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We asked several of our favorite maker couples to tell us a little bit about the ups and down of their collaborative process. This touches on two of our current site themes, today being Valentine’s Day, and this quarter having a Maker Business theme. All three of these couples have turned their passion for making things, and their ability to work well together, into successful small maker businesses. Jillian Northrup and Jeffrey McGrew run Because We Can, a CNC-driven design and fabrication shop in Oakland, CA. Amy Parness and Ariel Churi run Sparkle Labs, creating “hi-tech, high-touch” products and environments, such as the awesome DIY Design Electronics Kit. Dave and Cheryl Hrynkiw run http://www.solarbotics.com/, the premier supplier of BEAM and other types of robotic kits and parts. Thanks to all three couple for taking the time out to talk to us. Happy Valentine’s Day — Gareth

MAKE: What sorts of projects do you collaborate on? How long have you been doing it?

Jillian Northrup (and Jeffrey McGrew): Well, right now, we run our design-build business, Because We Can, together. But we’ve been working together since we met, which was in 2000. When we first started dating, we decided to put together an arts and events newsletter and secret society, of sorts, we called it “Loteria Cabal.” We wrote a monthly newsletter together, doing about four events a month (one of the events was our wedding!). It was really fun! We did that for about three years, then stopped, focused on the Art Car we made together for about a year, then decided to start the business that we run today. We’ve been in business since 2006.

Amy Parness (and Ariel Churi): We make toys and art projects together. We also make dinner. We like to make cupcakes and ice cream. We’ve been doing it for about 7 years.

Dave (and Cheryl) Hryrinkiw: Cheryl supports my weird ambition to be a self-proclaimed “Chief Geek” at my own little technology company. We’ve been at it for…wow… 17 years?!? Why is she still married to me?

solarbotics Make: Together (more collaborative couples)

The Solarbotics staff. Cheryl and Dave are on the upper right.


What is your creative process? Does one person usually come up with the idea and both of you execute, or do you usually “imagineer” together?

Jillian (and Jeffrey): Well… this would imply that there’s some kind of organized process we go through! To be honest, we’re both very creative and are idea-generating constantly, which makes us both a bit spastic. Fortunately, we have learned how to bounce ideas off of each other, and through that process, learn what’s a good idea, and what should be left by the wayside. Once an idea is out there, it no longer has an owner. When we’re interested in pursuing something, we talk about it a lot, and it morphs so much, that it isn’t one person’s idea any more. We both enhance it, pick it apart, and in the end, have something that lives apart from us entirely. It’s a very satisfying process for us.

becauseWeCan.jpg

Jeffrey and Jillian in their Oakland, CA shop

Amy (and Ariel): It depends. Sometimes, Ariel comes up with the ideas, and at other times, I do. But he usually illustrates them. I do not draw as well as he does.

Dave (and Cheryl): She’s the litmus test for my prototypes. Then, she promptly hits me over the head with a clue-by-four and the obvious: “Well, why doesn’t it do X, too?” She’s the forest-looker, while I’m busy examining the bark on the trees.

What do you think are the most positive aspects of collaborating within a couple? And what are the negatives?

Jillian (and Jeffrey): Well the positives of working together are easy! You get to spend more time with the person you dearly love. You get to have a fun, engaging, exciting, and satisfying experiences with your partner. That kind of experience can only enhance a relationship. The negative side is that you don’t get to go home and complain to your spouse about what a jerk your co-worker was that day! ; )

Amy (and Ariel): It’s fun. Usually. I think it helps push us to learn new things and to learn from each other. The negatives are — well, sometimes, you can’t agree, and you fight. And that happens about once a day.

 Make: Together (more collaborative couples)

Ariel and Amy, all gussied up. They clean up well.

Dave (and Cheryl): Being able to spend the majority of your day with somebody you respect and admire. Much better than just the usual five hours an evening you get to spend with your mate, wouldn’t you say? (okay, maybe some wouldn’t…) Negatives? The work becomes another member of the family, which often demands more attention than it deserves. Fortunately, we’re pretty good at isolating “business-partner” from “life-partner” arguments. That can really tear up a relationship if you’re not aware of the difference. Being able to take “critical advice” on a project to get it done properly is a skill both partners need.

What is your favorite project that you’ve done together (and why)?

