Alex Klein is not your everyday tech entrepreneur.
Kano Computing started out as a journalist interested in politics and economics, writing for the likes of The Daily Beast, New York Magazine, The New Republic and The Times of London.
That experience of unearthing stories hidden in the underbelly of politics, business and finance, he says, was equally applicable to the obfuscated world of technology.
“There’s always this hunger to look inside and this hunger to get the real story and peel back the layers of the onion and get the truth, even when people might obscure and throw buzzwords at you,” Klein told CNBC in an interview.
His line of thinking is that the devices and apps we use on a daily basis — from Apple’s iPhone to Facebook’s social media platform — are built with the intention that a consumer will use them, instead of giving someone the chance to have a say about how those devices and apps work and what functions are built into them.
Klein set up London-headquartered Kano, which sells do-it-yourself computer kits, in January 2013, alongside his brother Saul and fellow entrepreneur Yonatan Raz-Fridman. Its products are primarily targeted at children, the idea being that anyone — whether they’re five years old or 50 — can learn how to put together their own computer and code.
Kano users can “hack” the video game Minecraft and create classics like Snake and Pong, in addition to being able to freestyle by creating art, animations and other content.
Although Klein’s journalistic and academic credentials — he studied ethics, politics and economics at Yale University and politics at Cambridge University — don’t quite stack up to what you would normally expect from a tech entrepreneur, Klein explains that his fascination with the world of computers arrived when he encountered Raspberry Pi, a single-board computer that can fit in the palm of your hand.
“I got really excited about it from this decentralized, democratized perspective.”
He met with Eben Upton, Raspberry Pi’s inventor, in Cambridge, England, in 2012. “I was entranced by it, I thought it was so cool.” People have managed to use the tiny board to make everything from a hot air balloon that takes pictures of the land below to tiny submarines, Klein says.
“I got really excited about it from this decentralized, democratized perspective like, ‘Oh my god, there’s a computer you can get for $35, less than the price of a curling iron, that is exponentially more powerful than the mainframe that took Apollo to the moon,'” he said.
While the small circuit boards are cheap and contain many of the components necessary to modern computing — including a processor, memory, USB ports and video outputs — the idea of introducing the technology to beginners “was really complicated,” Klein said.
Where it all began
Klein and his co-founders first figured out the idea behind Kano in November 2012, when he showed the Raspberry Pi board to his young cousin Micah.
“We were kind of playing around with this board and he kind of rendered this challenge which woke me up and led to a specific product brief which kind of, over a manner of months, turned into the original Kano computer kit,” Klein said.
He recounts that Micah had asked him, “Can I make my own computer with this?” and — when asked what he would want it to be like — Micah said something along the lines of: “I’d want it to be as simple and fun as Lego so no one has to teach me how to do it.”
And that was what Kano’s co-founders set out to achieve: to show young people how to build a computer and program it in a way that was as easy as playing with Lego or a video game.
Kano’s DIY computer kits used Raspberry Pi’s circuit boards, while the company made its own open-source operating system, Kano OS, and hardware.
A history of experience in journalism, Klein said, helped form easy-to-understand manuals that guide first-time users through the process of building and understanding computers.
“We created these books, which were first sketched and then written, that almost had a glossy magazine feel, that would demystify each part of the computer and show you how to put it together and change it,” he said.
The company’s name was inspired by Kano Jigoro, the creator of the martial art judo. A character called Judoka — which literally means a practitioner of judo — guides readers through Kano’s manuals.
The manual describes the Raspberry Pi board as a “brain” made up of “billions of electric switches,” and explains that the HDMI cable connecting the computer to the screen to deliver images contains “thousands of copper fibers twisted into 19 wires.”
Since it was founded in January 2013, Kano has gained some big-name backers, ranging from Salesforce Chief Executive Marc Benioff to the company behind children’s TV show “Sesame Street.” It has so far raised $37 million from venture capital investors.
Shortly after it was established, the company ran a crowdfunding campaign for its product on Kickstarter. Much to Klein’s surprise, an unlikely name appeared as one of the backers of the project — Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak.
“That was really funny because we were watching the pledges come in and we saw the name Steve Wozniak… and it turned out it was him,” Klein said.
And Wozniak’s support didn’t end there. “We’ve exchanged emails over the years and he’s bought more kits from us, he’s been an amazing backer,” Klein added.
