How Dan Shapiro created the most-backed game in Kickstarter history

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Our guest this week is serial entrepreneur Dan Shapiro. He founded Photobucket and most recently Sparkbuy, which was acquired by Google. Last summer Dan invented a board game that teaches programming to preschoolers called Robot Turtles. It became the most-backed game in Kickstarter history and is available now in stores. Dan's now working on a book for O'Reilly about startup CEOs and enjoying the summer with his wife and five year old twins.

Dan talked about his hobby of r/c planes and drones, and wrote this great post on his website with resources to get you started.

We also talked about the new EC Archives: Two-Fisted Tales anthology, the littleBits Arduino starter bundle, and lots more!

Full transcript available here (and below) (thanks, Dan!)

Note from Mark: I'm conducting a free live streaming video workshop on August 4-5 called DIY Projects for Dads to Do with Kids. You’ll learn everything you need to complete projects with the whole family. You’ll learn how to whip up a mixture that makes enormous bubbles, and how to get started with polymer clay — a medium you can use to create custom toys, shapes, and figurines. You’ll also learn the more advanced magic of constructing a Drawbot – a simple robot that can make abstract art all by itself. My daughter Jane and will show you how to make 12 cool things during the two-day workshop. RSVP for the course today!

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Transcript:

Dean [01:01]: Welcome to Gweek Episode 155. I’m Dean Putney, Boing Boing Software Developer.

Gweek is where the editors and friends of Boing Boing talk about media, science, science fiction, video games, comic books, board games, TV shows, music, movies, tools, gadgets, apps and other neat stuff.

I’m joined by my co-host Mark Frauenfelder, Founder of Boing Boing. How are you doing Mark?

Mark [01:20]: I’m doing great Dean. How are you doing?

Dean [01:22]: Doing great. Pretty excited about this. Our guest this week is my good friend, Dan Shapiro. Dan is a serial entrepreneur. He founded Photobucket and most recently Sparkbuy which was acquired by Google.

Last summer he invented a board game that teaches programming to preschoolers called “Robot Turtles”. It became the most backed Kick game in Kickstarter history and is available now in stores.

Dan is now working on a book for O'Reilly about startup CEOs, and enjoying the summer with his wife and five-year old twins. Is the book about enjoying the summer with your wife and five-year old twins, Dan?

Dan [01:54]: No, but perhaps it should be. That’s arguably more interesting than startup CEOs but for whatever reason, it’s a topic that fascinates me.

Dean [02:02]: Well welcome, whatever. I’m excited to have you on man. It’s going to be great.

Dan [02:04]: Thank you. I’m excited to be here.

Dean [02:06]: So I’m intimately familiar with Robot Turtles. It’s like easily my favorite Kickstarter project but I don’t think our listeners are. So why don’t we talk about that a little bit. Tell us about Robot Turtles.

Dan [02:19]: Oh thanks, Dean. Yeah. This is actually last summer’s project and it was just born out of wanting to do something fun with my kids. My wife was away for a weekend and I thought, you know, I want to introduce them to board games.

But my experience with kids’ board games was limited to like Candy Land; the school of random luck or Tic-tac-toe; the school of trying to throw the match without your offspring noticing you’re trying to throw the match, and both of those sounded kind of horrible.

So I was thinking about it and I had this weird notion that maybe Logo, the programming language that I learned as a kid would make a good board game, which sounded kind of insane. But I made some clipart and printed it out and we started playing with it and the kids just loved it.

And around about that time, I had been chatting with you about your Kickstarter campaign and this incredible book that were producing, and I was kind of jealous because it sounded like you were having a lot of fun with it. So I thought you know, I should put this board game on Kickstarter and see what happens...

Dean [03:16]: Yeah.

Dan [03:17]: ...and then things got crazy.

Dean [03:18]: Yeah. And well you and I talked about Kickstarter all the time. We’ve been talking about Kickstarter and following it very, very closely for a long, long time and I guess we have a mutual fascination with it.

Dan [03:30]: It’s such an incredible experience. I don’t even know what to call it. A product? A what? It’s amazing.

Dean [03:36]: Yeah. It’s really, really cool. And I mean we spent a long time talking about what makes a Kickstarter interesting, and I think definitely you just hit the nail on the head.

[03:57] Anyway. Okay. Yeah, where were we? We were talking about Kickstarter and how it’s fascinating.

Mark [04:04]: Well Dan, what was it that like got this thing in front of people’s eyeballs on Kickstarter?

Dan [04:12]: Boy, you ask me, there are very few questions where I’m ashamed of the answer, but you asked me the only question that I am ashamed of the answer. So forgive me in advance.

Over the course of my life, I’ve emailed 3003 people and only once did I email them all at once. I exported every single email from my address book and I thought about those “Hey, I got a new job” emails and I said, “Hey, I’m doing a new thing. It’s this Kickstarter board game just in case you want to check it out,” and send it out to everybody who I’d ever met.

And of those 3003 people, two of them emailed me and said, “Why are you spamming me? Who are you? Don’t ever send me anything again.” And 3001 didn’t, which I consider an accomplishment, and then things just started going crazy.

My goal that I set for was 25,000. And I thought I could probably do that. That would give me the minimum run to put in a factory order of a thousand and not have them all sit my garage afterwards. So I was okay, I’ll be happy if I hit that, and that happened in five hours.

And then I realized this was something different than what I was expecting and it hit some sort of nerve and was getting people excited in some way that I just had no possible concept could happen, and then it was just like trying to keep up with this giant boulder rolling down the hill.

My super-secret, didn’t tell anybody dream goal was to hit $100,000, and that happened the second day and then it never stopped. It wound up at $631,000, which translated to eight elephants worth. The final games weighed as much as eight elephants and actually physically filled up three semi-truck loads. I had to hire three semi-trucks to bring them from the factory to the warehouse which was...

Dean [05:54]: Really cool.

Dan [05:55]: ...totally surreal.

Dean [05:57]: Yeah. You’ve built like a really great community around the game too. You have this Facebook feed that’s just fantastic of all the little kids playing the games and I mean it’s obvious like people are really having fun out there. They’re getting it.

And there’s this one photo in the Facebook feed that I always think about when I think about Robot Turtles is this little girl playing the game but she’s totally like decked out as a princess with the tiara and like the magic wand and the whole nine yards. But she’s lying there, like moving these little turtles around programming and it’s just so funny, really, really cute.