Jillian (and Jeffrey): Definitely starting and running our business together. It’s all we talk about sometimes. We have a great time with it. It’s challenging, rewarding, exciting, demanding, exhausting, and totally awesome. We get to do so many fun things! Because we’re in charge of steering the big Because We Can ship, we get to go in any direction we want to. And that’s very empowering. And empowering for our relationship. We are constantly proud of each other and ourselves as a team.

Amy (and Ariel): There are lots of favorites. We work on both our own projects and projects for other people. We prototyped a series of electronic plush aliens, and it was really fun to see them come to life. We were invited to show in Korea. It was great to work on that together.

Dave (and Cheryl): Maker Faire booths. And, no, that isn’t the sound of lips on buttocks. We really look forward to planning and arranging the logistics in bringing down our company [from Calgary, Alberta, Canada -Ed] , staff, kids, and ourselves to the Faire. It’s a definite perk to have such business trips with your life-partner!

(And since this is Projects: Failure month on the site): What’s your most spectacular failure and what did you learn from the experience?

Jillian (and Jeffrey): Definitely starting and running our business together. Ha! We’ve failed in so many ways over the years. But learned so much in the process. Business is all about failing and recovering in swift motions. And learning from the process! We’ve gotten to a point now where we can recover pretty eloquently from our failures. Monetarily, we have yet to really succeed. Our business has yet to make us wealthy (or even stable-y middle class). But we’re working to get there.

Amy (and Ariel): We lost a lot of money with a bad manufacturer who’s from California but works in China. He ruined a project. By the time his samples were OK, he’d changed the price on us and there were several competitors’ products already out.

When you all started working together, did friends and family tell you it was a bad idea?

Jillian (and Jeffrey): No, no one told us it was a bad idea. If only they’d warned us! (Just kidding!)

When we tell people that we work together, all the time, we get people telling us that they could never work with their partner. Lots of people have asked us for advice on how to do it, or if they should work with their partner. To which we reply: “If you have that much trepidation about it, the answer is probably no.”

Dave (and Cheryl): No, not at all. Then again, when you tell people you have a solar-powered robotics company, they think you’re crazy anyways. Why try convincing the nutty couple that they’re nuts?

What sort of advice would you give couples who are considering doing more collaborations together, especially those thinking about starting a maker business together?

Jillian (and Jeffrey): Well, before starting a business together, our advice is to work on some project together and see how it goes. Start with something simple, maybe it has a self-set deadline, but not a lot of pressure. Don’t let the first thing you work on together be something with high stakes. That’s a lot of pressure for anyone.

Dave (and Cheryl): Don’t avoid fighting over a project because you might hurt feelings. You have to be able to work out kinks in a design, and “putting it to the fire” is a necessary part of the process. And never hesitate to concede a point if it makes the project better.

Do you each have your own tools or do you share?

Jillian (and Jeffrey): Mmmm…. both. Items that we each use all the time, like computers, we each have our own. But we share lots of things, too.

Amy (and Ariel): We share.

Dave (and Cheryl): No sharing! She has hers, I have mine. We do borrow, but return on deadlines. And, the pink hot-glue gun? MINE!

What are you all working on now?

Jillian (and Jeffrey): A trade show booth, a couple of office interiors, a climbing wall, building out our fabrication area a bit more. And making an Atom Punk scooter/rocketship for Maker Faire/Burning Man.

Amy (and Ariel): We’re continuing work on our product line. We plan to release several new products this year. Some cool paper toys that go on your wall and desktop, as well as some textile stuff.

Dave (and Cheryl): Boring corporate stuff. Figuring out whether or not it’s time to make a jump up to a new location to better use the new pick-and-place machines we just scored a great deal on, or to wait it out a bit longer for a better deal on property leases.

What would be a dream project you’d like to collaborate on?

Jillian (and Jeffrey): Our own house! We’ll do that one eventually for sure!

In there anything I didn’t touch on that you’d like to get across?

Dave (and Cheryl): Collaborating is actually a much easier process when your abilities contrast rather than match. If they do match, set definite boundaries to where authority lies — avoids much damage in the future. It’s so much better when, for instance, she’s better at number-crunching, and I’m better at writing. Makes it obvious where incoming tasks should go.

More:
Make: Together (couples that collaborate)
Maker Business: Venturing out…

Gareth Branwyn

Gareth Branwyn is a freelancer writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture, including the first book about the web (Mosaic Quick Tour) and the Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Building Robots. He is currently working on a best-of collection of his writing, called Borg Like Me.


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