The Kano chief executive name-drops other high-profile figures who have tried out or bought its computer kits, including tennis star Novak Djokovic, model Karlie Kloss and actor and comedian Stephen Fry; add to that a number of politicians, including British Prime Minister Theresa May, London’s former mayor Boris Johnson, and New York’s ex-mayor Michael Bloomberg.
And the start-up has been making major strides in the commercialization of its products. Its kits are sold online and in stores around the world. Amazon, Best Buy, Barnes & Noble, Staples, Target, Walmart and Britain’s Argos are among the growing list of retailers selling Kano products.
Earlier this year, Klein’s firm struck a deal with AT&T’s Warner Bros that enabled it to release a coding kit based on the “Harry Potter” franchise. The $100 product is essentially a plastic wand for children to put together that comes fitted with electronics to detect movement and interact with Kano software.
Customers role-play as wizards and witches, navigating through challenges on a map reminiscent of the “Harry Potter” universe on Kano’s app, using the wand’s motion sensing to learn new spells and create visual and sound effects.
Last month, Kano announced a distribution deal with Apple to sell the Harry Potter coding wands in hundreds of stores across the U.S., U.K., Australia and New Zealand.
“It’s really an interesting culmination of what we’ve been doing in retail,” Klein said. “But also it kind of has some poetic meaning to it, at least for us, because in many ways the Kano system emerges as a response or a build or remix on the core of Apple.”
Klein cites Apple co-founder Steve Jobs’ vision for the tech giant, noting that Jobs saw technology as something that “should be very simple for humans to use.”
For Klein, however, technology should be about bringing that simplicity “to that layer below the surface, that layer below the touch screen.”
Kano’s boss is also alert to challenges faced by tech companies amid a backlash against established giants like Facebook and Google over issues including data privacy, fake news and potentially monopolistic behavior.
The so-called “techlash” intensified this year with Facebook embroiled in scandal over the improper sharing of user information with controversial political consultancy Cambridge Analytica, a firm that helped Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
And Google, too, has come under fire, facing regulatory scrutiny in the European Union over alleged antitrust violations, as well as employee outrage over its handling of sexual misconduct claims and plans to create a censored version of its search engine in China. Add to that, criticism over YouTube’s handling of hate and extremist content on the video sharing platform, and how its algorithms tailor videos that are trending or recommended to viewers.
“I think that is what's under threat now and under attack; this big tech assumption that you don't need to know because we'll decide for you.”
Klein says that the root of big tech’s problems lies with secrecy around how their platforms work. He highlights a description of Kano’s mission purpose laid out on its 2013 Kickstarter page.
“We wrote on that Kickstarter page in summer of 2013: 99 percent of the world is controlled by a tech-literate 1 percent,” Klein said. “That’s a problem caused by closed devices, top-down teaching and un-fun technologies that do not introduce you to the way they work.”
He added: “I think that is what’s under threat now and under attack, this big tech assumption that you don’t need to know because we’ll decide for you.”
But despite the push-back against the idea of being controlled by tech titans, Klein says it’s important not to stoop to Luddism, opposing any and all technological innovations.
“We’re very lucky to live in an era where this technology is at our disposal,” he said. “We shouldn’t mistake the fact that they can be wielded for the advancement of highly suspect interests… for some kind of inherent issue with digital technology.”
Klein says it’s down to consumers, not the likes of Facebook and Google, to provide solutions to the problems created by big tech. “It isn’t going to be Kano alone” that addresses those issues, he adds.
“It’s not Facebook’s responsibility to provide us with the solution to the things we don’t like about Facebook,” he said, adding, “It’s our responsibility as citizens in a technological democracy to understand the rules, to look into them, to enjoy them and revel in them, because it is an incredible time to be alive and to take back that control ourselves.”
“We want to build something really big, enduring; one of the most remembered and influential brands of the 21st century.”
In terms of Kano’s long-term ambitions, the chief executive hopes to turn the firm into a big, influential tech company, although he admits that it’s early days.
Like many high-growth tech start-ups, Kano is not yet profitable, but Klein says that he sees profitability as an eventual “consequence,” as opposed to the “core point,” of what the company is doing.
“We want to build something really big, enduring, one of the most remembered and influential brands of the 21st century,” he said.
“A computer company that stands up to the challenge of confusion and mysticism and just takes technology to its natural next step, which is the place where anyone can understand it and shape it themselves.”