Dan [06:33]: I love that photo and it was so gratifying to see that. And to me, that really represented what I was most excited about, which was like going to kids as young as preschool at their level and giving them something they could be creative with, not just a structured set of rules. Because there’s a set of rules for the game but it’s really designed to allow a lot of interplay between the parent and the child and creativity and playing around.

And so even though yes, there’s a set of rules and yes, the child can win, and if you play multiplayer, it’s non-competitive, everybody tries to win themselves and everybody can win but the notion that it can be princess turtles, which in fact it is at our house from time to time, I just love that.

Dean [07:12]: Yeah. There are all these different rule sets too. So the basic game is basically like you have these turtles that you’re kind of trying to move around the board and you set up the puzzles within the game, right, where there are different walls and ice blocks that you can laser through and then you kind of direct your turtles with a set of cards. Is that a good way to describe it Dan?

Dan [07:36]: Exactly. The idea is that the kid is the programmer and the parent is the computer. And the sort of “aha” for me was you know, programming is fundamentally about bossing around a computer and bossing around your parents is really fun, especially if you’re like five or six.

So the idea is they put these cards down and then the parent moves the turtle, and so the parent has to do whatever the kid says. And what that means is there’s no like, “You know sweetie, that’s against the rules. You can’t do that thing,” because they can do whatever they want with the cards and you just show them what would be repercussions of what they’ve done. And so they’re laying these cards down in a row, you’re moving the turtle around.

And while it doesn’t seem like programming at first, once they’ve been at it a while, they’ll be laying down a row of 30 cards. You’ll see them like with their hands imagining what the turtles are going to do. They’ll run the program which means you go and do all 35 cards at once. This is the sort of advanced once they’ve been doing it a while. You do all 35 cards at once and they go, “Oh no, bug!” And then they’re going and they’re debugging...

Dean [08:36]: Yeah.

Dan [08:36]: ...and moving around the cards. And then they’re refactoring it and making it function so they can do it in less cards and it’s amazing. And it all starts out from like forward, forward, turn left, forward, forward, hooray, I got the jewel, and it just scales up from there.

So you know for me as a parent, there’s nothing more exciting than having this like “aha” where their eyes get big and you can like see the little ding go off above their heads. And the game was just how can I, like I’m a junkie for that, how can I get more of that? How can I watch my kids discover stuff as often as possible in a one hour period? So it’s just neat to see so many kids be able to engage with that.

Mark [09:14]: So Dan was the kind of inspiration for this the Logo Turtles from MIT?

Dan [0:09:21]: That’s exactly right. When I was eight years old I went to computer camp in Fargo, North Dakota. And computer camp was where I learned Logo. And the funny thing was I was always jealous because when I was a kid, and today I’m a terrible artist, couldn’t draw. And when I was a kid, I was jealous of my friends who could draw really well.

And Logo was a way that I could use something that I was excited about, computers, to help me do something that I wasn’t really good at, drawing. So I would use Logo which lets you drive a little turtle around a screen with commands to draw pictures and I’d bring those home so proud.

And you know we had a dot matrix printer at the computer camp. So I’d bring printouts and ask mom to hang them on the refrigerator and this stuff the kids normally do with art they make with their hands but I was wasn’t happy with the art that I would draw but I loved that I could do this with a computer. It was really empowering to me at age eight.

Dean [10:14]: Yeah. Totally. I mean I felt that way about computers as well like it does exactly what you tell it to do and you can make these creative works that are much better than what you can do with your hands if you’re not particularly skilled with your hands. You can kind of like tweak things in a way that makes sense to me at least. I love that about programming and technology.

Mark [10:35]: Also Dan what I like about the game is that you have different rule sets for different age groups. So as the kids get older, you can start having repetitive chunks of code that you call up for sub routines and things like that, correct?

Dan [10:49]: I was actually kind of inspired by Angry Birds, which is a game based on bad physics. And I thought what if I can make a game like that based on good computer science. You start out and the first time you play Angry Birds, it’s really hard to mess it up, like you have to figure out which way to drag your finger to make the bird fly but once you’ve done that, you’re going to hit the wall, you’re going to knock over the pigs and hooray, but it gives you this little charge.

So the first time you play it, Robot Turtles, it’s really simple but you can get more and more complicated as the child sort of learns more and more about how the game works, so all the way up to refactoring, you’re creating functions and refactoring our code and all sorts of craziness.

Mark [11:28]: Do you have like a tablet version or an iPhone version in the works?

Dan [11:33]: You know that’s a great question. The answer is no. And I’ve thought about it a lot and I certainly haven’t ruled it out. But the game came from a place that was like when I want to sit my kids down with a screen and like when we’re on an airplane and a long flight and I give them a tablet, I’ve got a ton of amazing stuff for them to do like Toca Boca and Lightbot. I’m on Android so Lightbot is really great. I hear Cargo-Bot is terrific on iOS devices.

But what I wanted was a way to really create quality time when we’re sitting there around the dinner table where we’re all present, we’re all engaged. My wife, both kids and I can sit down and we can do something together that’s interactive, and that’s still not really well suited for those little screens we’ve got everywhere.

So the itch that I wanted to scratch was that quality time together rather than the screen time with the kids. Because I think there are some really great solutions for that already, but never say never.

Mark [12:27]: No, but I agree. I think that’s a great answer.

Dean [12:32]: Yeah. I think that’s a huge part of what made the game really successful too. You really see in your Kickstarter video and in like all the things that talk about Robot Turtles, it’s like a great photo of you playing with your kids, and that’s what parents want to see. Right? They imagine themselves having a good time with their kids basically and that’s the position that you kind of wind up in with Robot Turtles. That’s really great.

Dan [12:59]: Oh thanks. I’ll tell you a funny thing about the video was I shot sort of a practice version of the video where I just started to set up a camera and asked the kids to talk about the game, just to get some footage and sort of see how it worked. And I was like, “Okay, this is great.”

And then had a friend who is a videographer come over and we set it up and we’re like okay, now say this kids. Okay, now say that kids and we sort of went through. And when we were done, we were looking at the footage and were like this is junk, which is why you hear like cars in the background while the kids are talking about the game and I’m kind of holding the camera, it’s a little shaky, because that was just them, sort of riffing and adlibbing which it turns out is way more entertaining than reading anything that I wrote for them.

