There was just one thing left for me to do on this tech meetup: I wanted to talk to the guys who made an open-source 3D printer that can be assembled at home by normal people, for buttons.
Tech meetups are events where geeks go to demo their products and inventions. These evenings offer an opportunity to discover new ideas and, right away, ask questions from the people who invented them or know the most about related technologies.
The 3D printer guys were nowhere to be found after the demo, but their table was open and full of 3D-printed objects. Those all looked cool, and I was wondering what kind of garbage I would manage to make if I had a 3D printer at home. Alex, the guy next to me was thinking the same, though he apparently knew his way around the technology.
He explained about accuracy levels and said that you don’t need to use this rigid plastic, you can print with all sorts of materials: you could create rubber-like stuff too. Wink. This was the first time I’ve ever talked to Alex, and I knew we will be friends.
Meetups are also a good way to mingle with the local startup community. We are in Berlin now, which is one of those large international cities where seemingly no one was actually born, but plenty people flocked to from all around the world. Every conversation starts with a good five minutes of the prison-talk: why are you here, how long are you staying, what do you normally do?
On startup events you constantly bump into those Zuckerberg-wannabes who either left their job to work on a side project, or are prepared to do so in the near future. Their most important task for the night is to approach every investor-looking person with a 3-minute elevator pitch, and try to say something that triggers their “I want to invest in this company with no delay” instinct.
This startup event was no different. I was rather suspicious when, to answer the “what do you normally do” question, Alex took out his phone and opened the Photos app.
“It’s going to be a PDF demo. Let’s run away!”, I thought.
He then proceeded to show a bunch of pictures, high-quality 3D renders of his furniture line. “Cool designs though.”, I thought then.
“I designed this Kivo system,” Alex started to explain, “where you can create any sort of environment out of triangles. If you want a silent room to make phone calls, make a booth. Or, create separators between different areas in the office. A meeting room. Individual work stations. A tent.”
I wanted to say something smart, so I went on: “triangle was my sign in kindergarten”. Luckily, Alex didn’t take my clever remark as smugness.
“That’s exactly where the inspiration comes from! When I was a child, I’ve been using a towel, carpet and other daily necessities to build special spaces for myself. Now, I wanted to create something that looks nice but is also very useful. We made these triangular modules durable but very lightweight, and chose the materials so that they are environmentally friendly.”
At this point I’ve only seen the designs, and I’m just about to learn how successful of a business this is: Kivo is part of the global Herman Miller brand now, used in offices all over the world, from London to Hong Kong.
“I don’t consider myself to be a designer in any way”, says Alex, and it’s hard to see what he means. The evidence is clearly against him. “I studied business, and I also happen to be really into designing things. It’s the whole lot that excites me: design the furniture, the brand, organise the manufacturing, the distribution and PR. I enjoy it all in one package.”
I’m putting the pieces together. A business guy who invented his own furniture line, and just arrived from Cologne. What does he do in Berlin? It so happens that the next question in the prison-chat is just this one: what brings you here?
“After selling the furniture line to Herman Miller and not quite sure about what to do next, I ended up staying in Singapore for a while.”, drops the bomb Alex. “I did all these talks about Kivo, and it’s been great, but after a week or two I started to miss my friends and Europe.”
I just came back from Singapore myself, and, if you ask me the city-state is the Paradise on Earth: beautiful, fun, full of expat-hipsters and brilliant minds. I can’t seem to be able to understand how anyone would choose Berlin over Paradise.
“Well, I’m German, you know”, says Alex, and I can already see his point. “This is where my friends and family are. Besides, I’m from Nürnberg, I’ve lived in Cologne, and I think that for any entrepreneur Berlin is just the perfect place: you can find everyone and everything you can possibly want.”
This is pretty much what I remember from our first chat (as they say, memory is constructive), but it’s sure that we figured out rather quickly that we have many things to talk about. In the almost two years since we’ve met, Alex became a great friend: he is the first person I ping when I’m in Berlin, and we work together in cafes and have long conversations.
Whenever we meet up, Alex has a bunch of updates about the new ventures he is working on. “You remember the mixer I was talking about? I’ve met another engineer and seems like I’ll have to redesign it from the bottom-up.”
There’s a common misunderstanding about success. You probably have seen this picture already:
Kivo is not Alex’s first invention either: the first thing he ever designed was a club for urban golfers. It’s the sport when you go out to play golf in abandoned buildings and areas. “It was my first time designing a real product in 3D. Then we went on to manufacture them in China, and sell them on Amazon.”
Then, for the sake of this interview, I ask about his childhood dreams. “When I was seven, one of my dreams was to be a millionaire by thirty”, says Alex and adds: “Well, I guess you need to adjust your dreams sometimes.”
“It’s also a difficult thing to simply be happy. It might seem from the outside that you’re successful, but if you don’t feel like it, it’s not worth much. You actively have to remind yourself that you did actually achieve some things already.”