Those who Kano, do

Two years ago the creators of Kano, a build-it-yourself computer kit, smashed their crowdfunding target and picked up some high profile backers. Co-founder Alex Klein tells Toni Sekinah about his mission to make programming easy and fun and why the kids were initially suspicious of the keyboard.

Kano computer kitAlex Klein is doing his part to create a generation of “superchildren.” These are kids who can get under the hood of and tinker with their tablets, smartphones and computers.

He’s doing this with his invention Kano. Klein describes Kano as a simple, fun computer hardware kit built around the Raspberry Pi. The kit includes a set of software packages that allow users to be creative and express themselves with code-powered projects once the computer has been put together.

The project went on Kickstarter in late 2013 and hit its target 15 times over raising $1.5m from 131,000 supporters including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Kickstarter co-founder Yancey Strickler. To date 45,000 Kano kits have been sold to customers in 86 countries. Roughly half of Kano’s sales are to customers in the UK and the US but in May the company raised a $15m series A round to facilitate a push into other markets as well as improving and extending the products.

Klein says: “If you want to get yourself or your kids ready for the future, wherever you live, Kano is a simple and fun way to do it.”

The kit costs £120 and includes a Raspberry Pi board, speaker, keyboard, case, cables, a micro SD card, power plug and wifi dongle and of course the picture book assembly guide as well as a coding booklet.

It all stems from Klein being an amateur hacker and spending two years as a reporter. “The aspect of journalism I enjoyed the most was using stories, characters, anecdotes and humour to make the complex simple, to demystify the world.”

Klein became fascinated with the Raspberry Pi computer, after interviewing Eben Upton of the Raspberry Pi Foundation for an article in 2012. The Raspberry Pi is a credit card-sized, single board computer developed to help kids around the world understand how computers work. So Klein was surprised when Upton said not many kids were using it because it was “too techie” for them.

Klein bought one and a 400-page, black and white, small print guide. His then six-year-old cousin Micah asked him to create a manual that was super easy to understand.

“He said ‘I want to make my own computer that is as simple and fun as Lego. It has to be so easy that no one teaches me how to do it’,” Klein recalls.

Micah’s challenge became the mission behind Kano and Klein set to work on an illustrated instructional storybook, intentionally using simple, direct language.

The first words Klein wrote in Make a Computer were: ‘This is your little computer. It looks a bit complicated but you can make it yourself and use all its powers.’

Along with Micah’s father Saul Klein – partner at Index Ventures – and entrepreneur Yonatan Raz-Fridman, Klein produced a kit of components and set up Kano Computers in early 2013.

“We thought ‘what if it was as easy to be creative with technology as it is to use it’ and that was the spark,” says Klein.

They tested a prototype at primary schools but quickly realised that the keyboards were not suitable. The original ones were designed for businesspeople and came with built-in laser pointers. The kids kept zapping each other in the eye.

Klein and Raz-Fridman noticed that despite the fun factor, the children were suspicious of using the keyboard having spent their whole lives using touchscreen displays. They had to come up with a keyboard that was exciting for young people to use and developed an orange keyboard with a touchpad that can be held like a games controller.

Kano is not just hardware but software too. The free, open source Kano operating system, which Klein calls the fastest simplest and most fun operating system for the Raspberry Pi, comes preloaded on micro SD card.

Once Kano is connected to a monitor and booted up, users have the option to use it as a computer, play music or play video, or play the games Pong, Snake or Minecraft.

The Kano users can also do projects, if they choose, on the Kano Blocks platform. Klein explains that the platform is a like a code-powered Lego set. “It breaks down code in programming languages like Python and JavaScript into these really easy plug and play visual blocks,” he says. This means that users can manipulate the games and change the size of the Pong ball, for example.

Klein says the inclusion of the projects was made possible when Alejandro Simon from the PlayStation 4 team and Tommy Sahl from the woods of north Sweden brought some “serious development talent” to the team.

Through Kano, Klein is giving kids a route into the world of programming that he found difficult to enter when he was growing up.

