The Mini Maker Faire kind of blew my mind

I always wanted to attend the original Maker Faire in the Bay Area and the annual shows that followed, but they started soon after I moved to Oregon and they never overlapped with my travel down there. I recently noticed they were touring around Mini Maker Faires to different cities and I was delighted when my local science museum (OMSI) mentioned it was coming up this weekend. I bought tickets for my family and figured it’d be a lot like the parking lot at O’Reilly conferences I’ve attended: mostly nerds with their hobby gadgets, stuff like robots and rockets and a car converted to run on coffee grinds. My daughter is 8 now and we’re always trying to push her towards having the best STEM education she can get and I figured this might be good for a few science demos. I planned to go on Sunday and looked at random Twitter/Flickr photos from the opening day on Saturday and saw only somewhat interesting looking robots and rockets and figured it’d probably take an hour to see it all and honestly I just hoped my daughter wouldn’t be bored by the dry presentation of it.

I got it all hopelessly, completely wrong, and it kind of blew my mind a bit.

First off, my estimate of spending an hour with a bored child turned out to be showing up soon after it opened followed by forcing ourselves to leave about 90min before closing. It was incredible, they had a huge variety of demonstrations that covered not only all aspects of science, but also art, anthropology, cooking, and even some swords and archery. The demos were well-tailored to a young audience but were also fun for adults (I got to make my own pewter coin!). Another aspect I thought was handled well was the mixture of commerce and education. Many of the demos were done by local businesses and they sometimes offered stuff you could buy to do more of the same thing at home. This could have gone very wrong and seemed really crass if vendors only showed up in an effort to sell their junk disguised as a science demo, but it worked out well where if you really liked making a bit of fresh cheese in a booth, you could buy a cheesemaking kit for doing larger batches in your own kitchen.

Screen Shot 2013-09-16 at 2.23.04 PMLastly, the thing that really blew my mind was seeing my daughter learn how to solder and assemble basic electronics by building what was a essentially a LED throwie. The LED Throwie is a small battery, a magnet, and a few LED lights that experimental graffiti artists came up with at Eyebeam and plans on how to make them launched on the early Instructables website. I recall Throwies pissed off a lot of major cities as random blinking lights started appearing on their public metal sculptures. I remember watching Throwies blow up in popularity while Jonah Peretti was at Eyebeam, who likely used those lessons to help push content viral when he started Buzzfeed and Huffington Post later on. Then I thought about Tim O’Reilly always watching the alpha geeks at the edges, knowing those people are 3-5 years ahead of the curve and that we could look to what they were interested in as what the mainstream would someday be into, and how today’s Mini Maker Faire was a lot like the Emerging Technology conferences I attended 5+ years ago. I also thought about Dale DoughertyMark Frauenfelder launching Make Magazine that turned into this.

It was amazing to see what was once an experimental graffiti project loved and hated around the world morph into a simple teaching tool for kids that could expose them to science, art, and fun by letting them create a small blinking object they could pin on their clothes. This all grew from geek hobbyists in a parking lot much like the one I stood in today, and the magazine that launched from that. The Mini Maker Faire quite literally was helping pass along the wonder and knowledge I saw over the last decade to a new generation of Makers.

Needless to say, if you’re a parent and one of the Mini Maker Faires is in your town, by all means do everything you can to attend one; you’ll have a great time.

On Lanyrd, investing, and selling

Lanyrd blew me away from the day it launched. It’s a way to track speakers and attendees of upcoming conferences, but it’s also a social web application. It was the first site/app I used that didn’t require yet another login (it used the then-new Twitter auth). It was the first Twitter-powered app that was instantly useful the moment I connected my accounts. Being a tech nerd that speaks/goes to conferences and follows lots of other tech nerds that speak at/attend conferences, my first post-login screen at Lanyrd was filled with information about dozens of conferences my friends were speaking at & attending that I otherwise wouldn’t have known about.

Frankly, I was amazed. I went from hitting the homepage of a new app I’d never heard of to having screens full of useful information about my friends and the industry I work in, in about 30 seconds. I immediately dashed off a message to Simon Willison (one of the co-founders) saying Lanyrd was really impressive and if they ever opened up a round of funding to keep me in mind. Simon and Nat got back to me soon after and there were lots of Skype calls and documents sent to lawyers and in the end I got to become the very first investor in Simon and Nat while also being an early advisor to Lanyrd.

Recently they sent out an email announcing an acquisition by Eventbrite and I was surprised to get the news out of the blue but also happy to hear who was doing the acquiring. If you haven’t used it lately, Eventbrite is a great site for arranging/selling/buying tickets for events. As Eventbrite has grown over the last few years, I’ve realized it plays a larger role in my life. In the beginning, it was just a small events site, like a more formal version of Evite and I would attend local industry events for maybe 20 people. Lately, I’ve used it to pay for $1,000+ conference tickets, woke up early to get tickets for high demand small events that sell out within minutes, while still using it for beer bar meetups for a couple dozen friends. I find the biggest problem with Eventbrite these days is discovery; that unless I happened to catch a single tweet from a friend at 11pm one night announcing an event, I wouldn’t know that event existed.

Usually startup acquisitions are bumpy affairs, where a new owner tacks on a new vision for a product, morphs it into their existing infrastructure and inevitably shuts the old site down. I was happy to hear about an Eventbrite/Lanyrd deal because it’ll be a great addition to both properties. My Lanyrd page will extend from technology conferences to every local event on Eventbrite that friends are throwing and attending. The ginormous list of local events offered to me at Eventbrite will filter into things my friends are organizing and/or attending, through my Lanyrd-powered friends. It’s going to be win-win for both companies.

