From Legos in the Caribbean to Kid-Centered Design in Silicon Valley

Among parents and educators, there has been a growing demand for education tech products that promote creative problem solving among children. In this episode of Mastering Innovation on SiriusXM Channel 132, Business Radio Powered by The Wharton School, Joel Sadler, Founder and CEO of the education tech startup Piper, discusses the company’s inception, how he built a strong entrepreneurial team, and how effectively listening to users is crucial in developing a successful product.

Expectations that tech skills will lead to future job security have led to a growing emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) education and increased interest in teaching kids to code. At a young age, however, learning a coding language such as CSS or Javascript can be daunting, even discouraging. After starting Piper five years ago, Joel soon found out that rather than explicitly learn computer code, children were more inclined to engage in a hands-on project that allowed them to play their favorite game or program an exciting array of blinking LED lights. He elaborates on how this “Trojan Horse” method of learning was integral in developing the DIY computer kit they offer today.

An excerpt of the interview is transcribed below. Listen to more episodes here.

Transcript

Joel Sadler (Founder & CEO, Piper)

Saikat Chaudhuri: There are a couple of things which I heard in how you’re describing your product development process. One was that you are focusing on something that’s affordable, and the other is that it has to be fairly easy to put together in some way. I take it that all of this has been influenced in some way both by growing up in Jamaica and also playing with Legos.

Joel Sadler: Absolutely. That’s central to my path. Growing up in a country with fewer resources put me in a mindset of, “We need to design not just for one type of person, one middle to higher income. We need to design solutions and products for everyone that are accessible to all regardless of economic background, race, and so on.”

Growing up in Jamaica sensitized me to this idea of universal design. We’re designing for a much broader population; we’re designing globally, not just for the U.S. It taught me about being resourceful and using what is available at hand to create innovations. Everyone has access to Lego blocks. You could see them in our products. Our first products were close to prototypes that could be made out of things like Legos. In fact, many of the products I’ve worked on are initially made out of cardboard and Legos — whatever we have lying around that you can buy in a hardware store — and then become the innovations that you see today. Growing up in Jamaica taught me that resourcefulness and that mindset of creative problem-solving under limited resources.

Chaudhuri: Very powerful. You make it sound easy. What were some of the challenges you faced along the way?

“Growing up in Jamaica taught me that resourcefulness and that mindset of creative problem-solving under limited resources.” – Joel Sadler

Sadler: One of the hardest lessons to learn as an engineer is it’s not just about technology; it’s about listening to users. The previous guest talked about design thinking, user-centered design, and listening to what it is that people actually need. In our case, we listened to kids and heard that they don’t necessarily want to learn about programming and code. We tried this in the beginning, early on. We thought kids should learn about JavaScript, CSS, HTML, make their own websites and so on, and we found that engagement was very low. However, they’re the ones who came back to us and said, “Hey, these little computers that you’re handing to us, these Raspberry Pis, can they actually play my favorite game?” Minecraft was hot at the time, so that kept coming up. We heard that a lot from kids. We listened and then we integrated that into the product. Ultimately, from a kid-centric point of view, that was really important to get the product off the ground, to start from a thing that kids would really engage with. They want to play and build Piper. That “Trojan horse” learning, learning disguised as something that’s enticing to them, was a key way to get started.

Chaudhuri: When you talk about “we,” are you using the royal we and it was actually you, or did you have some friends or a team around you that you assembled?

Sadler: This has been absolute team effort. We did start out in a basement. It was a small number of us, a handful. Now we have a team in San Francisco that’s humming away trying to get Piper Computer Kits under Christmas trees. The big lesson for me as an innovator is that nothing is done alone. I have an expertise in the product, mechanical, electrical, and software side, but there’s a whole other side of business where I had to depend on my team to fill in those gaps. This is absolutely, like every startup and great transformation product, a team effort.

“The big lesson for me as an innovator is that nothing is done alone.” – Joel Sadler

Chaudhuri: How did you find the right people to partner with in that? I’m asking you these things because a lot of our students will be inspired by this story. They’re interested in entrepreneurship and startups and they just don’t know where to begin.

Sadler: I have a few simple rules of thumb, at least for startups. It’s about getting the right mindset. You asked about how Jamaica influenced me and the mindset of creating products, and it’s about having the entrepreneurial mindset coming in. It’s an athletic one, one where we enjoy prototyping, failing, and trying over and over and seeing failure or success until we get a product in someone’s hand and make a viable business. That’s something I’d advise, especially students who are thinking about starting a company, to pay attention to the mindset of the team that’s starting out. I do find that it is a certain style, an athletic and an entrepreneurial mindset, that lends itself well to scaling in the early days. Then it’s paying attention to your users and seeing what problem you’re trying to solve.

In our case, there was a technical aspect, so we certainly wanted technical talent on our team. We were building the computer kit which has mechanical parts, electrical parts, wires that you have to plug in, nuts and bolts, screws, a software layer, and an operating system layer. For us, it was clear as we built those prototypes and tested them that we needed certain kinds of technical talent. As we built the business and started selling the product on our website, Amazon.com, and other partners, we kept our eyes open, adding marketing experts and logistics and manufacturing to the team. It grew iteratively from there. It all comes down to what problem you are trying to solve and matching that solution with the skill sets you’re looking for.

About Our Guest

Dr. Joel Sadler is an entrepreneur, inventor, and advocate for technology for human empowerment. He is the founder of the educational technology startup Piper, who has inspired thousands of kids to build their first computer and to see computers not just as magical black-boxes, but as approachable tools for creative self-expression and problem-solving. Growing up in Jamaica he was inspired by early childhood experiences creating whimsical contraptions with electronic LEGO blocks, and went on lifelong learning path of engineering at MIT and Stanford, founding 3 technology startups along the way. Prior to Piper, Time Magazine recognized him with a Top 50 Invention, for creating the JaipurKnee prosthetic knee joint. He has more than a decade of experience in product creation across mechanical, electrical hardware and software design, including product design for Apple, Johnson and Johnson, and Audi. He is an advocate for “Creative Computing”, and he has authored over a dozen research studies in the field, including his Stanford Ph.D. on “The Anatomy of Creative Computing”, which showed that anyone, even a 7-year-old, could be inspired to prototype their technology ideas without any prior knowledge. In his TEDx talk, and as a lecturer at the Stanford “d.school”, he has taught on how we might use design thinking and prototyping to democratize technology for new generation innovators.

Mastering Innovation is live on Thursdays at 4:00 p.m. ET. Listen to more episodes here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *