Academic journal article Research-Technology Management

Democratizing Innovation: An Interview with Dan Shapiro: Dan Shapiro Talks with Jim Euchner about New Capabilities and Infrastructure That Are Lowering the Barriers to Innovation

Academic journal article Research-Technology Management

Democratizing Innovation: An Interview with Dan Shapiro: Dan Shapiro Talks with Jim Euchner about New Capabilities and Infrastructure That Are Lowering the Barriers to Innovation

Article excerpt

Dan Shapiro is a serial entrepreneur and one of the first innovators to take full advantage of new tools that lower the barriers to innovation. Shapiro invented Robot Turtles, the most successful board game in Kickstarter history, while playing with his kids. His current company, Glowforge, is the result of the most successful crowdfunded campaign of any type ever. With this latest venture, which will produce a consumer-grade computer-controlled laser cutter, Shapiro has not only leveraged new tools for entrepreneurs but also added one to the toolkit. In this interview, he discusses these ventures and the lessons he has learned for success in this new world.

JIM EUCHNER [JE]: I'd like to focus this discussion on the way technology is lowering barriers to innovation. You have two interesting stories to tell--the story of the board game Robot Turtles, and the story of Glowforge, a tool for desktop computer-controlled cutting. Can we start with Robot Turtles, from crowdfunding through to product delivery?

DAN SHAPIRO [DS]: I started Robot Turtles as a game that I was playing with my kids. It was something I was excited about because they enjoyed it. It was fun, and along the way it taught them some of the basics of computer programming; not things like functions and subroutines, although that's possible, but things like debugging, like thinking of the computer as an infinitely patient but incredibly stupid servant who does whatever you tell it to do (but not necessarily what you want). It teaches you about trying things out, and backing up and trying again if what you tried doesn't work.

My favorite part of the game is that the parent is the computer: the parent plays the infinitely patient robot and the child gets to boss them around. After exploring this game with my kids and sharing it with a circle of friends, it seemed that there was excitement about it, and I started to think about whether there might be a market for Robot Turtles. This was important because, when I did a little looking around, I found that the smallest order that I could produce of a cardboard game was 1,000 units.

One thousand units would cost about $30,000. With a couple of startups under my belt--software companies--I could afford $30,000 for a wild, hare-brained experiment, but the last thing I wanted was 999 copies of Robot Turtles in my garage waiting to find a home. So for me, crowdfunding wasn't just about the money, although the money was certainly great. It was a way of finding out whether there was desire for the game; it was about gauging excitement and seeing whether a community could be created out of people who shared a passion about something new. I went to Kickstarter to get the venture going, but not before I'd done a lot of research, including developing all the art work and design that we would do for the first copy of the game.

I got an engineering degree from Harvey Mudd College, which has an engineering program that's unusual in that the school doesn't let you specialize in any one kind of engineering. Although I really wanted to be an electrical engineer at the time, I took a whole swath of classes that weren't electrical engineering, and one of them was Manufacturing Metallurgy. In that class, we had to do two things: master the theory of metallurgical manufacturing and make 10 of something. The professor wasn't particularly picky about what you made 10 of, but the magic and the terror that we would soon learn is that 10 is a small number, but it's big enough that it's excruciatingly difficult to do anything by hand or without a repeatable process: all the little steps that take five minutes when you're doing them once take an hour when you're doing them 10 times.

It was during that Manufacturing Metallurgy class that I started to get a visceral sense of the difference between the prototype and production processes. I got an understanding at a gut level that you can't do anything on an ad hoc basis. …

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