Kollabora is a digital platform to connect upcoming makers, people who knit, sew, weave, crochet, or just build stuff DIY-style. It’s the brainchild of Germany-born, NY-based Nora Abousteit. From a tiny three-desk in Manhattan’s uber hip SoHo (South of Houston Street) neighborhood, sharing space with two other young companies, a bike-sharing and a WiFi-sharing service, Abousteit and her two employees are building a community of otherwise sitting-home-alone DIY-ers, sharing patterns and techniques, sometimes evolving into sought-after designers. For MaketechX new series on New York’s maker scene, Nora shares the story of one of the most innovative DIY communities in the world, her vision on makers and the question why all of us should know how to make instead of buy.
Interview & Photos by Felix Zeltner for MaketechX
Nora, first of all, how would you define a maker?
When people hear „maker“, they used to think about something very technical: Electronics, robots, something like that. Then Dale Dougherty’s ‚Make Magazine‘ coined the term and rejuvenated it. Now we’ve set out to redefine it again, to anyone who creates something. More precisely, to somebody with certain skills who builds something physical, tangible, with their hands, maybe using machinery to help as well. So it could be somebody who is welding, using electronics, but it could also be somebody who is knitting, sewing, crocheting something. It’s the whole range of producing something by yourself.
MaketechX is about tech that matters. Why is Kollabora tech that matters?
We are born to create. It’s in our DNA. But our maker muscles have atrophied. It’s almost like we’re neglecting a sense, and that’s not good for our souls, for our well-being, for our mental health. You need to taste, see, hear different things, but also need to touch different materials. And to understand how things are put together makes you much more mindful about consumption. With food, we’re now very aware of origins and also conditions for labor. For clothes, people are just waking up now. There is a lot of talking about slow fashion, and I think DIY is probably the best educator, because if you knew that the shirt you are wearing takes a group of people several hours to produce, you understand this can’t be sold for a few dollars. No t-shirt can cost two dollars. Somebody has to suffer from that. So I hope our social consciousness will be enlightened by what we do.
You came here from Germany and instantly became part of a small club of makers that turned into highly successful entrepreneurs in New York, like Bre Pettis, inventor of the 3D home printer ‚Makerbot’, or Ayah Bdeir, who came up with small electric modules called ‚littlebits‘, today known as ‚The New Lego‘. How did you do that?
I didn’t intend to be part of anything. What brought us together and made us friends was that we were all on the same wavelength. We were passionate about building and creating. It wasn’t about a business. But there were places were you would find these likeminded people. It was a natural, organic process. When I started my first DIY platform with Burda in 2007, still back in Munich, I discovered Etsy (an online open craft fair), asked around and for some odd coincidence, the Etsy guys happened to be in Munich. One of their first employees was getting married to a German woman, a fashion designer who ended up being my first business partner. She used to be the roommate of Rob Kalin, who started Etsy. There weren’t many people doing that kind of stuff. And that’s where my first desk in New York was, at Etsy. And then, I remember one day, Dale Dougherty and Sherry Huss from Make Magazine came because they wanted someone to work from New York and it made more sense to them to share space. Makers are collaborative people, they understand that through being together, through cross-pollination, new things can happen. We had a big loft and we had space for them and that’s also when Phil Torrone, who used to be the senior editor of Make Magazine, and Bre Pettis, who used to do these Make weekend projects, arrived. Bre had just come from Seattle, he used to be a teacher, he was educating, so we just hung out day and night at the space, and a lot of people came through. And then at this hackerspace, NYC Resistor, there were so-called „Jelly Talks“ about open source projects, and we had called ourselves open source sewing because Burda had removed the copyright of the patterns, so Bre invited me to talk there. It was tiny, back in 2009, there were like 10 to 15 people, but there I met Idan Cohen, who started Boxee, which was sold to Samsung a year ago or so, and Zach Klein, who is now doing diy.org. And we just got along. It was more social than anything. And I also liked Eyebeam and I still love it, there was technology, there was art, and there were these two fellows, Ayah Bdeir and Jessica Banks. And they just became my friends, we weren’t even working on the same projects, and then Ayah went off to start littleBits, and Jessica is now doing RockPaperRobot, which is all about connected, robotic furniture.
And how do you feel about the maker scene now?