Mark [13:37]: That’s funny.

Dean [13:39]: Yeah. So tell us about your new book that you’re working on with the startup CEOs. You’re an investor and you’re on the board of a couple of different companies or like advise a couple of different companies I guess. Tell us about your research for this book and what you’re working on.

Dan [13:54]: You know I love startups. I started my career at Microsoft and I worked at Google and RealNetworks and some big companies but I just loved the process of creation and coming up with an idea and putting it out there, seeing what people can do with it. I mean Robot Turtles was that sort of micro scale. And that experience was just so fascinating to me that I kind of wanted to immerse myself in it a little more.

Dean, you and I actually met at boot camp...

Dean [14:22]: That’s right, yeah.

Dan [14:24] : ...some years ago. And at that same event was the Friends of O'Reilly. The publisher invites folks to sort of come and connect. And sure enough, I wound up chatting with someone in their book department. O’Reilly, these are the guys who make the books with the amazing line art animals on the cover.

I said, “Any store that you go to has shelves packed with your books. Why don’t you write books about startups? That seems like a natural fit.” And she said, “Oh, that’s really interesting. What sort of book? And I was like, “Well, for example the startup CEO. There are all these interesting challenges and anybody who thinks about starting a startup has thought about taking this role. But what does it mean? What does it do? What’s it about?” She says, “Oh great. Tell me more.” And you know, an hour later I had been conned into writing said book.

So I’m finishing up the second draft right now and I’m just super excited about it. It’s not necessarily a book for startup CEOs. It’s really a book about the role of being a startup CEO for anybody who might want to do that, who might want to invest, who has dreamed of doing it themselves but who is wondering what that crazy person is doing, all the inscrutable decision making at the helm of a startup they may be involved with. To me, it’s just a fascinating role and so many people approach it so differently.

You know sometimes from a position of expertise where they’re like this amazing executive leader who seems to know everything, and much more often than that, from a position of fear and uncertainty and doubt. There’s this thing called imposter syndrome where people feel like they’re unqualified to do the job that they’re doing. And I find that a vast majority of startup CEOs who I talk to feel like they have this imposter syndrome, like they’re terrified somebody’s going to find out that they suck at their job.

So I actually talked to a bunch of CEOs about this. I interviewed this psychologist, Dr. Rose Clance who now lives in Tennessee and is in her eighties who first described imposter syndrome, and sort of got a sense of how this affects people and how some people it incapacitates them and some people it motivates them, because they feel like they’re a fake so they work extra hard to get around it.

But you know things like this, I think people don’t talk enough about and CEOs of startups are either heroes or villains and nobody gets to see that they’re really sometimes just desperately trying to figure out what to do next, which I think is the most interesting part.

Mark [16:42]: That sounds great. When is it coming out?

Dan: That’s a great question. I believe it’s going to be late this year or early next. So I will let you know as soon as I do.

Dean: Cool. Great. I can’t wait to read it. Well why don’t we jump into some of our picks here.

Mark, you’ve got littleBits Arduino stuff. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about that?

Mark: Yeah, sure. So I don’t know if you’re familiar with littleBits but it’s a company started by a woman named Ayah Bdeir. And she wanted to make electronics circuits really accessible to very young children, kind of like in the same way Dan that you’re making programming accessible and fun for really young children.

So the idea is to have different components on discreet modules that are pretty tiny, some like the size of a postage stamp or maybe a little bit bigger. And they have magnetic connections points so that you will hook up a power source like a 9-volt battery to an LED or in between, that you might connect a potentiometer so that you can vary the brightness.

So they have all these different components. They have sliders, they have switches, resistors, capacitors. They’ve started branching out into more sophisticated things. They have a really great synthesizer kit that they built in conjunction with Korg that has oscillators and delay, reverb, all these kinds of devices and you can snap together, a synthesizer to have different effects. My favorite one is doing like this kind of forbidden planet soundtrack style synthesizer.

So one of their most recent things is that they have started doing Arduino stuff, and so they have an actual Arduino built on to one of their modules so that you can snap it onto all of their other things. So it really turns messing around with an Arduino into software exercises because it’s just so easy to put this stuff together.

And I think it’s a great way for young kids to do things. It’s a really great way for quick prototyping. There are some fun videos on the littleBits site where someone has used the Synth Kit with an Arduino so that you can use the Arduino to actually control the music that the synthesizer is making or the sounds. Yeah, it’s pretty awesome.

And you know some people have criticized littleBits and saying that you know kids aren’t learning about how to use solderless breadboards or learning soldering. And I think those arguments have some validity in them but I also think that this is a great entry point for really young kids or for people who would otherwise like be completely turned off by having to use a solderless breadboard.

I happen to really like soldering and using breadboards and things like that but I think once people use these kinds of things, and if they want to go on, they will say okay, you know how can I raise the bar a little bit and do more things. Well, they’re going to have to learn soldering and things like that.

So I really applaud what littleBits is doing with this and they are starting to crank out more and more cool stuff and I’m really glad that they’ve expanded beyond their initial kit from a couple of years ago.

Dan [19:55]: Mark, my kids had the original kit and they love it. Their grandma bought it for them for their birthday and I think it was when they turned five, and it so amazing for them to be able to just create magic. Like you said, it’s just magnets snapped together and it’s incredible.

And coincidentally, I had this crazy experience about a month and a half ago where it turns out littleBits is working with a company called PCH, who is a giant international manufacturer. And I got to go out and tour of PCH’s factories in Guangdong in Shenzhen where they’re actually making these things. And it’s amazing. And it just reinforced to me that something like littleBits is, I’m not going to say it couldn’t have happened 10 years ago but being able to bring together the manufacturing capabilities, electronics, etcetera and apply those to what started as a really little niche boutique product is amazing.

A friend of Dean’s and I, Brady Forrest runs a program called Highway1 for PCH that brought in littleBits and brings in a bunch of those companies and gives them access to world class manufacturing facilities. And I just think it’s incredible because that meant that we all got to experience that as a polished, finished product instead of somebody having to build it themselves out of their garage and hawk it on street corners and try to get a deal with a toy company.