On Investing

Over the last few years, I’ve put some energy, effort, and money into companies I like and want to see do good in the world. To date, I’ve invested in four things: Kickstarter, Lanyrd, Little Bird, and Original. Mostly, I’m investing in friends, people I’ve known for a while that I believe in and have good ideas that can become big. Part of this also comes from working in the Bay Area during the 2000-era tech boom, and watching my friends build amazing things in the aftermath of the bust. I remember seeing the first Flickr shoebox/chat app and asking Stewart if I could invest a couple thousand bucks I had in savings because I thought this could revolutionize the photography world. There were complicating issues at the time (they’d already taken larger rounds of funding) but I told myself if I ever got a chance to see a new app really early on that I felt had greatness and a great team behind it, I’d do whatever I could to help it along.

So far, it’s been a real waiting game. You see demos from friends, you talk over small friends & family style funding, you exchange lots of paperwork with lawyers, and eventually you help the founders meet other people for larger funding rounds while you often get to help steer the product as an early user/advisor. In four years of investing, this is the first acquisition I’ve been through, so I can see why VC firms place lots of bets on lots of companies, since they probably like to see more action than one sale every four years.

On Selling

I’ve neglected to mention it on my blog or Twitter until now, but last Fall, Paul and I sold to a guy named Andy that runs a bunch of car sites. He had been following us for years, had run similar sites, and had a much larger community of car enthusiasts that could really push Fuelly to new heights. We quietly announced it on Fuelly recently and Andy has the time/energy (that we didn’t) to tackle loads of new features for the site. They recently bought and integrated a popular iPhone app for Fuelly and the upcoming APIs will accomplish a lot of the ideas we hoped to get to someday.

Not all acquisitions end with horror stories from “our incredible journey“, sometimes a person or company comes along that is doing something similar to what you’re doing and offers to take over and build up all the things you dreamed about, without losing the original purpose for the site and service. I think that’s the case for both Lanyrd and Fuelly today.

San Francisco summer trip

I spent the last week of my daughter’s summer vacation taking her to San Francisco to have fun for a few days. What follows is a summary of things I liked, tips, and a few photos from the vacation.

  • The California Academy of Science is pretty amazing, combining an aquarium, a natural history museum, a bit of a zoo, and a science museum into one. It’s expensive but worth it. Also expensive but worth it, the restaurant in the basement called The Moss Room, run by the chef behind SF’s Sliding Door restaurant.
  • Ghirardelli Square was a bit of a letdown in that there’s no real chocolate factory to tour, it’s basically just a mall and you can buy chocolate and ice cream there as well as other shops. I never went here at a resident of the city and now I know I didn’t miss anything.
  • The cable car system is still a tourist novelty that was down/broken half of our stay and that trains were few and far between making the whole thing feel overpriced and slow.
  • The Clipper Card system was incredible! After living in the Bay Area for several years, I used to be annoyed by having BART tickets, cash for Muni, and separate Caltrain tickets. One clipper card for each of us worked on every system we used (Muni, BART, Caltrain, AC buses) and was easy to refill at any station. It finally felt like SF caught up to what every other major world city offered nearly a decade ago.
  • Visiting Pixar was a treat, but so much of the campus is restricted to outsiders that we basically just got to see how much energy they put into storyboarding movies before they’re ever made. I always knew they spent years on each film, but it didn’t sink in until I was there that storyboarding and tweaking a story is about 80% of the effort going into their movies.
  • About two years ago I stopped renting cars when visiting the Bay Area and this trip felt like the first time that could be permanent for future trips. We went all over San Francisco, down to San Carlos, over to Emeryville, and back to the airport all on quick, easy trains. Mass transit was also possible due to a bunch of handy apps, like Embark, which can tell you down to the minute where the nearest bus or train is heading.
  • The Exploratorium was fun and I love the new location and building they’re in. There are many more exhibits than I recall in the old space, it’s about a 10 minute walk from the Ferry Building, and there are tons of cool demos to entertain and inform kids.
  • Being briefly a single parent during this trip wasn’t as hard as I thought. Plane rides are much easier with iPads, and as someone told me when you’re the only parent around, every parenting decision you make is the correct one.








Glacier National Park, Montana

Last month, I took a family car trip over to Glacier National Park in Montana. I’d never been to Montana before, but since it was within 12 hours of driving from Oregon, I figured it’d be a nice experience for my 8 year-old daughter that mirrored all the mini vacations I took with my parents on long car trips. Below is a selection of photos from the trip, and a quick recap after.

The quick summary is that it was an amazing place. Though 2 million people visit the enormous park annually it didn’t feel at all crowded. The lodging within the park was sold out nearly a year in advance so we ended up at a small B&B just outside the west side entrance called The Great Bear Inn (the included nightly dinner was ah-maze-ing). The park’s season is pretty short, from roughly late-May to late-September, depending on snow melt. The park was really big, we mostly just explored various hikes and stops along the Going To The Sun road (including a day trip white water rafting which I would recommend highly). In four days we didn’t even have time for the northern end of the park (we only saw glaciers from a distance). The animal life was pretty great, we saw bald eagles, mountain goats with baby goats, and lots of other little critters. We didn’t get to see any of the bears we were warned about but that was fine. The scenery was beyond beautiful, with lush green glacier-carved valleys giving way to high peaks that make up the continental divide. Rising temps are melting the glaciers that give the park its namesake — they are now just a couple dozen small glaciers left with estimates that they’ll be gone in 10-15 years.

Overall, it was an extraordinary place and we had a great time. I can’t wait to revisit the place, only this time I’ll try the more northern sections of the park (it extends into Canada as well). On the way there, we spent a night in Spokane, Washington and that was a lot of fun as well.