In 1999, after watching The Matrix, he decided he wanted to be a hacker. “I wanted to be like Neo and see though all the codes that control the world,” he says. But his youth worked against him when trying to access online resources.

“I’d go to online forums and ask what I thought were pretty simple questions and people would give me grief and say things like ‘what are you? Eleven years old?’ And I was 11 so it was a bit of a bummer.”

The difference between Klein’s experience and that of the kids that use Kano is night and day. Klein and Raz-Fridman did a workshop in King Solomon Academy in central London with a group of primary aged children.

The class remained quiet when Klein asked who had seen the inside of a computer before and who thought they could make a computer.

But when he asked how a computer thinks, all the hands went up and the class responded with theories ranging from magic waves, to space, to the computer talks in secret letters to the matrix.

When he told them they would build their own computer by following the instructions in a picture book, he remembers the atmosphere becoming electric and the kids tearing into the boxes.

“By the end of the hour they had made the computer. It was incredible. One child told me: ‘adults think we’re incapable because we’re so young, but today we made a computer. We’re like superchildren’.”

*This article was first published in July 2015 on TechCityinsider.

Gelbard delivering on the Wild side

Flower delivery company Bloom & Wild has revolutionised the way flowers are sent and delivered, making it as easy as getting a card through the post. Co-founder and chief executive Aron Gelbard tells Toni Sekinah why a desire to please people powers his business.

Bloom and WildCelebrations, congratulations, commiserations and appreciations are the main reasons people send flowers to one another.

But there is a small complication if no one is home to receive them as they may have to be left with a neighbour, which is not convenient on either side. If the bouquet is returned to the sorting office to be collected at a later date, there is a good chance they will have wilted beyond recognition by the time they get to their rightful owner.

Aron Gelbard’s company has come up with a solution so that flowers can be delivered at anytime. The flowers from Bloom & Wild arrive in a box, that though is 60cm long, can fit through standard UK letterboxes.

In the box is a personalised card and the ribbon-tied flowers with each flower head encased in protective netting. They come with a small sachet of plant food and there is even a little instruction card from Bloom & Wild that explains how to arrange the bouquet.

“We started Bloom & Wild to make sending and receiving flowers the joy that it should be,” says Gelbard.  “We think that people send flowers at times that are really emotionally important to them and they should have a great experience every time they do so.”

With his co-founder Ben Stanway, Gelbard set up Bloom & Wild in 2013, to be a flower delivery service that would give its customers a better retail experience than with traditional bricks and mortar and other online florists.

Bloom & Wild deals directly with flower growers, who pack and send out the flower boxes, from their own warehouse facility in Lincolnshire. This means that the middleman is cut out and the blossoms can be in customers’ homes within four days of being cut.

“That compares to 10 days plus in the traditional flower supply chain which means that the flowers are not only longer lasting but also that we can offer more attractive prices,” says Gelbard.

The bouquets also have attractive names such as The Luna with blush roses and cream lisianthus, as well as the The Imogen with Asiatic lilies and alstroemeria, also known as lily of the Incas.

The bouquets range in price from £20 to £37 for one-off bunches with delivery included. Users can also get weekly, fortnightly or monthly bundles for three, six or 12 months. They can also have an on-going subscription that can be paused at any time. Delivery is next-day across the UK with Royal Mail and DPD. In parts of London is can as little as two hours with an express service powered by Shutl.

No doubt, Mother’s Day was a busy day for Bloom & Wild and incidentally part of Gelbard’s motivation for setting up the business comes from his childhood and his relationship with his mother. He grew up as an only child raised by his mum so pleasing people was very important to him.

“If I could create something which would bring pleasure and happiness to large numbers of people everyday that would be something that would really motivate me,” he says.

He met Stanway through a mutual friend and they realised they had both been looking at the workings of the flower business – Stanway from the supply chain side and Gelbard from the direct-to-consumer ecommerce angle.

Gelbard was particularly inspired by Warby Parker, a vertically-integrated eyewear brand in the US and a British personalised postal snack company that is also letterbox-friendly.