I just think not only is it an amazing product but it’s an amazing reflection on the world for makers now where somebody can come up with something like that, cause it to exist, get it created at high quality in small quantities and ultimately built a successful toy out of it.

Mark [21:30]: I agree. You know that’s the thing that really excites me about the homemaker movement is that it’s the end of organizational advantage and you think of like a big consumer electronics company from 15 years ago, they had kind of centralized R&D prototyping, manufacturing, funding, marketing, all those different things.

There are now low cost DIY alternatives that DIYers themselves have created for all of those different departments that an organization used to have. So that really, you don’t need to be an electrical engineer anymore because you have Arduino to prototype electronic circuits. You don’t need to approach VCs because you can use crowdsourcing. You can get rapid prototyping with Pinoko or Shapeways, all those kinds of things.

I started out as a mechanical engineer in the mid eighties and if we would have had some of these things, even then for a corporation, it would have like really speeded up the product development cycle. So the fact that these things can get into the hands of individuals in small groups is super exciting to me,

Dan: Absolutely. When I was creating Robot Turtles, it started out with an inkjet printer and a laminator which is granted, state of the art maker technology of 20, 30 years ago. But then it went to the gamecrafter.com where for 20 to 40 bucks they will make a boxed board game exactly to your specifications. You just send them your art and they ship you a game, and it was incredible.

And then I went and looked online for board game manufacturers and wound up, I literally just googled board game manufacturers and started calling down the search results list and found a company called DeLano Services in Battle Creek Michigan which is over a century old, U.S. based, does manufacturing here who could do small print runs.

So I worked with them and put it together. Their smallest run was 1000 units which is nothing to snip at but also well within reach of somebody who’s putting together a modest crowdfunding campaign. And so even though it ultimately blew up to 25 times that, they were able to build and manufacture because they had the ability to scale from very small to very large.

I mean just as a side note about sort of where the technology is at, I was going to fly out to sort of oversee it. My wife broke her ankle so they actually had somebody on the shop floor with his iPhone live streaming the printing process and sending me pictures as they were coming off the press since I couldn’t be there in person, which is just such as amazing place for us to be as creators.

Mark [24:08]: So cool. Yeah and I think that you also nailed in that being able to find out sources for materials or manufacturers and things like that, the internet has really changed things around.

Like when I was a mechanical engineer and I needed say a certain kind of a bearing or a spindle motor or something like that, you go to the library at the company and look through catalogues and stuff or call vendors and it was slow and it was hassle. And now the internet is just like kind of an indexed vendor and material and component supply store. Alibaba has changed things around, pretty amazing.

Dan [24:45]: Indeed.

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Dean [26:14]: Well, why don’t we talk about another thing here, I’ve got an item on my list. Homestar Runner is apparently coming back too. They’re going to start making new episodes of Homestar Runner. So are you guys both familiar with Homestar Runner?

Dan [26:28]: Oh, yeah.

Mark [26:28]: I’m familiar with it, but I never really followed it or anything. So tell me. Let me know Dean. Tell me about it.

Dean [26:36]: I’m madly in love with Homestar Runner. Basically this is like one of the first really successful internet cartoons, where there is like a set of these little adorable characters all made in flash so they have really sort of round refined, like just very simple shapes and simple characters. But they’ve got their little attitudes and they’re well adjusted for the internet. They make sense and they engage with people.

When you made a video, it was unusual that the characters in the video would engage with you in other ways. They did stuff like you could email in to one of the characters and that character Strong Bad would respond to you and he would type away and like send you an email back basically or there was another character called Strong Sad who had a live journal page and would write about his feelings and stuff like that on his separate live journal.

So these guys are like really, they’re born of the internet basically and they get this stuff but they wound up stopping making Homestar Runner a few years ago. It has been a long time. It has been like six or seven years where it was just like this is kind of it. Homestar Runner is basically, it’s over, that is finished.

But on April 1st, they released a new cartoon. It was a like the first one in years and years and years, and I guess the response was big enough. There were still enough people excited about Homestar Runner that they’re now considering or they’re starting to work on making new cartoons for it. I’m super, super excited about this. Dan it sounds like you are familiar with Homestar Runner as well.

Dan [28:31]: Oh my gosh, the email, the email. Yes, Strong Bad checking email on his Apple IIc or whatever that thing is that he has in front him. And it ages surprisingly well. I actually showed it to a friend a few months ago and it doesn’t look like the internet circuit ten years ago or eight years ago, wherever it was created because it just has this wonderful sort of timeless internet history quality to it. Yeah. Absolutely. I think The Cheat may actually be my favorite character.

Dean [29:02]: Yeah. I mean I love those emails. They’re really great. I mean a lot of this stuff is really where, like they had this knack for making something really catchy and making like a little short phrase that was really catchy or like a character that you would kind of like wind up saying.

I was like in Middle School at the time that this was coming out. So I would come into school and be like have you seen the new Strong Bad email, and like we’re be talking about this. I mean there are all kinds of strange things like this dragon-man Trogdor, and yeah, the email stuff, the system is down. These are all like things that they came up with that wound up being like it make sense in early internet culture basically and people latched onto it and it just kind of like really drove it home.

Dan [29:54]: I think still have my Trogdor t-shirt around somewhere, The Burninator.

Dean [29:58]: I think I bought the last Homestar Runner t-shirt that just had the white star on a red shirt because their store was still up and running and I wound up going in and buying one of these shirts. I think I got the very last one but maybe there will more now and I won’t hold that distinction anymore

Dan [30:16]: All right. I’m in for the Kickstarter.

Dean [30:19]: So Dan you’ve got laser cutters on your list here. Tell us about laser cutters.

Dan [30:24]: Oh, my gosh. Yes. So I had this sort of weird sequence of events where I was working on Robot Turtles and as I talked to a bunch of people about the project. And a couple of people said, “You know it would be really cool if you have like 3D turtles or pieces or something.”

So I was looking, and 3D printing the turtles they kind of come out one color and it would be super expensive just to get even four multicolor turtles. Shapeways, I think can do multicolor printing but the cost comes out really high and they wouldn’t be that durable and I wasn’t clear if kids could put it in their mouths.

So I called up a friend of mine, who actually works for a company called Exotic Metals who does crazy fabrications for Aerospace. His name is Andy Anderson. I said, “Andy what are the most awesome machines you have to make stuff out of?”

