Piper, Inc. is a STEM education startup that seeks to empower future generations of engineers through technology-driven play. The Piper Computer Kit is the company's flagship product and provides children with the opportunity to assemble a fully functional computer. Once built, users play a special Raspberry Pi Edition of Minecraft and build various electronic smart devices in order to complete in-game tasks.
The following is an abridged transcript of a February 13, 2018 interview between Mark Pavlyukovskyy, CEO and Founder of Piper, Inc., and the element14 Community team.
Why don't we begin by you giving me a brief overview of your company and the Piper Computer Kit product?
I'll begin with my own personal story. I was born in Ukraine and moved to America when I was nine, and growing up here as a kid I felt really lucky for all of the opportunities I got. I got to go to some of the best universities and schools. I went to Princeton and Oxford. So, I wanted to give back in some way. Growing up, I began to realize that talent is distributed evenly around the world but opportunity is not. And, I felt like I got lucky, had a lot of opportunities, so I wanted to empower others. And, my first attempt at doing that was, I went abroad to Africa, to Ghana specifically, and was teaching kids about global health through games. And, as I was doing that, it was going really well, but I actually got sick myself, ironically, and almost died in the process. And, that experience made me realize that to have an insight to actually do something more scalable than go to places on a one-off basis. I started teaching myself programming, electronics, and right around the time, the Raspberry Pi came out. And, I had thought, "Wow, this is a really great product. If I had this growing up, I probably would've been building things in code—scalable things—from a much younger age." I wanted to create that product that I wish I had growing up. And then as we went out we did a lot of kit testing. And, what we learned is that kids, they're not necessarily interested in coding and electronics, per se; they're interested in playing games like Minecraft, sharing with friends, interacting with friends. So, we realized that whatever product we made had to have its focus on platforms and context that kids already understood and were excited about. So, that's how we came to this idea of combining the experience of building your own computer with the experience of learning through Minecraft. And that's kind of what the product is today.
Did you feel like there was any sort of resistance within the minds of young people to learning about technology? Did you feel like, by using the video game as a medium, that it was a way of sort of tricking them into something that they might not have necessarily wanted to learn?
I think it's all about motivation, really. I think that kids are the same way that adults are: if you're motivated by something, you'll do something. You're going to find a lot of energy and excitement in doing that. Something where it's forced on you or it's boring, you're not going to be that excited. I think that's true universally. A lot of the education system today is kind of removing the context; it removes the motivation. It doesn't present topics and subjects as a kid like, "Here's what you want to build; you can try to do it." It's more like, "Here, learn this," right? And so I think, telling kids, "Hey, learn some Python or learn how to program this LED," again, you're removing the context. There's no context for why they'd want to do that. If you presented the context in, "Hey, you're already playing Minecraft, and here's a way that you can find your diamonds faster, by hooking up this LED light to it, or you can build stuff faster in the game if you write a script to do it." Then all of a sudden, kids are really motivated and they say, "Oh, that's really useful. That makes a lot of sense why I would learn coding or electronics." So, yeah, I wouldn't say kids are opposed to it, it's just you have to motivate them.
Looking at the product specs of the Piper Computer: so, it's powered by the Raspberry Pi, and how did you end up selecting the Pi computer to power your product? Why is it suited for the purpose better than other products out there?
It's the best bang for your buck in terms of what it can do for the price point. There are many other options that are more expensive, but the fact that the Pi is relatively inexpensive and can run a full operating system and can run a 3D game like Minecraft, those are all things that make it a really appealing option.
Can you speak a little bit of the steps involved in going from that vision to a working prototype, and then finally bringing your product to market with that launch?
I'd say, probably the most important thing is understanding what you're building and what you have a vision for, that there's actually a demand for it in the market. The quick prototypes that I made, I very quickly, very immediately went and tested them with kids and parents. I tried to understand, "Do parents want to buy a product like this? Did the parents find a need for a product like this? Were the kids playing with it? Is there really room in the market for a pro product like this? Would there be demand?" And so, doing that for a good while—probably a couple of months—the beginning is crucial to really understand your market. Because if you don't do that, if you go off and you have an idea that, it's not valued by customers, you could go off pretty far in the wrong direction and then launch a product that flops. You didn't do your initial research. I'd say that's probably the most important thing. And then as you develop a product, you stress that we build more features, you don't need to build the full product; you just need to show enough of a prototype to get people excited and interested and to get their feedback. And then as you continue to build some new features, continue to get feedback. Getting feedback from customers is probably the most important piece of this—building a great product. And then after that, it was learning about the different opportunities that existed to launch a product: Kickstarter, Indiegogo, other kinds of platforms that exist. Then just learning about the platform, how it works, what the best way to leverage people on it was. That was how we launched the product.
Can you explain a little bit about the team that you and Joel assembled, and any keys to successfully putting together a great team to develop a product?
I'd say, one of the things we learned, is that it's really important to have people on your team who not only—it's always good to have people who are hardworking, who can run fast and get things done and stay motivated and keep focus in a very unpredictable environment. But as you start to scale a bit more, you definitely want to bring in at least some advisors, more senior people, people who can help guide you around, and can help you see that course that you might not be able to see because it's your first time doing something. That's really valuable. I think even having an eye-opening conversation with someone who's really experienced is better than kind of doing it yourself because it will take you a week or two weeks to figure something out that someone can just tell you quickly. And, triangulating that advice across a couple of mentors, or a couple experts really allows you to make decisions quickly without having to make your own mistakes.