The pair was going to New Covent Garden Flower Market, trying to understand how the auctions in the Netherlands worked. Then at a birthday party, Ben was serendipitously introduced to someone who worked for a fruit and vegetable grower who was also cultivating flowers. This led to the direct relationship with the flower producers.

During the summer, Gelbard says that as many flowers as possible are sourced from the UK, especially peonies as they are now coming into season and “English peonies are beautiful.” However in the winter, some of the flowers are sourced from further afield.

Gelbard and Stanway created their own tech for the company with the backend platform running on Ruby on Rails with their own API. The API powers the website which is built in Angular and JavaScript as well as the iOS and Android apps.

Bloom & Wild closed a  £2.5m series A round in July last year led by MMC Ventures as well as earlier SEIS and EIS rounds from angel investors. MMC also invested in Pact Coffee and Gousto, similar direct-to-consumer businesses, so Gelbard feels there is a good fit with the investor. However the co-founders initially put their own savings into the business and learned an important lesson in prudence early on.

“We thought we had finalised our box design and ordered 1,000 boxes. We sent out 20 test orders to people we were talking to about Bloom & Wild and flowers in 17 boxes arrived with a disease,” says Gelbard. Botrytis, a necrotrophic fungus, had blighted the blossoms as the boxes did not allow for sufficient ventilation.

Gerlbard and Stanway had to throw away 980 boxes that weren’t fit for purpose. At £2 a box, that was £2,000 of the founders’ own money that had to be written off.

“It’s a lesson that I’ll always remember because we were trying to go probably a little bit quicker than we were ready to whereas we should have focused on continuing to learn as quickly as possible and minimise the absolutely spend,” he says.

The business has since flourished and Gelbard and Stanway are now working with a team of 25 across, development, branding, creative, marketing, floristry and ‘customer delight.’

An interesting discovery he and Stanway have made is about their ‘delighted’ customers. Gelbard says that 75% of their customers are female who are often buying flowers for other women – whether they be their mothers, daughters, sisters or friends.

“I think when a man buys flowers for a wife or a girlfriend, there is still quite a traditional notion of the partner opening the door and the man presenting this big prearranged bouquet and it is a bit of a macho moment almost for the gift-giver,” he says.

He assumes that with women, they are less interested in making a grand gesture and a good impression of themselves and are more interested in giving a really thoughtful gift.

Bloom & Wild is constantly experimenting with new creative bouquet designs, some of which are limited edition with some luxurious options coming up in the future. He says that this creativity and attention to detail led to its customers constantly rating Bloom & Wild the top flower company in the UK.

“The entire system we’ve created is delivering an experience that people prefer and it’s a brand that people are starting to really love in flower gifting.”

*First published in May 2016 on TechCityinsider.

Mondo, the pocket-sized bank breaker

Mondo, a mobile-first banking app and debit card has a legion of loyal fans who helped it raise a record-breaking crowdfunding round. Jonas Huckestein tells Toni Sekinah why he wanted to work with founder Tom Blomfield and how he almost ended up living la vida Latina in South America.

Monzo 1

Mondo is a bank with a difference in that it is solely digital. There are no branches, cheques books or bank staff, but instead a snazzy smartphone app and a pre-paid debit card.

The mobile-first ‘smart bank’ allows its users to manage their money on the go, as co-founder Jonas Huckestein says it is for people who live on their smartphone.

“They are used to pressing a button and a car arrives, pressing a button and their food arrives. They really don’t want anything to take more than 30 seconds,” he says.

The Mondo dashboard shows its users – who are only on iOS at the moment – an interactive display of their transactions. Instead of just using figures and numbers, the balance can be viewed in the form of a graph.

There is instant notification of transactions as well. “If I go to Sainsbury’s, a split second later even before I get the receipt for my purchase, I just get a notification that says ‘you spent £5 at Sainsbury’s, you now have £160 left’,” says Huckestein.

Mondo also shows users the location and the logo of the shop they spent it in. It even compiles the data on their spending to show how much has been spent in a particular shop or in a particular category over a certain period of time.

With Mondo, users can block or freeze their MasterCard pre-paid debit card immediately if they lose it, through the app. However they can just as easily unblock the card if it turns up again.

