Interview With the Founder of Piper Mark Pavlyukovskyy
Naivety and Faith As a Startup Spark
Raise $11 million in investments, sell 8 computers to Elon Musk, reach out to Steve Wozniak and leave the product to launch a new one.
Mark Pavlyukovskyy — creator of Piper, a computer-construction set for teaching kids programming using the popular game Minecraft.
The first thing a child sees opening a Piper box is a letter with a call to save the world. Minecraft reports that an asteroid is rapidly approaching the Earth and the disaster can be prevented only with the robot the user currently controls. But, the controllers, sensors, and other electronics have yet to be built.
After completing the mission, the user can build different hardware-features, using the acquired skills, and pass through all the levels again. Besides, that child can switch to Python and see that everything has been written in this language. Mark set a simple goal — to help children discover the inner workings of the gadgets already familiar to them from birth and to understand how they work.
Mark moved from Kharkiv to Louisiana when he was 9. He refers to himself as a third culture kid. In his childhood, the contrast between life in the scarcity of post-Soviet Ukraine and the US with its plentiful resources, left him with a strong impression. Mark realized that he was more fortunate than his peers; he had opportunities not available to them. Therefore, the basis of his projects, both student and business initially laid the thesis: talent is evenly distributed, opportunity is not. He intended to fight this injustice.
Mark graduated from Princeton University with a degree in molecular biology, went to graduate school at Oxford, came up with Piper, and decided that the creation of products that help a large number of children was his calling with IT being the obvious future. Then Mark dropped out of graduate school and started a company. At first, Piper was a primitive device: Raspberry Pi chip, screen, battery, mouse. And in 2018, the Piper Computer Kit became a finalist for “Tech Toy of The Year” along with Lego.
Piper has managed to attract $11 million in investments. Elon Musk has bought 8 Piper kits for his children and amongst the first project was support from Steve Wozniak, the Creator of Apple. The success story of the product seems to be a happy concatenation of circumstances. Mark himself believes that persistent faith in the idea and childish naivety helped it to succeed.
Mark, tell me, how did you manage to make the product so discussed? The idea is great, but it still needs attention drawn to it. What helped you at first to get the required amount on Kickstarter for a couple of days, then to interest Elon Musk, Steve Wozniak, and to get into Forbes’ 30 Under 30? In the interview, you talked about success as a result of a happy coincidence and good luck, but what was it really like?
We had very big ambitions. It seemed to us that it was a matter of time to bring the product to Elon Musk. We looked at any opportunity to attract investment and the right audience. We thought grandiosely. We were very naive, believed that we were about to blow up the industry and that absolutely everyone would use our product.
I remember there was a Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. I had no money, zero in my bank account, and, as predicted, no tickets to the conference. But, I was sure that the audience of the event would be interested in the product. Then I stood at the entrance to the conference building with our computer — a wooden box — and began to talk about the product to everyone who came out. Two more people from the team came with me, but they were so ashamed of this situation that at some moments I found myself alone.
When we were driving back, I saw some dude walking along the road. I recognized him as Alan Alcorn, the Creator of Pong, one of the first arcade games (Pong is called the first commercially successful video game in history, and its name is associated with the emergence of the interactive entertainment industry). I jumped out of the car, ran up to him, said I knew who he was, started talking about my product. He was very pleased that he was recognized, we took pictures with him. I had written to Steve Wozniak earlier, but he didn’t answer me. After that incident, I sent him my picture with Allan, they are friends, that’s when he answered us.
Nothing special. It’s just naivety. This approach produced interesting results.
Why, despite such popularity among media personalities from the IT-world, weren’t you able to get a contract with Microsoft, the owners of Minecraft?
We tried to negotiate with Microsoft 5 or 6 times. Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella even built Piper with his daughter. After the first incubator, when we did not have money to rent an office (we went through 3 accelerators, no one wanted to invest in us), Microsoft let us work for three months in their office. But this cooperation did not work out.
When we talked about our product, Microsoft was surprised that we were using Minecraft, and asked, “Do you pay us to use it?» We explained to them that we use a free version of Minecraft, they did not even know about (Mojang released a version of Minecraft for the Raspberry Pi in 2012 under a Creative Commons license). The relationship began on a not so good note. Plus, they didn’t have an understanding of how big of a company could cooperate with our hardware project, although we offered different options.
In fact, it is difficult to work with large companies, we tried to work with a couple more, but the partnerships did not happen either.
Tell us about the Piper team? How did you find and attract people to a no-name company at the start?
It was not easy at first, the Piper team included only friends, friends of friends, classmates. There were five of us at the start, but three months later it was just me. As a result, I launched a Kickstarter alone.
Later we attracted people quite easily — many liked the mission. The developers understood the meaning of the product, because they often learned to program through games themselves in childhood.