So we talked about all the things. They have waterjets for this and that. At some point he said, and of course the laser cutter. I’m like lasers, of course. The turtles have lasers on their back in the game. I need to do a laser edition.

So I trundled over to Metrix Create: Space. And in the maker house, there are two local maker spaces in Seattle. I went both them and played around with the lasers and spent a bunch of time cutting out acrylic turtles and various different things and came up with this special laser edition.

And it still was pretty expensive to do it, so I had to have it, it’s like a $200.00 pledge. But even then, I barely broke even on the laser text and the rental laser time. But it was really neat. So I put ten of them up and the ten sold. I put ten more up because hey, you know what’s ten more. And then before I knew it, I had sold seventy-five of them and each one was going to take something like one to two hours of laser time to cut.

Dean [32:09]: Wow.

Dan [32:09]: And I looked and I was like, “I need to buy a laser.” So I took pretty much the entire proceeds from the laser edition and bought this 60 watt industrial carbon dioxide cutting laser, 770 pounds shipping weight that now lives in my garage. And it took me almost 3, 400 hours of cut time. It took months for me to produce all these. It was the only part of the Kickstarter campaign that came in seriously late and I’ve apologized many times and I will apologize once again to those who got it a month or two late.

But the laser itself is just amazing. And the ability to go and say, I have this idea, in a few sketches to go come up with something and then immediately go and turn that into leather or foam or fluorescent acrylic or plywood.

And I’ve done everything from furniture, like desks. I made a 12” inch subwoofer, I’ve done ramps, all sorts of crazy things. And as cool as 3D printing is in theory, at the end of the day it’s hard to get over the facts that your working material is like blubs of plastic.

You know there are a lot of novelty factor and it’s really great for prototyping, but I really don’t want to decorate my house with stuff that comes off a 3D printer. Stuff that comes off a laser is amazing.

I’m wearing this watch band right now that’s made out of leather that was stamped out of engraved acrylic that was engraved in the leather with a laser. It was cut. The holes for the stitching were punched. So basically, I put it in there, hit the button, take it out, run the needle through the holes that are already punched to do the stitching and come up with this really cool, totally personal thing and the whole process just takes a couple of hours, and it is so much more accessible to me.

Mark, I took a couple of mechanical engineering courses in college and I wound up as a double [indiscernible 33:56] because my brain just isn’t that good in 3D. But with lasers you could build 3D things but you are building them out of 2D pieces. So I’m just super infatuated by what you can do with these machines that are really starting to drop in price.

Mark [34:09]: You know, Dan I agree 100% and have thought about that a lot, given the option of having a really nice laser cutter or a 3D printer, I would take a laser cutter every single time. You can make such great stuff with laser cutters. Like you said, you can make large things out of them. People have come up with really creative forms of joinery so that you can make enclosures and things, and turn things really flexible by making little cuts. You can have books spines.

When I was at Maker Faire, Rome, the Italians have really embraced laser cutting and are making really cool furniture and enclosures for electronics. They are making new kinds of beehives, all sorts of stuff. I mean the possibilities with laser printers are so exciting.

And yes, 3D printers are cool but I agree, I think we’re still kind of in the air with home based 3D printing, especially where it’s is like the early days of desktop publishing, where large fonts had those jaggeds in them. I really don’t like that jagged look of a 3D printed thing.

One of these days, we’ll have 3D printers at home that can print out things that look the Shapeways does where it’s like really nice jewelry and things. But man laser printers, they underrated right now. Those things are so cool.

Dan [35:32]: You know and I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that probably the best maker bang for the dollar right now, it’s subtractive in 2D like a laser. But Zach Kaplan over at Inventables has started selling the Shapeoko 2, which is basically a CNC mounted dremel. So it’s a CNC mill at micro scale. And you can get one of these up and running for hundreds of dollars.

I think they’re selling it for something like six, seven hundred dollars where you do some basic assembly yourself. And you can actually mill things out of cool woods and materials. And while it’s messier, and not quite as fast as a laser, you also have the ability to do things at variable depth, which is kind of neat.

And this is a way you can actually get started well under a thousand. Lasers are still, it’s hard to get one that’s worthwhile for under four thousand dollars. But the Shapeoko is well under a thousand. So that’s on my list of toys to add to the garage soon.

Dean [36:25]: Yeah, that’s a good thing to know. Mark, why don’t you tell us about EC Archives Two Fisted-Tales?

Mark [36:32]: Yeah. I’ve talked about EC comics before. They were a comic company, that had its hay day in the 50s. Originally they were called Educational Comics. A guy named Max Gaines started Educational Comics and the titles weren’t that exciting. I think his best seller was something called “Picture Stories From the Bible”. And he was really into the idea of comics as an educational medium.

And he died in a motor boating accident and so his wife the widow asked their son, William, if he would be willing to take over the company. At this time. the company was $100,000 in debt and this was like in the last 40s, that’s a lot of money.

And William Gaines wanted to be a chemist. He was enrolled in college and was on his way to becoming a chemist. He had no interest in it but he grudgingly took it on. And he said his role was limited to going in like once a month to sign the pay checks for everybody.

But somehow the comics bug bit him and he really fortunately, it was just one of those things, like how the Beatles got together. He got together this talent pool of cartoonists and writers, who to this day remain like the name brands of great comic book artists and writers like Harvey Kurtzsman, Jack Davis, Wally Wood. And they produced some of the most memorable comics ever; Weird Science, Weird Fantasy, The Tales from The Crypt.

And one of the lesser known but really good comic series that they did was called “Two-Fisted Tales”, and they were war comics And they were not limited to just like World War II. They had, Civil War, very early historical battles like in Roman times and things like that. And the series was run by Harvey Kurtzman’s who was also the creator of Mad magazine And it was really a comic book at the beginning for EC.

But Kurtzman had a great sense of humor, he kind of was like the pioneer of the kind of humor that we all enjoy today. But he was also like a really great story teller. And the way he did these war comics was really interesting. He didn’t draw all of the stories himself, he did a couple.

But what he would do for the artists was they would be sent the pages of Bristol board, the lettering would already be in all the panels. The panels would be like inked already so they would have these rectangles and then the lettering would be inked in with the word balloons and everything. And then Kurtzman would have like pretty detailed penciled roughs on tracing paper, taped onto the Bristol board. So it was up to the artists to kind of like, follow Kurtzman directions really closely. And if someone asked to like have a freer hand he would tell them to forget it. He was kind of a micromanager.