Huckestein says that the Mondo team made a decision early on to not build a minimum viable product and rebuild it once the cracks and flaws appeared.

Instead they wanted to have a “rock solid platform, resilient enough to withstand a sledgehammer or a natural disaster”

He says they concluded they would build an in-house platform using the programming language Go.

“We’re beginning to see the return on that investment. If we wanted to build a completely new feature, say a travel report feature that sent push notifications when you enter a new country, we could literally build that in one afternoon,” he says.

Although the bank has not fully launched – the team is waiting the approval of a full deposit taking and lending license from the FCA and PRA – it has already got customers testing its services.

“We did not want to just build the product in a vacuum, so we decided to launch the alpha programme and now it is in beta. We got the first functional cards out at the end of November and by last week we had about 3,000 active users on that card,” says Huckestein.

There is also a waiting list of 75,000 who have signed up ready to use it when the license is approved, which Huckestein says will probably be 18 months from now.

Those users and users-to-be helped Mondo to raise a record-breaking round of crowdfunding in February. The team had already raised £2m from Passion Capital in spring 2015 and was looking to raise another £6m in Feb. Five million pounds of that was provided by Passion with the remaining £1m raised via the equity crowdfunding platform Crowdcube.

“In general we have a transparent attitude and we would like everybody to share in this experience,” says Huckestein.

The response was overwhelming with 8,500 people registering their interest. “The day we announced we would start crowdfunding, we had some technical difficulties – the Crowdcube website crashed.”

The Mondo team ended up putting a registration form on its own website three days later and ran a book in the office of how quickly the £1m target would be reached.

It was 96 seconds. “Paul Rippon, our deputy chief executive, said three minutes and won the bet but that is only because when he came in so many bets were already taken that he just to go either super high or super low,” says Huckestein.

His journey to Mondo began when GoCardless founder Tom Blomfield joined a startup in New York and became his colleague. The German knew it was just the start of their working relationship.

“We worked together for three months and I was really impressed with him and thought that this is someone that I would really want to work on any project with,” remembers Huckestein.

He also remembers Blomfield stating adamantly that he wanted to set up a bank because he felt the banking system was in the danger zone with all the banking systems on the point of breaking down.

Huckestein took note of Blomfield’s bankable dream but forged his own path – travelling the world and setting up SaaS businesses and in 2014 he was offered place at an incubator called Startup Chile.

“I was trying really hard to get Tom to go with me. Then, unfortunately or maybe fortunately, one day he said ‘listen, I have an opportunity to start a bank in London’,” he says.

Huckestein agreed to move to London for three months to “look” at Blomfield’s new venture with the intention of moving to South America afterward.

“That was at the end of 2014 and three months later I did not go to Chile.” But there are no regrets as he sees himself as helping to build something that could change consumer finance. New features are in the pipeline for the app and Mondo is looking to double the size of its 25-strong team by the end of the year.

“We’re making the best current account in the world. We expect a certain level of service from the financial industry and that’s what we’re challenging,” he says.

*This article was first published in May 2016 on TechCityinsider.

**Mondo rebranded as Monzo in August 2016.

Kanji venturing and gaining with Hoxton

Hussein Kanji is one of the founders of early stage venture capital firm Hoxton Ventures, which behind some big disrupters like Deliveroo and Yieldify. He tells Toni Sekinah why he thinks Europeans do not know how to invest in venture and why SEIS and EIS schemes are like ‘corporate welfare’.

Hussein Kanji, co-founder of Hoxton Ventures

Hussein Kanji only intended to be in the UK for two years to take a break from the US. He wanted to study in London and get a bit of ‘international colour’ because “Americans don’t think about the rest of the world nearly as much.” He has now been here for a decade.

With a hand in setting up three startups after completing his undergraduate studies at Stanford, he chose to move to the other side of the table after his MBA.

Two months after completing his studies, he became an associate at Accel Partners, which he describes as a great fund and probably one of the best in London. However he felt it was a bit too big for him.

‘I like doing small things so I left and started a smaller fund which I’d like to think is a bit more nimble and earlier stage than the Accel guys,” he says.

