I guess I was always a maker without knowing that it was a thing. I first learned about the maker movement in the first class I took at MIT’s Media Lab in 2004. It was called “How to Make Almost Anything” and it was one of the most competitive classes to get into at the Media Lab. Taught by Neil Gershenfeld, the current director of The Center for Bits and Atoms at MIT and the father of the FAB movement, and to many, the maker movement, the class was featured in the inaugural issue of Make: magazine. And just like that, I was witness to the birth of a movement that would change my life.
I identified with the “maker” label right away because I had been creating my whole life. I used to break open VCR players and gravitate to all things construction when I was a kid. My educational background was officially in engineering but I was always interested in how engineering could relate to other fields: social, political, artistic. I suddenly realized that there was a whole community of people with my interests — and I became addicted to it.
Before the Bits
I grew up in a loving home with three sisters where my parents were incredibly invested in developing our curiosity. When we were young, we were exposed to other languages and countries; we traveled extensively and learned often about the world around us.
We lived in Lebanon, a country with enormous potential but hindered by its own sectarianism, lack of cohesion, and short-sightedness. Lebanon doesn’t have any natural resources, like oil, so its people are very entrepreneurial. They come from generations of traders; often, they are comfortable speaking multiple languages, traveling, making connections with other people, etc.
I think that it’s in the Lebanese nature to be an entrepreneur. We are resilient. We love life. Despite experiencing a lot of hardships and strife, we rise up and find joy in even the most difficult of circumstances.
After graduate school, I landed a job as a financial-software consultant for a tech company. The work was unfulfilling and intangible, so I immediately began looking for other ways I could pursue my creative interests. I wanted to make things!
I secured a fellowship from Eyebeam, one of the pioneering labs of art and technology, with the goal of getting back into making. It occurred to me that there were probably a lot of people in my position: stuck in roles that didn’t allow them to use their creativity. While I had the technical background to push past that, others did not.
That’s when I got the idea to make electronic components that could be used by anybody — regardless of age, gender, or technological background. Not only would I be able to make things again, but I would be helping others to make things as well.
A Small Experiment
The very first version of littleBits was created while working with Jeff Hoefs, at Smart Design, and it was never meant to be a product. It was just a small experiment to get designers to prototype and invent with electronics before we moved on to more “traditional” interactive design work.
I debuted a prototype of littleBits at Maker Faire 2009 with interactive designer and founder of Chibitronics, Jie Qi. She was an intern with me at Eyebeam. All of the Bits we brought to our booth were handmade; they kept failing and we kept having to jiggle them to make them work. To be honest, we felt like frauds at that first Maker Faire. We felt like we were showing off a concept that didn’t work. And that propelled us to work harder to get the prototypes improved.
All of the Bits we brought to our (Maker Faire) booth were handmade; they kept failing and we kept having to jiggle them to make them work. To be honest, we felt like frauds at that first Maker Faire.
But at the same time Maker Faire was an incredible experience because I needed the feedback to iterate. Kids were lining up at our booth to get a glimpse of our Bits. We even set up a wall called “Submit your Bit” which invited people to suggest the Bits we should create next, from a light sensor to a buzzer or an LED matrix to a “fart sensor” or even a “penguin finder.” It was so exciting to think of the possibilities.
By 2011, littleBits was ready for prime time. The New York Times Magazine wrote a piece that was published in May, and by June I had quit my job and devoted my time and energy to littleBits full-time — I got my first prototype off the factory floor! The bitSnap (magnetic connector) was made in China and the first Bits were made by SparkFun.
I thought it would be smooth sailing from there. The factory prototype was ready, now all I needed was to place some orders and ship them. Piece of cake, right? Boy was I wrong! There is so much to making and shipping a product beyond the first factory prototype. I always say the MVP of a hardware company is a hardware company. You can’t be a couple people in a garage writing code like in software, you have to have it all figured out: quality control, customer service, warehousing, shipping, taxes, return labels. When people pay for something their expectations are very high from the get-go. And you don’t get to “send updates” by internet.
littleBits, the company, officially launched in September 2011. We did our first product sale at Maker Faire New York. It was just myself and Paul Rothman, creative technologist and very first OG Bitster.