It seems to me that it almost takes a bit of humility to admit to oneself that there are people who might know more about the industry. Do you think that yours is a unique case, where you have this idea and you're not seeking to guard it and keep it close to the vest, but you're sharing it with others, you're bringing people in to help you along? Do you think that that's true of many people who are in your situation?
Yeah, that's definitely a very lucky thing to think. I hear it all the time with folks who have ideas, they're like, "Man, I want to build this thing, but I can't tell you about it," or it's a secret. That's a huge rookie mistake because it's not about the idea, it's definitely about the execution. If your idea is any good, you're now going to spend a lot of time convincing people that this is a good idea instead of going the other way and hiding the idea. Eventually, the job of a founding CEO becomes just convincing, selling the vision to the employees, to investors, to customers; you have to convince people that it's a good idea. So, starting with an attitude that you have to hide this and that it's a secret definitely doesn't help. And, the other piece is, you also learn a lot talking to people. You might think you have the best idea, but you probably don't. Talking to a few folks, you get a lot of feedback that will help you improve your idea. You definitely have to listen to your audience, really understand that other people might know more, probably do know more, and you should try and listen to them and take their advice if they're believable people. If they don't know what they're talking about, that's different. But, yeah, I'd say definitely, that's a big thing you gotta have, is a good portion of a good helping of humility.
Were there any examples within your own development where you were going along one path, but then someone opened your eyes to a new perspective and it caused you to drastically change the direction of the company?
I don't know if it was drastic, but one example kind of early on, thinking about how do we expand the platform, and we were thinking we were limited by Minecraft and we think we'll probably do something else. Like, switch away from Minecraft, build a platform on our own. We talked to one of our advisors who sold a couple companies in the advertising space, and he had kids. And he was like, "Look, I know it might seem appealing to do that now, but the thing is, kids really love Minecraft, and that's what they get excited about. If you were to switch, you're going to lose some of that excitement and magic that you have right now. I see it with my kids: there're a lot of products that they have, but there's a special relationship they have with Minecraft. And so, even when you think you can build a really awesome product just on your own in the first year, maybe in time, but not now, especially with Minecraft, maybe later, maybe for someone more mature." I think that was probably spot-on advice because as we talked to customers, that's what they brought up over and over: is that having that Minecraft piece is what actually draws them in. Because they realize, "Oh, my kid already has a relationship with that game. My kid already understands that game and plays it, so this product is going to be much more accessible and much easier for them to master and they're going to find it more enjoyable because they already have a shared context with the game, rather than if it was just a completely standalone, different product." So, I think that was spot-on advice that we couldn't have had because we didn't have this experience—we didn't have kids ourselves.
Were there any other major roadblocks or setbacks that you experienced that you think someone interested in going and starting their own company, it might be a benefit for that person to hear so that they can avoid similar challenges?
Actually, you know, I'd say my bias, my personal bias to action and to doing things, a lot of times— And I think a lot of founders probably tilt that way as well, because they want to do stuff and they want to be done quickly. And it has always helped me tremendously to be able to slow down and take an extra minute, an extra hour, or maybe get another piece of advice to help really understand the choice, whatever choice or decision I'm making. And make it a little more process and a little business. I had my cofounder Joel be that counterweight and help slow things down and help me make better decisions. If you're like that and you have someone in that role, definitely bring someone on board, because it's really easy to chase after a lot of things and try to move quickly. It's all very exciting. If you have a lot of different opportunities in front of you, just really focusing and making the right choice can also be difficult. So, the folks who are tilted toward action and biased toward action, I'd say, slowing down and having someone to help you make a more deliberate decision, that's a piece of feedback and advice I'd give.
What excites you about the future of Piper? And, outside of your own company, are there any other products or technological developments that have captured your interest as of late?
Yeah, what excites me about Piper is that we're building something that doesn't exist that I think can inspire a whole generation of kids the same way that I was inspired, to be curious about the world and to understand how things work. I hope that our product inspires this next generation of kids to understand technology, to become curious about it, and to feel that they're not as happy consuming content. They're actually creators and they're part of the process and they can invent and create whatever they want. That's really what excites me about what we're building. In terms of other products out there, it's never a problem with technology—it's always figuring out what the big need is and how to solve it. What I've been thinking a lot about is, how do we change our thoughts around what education is supposed to be for kids? I've been thinking a lot about that space and the products in that space and the technology that is there, and both on the consumer and on the school side. You know, schools were created in America to train factory workers and to train people to be compliant with a schedule and to follow instructions and having a basic set of skills that they knew like arithmetic and literacy, et cetera. In a world where information is accessible twenty-four/seven and you can do whatever you want—you can work remotely and you can freelance and do your thing—the kind of education that we need now is actually to inspire people and kids to go and develop and to take risks and start their own projects and to learn how to be creative. The information and technology is there. So, how do you train someone to be creative? How do you train someone to not be afraid to go after a hard problem? I think it's more of a human question, more of a design question. How do you design something that works at scale? That helps produce creative people and citizens, at scale? Helps train their minds to work in a way that allows them to solve big problems in the world and not just to become robots that follow instructions? Because, we're going to have robots very soon. So, thinking about that, and thinking about that from a very young age, right? And, I think the technology—once you figure out how to solve the problem, most of the technology is there. We have things like the Raspberry Pi, which, the Pi Zero you can buy for ten dollars, five dollars. And that's a whole computer that costs a Starbucks coffee. So, I think in terms of what's possible—anything's possible. You just have to figure out what the right solution is.
For more information about Piper, Inc., check out our in-depth Case Study highlighting the Piper Computer Kit.