Meet Kano, the UK startup striving to build the ‘first computer company' to empower creativity

Charmaine Li puts a spotlight on Kano, the UK startup that enables anyone to build and code their own computer. Last year, Kano raised $1.5m on Kickstarter, but we asked founder Alex Klein what's next.
Meet Kano, the UK startup striving to build the ‘first computer company' to empower creativity

Take a moment and consider this: Why do we often refer to ‘the art of entrepreneurship’, rather than to ‘the science of entrepreneurship’?

Likewise, why does ‘computer’ typically go hand in hand with ‘science’, rather than ‘arts’?

Furthermore, if we tend to link ‘art’ so easily to ‘entrepreneurship’ in phrase, and ‘entrepreneurship’ so closely to ‘technology’ in business, then why is there such a discrepancy between ‘computer’ and ‘arts’ in thought?

Society has inherently drawn lines, through language – whether we’re always aware of it or not – that limit the way we interpret disciplines like technology, design, business and the humanities.

For instance, there’s often a stark dichotomy between the art and tech realms. And within startups, there are certain narrowly defined ideas of the co-founder/programmer/designer archetype that prevail.

Maybe it’s time we inject and propagate the ethos of “combinatorial creativity” – which drives wildly popular culture blog ‘Brainpickings’ – into the startup sphere.

Or maybe it’s time to bring the 'computer arts' into our society “if we don’t want to lose another generation – another generation that thinks it’s all about ‘program or be programmed’ and ‘join the machine or fight against it’” as Kano co-founder and Chief Product Officer Alex Klein (above) said ardently in a talk earlier this year.

Enter Kano computing

“Kano is a computer that anyone can make that you build and code. It comes as a hardware kit – you plug in the pieces and you’re led by a simple story book,” said Klein, 24, in a conversation with recently. “After building the simple pieces, you’re launched into a world of creative apps and projects.”

Kano components

Founded by Klein, Yonatan Raz-Fridman and Saul Klein (Partner at Index Ventures and Alex’s cousin), Kano has developed a DIY computer kit based on Raspberry Pi’s credit-card sized computer, which costs €149.99 and requires a spare monitor or TV to work.

The aim? Letting anyone “create technology, not just consume it”.

At the end of 2013, the company launched its project on Kickstarter with hopes of raising $100,000. However, within one month, Kano surpassed its goal and garnered more than $1.5 million in funding as well as backers such as Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Kickstarter CEO Yancey Strickler.

So far, Kano has shipped about 20,000 kits, Klein confirmed to me. “We are actually now shipping to more countries than Amazon, which is kind of great,” he added.

Like companies such as littleBits and Technology Will Save Us – which are also on a mission to demystify and democratize technology – design plays a crucial role for Kano.

While unboxing a kit that was sent to me by Kano, what really stood out was the product’s sleek and simple design aesthetic, which was consistent across its hardware (speaker, cables, customizable cases, keyboard, etc.), packaging and storytelling books/manuals.

However, being aware that one of the main target groups for Kano is kids, I was pretty irked that the stickers included consisted mostly of boys. Although I understand the name Kano is derived from Jigorō Kanō, the founder of Japanese martial art sport Judo, and many of the stickers are probably cartoon depictions of him, children might be less likely to make the connection.

Instead, there’s the possibility that kids might pick up subtle messages about stereotypical gender roles from these boy-centric stickers.

Challenges in China and supply chain

Although the kit is made for people of all ages, its ‘sweet spot’ is young people between 6-14 years old.

The idea for Kano, after all, was spawned by a conversation with Klein’s then seven-year-old cousin, Micah, also Saul’s son, who said he wanted to build a computer himself – and that it should be as simple and fun as lego.

For the computer kit’s design, Kano worked with MAP, a London-based creative consultancy that specializes in industrial design.


After the Kickstarter campaign, Klein said the biggest challenge for the company was figuring out how to build its supply chain.

“The Kano Kit is a very, very complicated piece of industrial design and requires a very intricate supply chain,” explained Klein, who previous worked as a reporter covering technology and business for publications such as Newsweek and New York Magazine.

“I mean, it has 36 components and all of them need to be precision-tested... A lot of the components have been created for the first time for the Kano Kit, like the custom case, DIY speaker and the Kano Keyboard. So, we have rigorous testing on each station, multiple assembly lines at once, SD cards being imaged and tons of testing... It’s complicated, but ultimately, we managed to ship.”

Currently, Kano has six suppliers across the Southern industrial region in China, most of them are located in the Fujian province, but the company is also operating out of Shenzhen.

Focusing on storytelling and taking a ‘macro approach’

“When I first started tinkering with Raspberry Pi, I felt it was an amazing opportunity to bring a human narrative and story to something that a lot of people felt was too abstract and totally outside of their sphere and experience. I’d always been an amateur/hobbyist technologist and tinkerer and I’d always found there were way more similarities between computer science and the humanities than most people realize," recalled Klein.

So, what was it like to transition from full-time journalist to full-time entrepreneur?

"I guess the key similarities in journalism and writing/storytelling – especially when your subject is economy and technology – is that you’re dealing with  things that are very complicated to a mainstream audience. You’re also dealing with words and concepts that are sometimes intentionally made confusing by people-in-the-know in order either to hide things are keep the secret knowledge to themselves," he explained. "So what I love to do is, I like to use characters and human examples to tell stories that make them simple, cut through complexity and get to the heart of what’s important."

Storytelling is integral to Kano and this aspect is apparent in the product's design, company's brand identity and, even, through to Klein's talks.

At the moment, Klein said Kano's 22-person team is focusing on developing the product with user suggestions as well as growing the company to ensure it's ready for the next phase. "We'd like to give you the ability to make a microphone, camera and maybe even a battery."

random chat in hq

In the long run though, the startup has bigger ambitions, said Klein: "We’re not in this just to build a cool coding kit. I think we’ve done that well, and ‘learning to code’ is obviously a big meme, but our approach to this is more macro."

To that end, he added: "We think there are some serious forces about to totally transform the personal computing landscape – those forces are probably simplicity, openness, affordability and physicality. We’re trying to build the first computer company that harnesses all of these four forces  to empower a new creative generation... At its root, we want to build a simple, fun open, useful computer that is self-made and puts the creative capacity in the front seat, rather than the consumptive."

If anything, Kano is certainly one step forward in creating a more open approach to cross-pollinating ideas in different disciplines, and then building new ideas off them.

Image credits: Courtesy of Kano.

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