It was a proud moment; we were launching a new category: electronic building blocks. And initially, it was relatively easy to raise money. Joi Ito, current director of the MIT Media Lab, saw littleBits in a demo and emailed me about investing. From there, I was able to quickly get some other investors on board for an initial round of $850K. The vision was always the same: inspiring people to be creative with electronics. Investors were as enamored as I was with littleBits’ potential.
In October 2011, we were acquired by MoMA for its collection. Our first edition Bits now had a permanent home snuggled in between a Picasso and the Post-It — not to mention being included in a contemporary interactive exhibit, Talk To Me.
I think any entrepreneur goes through the impostor syndrome multiple times in their journey. You are learning so many things for the first time. How to make a product, how to scale, how to hire, who to hire, how to sell investors, how to sell individuals. And you are constantly thinking: everyone has all their stuff together except for me. Why is this so hard?
And the truth is, it just is. It’s hard for everybody. Some people are just better at faking it than others. So you have to get your validation where you can. One of the biggest sources of validation for me has been the community. A few months after littleBits launched, I got a Google Alert for a YouTube video showcasing a project a boy invented with his dad. I watched it, then decided to search YouTube for the word “littleBits.” Suddenly, I found all sorts of projects that people had made — from South Africa to Singapore, Mexico to Canada! It was such an exciting moment for me to realize that littleBits is a universal product that was already making an impact on a global scale.
Even today, we still get a lot of fan letters from all over the world — from parents who have seen their kids suddenly take an interest in STEAM, to kids who have discovered that they are more creative than they think, to people who finally feel like technology is accessible to them. Teachers also report that kids who are struggling in class are often the ones who become the most engaged with littleBits.
There are decades of research that show that learning through play is extremely effective. It’s energizing to realize that littleBits is playing even a small part in helping students to connect with STEAM and find their “moment” — when they snap together a circuit for the first time and realize that they can create anything.
When I see children creating inventions that will make a difference in someone else’s life — anything from a helmet to help the visually impaired to a bicycle that could prevent accidents — it’s truly inspiring.
Company and Community
For a full 18 months after littleBits launched, I still called myself the company’s lead engineer. One day, I realized I was doing very little engineering, so I accepted the title of CEO. Now, I am excited about how far other people have taken littleBits — beyond what I would have ever imagined. There’s so much to be learned from other perspectives. Today, I am able to embrace that and focus on other things.
Community building has been a natural progression. I am passionate about littleBits’ mission, so I take any opportunity I can to connect with like-minded communities — maker community, STEM community, girls empowerment community, entrepreneurial community — to create synergy. I’ve learned so much from being a part of these communities. Namely, the best way to be a good community builder is to be a good community contributor.
littleBits has experienced many iterations on its path to becoming the company it is today. At different times in our history we’ve celebrated different successes and faced different challenges. We’ve had multiple near-death experiences, from manufacturing disasters that propelled a group of us to take overnight flights to China within a couple of hours, to retailers we had big partnerships with shutting down from one day to the next and all of our products going on clearance. To that end, there is always something different, a new frontier to cross, a new challenge to overcome, a new lesson to learn.
But there are also lots of things that have been consistent. For example, ever since the beginning, we have always been laser-focused on the design of the Bits. It was important to me that they were gender-neutral. From the color of our circuit boards to our packaging, each of our products has been deliberately designed to appeal to both girls and boys. This level of accessibility helps everyone to unleash creativity and to instill a love of STEAM through inventing.
It’s energizing to realize that littleBits is playing even a small part in helping students to connect with STEAM and find their “moment” — when they snap together a circuit for the first time and realize that they can create anything.
As a result, we’ve been able to attract an unprecedented number of girls into STEAM — and develop a beautiful product. Today, and consistently over the past four years, 35%–40% of our user base is girls; that number is four times the industry average!
