin?

I started to try to learn to code online, but when I asked questions on forums (which I thought were pretty fair questions to ask), people would reply, “That’s a stupid question. What are you, 10 years old?” I was 10 years old, so it was kind of dispiriting.

What was the tipping point that made starting a company to sell an easy-to-assemble computer kit?

At the first workshop we did in a north London school, I showed up with hand-folded cardboard boxes with components we’d sourced online and this book I’d made with my cousin. I stood up in front of the class and asked three questions. Question one was “Who here can tell me how a computer thinks?” And there were all sorts of imaginative answers: “the computer sends magic waves”; “the computer has under-sea cables”; “the computer is using electricity”. There was all this excitement and then I asked the second question. “Who’s seen the inside of a computer before?” Complete silence. Then question three. “Who thinks they could build a computer themselves?” Again, nothing. People don’t have that confidence, right? People have these sealed consumption-oriented devices. They haven’t been shown all the magic of what’s inside. So, I said, “Well guess what? Inside these boxes is everything you need to make your own computer. To bring it to life, to make your own music or your own game – and you’re gonna do it without me saying a word. You’re gonna do it by following the simple steps in this book.” The room just came to life. There was this amazing sense of a challenge being laid down. By the end, the whole class had managed to finish the build.

What was the mission statement when you started out?

The single kit we crowd-funded in 2013 became the fastest crowd-fund in the UK ever. The statement of that product’s purpose was simple – “A computer anyone can make”, with the strapline “Make a computer – learn to code, create the future”.

Who’s using Kano now?

14-year-olds in Kosovo have used Kano to control a solar panel. 45-year-old veterans have used it to host websites. The youngest person ever to make a Kano computer was four – the oldest was 81. One of my favourite uses was by a 10 year-old. He’s a curious kid and started to look up online what components did. He got a Kano, hacked it to make it into a radio station and started broadcasting. So, someone taking Kano to become a creative artist and a personality. That, I love.

What does it mean to you to take technology that existed in various different forms to create something much more accessible?

You feel a sense of achievement. You feel proud of what you’ve made. You look at the product when someone can successfully craft it and understand how it works, and you smile – but at the same time you’re never fully satisfied. The notion here at Kano is that it’s fantastic to teach a generation to code, to let people get inside machines and rewrite the rules. But that’s such a big vision that there’s always something more to do. I’m super proud of our team and really amazed by the people out there who have taken what we’ve made and brought it into their lives, and now hundreds of thousands of people all over the world.

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