Idea Generation & the next 10 years

When I want to get some good insights into venture capital and entrepreneurship, one of my favorite sources is Vancouver’s very own Boris Wertz’s Version One Ventures blog and his Twitter feed.

He recently referenced a good post about idea generation from former Y-Combinator CEO and current Found and CEO of OpenAI, Sam Altman.

“Having ideas is among the most important qualities for a startup founder to have — you will need to generate lots of new ideas in the course of running a startup.” – Sam Altman

He said the question isn’t, “What will I be doing in 10 years?” but “What will I wish I’d started 10 years from now?” This hit me as we at Zen Maker Lab are in a period of reflection after being in business now for seven years and like many businesses having had to do a big pivot due to Covid-19.

At Zen Maker Lab, it’s inspiring to see kids that we have had in our programs when we first started back in 2013 back when they were 8 to 12 years old now maturing teens of 15 to 19 that are starting to invent impressive products, get into good engineering and design schools and some who have already developed and started commercializing products.

I remember once when someone that was cynical of kids and the maker movement told us that our programs were just glorified babysitting. At the time despite not believing that, it was still nagging at the back of my mind… “Is that all we are? Do parents bring their kids to Zen Maker Lab just as a childcare service.”. These many years later when I see what the kids in our programs are doing I realize that we definitely were not just a childcare service. I am honored that we had a role in these talented kids lives and education and I see parents that were very forward looking to see that a maker place, a space of experimentation and allowed failure, was a helpful complement to their regular school and studies for their children. It has been inspiring to see some of these teenagers now working on advanced projects to develop open source ventilators to help with the Covid-19 crisis or helping us 3D print face shields at home and be amongst the first to be able to help local healthcare frontliners. Others have developed cool maker projects that are now viable to sell as commercial project kits.

Where do we want to be in 10 years? We have seen the magic of kids learning in a maker lab environment that is not bound by their usual educational constraints and pressures. We want all kids regardless of where they live to be able to experience this. At heart we are educators and have not put full energy into the scalability and profitability of the business but instead have been constantly asking, how can we have more authentic learning that is fun and useful at the same time.

In the past year, we have had multiple groups approach us that want to take what we have in terms of approach and curriculum and scale it across North America and other parts of the world. We have seen plans of how there could be a 1000 franchise locations across the United States. So far we have turned down the partnership, buyout or investment proposals in part because it felt like the educational quality ethos didn’t quite match and the financial side overshadowed the educational quality side or franchise owners being able to truly make a decent return from their efforts.

At the same time, it feels like after so many years, it’s finally time to more substantially scale and open up the magic to more people and have a bigger impact and to be realistic about the required resources to execute well this vision.

Although less prominent than our kids and youth programs, we also offer STEM/STEAM classes for adults. With so many people’s livelihoods disrupted by Covid-19, there will be a big need for re-training and we feel we are well positioned to offer value to these career changers. We saw first hand the value of skills like 3D design, prototyping and local manufacturing with our entry into the personal protection equipment market via our ZenShields.

To this end, we our excited by some of our initiatives to bring our maker lab experience to more people.

In July, 2020, we are opening up our second location at the Shipyards. This will be our flagship location for our education programs and for some of our services work. Our original location on East 1st Street in North Vancouver will continue on as our studio, warehouse, and more industrial maker lab for local startups and our own product development.

We are expanding our free DesignMakePlay Show that provides high quality content, passionate instructors and an interactive approach where we challenge kids and youth through integrated STEAM challenges that we then showcase. We have a summer challenge planned where kids will design an obstacle course for both a robot and a human, they will then make it, and will then play with it recording their times while getting some good exercise and recording their robots times. In doing so, they will learn some fun data analytics skills as well. We are excited by the possibilities. Check out our special June 1-25th series starting tomorrow at 8:30 am!

Finally we are now able to offer our Zen Maker Lab Academy programs and our summer camps to anyone around the world via our online, synchronous learning approach. While our face to face programs were going quite fast across the Lower Mainland in Vancouver, the ability to reach anyone in the world that has Internet access is an exciting opportunity.

Like many businesses when Covid-19 hit, we lost most of our revenue suddenly since almost all of our programs were face to face. It forced us to move faster in the online and digital media areas. These were areas that we had always planned to do but seemed to always get relegated to the back burner when the easier to run face to face programs got precedence. Sometimes it takes a disruption to knock you out of your complacency.

Finally, we are putting more resources into our not-for-profit foundation, Access2Innovate. We don’t want to just be a company that only offers our high quality education programs to the wealthy. Some of our competitors charge double or triple or quadruple for the same kind of programs… there definitely is a market for this high price approach for STEM/STEAM…. even though from what our kids and parents say these high priced programs are not as good despite their inflated price tags.

By the nature of our programs, with industry experienced instructors, expensive equipment and space, it is challenging to keep our prices affordable for “average” working families or families that find themselves in financial difficulty. With our Access2Innovate program we reserve 20% of the space in our offerings so that we can provide free or partially subsidized access to those that otherwise couldn’t afford but could very well be the next Nikola Tesla or Marie Curie given the right support. We believe it is possible to maintain very high quality while still providing wide access. We know we can’t fight the digital divide just on our own so we are reaching out to larger organizations and companies to see how we can work together to offer equal opportunity for everyone, a cornerstone of capitalism and our market economies. If your organization is interested in learning more about Access2Innovate, please contact us.

Apart from Zen Maker Lab, I teach entrepreneurship and e-business part time at Capilano University and BCIT. One of the questions I always ask my students is what do they think are the key factors in a startup’s success? I use Bill Gross’ research on over 200 companies and ask them to rank business model, funding, ideas, team and timing according to what is the most important to the least important. Surprising to most is that timing is the most important success criteria, followed by team, idea, business model and at the very end of the list was funding.

The timing we had little control over other than to pivot as quickly as possible but luckily we had a really talented team with deep bench strength for a humble local maker lab and with the team there were many ideas of how we could meet the needs of our community and beyond. We have started to get a better handle on the business model and the required funding to move forward with a realistic plan.

In 10 years, I hope that all kids, youth and adults wherever they are in the world can walk, bicycle or easily take public transit to a local maker lab where they can learn about science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics and where they can tinker and experiment. In addition to the physical space, I hope they can access a high quality, robust digital platform that can help them further specialize and connect with fellow makers around the world, a platform that using AI can give them intelligent recommendations on where their skill set, interests and past projects can take them either to a job or career or a future maker project or learning experience. This hybrid digital-physical model is powerful with substantial network effects but it’s also resource intensive and not easy to execute well which makes it so exciting to try our best. Nothing like a good challenge for motivation.

Seeing makers around the world rise to the challenge of helping with Covid-19 has convinced me and others at Zen Maker Lab of the role we play in the growing importance of local manufacturing and helping our communities stay current with their skills. Whether it is Zen Maker Lab or another company or a network of independently run maker labs as is largely the case now is not important. What is important is that everyone can experience this magic.

10 years from now, I will look back and wish this is what I had done. Hopefully with the support of our team, parents, kids and other backers, we will accomplish it and the talented young entrepreneurs, designers, makers and healthy and active citizens that we played a humble role in helping grow locally will be spread across the world, all making a positive impact.

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