Today, the littleBits platform includes more than 10 kits and over 70 interoperable Bits; our team is over 100 people strong. To date we’ve sold millions of products to inventors in more than 150 countries around the world; we have more than 300 littleBits Inventor Clubs from Sao Paulo to San Francisco to Bangkok.
In the summer of 2016, littleBits was invited to participate in the Disney Accelerator program, which seeks to identify and support “innovative consumer media and entertainment product ideas.” It has proved extraordinarily successful in incubating both early stage companies and later-stage businesses like littleBits.
We worked closely with Disney to create our first licensed product, the littleBits Droid Inventor Kit. This is not a Star Wars replica toy; it’s about the building and making of inventions that promote STEAM through iterative education. For the first time ever, Disney allowed a licensee to “go off-book” and create a character-based toy that could be customized. From the core product to the pictures on the box, Disney worked with us to embrace the value that littleBits could bring to its portfolio of licensed products.
Star Wars inspires its fans in different ways. Tinkering, scavenging, and invention are all timeless themes in the franchise. Together with Disney and Lucasfilm, we saw a huge opportunity to mimic the science and technology and invention ethos in a hands-on product for current and future fans of the franchise. The Disney Accelerator program has changed the course of littleBits and showcases how we could reach outside the early adopter crowd and into pop culture and a mass audience. The product won The Toy Association’s Creative Toy of the Year award this year, in addition to being among Amazon’s top 10 holiday toys, the #1 Star Wars toy, and the #1 toy over $50 in Q4 2017. It has also been named to several of the toy industry’s most prestigious “hot toy” lists. We’ve just launched a second licensed product in partnership with Marvel Entertainment, the Avengers Hero Inventor Kit, which started shipping this month.
Tools to Grow
Over the past decade, we have seen huge changes in the meaning and the role of education. littleBits has positioned itself at the forefront of a new generation of companies — driven by tech, design, and the maker movement — who are redefining the future of learning through play. To that end, we’ve recently made a very big move: we made our first acquisition, DIY.org. This is one of the largest safe online communities made for kids to share content, discover new passions, level up their skills, and meet fearless geeks just like them. Together we are reinventing kids education: at school, at home, and everywhere in between.
And most importantly we stand for our community. Today, littleBits has been used in millions of inventions around the world. We have a huge community of inventors who are dedicated to our brand; we are authentic; and importantly, we don’t stop at incorporating science, technology, engineering, and math into our product — we also make sure to incorporate art, music, and creativity into everything we do.
One big thing we learned, for instance, is we have the ability to reach kids where they already have interest — helping their creativity come to life. 10-year-old Sky from Southern California is into medicine, so she made a Medicine Machine that dispenses water, medicine, and tracks the amount of medicine taken. Enxhi, an 18-year-old from Gjakova, Kosovo, loves fashion; she designed a wearable electronic skirt that lights up using littleBits. An 11-year-old inventor named Vedant, from Danvers, Massachusetts, said about littleBits: “My imagination can be real now.” He had devised a way to control his Lego cars with
a remote control he built using littleBits.
I’m proud that the littleBits team has been able to make such a profound difference in the lives — and inventions —
of makers around the world.
AYAH’S TIPS TO GET MORE GIRLS INTO STEAM:
1. Start early. The National Girls Collaborative Project reports that girls score almost identically to their male classmates on standardized tests through high school. Yet, boys demonstrate twice as much interest in STEAM careers as girls as early as the eighth grade. We believe 8-year-old girls are the tipping point; and the earlier you capture girls imagination the more impact you can have.
2. Make a gender-neutral product. There are more than enough gendered products. They don’t encourage kids to play together, they reinforce stereotypes and they don’t expose kids to diverse interests. Creativity is not gendered, curiosity is not gendered, STEAM should not be gendered.
3. Empower girls to inspire other girls. Create content and marketing materials that showcase empowered women using your product — helping girls to envision themselves doing the same. Make a conscious effort to show girls in leading, not secondary, roles. Show them that building and inventing is fun and exciting, and that there’s a place for them in that world.