He set up Hoxton Ventures with fellow American Rob Kniaz, who previously worked at Google and Fidelity Ventures. “Sweet spots” for Hoxton Ventures are startups focused on the internet, mobile and software but Kanji insists this preference is not an exclusive specialisation.

“We don’t specialise. We look for companies that we think can turn out to be billion dollar companies,” he says. “Rob and I are software driven because we’re both software guys. For us, it’s a question of where the new market is and if the company is driven by software at the end of the day.”

The 14 companies in the Hoxton portfolio are an eclectic bunch; Yieldify is a predictive marketing company, SuperAwesome facilitates kids marketing, Darktrace is a cyber security software company, and Raptor Supplies is in procurement. Some of the unannounced companies operate in cloud security, agriculture insights, travel analytics and fintech.

The Hoxton Ventures team invests in European founders from “any country that competes in the Eurovision Song Contest” as the firm is geographically neutral.

Kanji says: “There’s nothing that prevents us doing something in Scotland or Manchester. We don’t care about where these guys are. We care about where they’re going.”

Some of the portfolio companies even have links to India and North America, which keeps them on their toes. “I’m on a plane once a week,” says Kanji.

The team likes to follow investments and remain shareholders for seven to 10 years. They write cheques for $250,000 at the seed stage up to $2m to lead a round.

Kanji doesn’t think that other members of the European VC community are particularly generous to their entrepreneurs.

“They’re not doing a great job. I don’t think Europeans really know how to invest in venture and I think the Americans do. Half of the money in London venture right now is American and that’s not including the Accels Partners of this world,” he says.

He’s right. Figures compiled by London & Partners, the mayor’s promotional company for the capital, show that in 2014, London-based technology firms attracted $795m in investment from the US. Compare this to the total investment in London startups of $1.35bn in 2014 and it represents 58%.

Kanji says that the Americans are stepping in because there are startups with good ideas that can become large billion dollar companies in London and the rest of Europe but they are not being taken care of by the local venture capital community.

“The Europeans underpay, they write smaller cheques, they worry about profitability over growth. Americans overpay, they put a lot of money into a company and are focused on building really large billion dollar outcomes,” he says.

Kanji believes that the lower cost of starting up a technology business in Europe is no longer a justification for VCs to write small cheques to founders.

He says: “There was a time when you could get away with writing these very small cheques of $150,000, $250,000 or maybe $1m and then try to own 30%, 40%, 50% of a company. That kind of BS would never pass muster in Silicon Valley and as the world gets more global people realise that.”

As a result he says that American venture firms are catching on that there are high-quality, underpriced companies here that are not really being taken care of so they come over and it’s not that competitive.

He cites the TransferWise $58m series C round and the Improbable $22m series A round, both led by California-based Andreessen Horowitz, as cases in point.

As well as the small cheque sizes – which he says limits a company’s ability to scale quickly – Kanji also thinks UK tech companies have a major problem stemming from the scarcity of talent.

He says that companies looking to grow from a 100 to a 1,000-person operation need senior level engineering managers, product managers and senior level executives but they are hard to find in London.

“I can count on one hand, maybe two, how many people per domain exist,” he says. The only way he sees this problem being resolved by former employees of successful exited companies “peeling off and go be instrumental in the next generation.”

As this solution would take four or five years, in the meantime he suggests UK tech startups move to or import talent from California.

He also thinks it would be beneficial to the UK tech ecosystem if more professional investors with bigger pools of money were investing at the seed stage.

He says that the current situation of high net worth individuals putting money into tech companies through SEIS and EIS tax relief schemes means “people who shouldn’t be writing cheques are writing cheques.”

He goes on: “They are writing cheques not because the ideas are good or bad but because they want their tax money back. As a result of that you’re going to get some bad behaviour.”

Kanji calls such tax incentives “corporate welfare” which he thinks is unnecessary in as we are in a boom market.

“I think the private market should be mature enough to be able to do the right sets of things and the government should stay out and people should stop asking for welfare.”

*This article was first published on TechCityinsider in August 2015.