But the comics are really excellent. They really do show the horrors of war and what happen psychologically to people, much more so that a lot of that war comics that were out of the time that were kind of patriotic propaganda for the war and what followed. These are like really well done stories.

And so if you are used to seeing to some of the other easy title like Mad magazine, Weird Science, Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror and stuff like that, do yourself a favor and get these really nice archives that Dark Horse has published. There are three volumes in the Two-Fisted Tales archives so far. They are just reprinting six comics per hardbound issue, and beautiful colors and everything. It’s not just like photocopying old comic books. They’re scanning the original art and then recoloring them faithfully. So you have really crisp, pristine pages. It’s a great experience.

Dean [40:41]: The colors on the cover of this one that you linked are really, they’re just so vibrant. They really pop.

Mark[40:48]: Yes.

Dean [40:49]: I think I’m going to grab a copy of this. This looks really cool.

Mark [40:52]: Yeah. Check it out. And I got an advance copy of Volume 3. And they are really hitting their stride. I think the first volume is not as good, Kurtzman is trying to figure out what it’s all about. Two and three, it’s like there will be some stories in there that will blow you away.

Dean [41:09]: Okay. So if I get one, I should get Volume 2?

Mark [41:13]: Yeah, two and three.

Dean [41:14]: How many volumes are there going to be?

Mark [41:17]: That is a good question. I don’t know how far they go. I don’t think it’s going to go much farther than Volume 3, which goes up, I’m not sure actually to tell you the truth Dean. I don’t want to make something up.

Dean [41:30]: Okay. Yeah, that sounds good.

Dan [41:32]: And where can you get these Mark?

Mark [41:34]: They are available on Amazon or if you go to just Dark House, you can learn about them and probably order them as well. And I’m sure your local comic book store would have them too if you have a good comic book store.

Dean [41:46]: Good suggestion. I should walk down to mine and check it out.

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Dean [43:07]: All right. Well I’m going to talk about, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the Potato Salad Kickstarter.

Dan [43:15]: Proud backer here.

Dean [43:17]: Yeah. So for those of you not familiar with the Potato Salad Kickstarter, basically Kickstarter changed their rules recently where previously all projects coming into then were reviewed by a person and they were fairly strict about what kinds of things got to be on Kickstarter but every once in a while like a parody or like a crank Kickstarter project would get approved. But now their old projects are being reviewed by some sort of an algorithm or a system that they’ve created.

A few days ago basically, fairly recently somebody posted a project that just says, “I’m going to make potato salad. I want to raise ten dollars on Kickstarter to make Potato Salad. And he had a couple of little stretch goals, like $30.00 we’ll get some better mayonnaise, $70.00 we’ll get more potatoes or something like that.

And basically he raises this money, he raises ten dollars very quickly. And people were kind of like, “ha ha, that’s very funny.” And then all of a sudden the whole internet jumps on this thing and starts dumping money into it. And it very quickly raised about $40,000.00 and now it’s sort of fluctuating between forty and like seventy, I think. I haven’t looked at it today, so I should probably check that out.

So, Dan, you backed this. Why did you decide to back Potato Salad?

Dan [44:51]: You know, the short version is, it was performance art that was worth a dollar. I backed it with one dollar because I wanted to read the updates. I wanted to see what was going on. To me the really interesting thing is that some people have gotten really upset about this.

Dean [45:05]: Oh, yeah. Hugely.

Dan [45:06]: And there’s a feeling that, I guess, a dollar spent to back Potato Salad is a dollar that should be used for better purposes. I don’t totally get that. I mean I guess it’s possible there are some people who have a budget that’s for backing performance art Kickstarters. It’s not really intended for performance art but that’s certainly the way that I am enjoying it. It’s intended for that or for charity.

Personally, I have a budget for donating to charity and I try and find the most efficient use of that. And then I have money that I spend on things I love and that entertain and amuse me, and that’s what I spend the Potato Salad dollar from. And, you know, in the words of Max Kempton, “We can fight hunger and support the potato salad guy.”

But a lot of people don’t seem to see it that way and there’s some real controversy about it. There has been a Potato Salad for the homeless Kickstarter, not Kickstarter because Kickstarter does not allow charitable fundraising. But crowdfunding campaign for Potato Salad for the homeless riffing off of that which I think is terrific. But, again, it’s a false dichotomy, like feed the hungry and if you’re inspired by the potato salad guy, that’ great.

So for me it’s really interesting because I love supporting people who are doing fun and interesting things that I think have a creative and an interesting take on life, which this guy clearly is and does. He is now putting together a Potato Salad for the internet and renting out a giant hall, going to make potato salad in mass and invite all the backers to come and join, which I think is a wonderful kind of ad hoc community that he’s putting together and it’s a joyful and silly and fun and obviously different than you know, feeding the hungry, which is noble and wonderful and also deserving for support.

But I guess there’s a sense from a lot of people online that those things are somehow fundamentally at odds which I don’t understand.

Mark [46:57]: So did you know that he had it up to $70,000.00 and he lost $30,000.00 last night somehow. I think people are cancelling.

Dean [0:47:08]: Yeah. Well you can make a pledge of whatever value you want and as long as the project doesn’t end, you can cancel it. So I was thinking like, you know, maybe I would go in and make a $10,000.00 pledge and then delete later, just to see what people said. And I bet you that’s what happened, is that people went in and like made really large pledges and then just removed them, specifically to get that kind of reaction, right?

Because I mean the thing is all kind of a joke anyway and I think that that enhances it a little bit, is watching these people freak out about it, “Oh, it’s at 70,000. Now it’s at 40,000. What’s going on? Nobody knows.” And I think that that’s really, I find that entertaining. I don’t know about you guys.

Dan [47:53]: Well, and I think we should point it out that this isn’t just him doing something entertaining. This is a huge collaboration with now thousands of people who are all entertaining each other and who are participating in this strange, crazy beast.

It is a weird thing about Kickstarter that you could create or move pledges. Sometimes it is really negative. I actually know creators who’ve had people who’ve done this maliciously. Who created large bids and then pulled them at the last minute and caused the project to not fund, which is a really horribly thing to do to somebody who’s trying to create something wonderful.

