Rethinking how our consumer electronics should look and feel is Kano Computing, a London-based startup led by Alex Klein who cofounded the company in 2013 with the initial goal of providing kids with buildable computer kits that teach basic hardware and programming skills. Fast forward to 2021, Kano was thrust into the limelight when Ye announced that he would be working with the company to release his 10th studio album DONDA on the revolutionary Stem Player device which allows users to control individual stems of each song, such as its vocals, drums, bass, and samples, through touch-sensitive haptic sliders.
Less than a year later, Kano was given no choice but to join the likes of GAP and adidas in cutting ties with the Ye, citing his “racial conspiracy theories” as the reason for the termination. However, having built a solid backbone prior to the partnership, Kano was prepared to carry on — continuing to grow its portfolio of intuitive consumer products which include buildable mice, webcams, PCs, and most recently, an all-new Stem Projector. The company also partnered with new artists such as Wu-Tang Clan member Ghostface Killah for exclusive releases.
From personally buying computer parts on Alibaba and hand-folding cardboard boxes in a small flat in London ten years ago, Klein has now seen Kano sell over 1.1 million units of its products to teachers, students, and artists around the world, finding success in the hyper-competitive consumer electronics category. As part of the journey, Klein has also experienced first-hand the highs of working with Ye — an artist whose work he says has touched his soul — as well as the lows which ultimately tore them apart.
In an exclusive interview with Hypebeast, Klein shares the story behind the origins of Kano Computing, digs deep into the revolutionary design of the Stem Player, and offers personal anecdotes of his entrepreneurial journey thus far — from working with Ye and Rick Rubin to his meeting with Elon Musk at SpaceX. The journey begins with Klein’s fascination with the inner workings of technology and develops into an ambitious quest for knowledge and progress.
When did your passion with tech begin and how did the idea for Kano come about?
I was one of those kids who like many of us, didn’t know what I wanted to do when I grew up. I was on my computer torrenting Neon Genesis Evangelion and building Lego, making beats, and coding my own website. I was just sort of flitting between different things because these machines that our generation has gotten access to have blended old fields and disciplines. Now, it’s not so much about having a JD degree or MBA, but about what a human being can do with these new tools.
I was moving around a lot as a kid. It was a bit ruthless, so technology and my laptop were sort of a common factor. When I was young, someone near and dear to me smashed my laptop in front of me on the floor in a fight, and for the first time, I saw inside the laptop with all its pieces and components. That experience made me realize for the first time that inside this thing that I love was a whole hidden world of technology. We live in this post-Apple age, where everything is sealed up and everything looks the same. There’s the same form factor, same user experience, same UI, so that’s the sort of thing we’re now trying to get away from.
That experience made me realize for the first time that inside this thing that I love was a whole hidden world of technology.
I ended up becoming a journalist after college. I was writing for New York Magazine and looking at Mitt Romney and Occupy Wall Street. I even wrote some pieces about Kanye funnily enough before meeting him, but then the journalism industry started to collapse for at least what I was in. New publications were replacing the old publications.
I wanted to deepen my understanding, and at that time I discovered this little circuit board called the Raspberry Pi, they took this board and they were like, “Hey wait a second, this thing can run Linux, it can control the robotics and take photos.” I met the founder in Cambridge when I was going to interview him for a story, much like the way you’re interviewing me now, and I just started to ask him questions about his life and his challenges. He was like, one thing that challenges us is we can’t get beginners into it.
So I took the board and started playing with it myself and showed it to my little cousin who was six years old at the time, Mika. I was trying to get him excited about all the things we could do with it. We wanted to make it as easy as building LEGO. I looked online and nothing existed like that, so we put together the first product.
We wanted to make it as easy as building LEGO.
We sourced different components and hand-folded cardboard boxes in a little flat. Got tons of paper cuts just putting boxes together and the first thing was just this kid’s transparent computer that we assembled from components we bought on Alibaba and Amazon. People liked it so we decided to crowdfund it and it just took off. We wanted to raise a hundred thousand dollars in 30 days and ended up raising it in 12 hours. 30 days later, we raised 1.5 million dollars.
We just celebrated our 10th anniversary and now we’ve sold over 1.1 million products with a hundred million dollars in revenue. We did a magic wand with Harry Potter. We did Star Wars and Frozen coding kits. We did a whole software ecosystem where kids could learn how to make music and art and games and then three years ago we started to apply everything we learned about customization and product to music devices.