In 2012, Bethany Koby and her husband Daniel Hirschmann started running tech workshops around London. Children and adults could create their own musical instruments using microchips, circuit boards and LED lights, learning about coding and electronics in the process.
The pair’s startup, Tech Will Save Us, has since shipped DIY gadget kits to children in 97 countries and worked with the BBC to put mini code-able computers in the hands of one million 11 and 12-year-olds. Its build-your-own speaker, synth and gamer kits are featured in design museums and leading department stores and its latest product, the Mover Kit – a wearable that children can make and code themselves – received $120,000 in funding on Kickstarter back in May. The business has been an incredible success to date – a feat due in no small part to its user-centred approach to design, a strong brand identity and founders who are passionate about making products to spark children’s curiosity.
Koby and Hirschmann founded Tech Will Save Us with the aim of transforming the way children learn to use technology. Koby was then a creative director at Wolff Olins and Hirschmann, an interaction designer at Jason Bruges Studio. The idea for the business was inspired by their experience of teaching workshops in schools: “We were just very aware that education doesn’t move fast enough to keep up with technology,” says Koby.
“[Tech education in schools] is still very focused on skills acquisition, not creativity and problem solving – yes it’s important to be able to program like an expert but in our professional lives, what’s most important is being able to use technology to solve problems and think creatively.” The pair had also had a son and Koby says she was struck by the lack of engaging toys that were available to help him learn through using tech.
Starting out with workshops allowed Hirschmann and Koby to see people interacting with technology. “We quickly saw from those workshops that we could ‘kit-ify’ that experience and basically create digital tools that allow you to have that making experience anywhere, whether in a classroom or a field.”
Workshops also gave the pair a good understanding of the different ways in which people learn and problem-solve – knowledge that came in handy when creating DIY kits for children of varying ages to use independently. “Some people are visual, some people are auditory, some people want to take out all of the parts and read the instructions for themselves … we wanted to create the best possible resources that would cater to all of those different ways of learning,”
When it came to selling kits this background was vital in securing support from investors and retailers. The pair didn’t just have an idea, they had physical products which had been tested by hundreds of users. It also helped that there were few competing products on the market at the time.
“When we started doing this, there weren’t really any other businesses in our space. The maker movement was bubbling away in the US but it wasn’t that big in the UK, so we were unique, and we had a compelling name and an interesting proposition,” says Koby.
“The name wasn’t just arbitrary, it reflected what the business needed to do in the world, and products aren’t developed randomly but in response to big trends happening [namely our increasing reliance on technology and the fact that 65% of today’s children may be working in jobs that don’t exist yet]. So there was a big consideration about b purpose and reason and why we were launching the brand and I think that’s hugely important when you’re creating something new. The stronger and tighter that narrative is, the more people can enter into and support your organisation.”
When developing new products, Koby says, Tech Will Save Us starts out not with a firm idea of what they want to create, but with themes they are keen to explore. “We do tonnes of research and activities to begin the product development process and then we prototype a bunch of possibilities, with the aim of putting something in someone’s hand as fast as possible,” she explains.
The Mover Kit, for example, came out of an idea to create a product based around movement. It responds to movement with light and can be coded in infinite ways to create games or accessories. “We started out with a bunch of prototypes that we tested on 300 kids and the thing that worked best was something that was portable and responsible and could be customised with code. It didn’t start with ‘we wanted to make a wearable’, it started with looking at health and activity and responsiveness, and the insights we gathered were that kids were really interested in health and sports and wanting to be active, so we experimented with that in a bunch of different ways and started to develop this product,” says Koby.
This user-centred approach to design is at the heart of the business and it’s something Koby feels passionately about – user feedback isn’t just used to define the company’s products, they’re what shapes it.
“As creatives and designers who are all super passionate about this space, you can start to make lots of assumptions…. I’ve always felt that being creative and imaginative and having that spark of creativity where you don’t know where it came from is amazing, but I think sometimes, it comes from the most unexpected places – seeing that young person interact with something or have a chat with their parent about it or use it to make something you didn’t know they could make. That’s just as valuable to a designer as their own personal creativity and we try and make sure we have those interactions as often as possible,” she adds.
Last year, Tech Will Save Us undertook its biggest project to date – a collaboration with the BBC, Microsoft, robotics manufacturer ARM and Samsung to create the micro:bit – a pocket-sized code-able computer inspired by the 80s mini computing tool, the Micro. The micro:bit has since been given out free to one million pupils and as design lead, Tech Will Save us was responsible for creating the physical design, user experience and an accompanying digital platform. Kids can use it to create b everything from virtual pets to games and step counters.
Koby says the team is now in talks with several potential partners and sees these collaborations as key to helping the business reach as many children as possible.
“Creating a tool that would go out to a million different young people was an amazing process for us as a team and it’s definitely not the last partnership we’ll do,” she says. “It’s fundamental for our status to have partnerships, to be able to piggy back on the sale and legacy and legitimacy of those bigger companies and work with experts in particular areas is really exciting for us.”
Since it was founded, Tech Will Save Us has grown from a team of two to 27. Most of its products are still made at a mini-factory in Hackney but some manufacturing will be outsourced to Asia to allow the team to focus on developing and testing new products. Growing a business so quickly brings many challenges – Koby says one of the biggest has been building the right team, putting processes in place to ensure everyone works efficiently and ensuring staff are supported and encouraged to progress. When hiring new team members, Koby produces detailed job descriptions and KPIs to ensure that candidates know exactly what is expected of them, and applicants are asked to complete tasks and come in for a trial day before being offered a job.
“In the early days, I think a lot of startups recruit generalist people who can do lots of different things and end up pushing them into something they’re maybe not great at, but as you get better at designing the business and the structure, you become much better at being very clear about what you want,” she says.
The company is now preparing to launch its Mover Kit in stores in time for Christmas and will be releasing add-ons to existing kits over the next few months. The long-term aim, says Koby, is to inspire as many children as possible to think creatively, invent things and problem solve using technology at a formative stage in their lives, inspiring a new generation of digital makers.
“When you’re between the ages of four and 11, you’re learning everything that will shape who you become in the future – your personality, your fears, your strengths, your weaknesses,” she says. “We want to create delightful experiences with technology that can help to spark something in kids at that really fundamental stage. Things that might help them to make better choices when they get older, to have more confidence in their capacity to do things, because there’s something incredible about being successful in making something. We all know that, but sometimes we forget it as we get older. We start being serious and we stop playing.”