In marketing, we had a non-traditional team, headed by my classmate from Oxford, PhD in astrophysics Mihran Vardanyan. He has a very mathematical approach — more about optimization than about creativity, which allowed us to run a lot of effective advertising for very cheap.
How have you promoted Piper? You have cooperated with schools, attracted parents; did you make Piper fashionable among children, make them ask Santa for Piper?
It is quite difficult to show advertising to children, we did not understand how to do it ethically.
That’s why we attended schools, different children’s events, for example, the yearly Maker Faire in San Francisco. There are children that were easily fascinated by the product, built it together, played Minecraft. After that, of course, they asked their parents for the product.
In one interview, you said, “The injustice is that not everyone has the opportunity to learn: only those who can buy it get education.” In this sense, Piper does not fight injustice, because it also needs to be bought.
Yes, those who have resources get more and accumulate more resources. Six months ago I left Piper partly because of this contradiction. I wanted to influence the education of children in general, not only for a limited circle, but the product turned out to be expensive.
Now we are developing a free, online product for schools — MyCreativityBox.org It will teach programming and artificial intelligence. The last couple of months I spent in China, there was a great demand. Therefore, we plan to launch the product primarily in China and America.
Piper has released a new product (gamepad), actively cooperates with schools, is becoming more and more popular among children, things are going up. Yet you’re leaving the company?
In 2014 we started a campaign, in 2015 launched a product, I have been engaged in it for 5 years. We brought about 100,000 Piper computers to use in different ways — to homes and to schools.
It’s nice to know that the children have built 100,000 of our computers and learned something. We have made a great impact on our own. Now I want to try to make a product that can reach millions of users. With an expensive hardware product, this is difficult to do.
It was a difficult decision to leave Piper. At first, we tried to prototype a new product inside the company, but it was difficult for the team to deal with two different areas at the same time. It was more correct to make a separate company for the development of My Creativity Box.
Now my Creativity Box plans to enter the Chinese market. You took China more than seriously: went to the country, began to learn the language, and have immersed yourself in the culture. What made you take those steps?
I have a good friend who has been telling me about the progressiveness of the Chinese market for two years. In China, nearly every week another company becomes a unicorn. I was wondering how it all works there.
In March 2017, I went to a conference in Thailand, stopped in Hong Kong on the way back and went to Shenzhen, too. I was impressed by the infrastructure and investment in education. There is a whole floor which is occupied only by educational centers in each shopping center. After school, and on weekends, parents bring their children there to learn sing, program, build robots, and do homework.
In China, parents look at children as at a capital in which they have to invest. And the success of your “Fund” depends on how well you pump it. For the education of children they spend 7–8 times more than parents in America, Europe, or Australia.
I decided that if we want to have a meaningful impact on children, or want to inspire the next generation of inventors, then we need to think about China and a scalable approach. So we started making My Creativity Box.
How will the company monetize a free product?
It is always important for teachers and schools to test, evaluate and score children. We will adjust the product to this and schools will pay for this option. According to the results of the course, there will be a kind of analyst in the system: Mike got 4 points, but here’s what he can improve; Peter got 5, that’s his progress. For such Analytics and reporting, we will receive payment from these institutions.
So schools will pay for their conservatism and attachment to reports?
In general, today’s educational system was built for the world that existed 30 years ago. You are taught something, you go and work in this specialty all your life. Now everything changes very quickly, a lot of jobs are going to be automated, traditional jobs disappear.
The fact is that the modern system of education does not help children to become productive and “adult”. It seems to us that teaching children to solve open-ended problems, to act on the basis of the situation, to work on the solution together with others is more important. These qualities are more important than the ability to solve quadratic equations or write from dictation. We try to teach children the skills and technologies that they already face every day, but that they perceive as a fact or magic.
We do not yet know in which countries My Creativity Box will be presented in the future, but the main thing is the vision of the world to which we want to go.
In one interview, on a question «what would do if you become immortal?», you said, “I Guess I wouldn’t feel the pressure of deadlines anymore. I wouldn’t be so tense, I’d feel relaxed.”
What “deadline” can put pressure on a 27-year-old guy?
Over the past couple of years, several of my relatives have been diagnosed with cancer, people dying, you can’t not notice it. You understand that time goes, people leave here, and there is a wish to be flush with time. Therefore there is a constant pressure from time.
If you tell someone that it needs to be done, they can take forever to complete it. If you say that it needs to be done in an hour, then this hour is very productive. Deadlines are important, even if they are artificial, otherwise, people go with the flow. That is why it is good to be mortal.
I watched people who graduated from good universities, and because of the lack of any pressure, restrictions in life, they did not know what to do with themselves. A chain of thoughts began: I can do this, and this, and still learn this, learn the language, go there, work there — and in the end they do nothing. When choice is limited and deadlines are on the horizon, you spend your time much more productively.
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