This is a whole different beast. This is an ad hoc community composed of all sorts of crazy people who just appreciate what this person is doing, coming together and talking and joking and sort of playing with the rules a bit which I think is really fun to see.

Dean [48:41]: Yeah. He’s not in danger of not funding too. He has got 4000 times his goal. I mean, so many people would have to back out that it doesn’t make any sense. But in regards to the people that are frustrated about it, I’ve seen people frustrated about it and saying this devalues other Kickstarter projects, and I am not actually sure that that’s the case. If anything you want to look at this Kickstarter project and think about why is this successful, even as a parody and as something that doesn’t really have any value.

This is like enormously successful and I feel like people look at this and think like this is successful, it’s a fluke, right, like this will never happen again. But actually he has got a lot of really good things going for him, like his project, what he is going to make is really clear. It’s very simple. You know you donate to this project, there will be Potato Salad.

He’s got like a great big bowl of potato salad as the picture for the project. I mean it just like it’s remarkably clear and simple and how much you want to put into it, what you’re going to get out of it, you know, where you money is going. And that is something that even that basic of a level is something that I think a lot of Kickstarter projects don’t really get right. Like I see Kickstarter projects all the time where I just literally cannot figure out what my money is going towards when I put money in on it.

Dan [50:10] : Dean you taught me something. I think of it as the Curly role from Curly in City Slickers. Curly, you know, is the grizzled cowboy and Billy Crystal says basically, “Curly, what’s the meaning of life?” And he says, “It’s one thing.” And Billy Crystal says, “But what is it?” And he says, “You have to figure it out. But once you’ve figured out your one thing, you know what the meaning of your life is.”

And Kickstarter is kind of like that. The Kickstarters that are saying we are going start a movement and we are going to create a product line and here is t-shirts and here’s bells and whistles and then they are just sort of all over the place. It’s really hard to get attraction.

The Kickstarters that people love are when you say there’s one thing and this thing doesn’t exist. This thing can’t exist without you. Bring this thing to life. That’s what you did with your book. This was a book that was not going to exist if people didn’t step up to participate. That’s what happened with Robot Turtles. There is no way that a game computer programming was going to wind up on store shelves without people stepping up to it.

As silly as it sounds, that’s what the Potato Salad guy was about. He said, “Look here’s a thing I am going to do.” And well his was sort of the, you know, reductio ad absurdum of this practice, you are exactly right. It was a clear call to action. It was silly but it was about one thing and people said, yeah all right. I am going to throw in $10.00 to go in and make that happen.

Dean [51:32]: Yeah, totally. I mean he just really like boils it down to the absolute basics. Like just give me money, maybe, maybe you’ll get a bite of this potato salad if you’re willing to show up in Columbus. But really there will be potato salad and he has made it very clear this is a joke. And I think also there having been a history, if you have been really following Kickstarter like you and I have Dan, there is definitely a history of these parodies.

I think there was one called, made by one of the creators of Kickstarter called “Dat Ass Up.” And all it was when you back a Kickstarter project, if you have Twitter linked to your account it automatically tweets out, I just backed this project and the title of the project. And so this was just like a parody on that where it would just say I backed Dat Ass Up, and like that was the whole joke. But unfortunately because it was one of the Kickstarter creators, he decided to cancel the project.

So I think a lot of these peer jokes within Kickstarter are they will cancel their projects at some point. And it’s possible that will happen here with this guy but I mean he let it run basically. He let it get huge and that sort of new in these parody Kickstarters I guess.

Dan [53:05]: Indeed.

Dean [53:06]: So Dan, why don’t you tell us about Dirt Cheap UAVs?

Dan [53:11]: Oh my gosh, yes, one of my favorite topics. There was a time, oh gosh, this is now eight, nine years ago, where when I was a kid I always thought that a remote control airplane would be the most amazing thing ever. But back then remote control airplanes were basically like lawnmowers with wings. There are these gas engines and they’re loud and they’re noisy and they would spew flames, and like one wrong move and the entire thing is a giant pile of matchsticks with a burning gas engine in the middle.

It seemed like there was some fun hidden inside a giant bowl of not fun. And like people would do this as model making and then flying the model almost seems incidental. I didn’t want to make models I wanted to fly stuff.

So I never got an RC plane as a kid. Then eight, nine years ago, I don’t remember how I noticed, but I discovered that you could buy RC planes for insanely little money. So you could actually go get what’s basically a glorified block of foam, strap enough electronics onto it that it could fly straight up, might have a thrust to one ratio similar to a jet fire because it’s lightweight and because batteries are light and motors are cheap and you could do this for under a hundred dollars.

So I started fly these cheap foam airplanes and batting around and they’re super fun. And then the latest thing that has come out is FPV which is super cool. So you actually have a live video feed from your aircraft coming back. You can strap on a pair of goggles, you could use head trackers, 3D vision, look around, so you are actually flying from the point of view of the cockpit and fly even potentially miles.

Now quadcopters have gotten and multi-copters have gotten a lot of press for this. There is the like the GTI Phantom that a lot of people are looking at which is around a $1000.00 plus or minus $400.00, depending which model you get. It does video feed and it flies. But, personally, the ones that are really excited to me that get very little press are the fixed-wing aircraft. The ones that look like airplanes and can fly around really heavy loads. You know, quadcopters typically have like ten to fifteen minutes of battery life.

I actually am right now in the garage building one that has got a 10-foot wingspan. I actually got it on Kickstarter and people have flown it for up to three hours at a time.

Mark [55:29]: 10-foot wingspan. So these are made of foam primarily?

Dean [55:35]: Exactly. They are using mostly expanded polyolefin, EPO foam which is like you’ve probably seen it in packing material for high end electronics. It’s spongy unlike regular Styrofoam and while you can rip it if you try really hard, if you just hit it doesn’t break apart like Styrofoam. And if it does break, it breaks on a clean line unlike Styrofoam which means it is really easy to glue back together. So you can just smash these things into the ground and they will break into three parts and you put glue on it, you’re back up into the air.

Mark [56:05]: That’s really cool.