I think in the past two years, a lot more people went into hardware. But producing hardware, to get beyond a rendering or design, is really, really hard. Hardware is not the new Software. It really has a lot of other challenges. Just the mold to do a product can cost you like 10 to 15.000 Dollars. The rapid prototyping we know from the software world is just very different for hardware. But also, there is more transparency in the hardware world, there is Maker’s Row , they show you where to get things produced and make it a lot easier, and platforms like Kickstarter also help.
Why are you personally so passionate about sewing, knitting and patterns?
It’s something I grew up with. I used to silk print birthday invitations with my father, either on fabric or on paper. My mother used to knit all the sweaters for us, that’s how I learned knitting. One day I was making hairbands, because these hairbands were really expensive when you bought them, and started selling them, and that’s how I made my first money, sewing hairbands as a teenager. I grew up on the countryside, my parents had locked the TV, this is how I spent my entire days. Other people go for a walk, I just knit something. In Germany, still a lot of people know how to knit or to crochet, how to make a pot holder, but I’m shocked by how many people I meet here in the US who don’t know anything about it.
Aren’t the USA a maker country?
To be honest, I don’t think so. There is this desire to become more of a maker culture country, and not only companies, but also the government realized that all of the skills got lost, so it’s very hard to bring production and manufacturing back to the country, which could be a topic of national security, in case some Asian country suddenly decides not to export any more, you’re done here. People are very excited to learn new things, they’re willing to pick it up, but it is not as deeply embedded as it is in Europe. We see the different skill levels, we see what people can make in Scandinavia or central Europe.
„We are what we make“ is the slogan of Kollabora…
It derives from „we are what we eat“, it really defines us. If somebody doesn’t know how things are made, there is a certain kind of emptiness. It is part of a person’s identity. If you create something, if you make something, you can feel it. There is a certain kind of depth to that person, and calmness, too.
Given that Kollabora is about skills that many of us have lost, how come there is a market for your platform?
I’m on the board of the Craft & Hobby Association which is the biggest association for that industry, they put on the biggest trade show. And I saw how a lot of these companies are struggling to get into the digital era and to understand how online communication works and to understand the new crafter. If you look at the big retailers, the average age of their customers is 45. I always knew so many young people being excited about DIY and I felt there was a definite gap. And they want to know about how to make things, they want to know about resources, they want good supplies. I felt there is a platform missing that helps these people, not only to find inspiration, you find a lot of that on the web, but find the methods of how to execute it. To actually make something, not just consuming and looking.
Can you give me some numbers about the platform?
The vast majority of our users are female, between 20 and 40 years old. We are now reaching over a million unique visitors every month.
You started Kollabora two and a half years ago. What are the biggest challenges in building a DIY platform?
It’s slow, because building something takes time. When you have certain kind of metrics that are expected from you, because you see the Instagrams of the world, you just cannot compete with that. Making something takes probably between 200 and 500 hours. So you’re not posting a new project every day. Maybe once a month. So when you talk to investors, this is always the hardest part. I talked to a friend of mine, Eric Wahlforss from Soundcloud, and he had a exactly the same problem. In the beginning, it just takes time. Also, if you made something, you put your heart into it. So you really need to make sure that the environment you post it in is safe. As a platform, you have to gain that trust and you have to be authentic about it.
Who is financing you?
We raised money from Kosla Ventures, Allen & Company, Collaborative Fund, Burda DLD Media, 500 Startups and some angels, actually Eric (Wahlforss) from Soundcloud is one of them.
How is it to live off and run a company off money that is not yours?
It’s much more stressful, because you feel much more responsible than if it’s just your own. If you had a bad day or you feel like you don’t want to get out of bed in the morning, you do, because you have other people that you’re responsible for. Friends and family invested, too, so I really feel a lot of responsibility.
And you’re still running on that investment?
We’re making money, too. We’re not profitable yet, but we’re making money. We’re on the way.
What are the most exciting ideas you see emerging in the maker field?
I just hung out with a woman who is printing shoes. That’s really exciting. I recently bought a very expensive shoe that is not fitting right and it really bothered me. So I took a shoemaking course, but it’s not that easy. You need a few skills to really be good. So printing things and producing them on demand with less waste are things I’m very excited about, especially here in New York, the city of take-out and waste. The second thing I really like is the fact that a lot of physical maker spaces are evolving here. You have Brooklyn Brainery, Makeshift Society, you have Textile Arts Center, Brooklyn Craft Camp, you have Workroom Social, all these new spaces where people make things together, learn from each other, collaborate and become friends, too. For me, personally and professionally, community is the most important element in life.
Nora, thank you for the talk!