Dean [56:08]: I think the Kickstarter was called The Tech Pod Hobby UAV and it’s this huge wingspan, it’s got a T-type wing, it’s got a clear dome in the front. So you put your Go pro camera is what it is designed for in the front. You put on a gimbal so you actually look around pan up, down, left, right and you can fly for hours at a time if you carry it out sufficiently, which is just amazing.

And people have used these. There is one person who is using them for some form of ecological monitoring in the tropics to look at coral reefs. They are actually capable enough that you can use them for really interesting, scientific and investigational purposes. I just like flying in the field.

Mark [56:50]: They look really cool.

Dean [0:56:51]: Yeah. They sort of look like a little Cyclops a little bit with the camera right in the front, right in the nose. That is so neat.

Mark [56:58]: It looks like something military almost.

Dan [57:03]: Yeah. You know it’s funny, I was having a conversation with a friend who is looking at, [indiscernible 57:06], I think he works for the Gate’s Foundation and he was looking at vaccine delivery in the third world. And I said I am sure here this all the time but drones?

And he said yeah, it’s funny one of the biggest problems in using drones for delivery is that they are terrifying. People are scared about what that means. There is only one way that people know about drones in these countries and it’s not a good one, and so drones have a real PR problem.

Dean [57:35]: We need Taco-copter. We need Taco-copter, Dan.

Dan [57:38]: We need Taco-copter.

Dean [57:39]: Yeah, where is Taco-copter?

Dan [0:57:41: Yeah. That was a pretty hilarious full project, well, sort of full project. I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t come into existence at some point.

Dean [57:50]: Someday there would be Taco-copter. I am convinced of it. It will be great.

Yeah. I am mean this is amazing stuff. I mean you really introduced me to the idea that, like you said, that a remote control airplane is sort of an achievable thing. And you introduced me to like all the little parts and help me kit this together. Actually, this is how, like how we actually started talking, was we were getting ready to leave from food camp and you were just like, “Do you like model airplanes?” And I was like, “Argh, yeah, I guess. I don’t know.” And you were like, “Great, I’ll email you.” And then we started like just talking about model airplanes and like putting one together and now I’ve got one that you helped me kit together.

And it was really surprising how easy it was and it was less than a hundred bucks for all the parts. And yeah now I guess I’ll have to start checking these other things out. I mean all I ever did with mine was crash it but...

Dan [58:43]: You had it up in the air for a while before you crashed, it to be fair.

Dean [58:46]: Yeah, well, now I have crashed it too many times and I got to get a new one or something. But yeah it was a lot of fun just crushing it even. That was a total blast. So yeah, this is totally like I got to get back into this. I have got to get a new wing and start experimenting with it again.

Dan [59:04]: And if memory serves you had the Bonsai from Hobbyking which I think is $19.00, for the airplane?

Mark [59:12]: Yeah. It’s like a little foam, one wing airplane and there so cheap and like all the motors are fine. If you crash it all that’s fine. And like the real expensive bit is the controller. So as long as you don’t crash the controller somehow, like spike into the ground after you have a really good flight or something, you’ll be all set.

Dan [59:33]: Resist the urge.

Mark [59:35]: Is it remote controlled? The Bonsai?

Dean [59:38]: Yeah. It’s a remote controlled one. The Bonsai is just the wing. It’s just the foam bit and then you buy all the motors and everything separately.

Dan [59:48]: And it’s really small. Actually, the Bonsai is just a flying wing with two little winglets. I actually attach mine with Velcro, the winglets with Velcro. So I use polymer, stick them on the top of the wing and throw it in my suitcase and it fits in a carry on suitcase and I have taken it on vacation, like to Hawaii.

And you get these little, tiny cameras, they are called 808 cameras that look like a keychain remote for your car and they weigh almost nothing. You can just tape it to the bottom of the Bonsai and shoot really awesome videos, 640x480 video on a little microSD card.

So I have this awesome footage of Hawaii flying way high up in the air and then like diving and skimming over the water and a side view of like my kids cheering on the shore. And this amazing vacation footage from this hundred dollar all in thing which, you know, if I accidently crash into the ocean I am out the sixty dollars for the wing and the electronics because yeah, as long as I don’t throw the controller in the ocean it’s not too bad.

Mark [1:00:49]: That’s so cool. Do you have that video posted anywhere, Dan?

Dan [1:00:54]: I don’t. But I can rectify that.

Mark [1:00:56]: Okay. That’d be great. I’ll love to see it and share it with our audience.

Dan [1:01:00]: Absolutely.

Dean [1:01:01]: Well, guys. I think that might be about it for us today. We are running up on time. Thanks Dan for joining us. It has been real pleasure.

Dan [1:01:10]: Thanks so much for having me.

Dean [1:01:13]: Yeah. And you can find Dan on Twitter at Dan Shapiro. And Mark, thank you very much for joining us as always.

Mark [1:01:18]: Thank you.

Dean [1:01:19]: It’s a highlight of my week as usual.

Mark [1:01:22]: Me too.

Dean [1:01:23]: Great. And yeah, Dan we’ll have to have you on again soon. This was really, really fun.

Dan [1:01:28]: Thanks so much. It was a blast.

[INTERVIEW ENDS AT 01:01:45]


Published 7:00 am Wed, Jul 16, 2014

About the Author

Mark Frauenfelder is the founder of Boing Boing and the founding editor-in-chief of MAKE. He is editor-in-chief of Cool Tools and co-founder of Wink Books. Twitter: @frauenfelder. His new book is Maker Dad: Lunch Box Guitars, Antigravity Jars, and 22 Other Incredibly Cool Father-Daughter DIY Projects


From our forums

  1. OtherMichael

    I backed the project and have "my own" copy of Robot Turtles. The kids love playing with it. They're nearly-4 and 2.5, and the rules are too much for them, still. On occasion we follow the instructions and direct a bug around. But mostly my daughter loves to collect the diamonds [nature vs nurture?], my son looks for the laser cards, and they both run around the room shouting "BUG EMERGENCY!".

    If nothing else, they can get a job in QA or Tech Support someday....

  2. WearySky

    I missed the Kickstarter (or rather, couldn't find anybody to jump in with me to make the shipping to Canada make sense), and missed it again when it popped up on Amazon. I'm pleased to see that it's available at a reasonable price on Amazon.ca now, and I'm totally going to pick up a copy for my 5 year old.

Continue the discussion at bbs.boingboing.net

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